Where are the crazy youth soccer players?

There’s been a notable emphasis in recent years on a primarily passing-based style of play. I see and hear this consistently during many games that I officiate and observe it first-hand during my kids’ practices. Some clubs do it more than others, and this can also differ significantly from coach to coach, but the overall trend seems to be toward ‘quick passing’.

Parents typically also encourage quick passing to a player who is ‘open’. They get frustrated when a player who is holding the ball and tries to dribble past players loses the ball….”Why didn’t he pass? Johnny was wide open!”.

And the large majority of parents don’t have the understanding nor patience to support a coach who isn’t ‘winning’. Keep in mind that coaches have to make a living so it is very difficult for them to resist parental pressure for long.

The focus during practices and games is on being ‘open’ in the right position and then quickly finding a teammate when receiving the ball. The ideal case would be quick one-touch passes and movements into open space to give your teammate another ‘open’ option. It’s what Barcelona in Spain is known for – beautiful ball possession through quick passing and constant movement of players. A style of play perfected during these last twenty years or so.

There is little doubt that this quick passing game is effective for youth teams if the key metric is ‘winning’. For example, two weekends ago I officiated a tournament Final between a U13 boys’ team from close to where I live and a hispanic team from Sacramento.

The local team played the above passing game but the Sacramento team didn’t have this kind of formal playing style – the kids were improvising and they didn’t appear to have the same endurance as the local team. The local team looked better and won the game. Players, coaches, and parents were happy and surely encouraged by their team’s performance. However, note that I saw little creative and/or technical play (apart from good first touch and reasonably accurate passing) from the local team. Good touches, smart decision-making, and good movement, but no creativity.

A couple of months ago I officiated a tournament Final and a third-place game for top U16 boys’ teams. The contrast was striking.

The two teams playing for third place played solid passing soccer. Athletic boys from Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Cupertino hustled hard. The game ended 0:0 and went to penalty kicks primarily because they were evenly matched athletically and stylistically and there was little creativity and inventiveness that might have opened up more scoring opportunities.

The two teams playing in the Final were from the East Bay and San Bruno. These primarily hispanic teams played a much more creative and less scripted style of soccer. They did many unexpected things, showed very good technical skills, and dribbled more. Their ‘tool bag’ was larger. The game was very entertaining for the spectators – even my wife commented on how entertaining the game was. It was a privilege to officiate this game.

So which teams will that U13 local team resemble more in three years from now? The solid, athletic third-placed teams or the creative, entertaining Finalists?

My premise is that introducing the passing game early increases the early success rate for teams and the kids will grow into good, solid players. But these kids will most likely never become very good or even great players. And it is probably also safe to assume that they are more likely to lose interest in soccer because there’s little room for self-expression. It’s all about practicing a system of play and becoming physically stronger and faster. That gets boring after a while. Here’s an article that should be informative in this context: http://changingthegameproject.com/the-massive-importance-of-play/.

This doesn’t bode well for the competitiveness of U.S. Soccer at the international level. Solid college teams, yes, but not good enough to compete against quality players from other countries. And it doesn’t bode well for the ongoing growth of professional soccer here because the lifeblood of a sport – entertainment – isn’t exciting enough. Folks pay for entertainment – the more entertaining, the more money will flow into soccer, which in turn gets more youth to play and allows us to build better facilities and invest in better player development across the country. It’s a virtuous cycle.

On a related note I observed an eight year old girl on my youngest daughter’s team who clearly had a spring in her step during games a year ago. She was clever, inventive and she clearly enjoyed playing. She was a high-impact player and a joy to watch. Her mom told me that she was playing soccer with the boys during every break in school. This was a lot of unstructured street soccer! And she had little formal coaching at the time.

That was a year ago. Unfortunately, she doesn’t look the same anymore. She’s still ‘good’ and hard-working and follows the coach’s instructions, but I don’t see the spunk anymore. I asked her mom about her school soccer and she told me that she stopped that about a year ago. So no more ‘street soccer’. And a change in coaching about a year ago led to much more emphasis on passing over skills and dribbling. We don’t know for sure what the underlying cause-effect relationships are, of course, but it might be a useful anecdote nevertheless.

Why don’t we wait until, say, U14 or even U16 to introduce and perfect systems of play? The creative aspects of player development should be deeply ingrained by then and we are more likely to keep more youth playing for longer. And top coaches know how to introduce systems of play without extinguishing the creative/crazy aspects of the players.

How about we encourage more street soccer? How about we focus more on skills and creativity? How about we dial back the formal systems based coaching and add more free play? How about we encourage and celebrate ‘the crazy ones’?

This iconic Apple clip applies equally to top soccer as it does to technology innovation in my view:

%d bloggers like this: