More than Words - Ode to Youth Soccer Coaches

More than Words - Ode to Youth Soccer Coaches

If I had a nickel for everytime a youth soccer coach in America told a group of unsuspecting parents that a poor game performance or losing season was due to his/her prioritizing development over winning; I would make Mark Zuckerberg look like a welfare case.

Key Takeaways

  • Youth teams with superior technical players win consistently.
  • US Soccer, along with the rest of the world, agrees to prioritize ball mastery.
  • This means that teams that consistently lose likely have poorly managed practices.
  • Many (not all) coaches and clubs use noble statements on development to avoid accountability.
  • Focusing on development can result in losing, but not consistently.
  • There are crazy parents who want to win at all cost. I hope you are not one of them.

My cousin's son played on a U10 so-called elite soccer team where experienced kids, had barely any ball control, seldom used their weak foot, couldn't string two passes together, had awful first touches and no clue of what they were supposed to be doing on the soccer pitch. After losing two out of three tournament games, and sensing the parent's frustration, the coach called a meeting with parents to emphasize that he is putting the player's long-term development over winning today. While on his high horse, he went so far as to chastise some parents for even daring to question why the team had stopped winning.

Great business model: The above scenario happens every weekend on soccer fields across America and has become boilerplate language on every travel club's website. By convincing naive American parents that winning is a totally irrelevant metric for evaluating a youth soccer program, US soccer clubs avoid almost all accountability. Get beaten 10-1 - no problem, we're focused on development. Lose every game - no problem, we're focused on development. Lose to the same teams you previously dominated - no problem, we're focused on development. Win, however, and post on social media how awesome your program is, as evident by, a fine tradition of winning?!?!?!

What they say doesn't add up: These same coaches and clubs agree with US Soccer's (and the entire soccer world's) assessment that ball mastery (aka technical ability) should be the top priority at the younger ages. 

What is technical ability? Technical ability, in soccer, refers to a player's ability to manipulate the ball. It covers first-touch, passing and the ability to dribble - especially in tight areas with pressing defenders.

What I know for a fact:  1) Youth teams with the more technically skilled players usually win and 2) Technical ability improves dramatically with effective practice.

What does this mean: Teams that consistently lose, where the majority of players have at least two years of experience, likely have coaches that are not implementing a technical curriculum effectively.

Special author's note: To belabor the point, there is only one reason that a youth soccer team consistently loses.  The losing team's players are inferior technically.

I have heard it all: I hear all the reason given by coaches and parents, who fashion themselves as soccer aficionado's, for their team losing. The other team plays direct and just puts the fastest kids up top.  We tried to play out of the back and the other team played kickball. Their kids are more physical and faster than ours, but that won't work in the long run. The majority of our players have late birthdays (a nod to this ridiculous bio banding). They play more aggressively - which is why I am signing my kid up for karate (We all know that playing multiple sports makes you a better soccer player). That team has a dedicated goalie.  Their club has a larger player pool than ours. Give us two years and it will all come together.  The refs suck - blah blah blah.

Special author's note: These and similar reasons can explain volatility in wins/loses but not the overall trend.

Common sense has left the room: Let's forget about youth soccer for a second, because apparently, it's too complicated for us neanderthal parents to understand. If 10-year-olds are playing 3v3 basketball, and Team A passes accurately, controls the ball, keeps possession, dominants 1v1 situations, dominants 2v2 situations, and dribbles with both hands better than Team B; Team A, which is superior technically, is going to win more often than not. It's not that complicated. But somehow within youth soccer in America, it is.

But our kids don't train at home and the culture is not there yet?  I once shared a tense email exchange with a technical director (who possessed all the alphabet licenses) where he blamed his club's woes on the fact that kids don't train at home.  Instead of taking responsibility for his club's poor coaching, he focused on something beyond his control. I left the conversation trying to think of an activity I practiced five hours per week ten months a year that I wasn't at least proficient in. I couldn't think of anything.  At a bare minimum (regardless of what they do not do at home), kids attending 3x training sessions per week plus games over a 10-month period should be able to receive the ball with either foot and make a decent pass; which accounts for about 95% of the touches in a typical game. This baseline level of competency raises the standard of play for everyone, including the top echelon of potential pro and D1 players.

Special author's note: Will teams that don't put in the work at home be unsuccessful in leagues where a majority of teams do; regardless of the coaching? In theory yes, but that's not what is happening in America.

So it's ok for parents to focus on the games right?  Not exactly. The game is just one of a host of metrics.  Therefore you shouldn't read too much into particular games; especially if you haven't been paying attention to practice.  Focus on the trend, compare the technical ability of your child's team to other teams. Visit other practices to observe the sessions and see if there is a noticeable difference. 

As an aside, it's ridiculous for parents to become emotionally attached to the outcome of youth soccer games. The behavior on the sidelines is abhorrent. Instead, keep calm, enjoy the moment but consider this when deciding if the current club is a good long-term fit.

Special author's note: Don't forget to communicate with your child.  To my surprise, even young kids, that aspire to improve, are very vocal about wanting to attend training sessions that are organized and challenging.

So what are you saying? I am saying that the trend of game performances is one way for parents to assess the quality of coaching that their child is receiving.  That is because teams that are superior technically tend to win and this is precisely the area that youth coaches and clubs agree to prioritize.  Restated, if the team is behind technically, the practices are not delivery on the one area that the entire soccer world agrees is most important.

Surely there are exceptions? Of course, there are many exceptions that explain why the superior technical team loses. Maybe they do have a lot of inexperienced players, or they were having a bad day; sometimes teams just get lucky.  The line-up and positions can have a significant impact.  There are freakish athletes who single-handedly alter a game. That is why you should follow the trend, as well, as pay close attention to the details. For example, are they losing possession because they have a horrible first touch, or is it because the other team is pressing with much better athletes?  Remember, however, I am talking about consistently winning or consistently losing.

What does this mean for me? When it comes to the development of my boys (U6 and U9) I focus almost exclusively on ball mastery. This means that they will always be one of the most technical players on the pitch. I try to put them in environments where the coaching staff feels the same way. I learned the hard way that it's a waste of time making suggestions to clubs or coaches. They tend to think they know everything and that all parents are crazy. So I continued searching until I finally found a club which shares many (not all) of my values.   

This short clip of my son playing in his futsal league (this game happened to be played outdoors) illustrates why I don't care about outcomes at this level. They lost 8-0 against 08's. Of course, I would like my son's team to win, but I am happy to see that he is executing some of the technical skills we work on at home and is having fun.

Special author's note: Notice the random parent yelling pass to my son. Unbeknownst to him, there were only seconds left on the clock. People PLEASE just let them play.  If he loses the ball so what. It's a U11 game!

As promised- More Than Words: This entire fiasco made me think of that 1990's hit song More than Words by the long-haired duo Extreme. If you alter a few words in the lyrics, it makes the perfect "Ode to Youth Soccer Coaches".

Saying I develop you 
Is not the words I want to hear from you 
It's not that I want you 
Not to say, but if you only knew 
How easy it would be to show me how you feel 
during practice, More than words is all you have to do to make it real 
Then you wouldn't have to say that you develop me 'Cause my parents and I'd already know

Enjoy for old times sake:

 

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Comments

  • Neil - January 02, 2019

    Hi Russell Dadds. This is a futsal league that was playing an outdoor game. Not a futsal game. The organizers are not particularly competent, but that doesn’t matter to me because my focus is on ball mastery; not futsal.

  • Russell Dadds - January 02, 2019

    There’s no such thing as futsal outdoors. Also the kids should be controlling the ball with the bottom of their feet. Whatever it is they are playing, it isn’t futsal.

  • Matt Drago - January 02, 2019

    Loved the article. Really well said. I have heard these arguments so many times. Thanks for posting.

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