Reader JM sent along a post from Are You Loyal that talked about a recent Freddy Adu interview where he blames the dwindling interest in soccer as tweens turn into teens on the youth soccer coaches:

Last week, in an interview in Spain, Freddy Adu was asked why soccer’s popularity in America dwindles when players reach their teenage years. Freddy’s response: "I attribute it more to the fact that in America, coaches take the fun out of the game for kids. They do. They coach them to play one touch, two touch… It takes the fun out of it and the kids aren’t creative. It’s no fun when you’re not creative and when you’re not expressing yourself out on the field. I think coaches should do a better job."

Jeremy Horton posted a full response to this and you should read it all because he nails it:

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.

Now I think Jeremy is correct in that much of what coaches do is driven by the parents, and that is often to win. But I think he’s apologizing a bit too much.

First, what does Freddy Adu know about youth soccer coaches in America, having turned pro when he was 14? He was in IMG at age 12! Let’s be realistic here – Freddy’s exposure to youth soccer coaches in his early teenage years was, shall we say, pretty limited.

Now, are there problem coaches who only care to win? Yes. Lots of them. But I’ve also seen a lot of coaches at all age levels who wants their kids to have fun AND win.

A lot of Freddy’s argument comes from the all too common feeling that ‘if kids would just play pickup soccer like the rest of the world, things would be so much better’. Well, that’s nice and all, but its just not gonna happen. I fondly remember pickup games of just about any sport you can think of when I was a kid. Football, kickball, baseball, and yes even the occasional soccer game. But that was before Pong and Atari ruined all our lives. Let’s face it – kids in America have a TON of distractions for their time so ‘the love of the game’ is a Utopian dream that just isn’t realistic. So organized soccer is how the majority of kids in America will be introduced to the game. Our job as youth coaches is to develop in them a love of the game and also win enough to keep the parents happy. That may sound crass and impossible, but it’s the situation we’re in and we might as well make the best of it.

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.

I recall talking with a DOC one time about how it seemed like we’re dumbing down the game at the younger levels and not accounting for kids that want to learn more. All the kids love Sharks and Minnows, etc, but is it wrong to give them a taste of more? I’ve taught my U8’s step overs and scissor moves. Can they all do them? No. But they know them and are encouraged to try them. During my U10 practices, we sometimes spend 5-10 minutes ‘freestyling’ The kids dribble in a confined space and let loose – do any move you want, keep the head up, don’t run into anybody. I have no problem encouraging kids to experiment and try things out. I know many other coaches who do the same.

But what happens when we play a match? Everyone – even the stars, try to dart around and use the insides of their feet. All the soccer moves go out the window. I’ve found myself (and many other coaches) yelling ‘Soccer Moves!’ during a match more often than ‘Pass!’ or something similar. It’s not necessarily the coaches telling kids not to razzle dazzle – a lot of times the kids are just nervous to do it in a game situation or aren’t thinking enough about what to do next – they go on instinct which is ‘dribble with the inside of your foot’, drilled into them (unfortunately) since they were 4.

My point in all this is it’s easy to say the structure of American soccer is hurting our kids, but there’s little data to back that up beyond the success (or lack thereof) of our national team (the men’s team anyway 🙂 ) And that brings up an interesting point. If our overall youth soccer structure is so broken, why are the women doing so well? That’s another article I suppose.

Now I’m not coming down on Freddy completely here. There is a drastic need for coaching education. While at the upper levels, coaches are driven to win, but can still foster creativity, most younger kids are taught by parent volunteers. I read a study last night that said something like 85% of parent coaches are coaching to coach their kid. Many of them know little about soccer because the ones that do, do so at a higher level. If we really want to improve youth soccer in America, we don’t need to tell coaches not to care about winning. More often we need to tell them what to do. So I have to disagree with Freddy that all our coaches care about is winning. Many do, but I believe many more just aren’t sure what to do to build a successful team and players that win. Coaching to win is bad, but coaching the heck out of your players to be the best they can be is going to bring home the wins. I don’t believe that is bad.

That is the scary thing I see right now. There are movements all around the country trying to take competition out of soccer for any child younger than 12 because the coaches focus on winning too much. Instead of taking competition away, why aren’t we training the coaches instead so they can balance success with player development and improvement? It may sound like an impossible dream, but it can happen.

So Freddy, I’m sorry you had such a horrible experience with your coaches as a child. But I think it’s a stretch to extend your limited experience on to the rest of us who toil on the fields week after week trying to develop players who love AND excel at the beautiful game.

Postscript: One thing I left out of all this is that Freddy’s statement was based on the almost universal catch phrase of people who feel youth soccer in America is self destructing. What is that phrase? That ‘surveys’ show 70-75% (73% is often used) of kids drop out of sports by age 13. This is often followed up with "Some of the main reasons are it isn’t fun any more or too much pressure to win" I hear this so much it makes my head hurt. After finally hearing this justification for the 100th time from people advocating no competition for U12 and under, I decided to do some research and am working on an in-depth post on it. It’s not as cut and dried as it seems and all of it seems to lead back to one single survey from the late 90’s. More to come.