by Ken Sweda
October 31, 2013 (ISN) – A well-rounded approach to developing a well-rounded player. The best soccer nations have known for a long time that success at the highest level of the game, either elite club or national team, requires a successful approach at the lowest levels.
That is not to say, however, that to win at the highest levels you must also win at the lowest. Indeed, most international clubs and national team programs know that winning at the highest levels almost demands that winning at the youth levels be a byproduct of good development rather than a goal in and of itself. Winning and development can coexist, but the emphasis must remain on the latter, with the former being a pleasant consequence.
So what is it that these nations have come to realize and implement in the area of youth football coaching?
The basic framework consists of four factors, each generally as important as the other, but with each taking priority during different phases and ages of the pupil.
These four factors are: technical, tactical, physical, and psychological/psycho-social.
The technical component is simply the ability of a player to manage the ball individually, and is vitally important to the proper progression of the player. It is incumbent on a coach or club that their youngest players, often only 4-5 years old, develop a relationship with the ball, one where successful manipulation and retention of the ball becomes second nature. If this relationship is not developed by the time a player enters their early teens, there will be major limitations in the ability of that player to progress beyond a certain point. The demands of sophisticated tactical play will be beyond them because they will not trust their feet enough to execute the requirements, often leaving the coach with severely limited tactical choices in the short term, and leaving the player with no ability to progress on their own. Technical facility doesn’t mean, however, that every player needs to be a 1v1 wizard: how they play will be a function of the style and system their club or coach implements. However, 1v1 and 2v2 play during training, and lots of it, produces a confidence on the ball, in the form of intensive and repetitive situations that can only help to foster a command of the moment. Fundamental exercises involving turning and first touch are critical as well and teach the player that more often than not the best choice is simply turning away from pressure under full command and awareness, and using the time to reassess the situation and find a better solution.
The idea of tactical development is something of a double-edged sword. If introduced too soon, to the exclusion or subversion of the technical element, players can begin to rely too much on unsophisticated tactical play in the pursuit of winning relatively meaningless games at the early ages. Many youth coaches unfortunately go this route to please the parents that ultimately pay their salaries. Alternatively, even proper tactical instruction, if introduced too early, can prove frustrating to players who lack the technical foundation to carry it out. The advantage of focusing on technical work early, and then only introducing the most basic tactical ideas (the “real” game—movement, finding and creating space, etc..), is that ball mastery and a general understanding of the game itself, not a specific system, opens up a much larger range of tactical possibilities later. I like to tell players that they will likely have many coaches during their playing days, but the game itself, and its requirements, never change. Learn to manage the ball, and learn the true essence of the game, and the tactical ideas that are introduced to you (hopefully at an appropriate age) will always be within your grasp and will always maximize your individual ability. People like to believe that Barcelona have a system, and ultimately this is true. But I believe more than anything, their possession ethos and the way they move the ball represents the closest thing to a natural and pragmatic way of playing. For them to teach their 8 year olds the “Barca way”, then, is less about a learning a system than it is about building a relationship between a player and the ball, between a player and their teammates, between a player and the game itself.
The physical element again presents a bit of a dilemma. In North America, many players are valued for their speed, size, and strength relative to others in their age group, and many coaches rely on these elements to win games and ultimately please the parents. When players are immediately taught that these qualities are enough to be successful, they are never pushed, nor do they push themselves, to develop ball mastery or true tactical insight. The top tier of soccer coaches around the world will always select a technically gifted and astute player over a pure athlete. The selection of men for the American and Canadian National Teams over the decades is literally a case study in this behavior. The only reason people don’t acknowledge the same thing on the women’s side is that because of the head start the US had in the women’s game, and the funding advantages they still have, American players were by default always more technical than their counterparts. Not so anymore.
The physical aspect can’t be ignored, though, if it adds to a player’s abilities rather than replaces them—i.e. if two players have comparable technical abilities and soccer IQ, the physical aspect becomes the decider. However, basic “physical literacy” is lacking these days as children spend more time indoors, but it seems that this fosters an even greater divide between an “athletic” child and a “non-athletic” one, and may in fact increase the likelihood that an “athlete” gets chosen over a “player”. In an odd twist, it’s quite possible that if more kids were able to extract themselves from their indoor pursuits and find their way into youth sports, and soccer in particular, then the overall athletic abilities of these kids would become a wash. Then, skill and understanding might become more of a deciding factor, especially now that we’re starting to truly value these qualities here.
These elements relate to the typical theories of child psychology/development, but are often the most misunderstood, misused or outright ignored. They set the stage for the other elements and shape them at the same time. Based on the literature, it is well known that until the age of 10 or so, the predominant mindset of a child is to be self-absorbed, not content with being told to share. In a soccer sense, then, yelling at a player of 7-8 to “Pass the ball!” is not only confounding to the player, but is distressing and counterproductive. Can players of this age be taught and coaxed to pass? Of course, but it should not be the focus, nor should overbearing methods be used to accomplish it. Coaching at the earliest ages requires an understanding of this self centeredness and it should be taken advantage of, and used in a positive manner to encourage the young player to indulge in “owning” the ball, even if it becomes over-indulgence in trying to hold and dribble the ball. Where else will the necessary mistakes come from to be learned from? Indeed, the reason North American soccer produces virtually no special players is that from the earliest ages, they are screamed at to share the ball, to quickly and emphatically boot it away from their area and toward their opponent’s goal. In this case, no relationship, no facility, is allowed to develop between the player and the ball. Don’t believe me? Watch how many times MLS players flounder with the ball at their feet and hastily launch it.
Assuming you provide opportunity for your players to fall in love with the ball, as they mature on the traditional arc explained in child psychology, they will start to learn that sharing the ball is important. They’ll learn how to do so much more quickly, and because of the touches they’ve built up over their formative years (technical) they’ll be able to make and receive passes other players can only dream of, in terms of the appropriate physical action (technical) but also the when and where (tactical). Furthermore, they’ll trust their teammates to have the same skill and understanding to do the same, and they’ll know the ball will find its way back to them, just as the boys of La Masia are learning right this minute (psycho-social).
These four components, these ideas, are at the forefront of the best academies around the world, and if you are not familiar with them, you might ask yourself or your club why that is. As they say, however, a little information can be a dangerous thing. The real problems come when the various components are overvalued relative to the others, or are emphasized at the wrong times. Every one of these concepts has its place, and its time, and proper coaching and training requires that these principles underlay everything you do. The youth coach should concern him/herself first with producing capable players, not winning teams, and learning the four pillars of coaching will help keep them on that path.