Youth Soccer - Challenges Ahead

While soccer in North America continues to grow, the development of youth players lingers as a challenge.

Central to that challenge is coach and parent education. During a recent interview, Kevin Payne, CEO of US Club Soccer, provides the following answer to the question, "what is wrong with youth soccer?"

"We have created an economy around winning at the youth soccer level and, this is not conducive to developing good players. What I am talking about is coaches and parents with an obsession on winning the game at the weekend and not focusing on producing players.

If I had a magic wand, I would make soccer parents understand what a good soccer experience looks like for their kids.

Parents should not fall back on judging the experience by wins and losses. There are really good people who know what they need to do to develop good players, but the focus on winning has made it very difficult — because of the economics. Parents wanting their kids on teams that win makes coaches try to win at all costs.

Kids want to win – I am competitive as anyone – but we need to find the right way and the right time to win. We are working on trying to develop a different philosophy to begin to change the conversation with parents."

In a fantastic series of articles hosted by the Philly Soccer Page, Dr. Scott Pugh, a paediatrician and father of two footballing sons, investigates what is going wrong at the developmental levels - Youth Soccer: We're Doing it Wrong is a 7 part serial which can be summarized by the following:

  • Talent is not static. It is dynamic. Time on the ball, the freedom to make mistakes, and having fun are crucial for children to develop.
  • When clubs are focused on winning first, the development and enjoyment of the children suffers.
  • Players and coaches need to let children make decisions on their own during games to become more creative and to develop confidence.
  • Young players should receive equal playing time and rotate through all playing positions.
  • Tryouts should be used to match children with their best learning environment, rather than to maximize a club’s chance of winning games.
  • Friendly matches and soccer festivals should replace traditional tournaments that are laden with hazards for young players.
  • A child’s current ability compared to his or her peers will change. The relative age effect, experience and variable rates of physical and psychological development cause wide variation in players abilities at young ages that often bear no predictive value for future success. Therefore, all children who are interested and committed should be given opportunities to develop.


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On Improving Youth Soccer

I had the chance to read a great article from the GoalNation website - it reinforces our philosophy that we win when we properly develop our athletes..

Based on an interview with Mark Wotte, a Dutch football manager and ex-professional. After a series of injuries ended his playing career in the Eredivisie, he moved into coaching - his career has seen him manage in Holland, England, Egypt, Romania and Qatar. He also served as the first Performance Director of the Scottish Football Association, implementing several ground-breaking changes to their development scheme.

While the conversation was centred on youth soccer in America, so many of the discussion points are relevant to the Canadian experience.

Below are a few important excerpts from his interview with Diane Scavuzzo:

What is the biggest problem with youth development?

Inconsistencies with "Infrastructure (Club structure, youth league set up and proper facilities), Accessibility (Every kid should be able to play soccer all year round), Philosophy of the Game (Consistent philosophy and developmental approach), Level of Coach Education (Creating lots of soccer teachers to ‘educate’ all level coaches and drive the desire to learn)."

If you could change one thing, what would it be?

To make people realize that developing players takes time and a plan. One of the most prolific differences in my opinion is the approach regarding educating young kids to become world-class players. It takes a 15-year development plan for every kid with the right coaching during the ages and stages.

What is needed?

Coaches need to "develop the right technical skills and train the football brain to increase decision making. Developing intelligent, balanced and technical players who are ready to adapt step-by-step to develop to their maximum potential. There is a need to create more quality football teachers who are able to drill the skills but also train the brain - it is essential for success. There is too much emphasis on the physical development, this will follow consequently when the kids become mature and specialized training can be added at that stage.

Focusing on Individual technical training and all kind of small sides games (4 v 4 and 7 v 7) is not only smart but successful. It ensures that the players are also enjoying soccer as this is a lot of fun for the kids. Focusing on Best v Best from the age of 11 and 12 yeas of age accelerates development in a natural way. It is important that youth players are guided by soccer coaches with the right psychological and pedagogical knowledge how to teach that age group.

The Scottish United Soccer Club's development-first focus is aligned with progressive philosophies such as Mark Wotte and countless other soccer teachers, coaches and administrators. It is important we keep our decisions centred on the needs of our athletes.



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Development vs Winning - The Scottish United Soccer Club's Perspective

Development vs. Winning.  Process vs. Outcome.  Improvement vs. Results. 

Regardless of how the discussion is framed, it is clear that an over-emphasis on winning and competition, instead of development and training, has been detrimental on the long-term development of young athletes.

Environments which promote winning as the primary measurement of success do not serve the best interests of players, teams or our club. When the focus is on "did you win?", instead of "did you have fun?" or "did you improve and learn something?", we see increased drop-out rates, player burnout and missed talent identification opportunities.

Placing development as the priority is easier said than done, however; youth soccer does not operate in a vacuum. Clubs, and their coaches, often feel pressure to win matches as a means to retain and recruit players. 

Our focus is to support player development best practices - we look to coach our athletes based on their age and stage of ability, and use a curriculum to support their long-term needs. Scottish United Soccer Club wants to provide a progressive environment designed to help players maximize their potential.

A development-first environment does NOT mean we discourage competition. When young players are on the pitch, they want to win. That is the meaning of the game, and we shouldn't take away from that passion. However, as coaches and administrators, youth soccer needs to be centred on improving, not winning.

Improvement flows from a love of the game, trust in the coaching process and a vision which extends well beyond the results of a match, a tournament or even a season. To win at younger ages generally requires a lot of coaching intervention: positional specialization, restrictive tactics, unequal playing time and exploiting developmental differences (e.g. size and strength advantages which come from the early maturation of some athletes).  It also relies on talent selection, rather than talent identification.

Talent selection is the culling of players with the current ability to participate and be successful now, or in the very near future. Talent identification, however, is the prediction of future performance based upon an evaluation of current and projected physical, technical, tactical and psychological qualities. Talent selection is comparatively simple; talent identification requires experience, intuition and a focus on the longer-term. One yields great results today; the other seeks to build elite athletes and winning teams for the future.

The rationale makes sense: with sound technical, tactical, physical and psychological skills encouraged through a process-oriented philosophy, players will develop the necessary tools to maximize their potential. A holistic plan based on the level and needs of our players significantly increases the rate of retention, improvement and enjoyment. 

When Scottish United Soccer Club realizes its ambitions - to become a leading provider of elite player development experiences - we will ensure our players and teams are capable of competing at the highest level, and they will be prepared to win when it truly matters.