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It’s about the individual player (Surprise, Surprise!)

OK. Let’s get something clear right from the kickoff: If we are going to produce successful players, we as coaches and parents must put them at the central point of learning! Our focus, as coaches, must always remain on the technical, tactical, physical and mental development of the individual. Every child that enters any sport’s training program must one day leave the program, not only a better player, but more importantly, a better person. The player’s academic education must work hand-in-hand with their learning as a player.

The top soccer clubs in the world such as Barcelona have long held that manners, values and education are very important components of a young player’s development. Now, that approach has to filter down to the grassroots levels of the game.

That may seem obvious. But many coaches and parents seem to think all players are the same, meaning that every young person’s development will follow the same path. In my experience and in the experience of many top professional players, that is simply not true. Players learn at different paces, and respond differently to training. Often, human development factors like physical and emotional maturity, rather than pure soccer skills development, influence their status and progress amongst their peers.

It seems that at earlier and earlier ages we are trying to identify talent and make decisions on the level a younger player will reach.. But for the most part, this is not useful. I remember Arsène Wenger, the former manager of the great English club Arsenal and one of the best developers of young soccer talent, once stating that if someone looks at a player younger than 14 and tells them you that he or she will become a professional earlier than 14, they are lying. I often relate that quote when talking to parents or other coaches about a player’s “future success”, because, for many years in the development cycle, you simply can’t tell.You see little indications along the way, but never a definite indication of how far young players can go until the age of 16-18.

Over the years, we’ve all seen many parents who have given up on their children “making it” as young as ages 7-8, and who, after that, no longer support their child’s interest in the sport. As well, “playing up” in older age groups becomes the barometer for parents to gauge their child’s progress, or as “proof ” that their child is succeeding. Coaches are lobbied, competition amongst parents begins, and the end result is that young players are placed under pressure to perform from a very early age.

Many parents have brought their children to our program and instructed us to “make them more aggressive.” On such occasions I’ve taken the “educational” approach and explained that the most important component for all young players is to master the ball, feel comfortable with it and spend time improving basic skills like dribbling, 1v1 moves, turning, passing and shooting.Young players must be placed in situations where they are allowed to try things, use their imagination, and more importantly, enjoy the game and have fun! If they are not enjoying it, guess what? That’s right: they are not going to spend any time next week with a ball at their feet!

There have been many of our more skilled players who have participated in skills classes for several years before they’ve become comfortable in games. One of our young players, aged 6, had a very placid personality and used to run away from the ball and turn his back whenever it came to him. He spent well over a year being very methodical in learning skills such as the step-over but was never confident enough to try the moves playing with others in games.Then all of a sudden, in his own time, he started to do drag-backs, step-overs and go on mazy dribbling runs! What happened? The boy did not change his basic temperament, but because of the confidence that he had developed with the ball, he was now playing at a much higher level. His father, in the early days, had focused on his son’s lack of aggression and had asked that we make him more aggressive in 1v1 challenges. But to the father’s credit, he had listened to my advice, kept encouraging his son and was able to enjoy watching the boy’s progress! It was a classic win-win-win situation — for the player, the parent, and the coach!

The development of a young child cannot be fast-tracked without consequences. It makes little sense, except in rare cases, to have a child jump several grades at school, and it’s the same thing for sports development. Nature provides its own built-in development path, and we as soccer coaches have no right to mess with it!

Here’s a great example: When the young Northern Ireland star George Best signed at age 15 for Manchester United in 1961, United’s legendary Manger Matt Busby instructed his coaching staff to “let the boy develop naturally.” Within two years he was playing in the first team, and within seven years was the best player in European, if not world football! A young Lionel Messi, who emigrated from Argentina to Spain with his family when he was 12, was not “rushed” at Barcelona. Even though he had fantastic talent, he could have likely played for Barca’s first team much sooner. But the coaches at the famous La Masia Academy allowed him to progress gradually like the other young boys, and he was provided with the opportunity to develop as a young person, in tandem with his development as a player.And did he develop!

So, let’s go back to our first premise — that we need to make sure we keep individual player development at the heart of our coaching efforts. Let’s make sure we help our young players grow in all areas, both physical and emotional, and at their own pace. Our job is simply to give them opportunities for that development to happen.

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