As you can tell from this blog, I love soccer. Soccer is not just fun to play, it is fun to watch. One of the great things about soccer is the educational arm of US Youth Soccer and the opportunities (and requirements) to learn. I have been involved with my children in other youth sports and that level of oversight is missing. In many instances, be it baseball, basketball, or football (and, gasp, soccer), the mentality is to win at all costs. Team success and the individual performances supporting it are the main focus. But, one thing I have learned through soccer, it is not about me or “my” team. Rather, it is about the kids and their growth.
In soccer circles, they refer to this as “player development.” Player development is synonymous with a system that evaluates, trains, places, encourages, etc., players based on their needs, not necessarily the need of the team. I have been studying for the National Youth License course and one of the quotes in the handbook reads thus: “The needs of the child, while playing soccer, should be placed above the needs, convenience and self-interest of the adults. True player development focuses on the development of the player, not the development of the team! Up to age 12, this should be the only criteria used in designing and running youth soccer programs.” Dr. Ronald W. Quin, The Official US Youth Soccer Coaching Manual US Youth Soccer (2008). Placing the team or the coach ahead of the player is an obstacle to the growth of the player. How many times have we encountered coaches holding players back from development because they helped their team?
One of the main culprits, as I have mentioned here before, is the emphasis on winning at such a young age. When a team’s performance in a fall U9 rec league (or Academy) is made the primary goal, kids’ needs are not. (related blog post from January 14, 2012 on this site — http://soccerthought.com/2012/01/14/tactics-v-technique-are-americans-too-tactical/). When we emphasize winning at U9, we make decisions as coaches based on that. Maybe you have a kid who is a standout keeper – so you play him there every game. Now he isn’t learning any of the other positions. I believe that before U13 (even after), kids should be given opportunities to play everywhere. You may have a kid that really excels at scoring goals because that is all he has done at ages 8-10. Well, how well does he defend? If you have a kid that knows how to play one position really well, what happens when he plays somewhere else? What happens when you cease to be his coach – will he be able to blend into another squad? As the quotes in the blog post above indicate, not only is player development the right philosophy for the kid, it is the one that will make stronger players.
I feel strongly that we need to evaluate our system to make sure it is based on player development. Teams are special and are usually bound by geography and friendship. I built a team just like that. Because we were a neighborhood team, we had kids at all skill levels. Some of our kids were much more advanced than others. At some point, the more advanced players who wanted to continue their soccer education need to move to a situation where that could be accomplished. It can break your heart as a coach but it is not about us, it is about the kids.
Now, the great news??? Soccer is really the only youth sport that is circulating this memo. I anticipate we will continue to grow as a sport as a result. Cheers.