Are Youth Soccer Players Getting Worse?
If you REALLY want to help your developing and growing soccer players' long term development, then this article is for you. If you're simply trying to win the next game, then maybe it's not. In this article I will address an issue I have seen and dealt with for years and at ALL levels of soccer; the failure to return to the core skills and relearning what we have forgotten.
It's not just a rare occurrence, it happens everywhere.
All around the U.S., players are getting worse with age? I know, I know, it sounds strange, many will disagree about their players, but it's true and I see it almost everywhere I go. As time goes on it seems we lose focus on player CORE skill development and start worrying about that next game. We are concerned about team rankings, championships, tournaments, and results rather than focusing on the most important thing we can do: continually developing skilled players. I will warn you, it is often hard for the coach and parent to see this through their own eyes.
We spent years developing the SoccerU series. Literally hundreds of hours in the field capturing the essence of soccer skill training, breaking it down, and then putting it in a form that ALL could use to improve their players. We worked with ALL levels of players from young 7 year olds, to college players, and even professional players from around the world. The funny part is many people think it is just for young youth players. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We have coaches from all over the country writing us to thank us. Many of these coaches work with older players including high school players and even a few college coaches that now use the series to develop incoming players or returning players from summer breaks. If there was one message I could get out to ALL coaches, it would be to return to basics for at least a portion of EVERY practice.
He's Calling Again
I'll start by giving you an example of a great player that has learned this lesson and understands its importance. Matt, as I'll call him in this article, is a great player. Probably one of the "smoothest" players I've ever worked with. When you watch him play or see him with a ball at his feet, you can't help but be impressed.
He played top level competitive soccer as a youth, played ODP, RPL, and the usual top level teams for his age. He was a star player in high school, played college soccer, and recently made the reserve team for a processional team. Once in a while he'll give me a call and ask me to work with him. However, most people are kind of shocked when they see us training. They expect to see some magical professional sessions, however we return to basics. We are doing the exact same touches, and core skills we work with in the SoccerU series. Yes, the VERY SAME skills we are teaching to younger players. You'll understand why in a little bit.
Here Come the College Girls
I worked with a girl one summer just after she finished high school and was heading off to play at college on a scholarship. I called her "little bit" because she seemed so thin and small in my eyes. A great kid, quiet, and really fast feet. It's kind of funny because before I knew who she was I saw her play in high school during a tournament. Out of all the players I watched that weekend, she really stuck out in my mind. She could REALLY play.
I hadn't seen her in almost two years, and then one day I got a phone call from her dad. He was wondering if I'd be willing to work with her and a few of her teammates during the summer. What he didn't know is that for the first time in many years, I was kind of taking the summer off. But, he was persistent. So I agreed.
Most of the girls were seniors in college now and had years and years of playing and training under their belts. We met each morning early before the heat kicked in too heavy. We trained for three hours each day. Here's the "shocker" for you, not me. Most of these girls had trouble performing core and basic skills. Wait a minute: Didn't I just get done saying these were great players, playing in college on scholarships, and could REALLY play? Yep... you heard correctly. It might surprise you, but it is VERY common and I see it all the time, good or even great OLDER players that lack many core skills and touch.
When we were done with the training sessions I talked to them in great length about what I did with them. They all agreed and understood the point I'm making here.
As we get older as players, less and less time is devoted to core skills, touch control, and literally dozens and dozens of needed skills on the field. The focus is shifted to winning games. These core skills, will often never be revisited again and become distant to our instinctive playing nature.
They all said the same thing, "I wish our coaches would do this for an hour of each practice rather than running us to death or just scrimmaging all the time." Their words, not mine.
The Coach is There to Win
A funny thing happens when kids start to turn into young adults. Some of life's cruel lessons start to hit them (as well as their parents). This usually happens about the time school team sports come along. Let's say about the 8th grade or 13-14 years old. All of a sudden there are tryouts, and guess what? If you don't make the team, you go home, you can't play. The coach looks at the players that come out for tryouts and has to pick his 20. All the others get to go home.
During the season there is no, "everyone gets to play" rule either. If you make the "starting team" you play. If not, you sit. This is starting to sound just HORRIBLE isn't it?
It sounds horrible because it goes against everything that we have learned and stated about "youth soccer" in the growing years. We play ALL players, we shouldn't care about winning, and we should focus on player development. Well guess what? You just had your first job interview and you didn't get the job. Sometimes life stinks.
It's kind of harsh to say, but it is a reality when it comes to "older" and school sports. The coach, at this level, has one main job, and that job is to win.
Honestly, most teams at this level have very little time to prepare for the season and for practice during the season. The focus will be put on a few specific areas. Conditioning, positioning, scrimmaging, and learning the coach's game and how he or she wants it played. There will be little to no focus on individual development. The coach is handed a team and he must use the skills they bring to the field, not try and teach new ones. There simply isn't time.
Do the Test
I go over this issue with many coaches, parents, and players. Some sort of look at me strange, but also many get it. For those that don't get it, I put their players to the test. It doesn't take long for them to see the realty. It's easy to do and never fails.
Test No. 1: Dribbling
Stop laughing... this is a real "advanced" test.
The beginning of my advanced player skill training starts the same way for all. Every player gets a ball and they line up on the sideline one after another. The rule is simple. They jog slowly with high legs around the field. They must touch the ball with their right foot EVERY step they take. Not touch the ball or push it forward then take several steps, but EVERY time their right foot comes down it must gently touch the back of the ball, moving it forward just slightly.
They do this for seven steps, then without stopping or missing a step, they move it over to their left foot. Same thing. EVERY step they take with their left foot must be a touch to the ball. They do this dribbling touch around half the full field. Then come back and perform 3-4 minutes of stretches. Then again, we dribble around half the field. Come back and stretch.
I call this drill my Messi drill. If you watch Lionel Messi dribble under pressure you will see this often. The ability to touch the ball with EVERY step he takes. He is always in control and the ball barely moves with each touch.
What will you see with your players? You will see HIGHLY seasoned soccer players unable to perform this drill with perfection. In fact some do it miserably. Many can't touch the ball every step, many lose control of the ball, and most have a LOT of trouble doing this with their weak foot.
Dribbling and passing are 95 percent of the game, yet you will NEVER, and I mean NEVER see an upper level team practicing basic dribbling and control while dribbling like we just talked about.
Hundreds of Skills and Touches
Now, we just got done talking about ONE specific skill. One of the first and most basic skills we learn in soccer when we are just babies. How many skills and touches can you think of? There are literally hundreds and hundreds of them. So, now that we are getting a bit older and focusing on conditioning, positioning, "the game itself" and many other aspects of soccer, how much time is devoted to these? Quite often, none.
How can we prevent this?
In my opinion, and through our testing and observations, there are only two ways to prevent this.
- The coach must see this, embrace this, and use it in practice. In the SoccerU series we spend one of the first chapters covering the 1,000 touch theory. We try to stress to coaches that the first 20-30 minutes of each practice is often wasted or not used properly. Often teams at practice look like "track" teams jogging and running. We show coaches how to immediately (at 6:01 if the practice starts at 6:00) get their players touching a ball, be active, get warm, and revisit core skills. Not a minute is wasted, there are NO LINES, every player is moving and touching a ball. After 25 minutes or so, the players have had close to 1,000 touches; they are exhausted, and now warmed up and ready for their soccer lesson. Not to mention that they just revisited over 50 core skills.
- The parent can provide "private" training. Whether the parent does it, or even hires a young coach to do this, it often works out very well. This is something I did with even my own son. If your player has "practice" on Tuesday and Thursday, then on Monday and Wednesday they can have a skill and touch session. Two hours of nothing but revisiting or learning skills that are desperately needed. (We left Friday as our down day and rest day.) Often we would have four parents get together and pitch in $15 per session. We would give a younger coach (usually going to college) the SoccerU series and have them focus on the core skills. The players would do nothing but work on core skills. Dribbling, moves, touches, settling balls, etc. The coach would make some good money, the kids got tons of skill work, and it worked out fantastic.
My point is pretty simple, and I really hope you "get it" by now. Usually around the age of 14 or 15 a player STOPS adding new skills to their bag of tools, and often skills that haven't been revisited fade away. They simply take the skills they have and try and play the game to the best of their ability.
However, for most players this is NOT enough to keep progressing in those higher levels or be one of the very best. Mature players, yes even the great ones, need to continually work on core skills and relearning skills or touches that have been forgotten or are not natural and instinctive. If they aren't, you'll never see them in a game.