The benefits of creativity and letting young players solve problems

When I started my own coaching business in 2000, my main aim — one I haven’t changed, by the way — was to provide young players in North America with training and learning experiences similar to leading soccer nations.

During that time we have studied training models in the UK, Brazil, Spain, Holland, Germany and Italy. My main metric has always been how many players we have successfully prepared to move to higher levels of play and the goal remains to have some of our players signed by our partner club, Wolves FC in England or other professional clubs in Europe or North America.

A few years ago, I came across an article online by Gary Allen, of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, outlining what he believes is the “stifling” of development for players in North America. Allen talked about many of the challenges that we have identified as impediments to young players in North America developing to world class levels:

1) Fast-tracking players to “play up” age-groups

2) Asking players to limit development to playing in specific roles using skills they are already strong at

3) Placing players too early in competitive environments where they cannot take risks

4) ID decisions being made at young ages to exclude the majority of players

Allen argued that by placing young players in competitive environments too early we are identifying players as young as 8 based on a perceived set of skills based on the “now.” The problem with this approach is two-fold. A lot of other players are then excluded from that early age from the best development and coaching opportunities. This is similar to what Malcolm Gladwell outlined in his number-one best seller Outliers-The Story of Success.

Gladwell argued that in youth sports players born in the early part of the year are typically selected ahead of other players born later in the year due to their earlier maturation of development (for example, the difference between two children, both technically “age 9” but one born in January and one in September, can be huge) and that this separation at an early age means that only a small number (the ones born in January, February or March) received access to the best training programs, with longer hours and the best instructors.

Allen outlines that the second problem with this approach is that if players are selected at age 8 because they are faster and stronger than the other players, then they will be expected to keep developing and using these attributes only, at the expense of developing other parts of their game. When promotion and relegation issues are at stage in youth sports or ensuring that teams are accepted into the top leagues, the individual player’s joy and passion for the game soon takes a back (and in many cases a permanent ) seat to the overall goals of the team.

I have mentioned elsewhere the opposition many players and parents put up when coaches ask players in North America to play different positions or consider playing within an age-group which may be a year younger. This can be a problem even when the players are enjoying greater success by improving learning or their overall confidence. It is not “conventional” and therefore not easily embraced.

As Allen points out our culture in North America does not allow the “failure” required to learn at any age or stage — immediate success must always be achieved. Remember, the traditional competitive team system in North America has not, as Allen argued, helped produce even one truly world class player in 30 plus years, amongst a population of about 300 million, if you combine the US and Canada.

So what are the solutions?

First of all players must be taught the joy and passion of the game. A coach in BC named Rick Gruneau sent me an email speaking about some of the differences he had experienced when he spent a week at the Spanish club Espanyol, in 2010. He asked the coaching staff what the two most important things were that they taught in training, the answer was immediate, though, for a North American, surprising: “Joy and technique.” (Note: I will be travelling to the RCD Espanyol academy with some players in a few weeks and look forward to observing their academy program first-hand)

Joy because, as the coaches put it, “We are a small club (compared to Barcelona and Real Madrid) and these players are precious investments for us. Every time a player burns out or leaves the game we not only feel that we have failed the player, we lose our investment in him.” And technique, because soccer is “primarily a game where the challenge is to exercise the best technique possible under pressure.”

Rick went on to recount his amazement at the “joy” in training sessions when even in the most competitive training there was a lot of laughing and mutual back patting, where players would spontaneously break into applause when another player did something out of the ordinary technically. It was not something he had ever experienced back in Canada.

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