A young players practical guide to goal setting

Ask any young player what their soccer goals are and they will inevitably talk about playing for one of the top club in the world – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United. As I’ve spoken in my earlier blogs good technical ability is the foundation of a player’s level of ability and will ultimately determine what level they play at. However, as players progress in the game they come up against other players that area as good as them technically, tactically and physically. It is then that young players have to be prepared mentally in order to successfully compete and excel against opponents.

Goal-setting can be an important for young players in order to understand where they are at now and where they are trying to get to. When young players say they want to play for Barcelona these are dreams versus goals. Goals, as defined by Wikipedia, is a desired result that a person envisions, plans and commits to achieve: a personal desired end-point in some sort of assumed development.

“Goal setting is one of the most important skills taught to athletes in order to help hem achieve optimal performance. The Goal Setting process helps athletes understand where they are currently and also where they want to go”  

(Alan S. Kornspan)

Goals that are set should be S.M.A.R.T. They should be specific to the player, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. For a goal to be specific a young athlete should outline what do I want to accomplish, within what timeframe and what are the benefits of achieving this. For example, a general goal might be to “improve as a soccer player” while a specific goal would be to “work with the ball 30 minutes after school four times a week” during the next month.

To be effective a goal must also be measurable. If a goal is measured, there is a frame of reference if progress is being made. Young players should set measurement criteria and target dates. This will allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment when targets ae reached.  For example, a target may be to improve successful pass completion rates in games by 10% during the next two months or as simple as improving the number of successful keep-ups by 10 % within the next two weeks.

Goals must be attainable.  Young players can attain almost any goal they set when they plan their progress and establish a time frame that allows them the opportunity to put the time and effort to work towards it. Goals can seem far away and out of reach initially. However, through time, proper planning and commitment players can quickly move towards attaining these far away goals. They can achieve these goals not because the goals are any less but because they are developing and getting better and are now able to perform at a higher level of performance.

To be realistic a goal must be something that young players are both willing and able to work towards. For example, there is no point setting a goal to improve the number of successful keep-ups if the young player is not spending time with the ball practicing. Goals should also be challenging. Young players should have to push themselves out of their own comfort zone to achieve them. Every goal should be representative of significant performance progress.

A goal should also be defined by a timeframe. If there is no timeframe attached to a goal, then there is no sense of urgency or focus. If young players want to get better, then saying that they want to improve “someday” will not be effective. However, if a timeframe is set then a young player will unconsciously start to commit and begin working towards the goal.

Goals can also be outcome goals, performance goals and process goals. An example of an outcome goal would be a result, did we win the game? A performance goal can be how many completed passes a player had in a game and a process goal can be an activity that must occur for a player to successfully execute a skill. For example, how many times did a player check their shoulder before receiving possession

When young players are developing we recommend that they focus on performance and process goals, rather than outcome goals. There is already an over-emphasis in North America on outcome goals (game results) and it is important to place the emphasis in youth development on improving performance levels.

Download our FREE eBook

Other resources   

Goal setting can give athletes an extra edge by Eunan Whyte

Tips for Players: We have enclosed an eBook template above that young players can use to help set their goals for the season.

Tips for Coaches: Coaches can send the enclosed eBook out to their young players and meet them individually to review or lead a goal-setting session wit the whole team

Tips for Parents: Parents can assist their children set their season goals by reviewing the goal-setting work book with them

Performance Improvement Tip #2: Technique + Game Intelligence = Success

Technical development should be placed at the cornerstone of youth development. Technical ability is a base requirement and will ultimately determine how far young players will go in the game. If young players can successfully master the ball, then they will have the confidence to consistently make the right choices and create solutions for themselves, and others on the field.

As young players advance in the game, it is important that young players start learning game intelligence and combining this with technique. This should not be confused with the team tactical work that I see at the youth levels of the game. It is about providing “individual players” with the tools to consistently scan the field of play and look for the space that they can exploit during play.

What qualities do the world’s top clubs look for when evaluating young players? They generally begin to consider players as young as 7 but cannot invite them into formal training programs until the U9 level (that is, at the age of 8). Spain has been the leader in recent years with respect to youth development. During my trip to the top-flight Spanish club Sevilla FC in 2011 they confirmed that they look initially for good technique and pace. They then look for young players who understand the game. On the field, are these kids looking around at all their options? Can they make intelligent runs into open space? Can they make correct choices when to dribble and when to combine with teammates?

These same qualities are highly prized by our partner club in the UK, Wolves FC, although they will generally pay greater intention to the physical characteristics of players, as in England the physical demands on players are generally much higher than in Spain. According to the English FA’s Technical Guide for Young Player Development — The Future Game, young players of the future will be required to release the ball accurately and instantly over a variety of distances using both feet and on any surface. A quality first touch will be critical as will the ability to operate successfully in congested areas with speed and precision. Retaining possession will be a key feature of play for Elite players and so will possessing the “craft” to disguise techniques and “out-smart” their direct opponents.

The ability to exchange passes quickly and accurately with teammates on a consistent basis will increase in importance as a player gets older, rather than repeatedly taking players on in 1v1 attacking situations. As players mature they will have to demonstrate their ability to decide what to do and when to do it within the demands of game situations.

Spain, in recent years has best demonstrated the success that good technique and game intelligence can have against more physical opposition. Every player on the team, regardless of his position, has a flawless first touch, knows how to move the ball quickly, makes sound, quick decisions in all phases of the game and is willing to combine all these qualities with his teammates to form a team that is the only one in soccer history to have won three major titles in a row.

A combination of good technique and game intelligence can take our young players to higher levels of the game. I often tell the tale of Pep Guardiola being chosen for Barcelona — the club team that has supplied most of the players to the Spanish national side — as a skinny, slow youngster because of his leadership qualities and game intelligence which far outweighed his speed and or other physical attributes at an early age. Guardiola was able to go on and play at the highest levels of the game and now is one of the world’s most innovative coaches.

Resources

 A recent series of articles by the Coaching Manual  on the use of Rondo’s as a youth development tool can provide players, coaches and parents with information on how space can be exploited when in possession by width, length and depth

Tips for Players:  Young players should read this series of articles and then watch games on television and try to identify when teams are applying these principles. Become students of the game!

Tips for Coaches: The articles can provide you with coaching content on how you can use Rondo’s within your training activities. Rondo’s allow your players to play, improve technique and you can teach the basis of attacking principles – length/width/depth

Tips for Parents: As a parent you can provide more support to your child and the coach by learning more about the game also. Like your own child-become a student of the game.

Performance Improvement Tip #1: Improve contact time with the ball

One of the biggest challenges that young Canadian players face is the lack of contact time with the ball.

Young Brazilian players are spending 12-15 hours a week working on their ball skills and young European players are training five or six times each week. Consequently, Canada must adopt the same philosophy towards technical development if we wish to be truly successful in soccer in competition with these nations.

It is important to remember that while these players may not have “coaches” in the same way that we understand the term, there is always an older sibling, parent, relative or friend to pass along lessons of technique and the fundamentals of mastering a ball. More and more professional academies are introducing “non-structured” free play to their curriculum in an effort to develop more creative players. This can include futsal play, ball mastery work led by the players themselves or even 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 competitions.

“Technique is the basis of everything”

“I notice that many coaches still think that training technical skills can only be done during a warm-up or that it is only a small part of a larger whole. This thought process must be eliminated. Technique is the basis of everything. If you can see where you have to pass the ball to, but you don’t have the technical skill to pass the ball to the correct spot, then recognizing the correct moment is worthless. Without technique there is no tactic.

Pepljn Lijnders- current Liverpool FC First Team Development Coach and Former Technique Trainer at FC Porto (Portugal) and PSV (Holland)

See Pepljn Lijnders Training Sessions

In Canada and North America in general I see far too many training sessions where players have limited contact time with the ball and there is an over emphasis on tactical work. As Pepljn rightly points out, you can have the best tactical plan and objectives for your team but if our young players cannot keep possession, feel confident in taking players on and beating them in 1v1 situations or passing a ball accurately at the right pace to teammates then the players cannot succeed. Last year I ran a 30-minute ball mastery session where the players touched the ball close to 5,000 times (I had a parent count). Surely our time as youth coaches is better spent on facilitating this type of dynamic environment (that mirrors the game) than one that is static, unrealistic and robotic.

In 2016  I visited the Chievo Verona academy in Italy. We all view the Italians as great tacticians of the game yet at Chievo this work does not begin until the U15 level. Prior to that the younger teams spend one session at the beginning of the season working on how the team should play. At the Chievo Verona academy they focus on ball mastery in the air and the majority of training activities involves 1 ball/player, or group work in two’s and three’s. This is very similar to the approach that Pepljn adopted at FC Porto and at PSV. It is also similar to the training activities I observed in Spain with Sevilla FC.

The academy programs at professional clubs in Europe are designed to develop and produce talented individual players. The focus is on individual player development. In Canada, we are still overly focused on building and developing teams. It is an approach that is not helping us to develop creative and talented players who are comfortable with a ball at their feet.

Let’s change this by increasing the contact time that all our young players spend on the ball.

Tips for Players:Take a ball to the park and work on your skills for 30 minutes each day, rather than spending time on your phone or iPad. If you ae not sure what to work on Coerver have a FREE app containing ball mastery activities to work on or you can research other work on You Tube. There are lots of tips also on the 1v1 Soccer FC YouTube channel. During winter months you can use a tennis ball in the basement

Tips for Coaches: How much of your training activity is spent on ball mastery work? Typically, I spend 30 minutes each session with players working at a high tempo in a chaotic structure which demands close control and recognizing and exploiting space. Have a look at Pepljn Lijnders sessions online. Can you incorporate this type of work into your training? Coerver Coaching is also another great resource for placing Technical development as the cornerstone of your program

Tips for Parents: You play the most important role in your child’s development. By being positive and encouraging your child to focus on constantly improving their individual skills and love the game you will be providing them with the key attributes to succeed long term.

2016 Observations from Italy – Chievo Verona International Academy

In 2016  I travelled to Italy to spend time at the Chievo Verona Academy.  The trip provided me with an opportunity to observe a youth development program in Italy and expand upon my previous trips to Sevilla FC in Spain and our partner club Wolverhampton Wanderers in England.

What I have learnt from these experiences is that European professional club academies do a much better job at supporting the development of the individual player, rather than developing great teams. My experiences in North America are that we spend too much time selecting young players for immediate team success (bigger, faster, stronger) rather than identify the young players who learn quickest and have the growth mindset (learn more)to evolve and progress to be the most talented players in the future. In North America, we still have a culture where young players move from team to team on a frequent basis as they try to ensure they are on the “next big team” coming through. It simply does not work – North America has yet to develop a truly world class outfield player! (Learn more)

In contrast, the training activities that I observed in Italy where predominately based on individual technique – tactics is only introduced at the U15 levels!

Young players travelling from North America to Europe typically perform at a high level when training with or playing against young players from Europe up until the U12 age-group. Technically, we have some outstanding players. After that a gap occurs due to the increased contact time, the lower ability of coaching in North America and the fixation with short-term success versus long term development.

“At the youth levels we focus on improving the individual player. If we coach the team, then all we do is hide deficiencies” (Chievo Verona Coach)

Our young players can improve in their training mentality and decision-making abilities. Every minute counts on Europe and players maximize their time. They are prepared for training with proper diet, sleep and hydration. They are prepared to commit to “deep learning” (learn more) where they face challenging training activities and are prepared to embrace the targets set, make adjustments and achieve them.  In North America, we are still fixated with immediate outcomes, rather than embracing youth player development as a long-term process.

Chievo Verona have a very unique technical program that is very challenging. A large majority of their ball mastery work is completed in the air. I estimated that their young players “failed” over 60 % of the time in their training activities. However, they worked tirelessly to figure things out, make adjustments and overcome the challenge. Chievo’s methodology is based on the fact that if young players can master the ball in the air – then they can easily master the ball on the ground. Their teams frequently play 4v4 games “in the air” where the ball cannot hit the ground.

Decision-making by young players in Europe is much more advanced than our young players in North America. This can perhaps be attributed to soccer not being the main sport in North America. Young players in North America are surrounded by parents and coaches who have never played the game. They have limited options to watch top players live and there is a “naivety” around what it takes to play soccer at a professional level. Young academy players in England have a 1 % chance of graduating to play at the professional level (learn more). What are the chances for the young North American player? Soccer is a very, very competitive sport at the highest levels and I see a tremendous gap between young player’s goals and aspirations……and the amount of sacrifice that they are prepared to make to truly play at the highest levels.

My own philosophy is that the game is a sport to be enjoyed. Develop your passion for it, be the best you can be and take advantage of the best learning experiences available. If you do have aspirations for playing at the highest levels…then be fully prepared to dedicate your life to the sport day in day out and understand that there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees for the young players that I observed I Italy and they are part of a professional club’s development system. What are our young players prepared to do that will push them ahead of these players and what can we do as coaches to help them?

Decision-making I believe can be improved in North America by establishing more positive learning environments. Young players should not be receiving as much information from coaches and parents on the sidelines. They should be allowed to assess situations, make decisions, review their own outcomes….and learn! We must help them with that. They should be encouraged to try things and make mistakes, if we wish to develop truly creative players. (Learn More) 

Summary

What are some of the changes that we can make in North America to accelerate our youth development success in North America?

  • Challenge our players more technically on a daily basis – introduce “deep learning” to training activities
  • Help young players increase ownership of their own development
  • Educate parents and players that young development is a long-term process, patience and persistence is required

How North American Players can play in Europe

As soccer nations, the US and Canada are still very young. With that comes a lack of structure at the professional levels of the game, when compared to the more “mature” soccer nations of Europe.

There are fewer professional playing opportunities for the young North American players and a lack of clear pathways to play professionally. Major League Soccer (MLS) does provide some options for young players; however, with only 19 teams for all of the US and Canada, opportunities are limited.

MLS academies typically train 3-4 times/week with one game (which duplicates European academies) but this type of program is typically limited to players within a 1-1.5 hour drive time of the team’s training facilities. There is a similar drive-time restriction at various age-groups for young players in England attending professional club academies, but the difference is that there are 92 professional clubs in England, meaning that the majority of young players are within a relatively easy driving time (England is a small country, after all).

I have been fortunate to observe team players and the academy sessions at both clubs. I would conclude that young North American players have good technical ability and up to ages U12 can more than hold their own. A gap appears from U12-U14, though, on the male side of the game, as the young European players at these ages tend to understand the game better.

They take more responsibility during the game for their own performances and those around them. They demand the ball, have a vision for what they want to do, and are more capable of executing moves at a high tempo on a consistent basis. I would say, though, that North American female elite players of any age can, on average, hold their own against Europeans.

By the time they get to the U14 age the young European male players are quicker, stronger and much more physical in their play. On the “development” side of things, they also have sports scientists monitoring their development. In addition they have a clear pathway to a career in professional football and are hungry to succeed. We are still lacking most of these things in North American soccer.

In my opinion, there are a couple of key ingredients young North American players must have if they are to successfully pursue playing options in Europe:

  • Accessibility to an EEC passport, through parents or perhaps grandparents, as this makes it easier for European clubs to sign them within European Union regulations
  • Commitment to focusing on improving their technical skills up to U12 levels
  • After U12, be in an environment that mirrors the European model for development — player development over winning (MLS or private-academies)
  • Opportunity to train at one of the professional club academies or receive instruction from academy staff of professional clubs (For example, through our affiliation with the Wolves FC academy our young players receive a min. of 6 hours of training from Wolves academy staff in Canada each year with the additional options of being invited to attend a 3 days residential camp or 1 week training at the Wolves FC academy in England)
  • Competitive games focussed on improving soccer education versus winning games. Within these games, players should learn what it takes to play multiple positions
  • Develop confidence in their ability and mental strength to challenge themselves in training and impose themselves in games
  • Opportunities to travel and play in Europe for an extended time i.e. greater than 1 month. These opportunities may also combine education with training as part of an overall development model.

If our young players are good enough and follow this process then I believe that they can create opportunities for themselves to play overseas. It is a very competitive environment in Europe. It is also more difficult for North American players to get signed as they do have to be significantly better than local players. But it is possible and with hard work and dedication, it can be achieved.

Just remember: “Hard work beats talent…especially when talent does not work hard”

Individual Player Development – 5 Tips on how to accelerate your learning and increase your performance

Youth player development is an ongoing process. Young players at academy programs in Europe spend over 10 hours a week developing their technical, tactical, physical and mental performance levels.

Our objective is to assist young North American players reach higher level of performance and challenge young players in Europe for professional playing opportunities and US Scholarships. We hope that our weekly tips help several young players maximize their full potential on their soccer journey .

You can subscribe to  these weekly individual player performance tips here

Technique – What to focus on to play at the highest levels

In the future, the best players will be those who can excel in a fast-paced environment. There will be even greater demands on technique, tactical understanding and physical conditioning.  Players today are faster and cover greater distances than previous generations. Passing combinations are faster and there is an increased importance on controlling possession. More goals are scored through quick counter-attacking play and decision-making is of critical importance.

So what technical skills should young players focus on if they are to reach the higher levels of the game?

Young players should continually work on their dribbling ability, passing and receiving and how to successfully execute individual skills under the pressure of time, space, and an opponent.

-Dribbling: Take risks! Develop your moves to beat an opponent
-Improve your ability to keep possession. Work on shielding, spin turns and changes of speed and direction to get away from opponents
-Receiving: Work on the ability to receive and have a quality 1st touch – when receiving on the ground and in the air. Receiving using all surfaces should be developed
-Shooting: Proper striking technique from different angles should be worked on and taking shots on the volley and half-volley with both feet
-Passing: Proper technique – Laces, Inside, Outside, Short and Long; Crossing
-Heading: Jumping to head
-Tackling: Proper technique, in balance, no fear.

Technical Training Video of the week

Tactical – Be prepared to press, persist and possess

The modern game is one of flexibility. The game is more fluid than ever and the top teams now deploy “inverted full-backs and wingers”, false number 9s and ball-playing goalkeepers to deal more effectively with retaining possession and winning it back quickly. The game today resembles more and more the sport of basketball where the winning team typically is the one that has managed transitions between attack/defence better.

Learn More 

Physical – Improve your stamina

Interval training is a good training approach to improve stamina. Top players are running between 7 to 9.5 miles per game and it is very important that young players are in a training program that will allow them to reach that level of performance as adults. Players that have not reached puberty should focus on mastering their technical skills and can develop fitness through small-sided games and playing. However, players who have went through puberty can begin to develop their aerobic capacity – see tips from former professional player Scott Parker .

Learn More

Mental – Self Assess your Performance

An important part of youth development is developing the entire person — not just the soccer player. We expect young people to go onto the field of play and make smart, correct decisions by themselves — so it is vital that we begin to develop these qualities early in their development.
When I talk to academy coaches across Europe or professional scouts they place a large emphasis on the psychological attributes of young players when evaluating potential. Is the player self-motivated, taking responsibility for their own development, has a strong mentality to overcome set-backs and do they have a strong capacity to learn?

Learn More

Individual Player Development – 5 Tips on how to accelerate your learning and increase your performance

Youth player development is an ongoing process. Young players at academy programs in Europe spend over 10 hours a week developing their technical, tactical, physical and mental performance levels.

Our objective is to assist young North American players reach higher level of performance and challenge young players in Europe for professional playing opportunities and US Scholarships. We hope that our weekly tips help several young players maximize their full potential on their soccer journey .

You can subscribe to  these weekly individual player performance tips here

Technique – What to focus on to play at the highest levels

A new study has confirmed that technical ability is the best predictor of success in soccer.

Read Study 

No player will be able to instantly master all technical aspects of the game without constant practice. In Europe, young players, after age 11, are training 10+ hours per week. In Brazil, young players are spending 12-15 hours/week working on their technical skills.

In North America young players have to supplement their team training with additional training by themselves or with a technical skills coach in order to successfully compete.

Technical Training Video of the week – Dribbling Through Gates with a Tennis Ball 

 

Tactical – Be prepared to press, persist and possess

Young players in North America are not immersed in a vibrant soccer culture like Europe . They have few opportunities to watch top players and teams in action. Growing up in Northern Ireland for example I was able to watch top players like George Best and Johan Cruyff play. Therefore, young players in North America must be students of the game and be able to analyze and learn from games that they watch on the internet or television.

For example see the tactical analysis of the recent game between Liverpool and PSG Learn More

Physical – Improve your agility, acceleration and power 

Youth players between the ages of 12-16 typically run an average of 6-9 kilometres a game, with 350-550 metres completed at high intensity. (Arcos, A. Et all, 2015)

Young players can develop this. Here, Leicester City’s Head of Fitness and Conditioning outlines an exercise that is guaranteed to test your agility, acceleration and power.

Learn More

Mental – How to progress from academy level to the professional game 

Youth football in Europe is very highly competetive. Only 180 of the 1.5 million boys who play organized youth football in England will become a Premier League professional player. Here ex-player Joey Barton offers an insight into what is required to successfully move from the academy levels to playing professional.

Learn More

Pathways to the Pros

Ian McClurg Learn Perform Coaching is delighted to announce several new initiatives to provide young players in North America with a clearly defined pathway to train and play at European academies and then attend trials at professional clubs and pursue US Scholarship Opportunities.

As I have been advocating for many years, it is my belief that young North American players can compete at the highest levels. However, it is critical that they participate in the European development models as much as possible. There was a great article by US player Geoff Cameron recently that confirmed this.

Learn More 

Embrace Hard Work in all your training sessions & games this week. Hard Work beats talent ……when talent doesn’t work hard!

Seeking 10 players to work with during the next 90 days who can be assessed, trained and placed in European academy programs in 2019

New Partnership: Soccer Profile Player Development Application

We are delighted to announce that we will be partnering with Soccer Profile to provide our players with a clearly defined roadmap to achieve the same levels of performance as players at professional club academy programs in the UK.

 

“ Between the ages of 5-14 the technical development of a player will account for 80 % of that players performance level and in turn the level they will eventually play at” 

The program has been tested at top academy programs in the UK such as at Liverpool and is now being deployed at professional clubs as a development and recruitment tool. For example, West Bromwich Albion are now inviting players in for trials who attain a level three on the technical testing for their age group. 

Players can purchase the program here  and if they provide me with their program ID then I will provide FREE online consultation to them for 12 months. 

I am also seeking 10 players to work with during the next 90 days who can be assessed, trained and placed in European academy programs in 2019. Players who attain exceptional scores on the Soccer Profile assessments will be sent over to European academies for formal trials. 

  • Note that we now have pathways into Europe for non-EEC players via our connections with Spanish clubs.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

The process will be as follows:

  1. Technical & Physical assessments completed in a 1:1 session
  2. An Individual Player Development plan is developed so that player trains with me for next 3 months (* Remote program available for players beyond 2 hours drive time) 
  3. Players are enrolled in Soccer Profile and complete regular training & assessments under my direct supervision  
  4. Players are provided with training, playing and trials opportunities  in Europe that fits their performance levels. 

This program will be limited to 10 players only and you can register your interest by emailing me directly at ian@ianmcclurglearnperform.com 

 

Technique+Game Intelligence = Success

As young players advance in the game, it is important that they start learning game intelligence and combining this with technique. When they start playing at ages as young as 4 or 5 the more athletic and skillful players enjoy early success at simply running with the ball and going past players either with skillful moves or sheer speed and determination. They are too young at that age to think about sharing so their runs with the ball generally have two outcomes — they run into a mass of opposing players and lose the ball or they end up scoring a goal.

Unfortunately, due to the prevailing attitude of many well-intentioned coaches and parents, goal-scoring in this scenario is considered the only way to measure success on the soccer field, so it is rewarded and praised without proper attention being given to other technical aspects of the game.

Good technique is a base requirement but what will really determine how far our players will go will be their ability to consistently make the right choices and create solutions on the field.

Between the ages of 6-10 young players should learn and experience group behavior. It is an important step for them socially to help others around them and accept being helped by others. During this stage of development they should also begin to understand sticking to assigned areas of the field and the importance of being rotated through different positions so that they begin to learn all aspects of the game. Again, within the model of measuring improvement solely via goal-scoring as described above, being assigned a defensive role on a team is often seen as a “punishment” or “a place to put weak players.” As coaches we need to fight against this.

Around the same age, however, we begin to see pronounced differences in the technical ability of players, and funneling these players into more elite programs. Personally, I believe that this is too young, but certainly in North America it is at this age that young players begin to receive additional training and the first separation from their peers via the streaming process of “rep” and “select” takes place.

But what qualities do the world’s top clubs look for when evaluating young players? They generally begin to consider players as young as 7 but cannot invite them into formal training programs until the U9 level (that is, at the age of 8). Spain has been the leader in recent years with respect to youth development. During my trip to the top-flight Spanish club Sevilla FC in 2011 they confirmed that they look initially for good technique and pace.

They then look for young players who understand the game. On the field, are these kids looking around at all their options? Can they make intelligent runs into open space? Can they make correct choices when to dribble and when to combine with teammates? These same qualities are highly prized by our partner club in the UK, Wolves FC, although they will generally pay greater intention to the physical characteristics of players, as in England the physical demands on players are generally much higher than in Spain.

According to the English FA’s Technical Guide for Young Player Development — The Future Game, young players of the future will be required to release the ball accurately and instantly over a variety of distances using both feet and on any surface. A quality first touch will be critical as will the ability to operate successfully in congested areas with speed and precision. Retaining possession will be a key feature of play for Elite players and so will possessing the “craft” to disguise techniques and “out-smart” their direct opponents.

The ability to exchange passes quickly and accurately with teammates on a consistent basis will increase in importance as a player gets older, rather than repeatedly taking players on in 1v1 attacking situations. As players mature they will have to demonstrate their ability to decide what to do and when to do it within the demands of game situations.

If all of this sounds like too much “theory” just consider the success in recent years of the Spanish national men’s team —winners of the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. Every player on the team, regardless of his position, has a flawless first touch, knows how to move the ball quickly, makes sound, quick decisions in all phases of the game and is willing to combine all these qualities with his teammates to form a team that is the only one in soccer history to have won three major titles in a row.

Taking all these factors into consideration, we have put technique at the cornerstone of all our programs. Good technique is a base requirement but what will really determine how far our players will go will be their ability to consistently make the right choices and create solutions on the field.

A key reason I watch our Futsal games from the stands and watch video of the games is to evaluate how well the group and individual players are progressing with this. It can be an overlooked area of players’ development but it is a vital one. A combination of good technique and game intelligence can take our young players to higher levels of the game. I often tell the tale of Pep Guardiola being chosen for Barcelona — the club team that has supplied most of the players to the Spanish national side — as a skinny, slowish youngster because of his leadership qualities and game intelligence which far outweighed his speed and or other physical attributes at an early age.

Apparently his career in the game worked out rather well in the end!

The Ongoing Quest to Successfully Engage today’s Young Soccer Players

A few years ago,  I came across the work of Sir Kenneth Robinson for the first time. Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business.  He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere. The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been viewed more than 25 million times and seen by an estimated 250 million people in over 150 countries.

He has devoted a large part of his life to the study of creativity. He believes, like the famous artist Picasso that we are born with creativity and as time goes on it is educated out of us. Picasso made the famous quote that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Sir Kenneth has studied our current education systems and argues that they are not servicing the requirements of today’s youth. Many children are dropping out early and many others are requiring medication, just so they can pass through today’s education system. He proposes a new way forward for education, which would be designed to inspire the creativity of our youth and keep them actively engaged.

What relevance do these ideas have for developing young soccer players? Well, we face a similar problem. Here is a frightening statistics for youth sport in North America: over 70% of young athletes are leaving sports in North America by age 14.  (Source: US Youth Soccer). They are quitting for the following reasons:

  • Lack of Playing Time
  • Overemphasis on Winning
  • Other Activities are more interesting
  • Lack of Fun
  • Coaching/Adult Behaviors
  • Dissatisfaction with Performance
  • Lack of Social Support

Typically, we don’t notice this as they are replaced by a greater number of Under 3 players the following year.

Are we duplicating the same mistakes in our current education systems? Are we only offering rigid, linear development systems which young players pass through, based on their age? Are we coaching creativity out of our young players so they don’t wish to play anymore? Wayne Rooney has spoken of how he wanted to stop playing at age 14 because they (Everton Football Club) asked him to play a different way. He was a young boy who loved the game and was very good at it. The good news is that he was talked out of quitting by Colin Harvey, a senior coach at Everton. However, how many other creative players, like him, have been lost to the game?

Not every young player will go on to play as well as Messi and Ronaldo but surely we have a duty as coaches and parents to stimulate their senses so they, not us, can find out how good they can be.

At the moment, I’m looking at the rapid growth of street soccer and futsal in Europe. I am seeing very dedicated and creative young players practice the latest freestyle skills and demonstrate outrageous plays when they play futsal. It makes we wonder if both are a better avenues to remove the pressure on young player’s in todays structured academy environments. Street soccer and futsal both develop creativity by placing less adult restrictions on young players. They can and will practice for hours with a ball to learn a new move. The young players also seem more able to transfer these new skills into street soccer and futsal games, than regular youth games.

Is it because both street soccer and futsal provide young player’s with an unstructured environment, on their own terms with less direction from adults where they are left more to experiment and improvise? It is said of today’s generation that they are overwhelmed and inundated with information and with choice. The result is that it can be more challenging to successfully engage today’s generation and over  long periods.

What I propose is creating more environments where creativity can be encouraged and nurtured.   Environments where young players are inspired and want to learn to get better. When I was growing up, I was inspired by watching George Best – he was the “Picasso” of the soccer world then. Today’s young players are inspired by Messi and Ronaldo –  they are inspired by both and want to be like them. Not every young player will go on to play as well as Messi and Ronaldo but surely we have a duty as coaches and parents to stimulate their senses so they, not us, can find out how good they can be.

I don’t have all the answers but surely we must be looking outside the traditional soccer learning methods in order to achieve this.