The keys to long term team successes and player growth in youth soccer

On many teams, even maybe most teams, you see that they have 1 or 2 go to players, and elite teams have 3-4. Much of the team’s success rides on these few players. In club soccer this can lead to great team success. At younger ages playing 6v6 or 8v8 1 or 2 players can make all the difference on the field. Many teams that are seen as the best teams playing division 1, train and play with the tactics of get the ball to this person. This person might be the most skilful, the fastest and/or the coaches kid. We have all seen it done and played on teams that play with their go to players.

Why do so many teams and coaches in youth soccer play this style and believe  it is the best way. The reason why coaches train this way is two fold. First it has high output. These teams win a lot. Their is a fear amongst coaches that  if my team isn’t winning, I will loose these strong players and unable to bring in other strong players. Second is that this is how the pro coaches play. They have there all star players that they are always trying to get the ball to. Is this the best for youth players and youth teams for long term success of the team or player? No, especially not here in the US where we don’t have control over players, but parents rightfully have control over their child.

When you train to give the ball to only one or two players your team will do well, even at high levels. Locally you will win nearly everything, especially on the girls side. The player pool is much smaller and 1-2 super stars can make the different. Parents do believe that if the team my child is on is winning and doing well then my child is a strong soccer player. Think what question is always asked about how your weekend went. “Did you win?”. Even when you ask a player the question of, “How did you play?”, they give you the score of the game. You can see why coaches coach this way and why parents flock to these teams even when it isn’t always the best for long term growth as a player or team.

What is the better way. Better maybe, but isn’t for everyone. The alternative will create very strong players but isn’t always high output at younger levels. First we need to re-educate parents and coaches. The team you play on might win but doesn’t mean that your child is a strong player, just that the team she is playing on has some strong players. An easy test when watching a team and if they train all of there players is to see how many risks they are willing to take. Do the defenders just kick the ball when they get it. This is a safe thing to do, but doesn’t help defenders be stronger players. Or, does the coach allow the defenders to attempt to dribble the ball. This is a very risky thing, especially at younger ages as they are learning to dribble. On the flip side that defender that was allowed to take risk and make mistakes will be a stronger player later. Until the kickball mentality changes, defenders that are skillful should tell high school and college coaches that they play midfield. Otherwise they will be prejudged coming from club that they can just kick the ball far, without skill. In the higher levels coaches want defenders who have high skill levels.

A team at the U13 age. First maybe second year of playing 11v11 on a full field. The field is twice the size or more than the 8v8 field. Half of the players are fully grown the other half haven’t started. Coaches and parents focused on winning will choose the Men and Women over the boys and girls. Why, the men and women are bigger and faster than the boys and girls. As the field is bigger the idea is that you need players who can cover that distance quickly. Players also now start having space to kick the ball in the air and you need tall players to win the ball in the air. Often the time between the ages of U12-U15 you see large turn over in teams as those that grew early are chosen at U12 only to be released at U15 because a late bloomer has grown past them.

Is there a better way. Better, maybe not  for everyone. The alternative is to keep the players you have and work with them, on what will make them successful, even if they aren’t the fastest or biggest. Teach players to play with a presence even if they are smaller. Teach them how to read and understand the game when they are slower. This will results in losses, because as they are learning and will make mistakes. Mistakes lead to goals. As your team ages you need to work on a tactical system that will fit your team and the strengths and weaknesses of your players. Many times coaches try to force a system on players. The learning process and not having the fastest and biggest players is a risk, on that many coaches feel will cost them games, and they will loose there best players.

As the teams age into high school many of the most successful teams at U8-U12 even up to U15 are not even around or if they are around are not the power house they once were. Why does this happen. The most common reason give is that soccer players are athletes and it takes a lot of time and effort on the players part to stay at the top. Players often times choose to go to other sports and or are swayed to do other extracurricular activities. These are the reasons given and are true. The other reason and what leads to some of the above reasons is the way the players were trained at younger ages. At these older ages the players are the ones that choose not the parents, if they continue playing. If you are not the super star on the team and you base all of your wealth on the wins of a team. When that team no long wins how good are you. This is why many top teams shed lots of players, in high school. Unfortunately because they are athletes and soccer takes up a great deal of time, instead of finding a new team the player chooses to leave the sport. It is this loss of personal that prevents teams from being able to continue to compete at the higher levels. Every time you loose players you have to bring in a new group and teach them how your team plays. The players have to learn the new players and when you are only playing half a season the ability to train large groups of new players is very difficult. Many coaches then again go to a safe style of soccer, which is easier to train and teach, but not always the best for development.

Is there a better way. Yes there is a better way. It is up to coaches to educate parents that winning is not the key to player or team success. Team success comes from training players and retaining players. How do you train parents to stay on a loosing team. We as coaches and clubs have to let parents know that this is the path and the long term plan. No college coach is going to come to you as a sophomore or junior and ask if you won when you where 8 years old or even when you were 13. Players on loosing teams still have great potential to play in college if they are the right fit for that college. The ultimate goal for all coaches and players of elite teams should be the opportunity to play in college. As coaches we need to learn what college coaches are looking for in players. First and most important are grades. Second is that the player is able to play at a fast pace high level game. This requires speed of thought, not just physical speed. Lastly players need to understand the game. Advantage to a player is the ability to play many positions. Just because you are a defender in club or a forward, many players miss opportunities to play because they will only play “their position”. We need to teach and educate parents that success is a long term goal, not how many goals the team scored in a game. We need to teach our players to be able to be all strong players not just a handful of them.

In our club we have had many teams have great success at older ages, and have among the highest percentage of players who have gone to play in college of any area club. Our U13 girls team is currently on that path. You can read about there history on their website here in the about section. They started off at U8/U9 in the last division of heartland in last place. This year they will finish last in MRL this spring with 1 goal and 34 goals against. Why is this a success story. Because they are young and this isn’t the end of their story. This last weekend in MRL having lost all previous games of MRL by 5-0 losses or more. This last game they lost 2-1 on a PK. In previous games the girls made mistakes and at the higher level those result in goals. Every mistake they made the learned from. They never gave up always working hard always pushing themselves. Was this last game without error, no. But every game these girls are learning and improving, not only as a team but also as players.  This is made possible because of the hard work and belief in the long term goals of both the players and parents. Trust me they have had some shaky times, having to explain how well they played when the lost 8-0. This team will still have its losses but are moving up, when so many other teams are moving down or disappearing.

As a club we champion our success like all clubs. We have teams even at younger ages that are very strong and win, but we champion our teams not only on wins but the development of great players. We push and challenge our teams to play against the very best. Often when you play against the best you will loose the game but become stronger. When looking at some of our younger teams, ask yourselves are you someone who is willing to tell people my child’s team lost this weekend again, but he/she is learning, and able to take risks so that when she is in high school able to play in college, if that is what she wises to do. For more information about our teams, contact one of our coaches or visit us at tryouts.

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