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The Ongoing Quest to Successfully Engage today’s Young Soccer Players

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

A few years ago, I came across the work of Sir Kenneth Robinson for the first time. Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere. The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been viewed more than 25 million times and seen by an estimated 250 million people in over 150 countries.

He has devoted a large part of his life to the study of creativity. He believes, like the famous artist Picasso that we are born with creativity and as time goes on it is educated out of us. Picasso made the famous quote that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Sir Kenneth has studied our current education systems and argues that they are not servicing the requirements of today’s youth. Many children are dropping out early and many others are requiring medication, just so they can pass through today’s education system. He proposes a new way forward for education, which would be designed to inspire the creativity of our youth and keep them actively engaged.

What relevance do these ideas have for developing young soccer players? Well, we face a similar problem. Here is a frightening statistics for youth sport in North America: over 70% of young athletes are leaving sports in North America by age 14. (Source: US Youth Soccer). They are quitting for the following reasons:

  • Lack of Playing Time

  • Overemphasis on Winning

  • Other Activities are more interesting

  • Lack of Fun

  • Coaching/Adult Behaviours

  • Dissatisfaction with Performance

  • Lack of Social Support

Typically, we don’t notice this as they are replaced by a greater number of Under 3 players the following year.

Are we duplicating the same mistakes in our current education systems? Are we only offering rigid, linear development systems which young players pass through, based on their age? Are we coaching creativity out of our young players so they don’t wish to play anymore? Wayne Rooney has spoken of how he wanted to stop playing at age 14 because they (Everton Football Club) asked him to play a different way. He was a young boy who loved the game and was very good at it. The good news is that he was talked out of quitting by Colin Harvey, a senior coach at Everton. However, how many other creative players, like him, have been lost to the game?

Not every young player will go on to play as well as Messi and Ronaldo but surely we have a duty as coaches and parents to stimulate their senses so they, not us, can find out how good they can be.

At the moment, I’m looking at the rapid growth of street soccer and futsal in Europe. I am seeing very dedicated and creative young players practice the latest freestyle skills and demonstrate outrageous plays when they play futsal. It makes we wonder if both are a better avenues to remove the pressure on young player’s in todays structured academy environments. Street soccer and futsal both develop creativity by placing less adult restrictions on young players. They can and will practice for hours with a ball to learn a new move. The young players also seem more able to transfer these new skills into street soccer and futsal games, than regular youth games.

Is it because both street soccer and futsal provide young player’s with an unstructured environment, on their own terms with less direction from adults where they are left more to experiment and improvise? It is said of today’s generation that they are overwhelmed and inundated with information and with choice. The result is that it can be more challenging to successfully engage today’s generation and over long periods.

What I propose is creating more environments where creativity can be encouraged and nurtured. Environments where young players are inspired and want to learn to get better. When I was growing up, I was inspired by watching George Best – he was the “Picasso” of the soccer world then. Today’s young players are inspired by Messi and Ronaldo – they are inspired by both and want to be like them. Not every young player will go on to play as well as Messi and Ronaldo but surely we have a duty as coaches and parents to stimulate their senses so they, not us, can find out how good they can be.

I don’t have all the answers but surely we must be looking outside the traditional soccer learning methods in order to achieve this.

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