Having been a life long soccer player and fan I have witnessed a lot of changes in the game as well as the tremendous growth of the game in the United States. I witnessed my first game in 1974, Seattle Sounders versus Philadelphia Atoms. I started playing that same year. I have been abroad to see the game having seen notable clubs play such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and AS Roma. The game has certainly progressed in the United States as the programs available for players today, far surpasses anything I had available growing up. With three boys all poised to move on into Select Level soccer and higher they are going to become better players than their father. I naturally have become very involved in youth soccer. Participating at both the req level and the select level. Both as a coach and a board member. Now that I have been involved in youth soccer for some time I have gotten to know the lay of the land fairly well. There are a lot of good things happening but at the same time to take the game to the next level things need to change to address some of the short comings of the American player.
When we look at the American player at the highest levels they have progressed along way (and no longer are just goalies!). We see more players coming through the american youth ranks and having an impact in foreign markets as well as the continued improvement of Major League Soccer. The United States has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. Many of our kids are being recruited at young ages and spending time in youth academies in Europe. The MLS teams all have youth academies now. Despite all this progress we are still waiting for the World Class American player. Our players though improved are lacking in technical skills and on the world stage are rather “dull”, lacking that flair to take both the individual game and American game to the next level. As a country we have yet to produce a player as capable and beautiful as the likes of Enzo Scifo, Juan Requelme, Brian Laudrup, etc…Did I mention Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? No, we are not even close to having that discussion. We are looking at a time when some fundamental changes need to be made to our training techniques to take the American player to a higher level.
We need to look closely at how are kids are being introduced and trained when they first start their soccer experience. Starting at the recreational level. This is where all kids get their start. The brightest and the worst. It begins usually between the ages of five to seven. It is also what I call the most dangerous of ages for development as so much depends on a good coaching and playing experience. At the same time kids are able to absorb so much at this young age. And yet we are not providing the necessary training techniques to develop those skills and foster the love pf the game. The problem is a lot of coaches are thrown into the position as volunteers, as no one stepped up to take on the responsibility. Who are these coaches? Accountants, Baseball Players, HoneyBucket Salesmen, in short people who know nothing about soccer. What about the teams? Some kids survive the coaching situation because maybe they are on a team with lots of players who have good athletic genes. However some are stuck on a team that loses every game 20-0. Hey we don’t keep score…please. Both parents and kids keep score. After losing a bunch of games 15-0 kids lose interest and the kids never know the joy of the game and are lost before they turn eight. To be clear if your kid is the best player on the field when they are seven it means over the long hall…absolutely nothing. Just look at Freddy Adu. But there are kids that get lost who over the long haul that could have become special players or at least achieved a level of success at the select level. But we lose those kids in the first one to two years. If kids have a bad experience at the early stage the club shoulders the blame for that experience. All this being said we are not giving coaches the tools to help them succeed. It seems ridiculous that the fate of young players rests on the shoulders of coaches who know absolutely nothing about the game.
What should be happening at these early ages? For kids it is all about developing some level of command of the ball, focus should be 75% technical skills development. As I am fond of telling kids, “If your first touch of the ball is poor, it does not really matter what you want to do – shoot, pass, dribble etc..the ball is gone”. To soccer people this is well know. But if we have a bunch of non-soccer people trying to teach these skills this basic philosophy gets lost. We need to first help those not accustomed to coaching soccer with some basic early hand holding to get them familiar and started with teaching soccer. In my view today this needs to happen at the local level as for it to be driven by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) would take too long to filter down to the youth level, though material is being provided (Claudio Reyna Guide). We need to do this in a cost effective way as soccer, like many sports is becoming one where we nickle and dime parents through the course of the year. That has always been a nice thing at the req level. I sign my kid up pay $80-$100 and I am done. Ease of entry has been a huge bonus to our game. We need to maintain that.
Rosters need to shrink. Within Seattle Youth Soccer we have had a policy for 3 a side t0 have 6 kids. At 4 a side we have 8 kids. Meaning that if it’s a 40 minute game kids play 20 minutes or a half. We should strive t0 have kids play 25-30 minutes in a 40 minute game. We should target 60%-75% playing time at these ages. It means more time and more touches and over the course of a 10 game season a child gets an extra 75 to a 100 minutes game time. This is huge when you consider how this will add up over the course of 3-4 years. Smaller teams will mean more effective practices as coaches can give more time to individual kids. It will mean a better player coach relationship. It will also be beneficial to those coaches with less soccer background as they try themselves to learn and understand the training regiment
What next? For those kids and coaches getting started between U5-U8 we need to at the local club level bring in either support from our local Select Club or hire a 3rd party to run a group session for the first 3 to4 practices. As I said it is important to keep this within the registration fee for the club and not ask for additional money. The hardest part is not the players but the coaches. As I said earlier many do not have soccer backgrounds. We can introduce the game through experienced players/coaches and provide a deliverable to new coaches in the form of 4 basic session plans. The coaches will all have several joint sessions to see how the course material is delivered by experienced soccer people. During the course of the season there are probably 20 practices. Which means each session should be used five times, there is nothing wrong in development with being a little bit repetitive
There also needs to be some structural changes to the game at the youth level. We need starting at U8 to tier the system between “A” level and “B” level teams. This needs to be an offering to parents for those kids who want better competition and a higher level of training. This at first will be hard as some kids at this age just want to be able to play with their friends. If we look at other sports they do this already. Little League Baseball is not a system where you start a team and they stay together for a few years, it changes every year. This will be beneficial to both groups. The higher level kids will play at a higher caliber and improve based on the competition. Those who are somewhat behind will be playing at a level where they are competitive and will still get to play lots of soccer. The kids will then get the necessary touches on the ball to improve their game and more importantly enjoy the game.
One question is as Select and Premier programs evolve, they are starting to offer programs at a lower and lower age bracket, usually outside of the fall req schedule which is great. However this does not address fully the issues as I have stated above, First I can only guess that people who take advantage of these programs are soccer people. Parents who know the soccer landscape. It also requires a proactive approach on the part of parents to get there kids involved. It requires the Select/Premier programs to be extremely aggressive in getting the word about the programs out to parents. I still believe the majority of the work needs to be done at the recreational level with Select/Premier programs being a nice adjunct to the recreational programs. There are other programs we could expand to address the growing demand for the game, one being Futsal which reinforces the skills but introduces the game in a indoor facility at a faster pace, that keeps all players involved. At the end of the day a kids soccer journey starts at the recreational level, not as a Select or Premier candidate.
We need to be bold with our actions and not be timid. I realize some of what I have suggested is way outside what has traditionally been preached at this age group, but the game is always evolving. At the pro level all the way down to the pre-school level. We also need to set a high bar of excellence in our program. These initial years are about getting comfortable with a ball at their feet. It’s about developing command of the ball. Too much time is spent on technical skill development when kids enter Select soccer. This should have been emphasized prior to their entry into Select Soccer. If we don’t put better skills development at a early age too much time will have been lost. Having strong command of the balls spawns innovation, which is what we are striving for, we are looking to develop players who are creative one the ball and can break down defenses with either skillful dribbling or creative passing. But if we don’t give kids the necessary guidance at an early age all will be lost.
Good Night and Good Luck,
Hans Henrik Hoffmann February 16, 2012