I’ve been toying with a few posts in my head while driving the soccer taxi over hill and down dale, but kept thinking there was a common thread I was missing. Then Josh (via du Nord) linked to a recent article by Andrew Dixon at US Soccer Players about the state of the US game in light of our 2-4 loss to Brazil, and it all came together:

It’s this Grown Man’s Opinion that our lack of individual skill and creativity in comparison to the top teams in the world is what’s keeping us from being a legitimate top five team.

In the US we have a love/hate relationship with brilliant individual skills. We recognize it when we see it and admire those who have it. Then the moment they try one spin move too many, try to take on one too many defenders, or just miss on that behind-the-back pass, we start yelling at them.

PASS THE FREAKIN’ BALL!

Andrew isn’t the first person to allude to youth development in the US as a key hindrance to US Soccer success, but the way he put it caused me to finally connect all my thoughts together…

Bear with me as this post requires some background to get you up to where my mind has been the past few weeks. You haven’t had to read my drivel for a couple weeks now so you’ll manage just fine :) I promise.

My U11 Girls travel team is brand new. All but one of the 14 players on the team played Rec soccer last year. They’re a really solid group of players, but they’re clearly behind some of the other teams in terms of ‘Challenge level’ playing experience. We drew a really tough schedule, playing 3 matches against teams from clubs with no ‘Classic’ U11G teams – in other words, we were playing their top girls team. Most other Challenge teams have at least one ‘Classic’ level team above them where the top players from that club play. Of course our league doesn’t have Classic either, so we have the top girls in our league. But despite working very hard this summer on a balance of footwork/soccer moves, passing, and shooting, the inexperience and lack of confidence has resulted in two very lopsided losses. They haven’t scored a goal yet. Why? (Besides the fact that I obviously stink as a coach :) ) The other teams have passed circles around them. Our girls are quick – running down the fastest players they have faced. They are aggressive, going in for the ball no matter what. But they’re still adjusting to 8v8, their passing and receiving have been poor and it’s killing them. When our last opponent scored their 6th goal, the coach told his team no more scoring – passing only. So they proceeded to put on a passing exhibition that our girls couldn’t stop – sometimes putting 5, 6, or 7 passes together before losing the ball.

My assistant and I felt the team was farther along passing wise, but apparently not, so we’re embarking on a couple weeks of hard core passing work to try and balance that out. But in deciding to do this, we both agreed that we had to be careful not to take it TOO far – that footwork and moves were still vital to their success.

Then this past weekend, I watched our strong U10 Boys team play. Their opponent was breathtaking in their passing. I’ve seen a lot of U10 soccer and have NEVER seen kids pass like this before. The instant the ball hit their foot, their head snapped up and they were looking for the next pass. Now in a 6v6 match on a 55 yard long pitch, there’s not a ton of room to pass, but these kids made it look easy, putting together 3 or 4 passes time after time, including many across the field, splitting two defenders. They never passed into empty space – a teammate was ALWAYS there. We just watched in awe as our team struggled to breakup their passing and mount their own offense. Our team lost 2-5, which was the closest match yet for their opponent. A number of our league’s coaches saw that match and they all felt the opponent’s passing was amazing, but also noted the lack of foot skills and shooting.

I also coach a U10 Rec team. I have a completely new team this year as all but one of my players from last year moved on, so its been an experience figuring out each players strengths and weaknesses and trying to build a team from it. We have one player who watches soccer on TV all the time and loves the game. He’s quick and agile and can often go from the backfield to opponent’s 6 and score, getting by 2 or more opponents. Our team scored 13 goals in our first two matches and he scored at least 11 of them. While his teammates often set him up for goals, the first thing in my mind was how to ensure this player passed more (instead of trying to go through 2-3 defenders which he usually can’t) and how to keep the rest of the team from hanging back anytime he has the ball. In short, I need my best player to give up the ball more, even though he’s winning matches for us. Why? Because the rest of the team won’t step up when needed if he has the ball. In short – the team needs to pass more vs relying on a single player to move the ball upfield.

So in the short span of a month I’ve got a bunch of situations that just scream ‘Passing is the key to successful soccer teams‘, including one situation that could possibly be said is stifling the creativity of a player.

All this reminded me of an article I wrote back in March after Freddy Adu lamented how US youth soccer coaches were stifling creativity in their players:

So if American kids are destined to play most of their soccer in organized practices, does that mean they’re doomed? Not if their coach has half a clue. Like Jeremy noted, as a coach, you have a responsibility to your kids, your parents, and the game. It’s an impossible combination, but we do the best we can. A truly successful coach is one who can teach the kids to have fun and be creative while understanding futility. With my U10s, I’ll constantly tell them that they are encouraged to razzle dazzle all they want. But there comes a point where they’re facing two or more defenders, a teammate is wide open, and they have a choice to make. No coach wants to stifle kids with dazzling foot skills. But even the most accomplished dribblers are put in situations where it makes more sense to one touch or pass out. But I’ll also remind them that if they’re facing a single defender they think they can beat, or even facing two or more and there’s no other option opening up – go for it.

So are we really holding our kids and our country back with organized youth soccer because of an over emphasis on passing? You hear talk all the time about how the rest of the world grew up playing pickup in their backyard which let the player’s creativity flourish. There is a lot of truth to that, but the instant reaction to that is “The US needs to figure out a way to encourage more pickup soccer and less coaching/organized soccer”

That’s simply not going to happen.

While I certainly believe many people and politicians use 9/11 and terrorism to keep people in a perpetual state of fear, the world IS a scarier place these days. Between child predators, urban and even suburban violence, traffic, heavy homework loads, and a whole host of other things, parents just aren’t letting their kids run around with friends in parks. So even if you could somehow develop a love of the game in kids at an early age, they aren’t going to be out at parks playing pickup. Even in suburbia where kids could play within their neighborhood, there simply aren’t enough open spaces for them to play as houses are squeezed onto smaller and smaller lots. Clearly something else has to be done. We’re going to have to work within the confines of our current society and soccer structure – heavily organized soccer with it’s background checks, well maintained facilities, etc. We aren’t the only ones. US soccer administrators will tell you that European countries are asking the US for guidance as parents overseas demand more structured youth soccer programs for their kids since parents are uncomfortable letting them run off to play pickup soccer these days.

I certainly think too many coaches are like teachers ‘teaching the test’. They concentrate on passing too much at an early age to the detriment of other skills because passing wins soccer matches at the younger ages. But that doesn’t mean it’s in the best interests of the kid’s development. Face it, the earlier kids can start trying out soccer moves and fancy stuff, the more refined those skills will be over time. Passing is not trivial, but it doesn’t require the refinement some other moves do. So it seems like coaches should structure their practices to allow for more experimentation. The problem with that is when a team that does this faces a team that’s drilled passing, passing, and more passing – the fancy footwork team is likely going to lose. Only when the kids get older will the team with the mad skillz and good passing start to beat the team that only knows how to pass like robots, but can’t get out of a 2v1.

The post I linked to in my Freddy Adu article had a response from Jeremy Horton of Are You Loyal that summed up the competing demands on a youth coach quite nicely:

Freddy, the reason I teach one touch and two touch is because that’s what wins soccer games. It’s not to stifle your creativity (although ironically, if I was your coach, I’d let you dribble all you want). I want my kids to have fun and to love soccer, it’s just that that excuse doesn’t work on their parents. So to some extent my teams will always play to win, even at the expense of creativity.

That’s why all kids should play pickup soccer. I learned to love soccer on the streets, in the playgrounds, and on the beach, not at practice. Oh, and one last thing, Freddy: A one-touch pass can be just as creative as the sickest dribble.

Quite the conundrum!

So how should we change youth soccer to help foster creativity at an early age?

Many people advocate the migration to academy style training where results aren’t kept and the focus is on training by professional coaches who know the right balance of skills to teach. The idea being if you take the competition away, coaches are less pressured to ‘coach to win’ and can concentrate on the footwork development kids need. While nice on paper, academies only work for a small portion of youth soccer players (those that qualify for and can afford the ‘elite’ training). The rest of the players get left in the cold. But even for those kids who can make academy, there have been huge debates about their benefit vs competitive training. Plus many parents (and players) struggle with the non competitive structure of academies. We’re a competitive society by nature. We see razzle dazzle from young football and basketball players all the time who grew up playing competitively from the first minute they played the sport. So if those sports can nurture creativity in a competitive environment and our increasingly isolated society, why can’t soccer?

I think we sometimes underestimate the desire of kids to show off to their friends and family, regardless of results. I see kids out at the soccer fields all the time just kicking balls around, trying out new tricks, etc. We call them field rats. They’re being creative. Many have coaches who make it a point to allow for ‘freestyle’ sessions in practice where kids are encouraged to try out new moves and just mess around. Some have coaches who instead of yelling ‘PASS!’ every time a player gets near an opponent instead yell ‘SOCCER MOVE!’ My son’s Challenge team lost every match but one last season, but they could make some beautiful moves on the field and the kids would just grin when they pulled off a killer move and totally burned an opponent, even if it didn’t result in a score. They survived, none dropped off the team because they lost ‘too much’ and their team is better than ever this year. Could it be that instead of trying to change the structure of youth soccer in America, we just need to devote more time and energy to coaching development so coaches will let the kids run free a little even if it means a few more losses?

The point I’m getting to (and wow it took me a long time to get there) is that Andrew is right. The creativity of our players IS being stifled by coaching that over emphasis the pass. But that doesn’t mean we need to drastically revamp the structure of youth soccer in America. We just need to better educate our coaches and parents – a tall order I agree, but one worth attempting. While winning is a huge deal in our society and parents don’t want their kids on a losing team, well trained coaches should be able to convince parents that soccer development is a LONG term process. It is possible to implement a more ‘free wheeling’ style of soccer development within our current system. Most of the coaches I know crave soccer knowledge and want what is best for the kids. If proper development means less structure in practice to allow for creativity at the expense of a few wins, I think many would be cool with that. But they have to be convinced that there is ‘a better way’ and shown why and how. Instead of critics saying ‘we just need to leave soccer development to the professionals’, as if there are enough qualified professionals to coach 17 million kids, we should devote more time and energy to developing coaches who ‘get it’ so we can foster creativity within youth soccer and provide better coaching to a bigger pool of players. Provide coaches with the resources to teach the youngest kids properly AND provide them with a set of ‘core competency goals’ the kids should meet at each given age that focus on the creative vs the monotonous. Then work to get as many coaches as possible educated enough to get them there. Instead of scrapping our current setup, we need to focus on the foundation which is the development of our youngest players. If we can train enough coaches to do things properly in Rec, it’ll allow the more experienced coaches at the higher levels to take things up a notch, worry less about things like basic passing, and hopefully foster more creativity in their players.  It could happen.

What do you think? Can coaching development alone ‘change things’? Or will the desire to win always ‘win out’ and shove proper development down to the ground? Or does the US need to punt and start over when it comes to youth development?  If so, what kind of things could they do?

ADDING: Old Soccer Guy has some interesting takes on this development debate and I think he nails it. The kids need the core techniques in order to be creative with them in a tactical way or to take simple moves and create something with them. The quote from the national coach is perfect. “Players have to have technical solutions for tactical problems.” The answer is NOT just play more scrimmages in practice. You need to teach them the footwork. You need to teach and encourage them how to think about the game. “Ball hogs just haven’t learned their options yet” So true. The problem is coaches who don’t work to give them any.