The Playbook - My Strategy (So Far) For Raising An Elite Soccer Player

The Playbook - My Strategy (So Far) For Raising An Elite Soccer Player

Currently, my son is an advanced soccer player who loves the game. When my friends see him play, and our interaction, they naturally ask what I do.  I have been hesitant to give isolated tips because success depends on a number of factors.  Today, I am sitting down to share my playbook for raising an elite youth soccer player (so far).  I hope this post provides good ideas for parents who want to take more ownership in their child's soccer development.

Key Takeaways

  • Clarify Goals
  • Love the Game
  • Play almost every day with people of all ages and backgrounds.
  • Train individually at least 4x per week (even if it is 15 minutes before practice).
  • Listen to most (not all) of what your coaches tell you.
  • Recognize that most American kids (even the so-called elite ones) are soccer hobbyist.
    • Be humble, but don't compare yourself to them.

Rule #1 Support Your Child's Goals:
It starts with understanding your child's goals.  Do they want to become elite? Do they love soccer?  Do they aspire to play professionally or in college? Understanding your child's goals informs the way you support them.  As a parent, I know what my son's Why is now, but more importantly, I understand that it may change. I am trying to create an environment where he puts forth maximum effort in whatever he chooses but feels comfortable making up his own mind when things change. 

Disclaimer. The dictionary defines elite as, a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities. This post is for those people that live, eat and breath soccer and want to become elite.

Special author's note: Of course when the kids are really young, they are not going to articulate a goal, but as a parent, you can tell they love the game and that there is something different about them when it comes to soccer. Keep it fun and ensure they spend a lot of time playing. When older, clarify if they want to take it to the next level. Check out this video of my friend's son. This kid is always on the ball and won't leave me and my son alone ;o) I see the same thing in him that I saw in my son at that age.

Rule #2 Challenge But Don't Push:
You must strike the right balance between challenging your child and pushing them too hard.  This is a lot easier said than done. I did this by convincing my son (very early) that he is not entitled to competitive soccer; it's a privilege.  There are many ways of enjoying soccer and sports that don't require the family sacrifice that comes with travel soccer. He knows that his mother and I love him and will support him until the cows come home, BUT, our level of commitment and EXPENDITURE must be eclipsed by his level of effort, enjoyment, and ATTITUDE. 

On the flip side, you have parents that don't push enough.  US so-called elite soccer programs are filled with kids that can't dribble, make an accurate pass or receive the ball.  I also hear parents on social media bragging that, "My child loves to train all the time" (normally on a rainy day). Translation, their child's training sessions are likely not challenging and/or frequent enough to obtain elite level ball mastery. I have never listened to an elite athlete talk about how much they loved the morning workouts or spending hours on their craft. They love the reward and fulfillment that such a commitment brings.

Special author's note: "Normal" people (especially family members) who do not share your child's goals will never appreciate what you are doing to support them.  You will make mistakes along the journey. When that happens, expect them to step in and tell you how you are pushing too hard, that the child needs rest and that you can't live through your child.  They will rarely give positive feedback on the process - just the results. Listen to their feedback, be reflective and incorporate any reasonable points into your plan. Don't forget, however, that becoming elite at anything requires more time and effort than most people will ever understand. You are wasting time arguing with them.

Rule #3 Set high expectations: Anyone familiar with public education knows that great schools share one thing in common. They all set extremely high expectations for students and staff. Setting high expectations for your child is especially important in American soccer because the standards are very low. Ironically, I don't apply high expectations to games or even team training. My expectations for my son are crystallized during our individual training sessions. I come prepared and he comes (for the most part ;o) ready to work. That is the only domain that both he and I control.

Rule #4 Cultivate a soccer culture at home: Sometimes I talk to parents and they are like, "I can't get little Johnny to watch a game." I am not sure if I would be willing to spend four to five days a week on something competitive that my son doesn't even want to watch.  There are just too many other fun activities that we could also be enjoying and that he may even prefer.  Against my wife's better judgment, we keep small soccer balls in the house and enjoy EPL games. I understand that there are many reasons to play elite soccer, but I believe true success starts with the culture created at home. Check out a couple of culture videos below.

Teaching daddy skillz.

Rule #5 Play at Least 3x More Than the Average American Kid:
American soccer players don't play nearly enough soccer. While soccer is growing in popularity, it is still our fifth or sixth most popular sport.  To combat the lack of free play opportunities, I initially signed my son up for multiple leagues at every level of competition. At one point, he was playing on two competitive club teams, a Hispanic team, a challenge team, an indoor team, a futsal team and a recreational team that I coached. This meant that sometimes he would have two practices in an evening or more than one game a weekend. This was in addition to free playing in the neighborhood, at school and training individually with me. While I was comfortable with what I was doing and knew it was temporary, I rarely shared this with normal parents because I knew they would become judgmental.  Each year, as his skills developed, I steadily decreased the teams, opting for more rest, free play, individual training, and higher quality (and of course other activities).

The extra leagues were important because I wanted him to fall in love with the game while getting extra touches. I didn't want the extra (but necessary) soccer hours to come solely from training with his dad.  If we were in Africa, where my wife is from, I would just let him play soccer outside all day long with the other kids. This is not an option in North Carolina. This all may sound crazy at first, but its based on the amount of time elite kids around the world play soccer. 

Special author's note: This rule is not effective if your child is not improving their ball mastery by working individually with you. I want to make a clear distinction between training countless hours with you and a few billable hours with a personal trainer that is constantly looking at his/her watch. The hours required for ball mastery would be prohibitively expensive (for most families) if left to a personal coach. Pay for advanced instruction; not reps. Also, are they willing to drive to your house for a 10-minute lesson working on one skill?

Rule #6 Play Up Down and In-between:
Many parents brag about their child playing up in age groups. I think about it in purely developmental terms.  I play my son up as part of the playbook but I also play him down as part of the playbook. Each situation presents different opportunities for the child to learn and have fun.  For example, when playing with younger kids, he has more time on the ball, can be more creative and shine individually.  When playing with older kids (and even adults) he must play faster, be physical and tactically aware.

"Soccer age" is also important but often overlooked.  For example, kids his age with similar levels of experience tend to defend better. This requires him to be more technical and make better decisions with the ball. There is a multitude of scenarios. My advice is to remember that playing up is not intrinsically good and playing down doesn't mean that they are not developing.  Instead, make sure your child experiences as many playing scenarios as possible which should help to maximize their development and fun.

Check out the kids free playing with us old men. We need much more of this in the states.

Rule #7 Conduct Individual Technical Training at Least 4x Per Week:
Ball mastery is the most important skill a youth soccer player can develop. This is so important, that I will follow-up with a complete series on individual training sessions. For now, please note these tips.

  • Be honest with your child.  The thousands and thousands of repetitions won't be fun. The moment that the benefit of scoring goals and leading the team outweighs the work; they should consider stepping away from competitive soccer.
  • It doesn't have to be long (but it does need to be frequent) - 15 minutes of concentrated juggling after practice will yield huge benefits over time.
  • Start early - 15 minutes as a child is worth 15 hours as an adult.
  • Be consistent - You are your child's personal trainer. Set a plan and help them stick to it. 
  • Baby steps - Base sessions on your child's ability and stamina. Just ten minutes consistently will produce a noticeable improvement. 
  • Keep it simple - Allow them to master drills in small increments. Mastering the basics makes it easier for them to acquire new skills.  Consider starting with one drill per week. Push them to increase speed and improve technique. Then cumulatively bolt-on the next drill. In five weeks, they will have mastered five drills that become a routine that they can be done at will.
  • Let the repetitions do the talking - DO NOT constantly correct the player. Once you explain the drill and demonstrate the technique, trust me, they will gradually improve with practice. If you are having to talk a lot, you have not demonstrated well enough or you are doing something too advanced.
  • Use idle time wisely:
    • Train before and after practice and before gamesIn addition to the extra 15 to 20 minutes of ball mastery, you are also instilling an important life lesson on what it takes to get ahead. Last season, my son got at least 1,000 touches before hitting the field each day.  That is over five times more touches per week than the other players. If they are unwilling to give you 15 minutes before practice - travel soccer may not be for them.
    • Train before school -  Establishing proper morning routines is an invaluable life lesson for children. 15 minutes a morning equates to over 40 hours of seamless training per school year. We stick to two mornings per week.
  • Use technology - Unlike the past, there are apps and videos that help parents develop almost any training session imaginable. I have never played soccer in my life.  Through research, I have been able to develop training programs that work for my son.

As a result, my son has become very proficient on the ball and can juggle nearly 600 times.

Special author's note: There is no way around it, training your child individually is hard work for you and your child. There are going to be good days, bad days and great days - with a few tears along the way.  You will be rushing home to conduct the training before it gets dark, and staying up at night doing research and making plans.  The parent-child dynamic makes it even harder and must be managed carefully. So while the child must be committed; you also have to be all-in.  And did I mention that soccer must remain fun?

In reality, unlike other countries, American kids don't free play much.  So it is up to us to ensure that our children get those essential touches on the ball.  

Rule #8 Find the right club:
For the most part, I care only about what happens between the white lines.  The other stuff associated with travel soccer (except cost) is irrelevant to me and my child's development.  Finding the right* club was a three-year process for me.  That is because my basic criteria focuses on player development and not the other stuff that many parents and clubs seem to care about. The asterisk indicates that no club is perfect; they all have pros and cons. The club must at a minimum:

  • Set high expectations - Approach the club as if it were Manchester United Youth Academy - This eliminates 99% of most clubs I have seen.
  • Manage training sessions that are as efficient and effective as a European academy - Every program says and does similar things. The difference is in how well they execute.  Does the coach have a plan which is part of a consistent club philosophy? Is the training session run efficiently without a lot of wasted time. Can the coach manage the players and instill discipline. Do they pay attention to detail? Do they allow constant mistakes without correcting them?  Are we able to see the result of training during the games?
  • Be professional - Don't cancel practice every time it rains. You know it's going to rain, organize a turf field or indoor facility as a backup.
  • Provide nearly unlimited opportunities for my child to development -  This includes training and games.
  • Value the development of the younger classes as much, if not more, than the older groups.  U8-U11 is such an important stage. Yet so many clubs put the best coaches and most resources towards the older boys who are chasing trophies.

Special author's note: Notice I didn't include communication (as it relates to soccer). After watching nearly every practice and game it should be crystal clear what the club is trying to accomplish with the team and my child. Of course, there are little things here and there, but if they need to walk me through what they are doing, after seeing it every day,  we have bigger issues.

Rule #9 Don't entrust a single club with exclusively developing your child:  Even if a club wanted to, they can't fulfill the promise of unlimited opportunities to develop.  Moreover, no coach or program knows everything.  Finally, even a halfway decent club must focus on certain things at the neglect of others. Like education, you must seek alternatives in order to supplement your child's club team.

Rule #10 Help them become two-footed:  With few exceptions, elite players can manipulate the ball with both feet. As a budding elite player, it is important that my son becomes two-footed.  With this in mind, I did two things, Firstly I trained him rigorously on his left foot through individual sessions.  Secondly, I introduced a simple rule.  During practice, when given a choice or when the coach doesn't specify, always use your weak foot.  For instance, during the warm-ups, he should never use his strong foot. It got to the point that players and parents thought he was left-footed.

The problem was that a six-year-old would never remember to do this.  So I borrowed a trick from baseball. Like a third base coach, we decided that when I slapped my thigh that was a signal for him to use his week foot.  This allowed me to remind him without interrupting practice yelling, "Adam use your week foot!" After slapping my thigh, he would immediately switch to using his left foot.  Today he is a two-footed player who habitually uses his left. See this short clip of Adam at seven.

Notice that he is also moving to the left side of the pitch. This is a direct result of being two-footed.

Rule #11 Get them out of their confront zone:  My son was born in England to African and African American parents.  Diversity is important to us.  Soccer is a literally a global sport.  My son should be comfortable playing with and against people of all backgrounds. This would not happen if he only played in the large clubs in North Carolina.  A nuanced point is that he must play in environments where the dominant cultures are different.  Even when the larger clubs draw diverse groups, the dominant culture is still the I Love to Watch You Play perfectly manicured pitches with upper-middle-class soccer moms and dads. Below is a funny clip to me. My son is already learning "Soccer Spanish".

Rule #12 Notice what was not mentioned: DA, European soccer camps, US Soccer, hiring private trainers, yelling at your kid on the sidelines, speed coaches, cleats, positions, style of play, technical vs tactical, soccer camps, high school vs club, elite clubs, State Cup, Nationals, ODP, college ID camps, European coaches, futsal (for the sake of futsal), Brazil, Barcelona, [insert a country], MLS, college recruiting services, expensive training equipment, coaching licenses etc.  Many of these have their place. My son will participate in some of them, but the reasons are secondary to his development.

Special author's note: And even this is likely not enough to compete on the international level (without special gifts), but it's all my wife and my circumstances can bear at the moment.

I hope you found this helpful. Look out for my series on individual training sessions.

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  • David - December 28, 2018

    Great Article my son 2006 U13, so I stumbled my way into most of the things you mentioned in your article.

    One thing you may need to consider is moving out of NC if you want to develop an elite Soccer player. We were there for the DA Showcase and NCFC were not very good. Just my two cents opinion.

    Good Luck,


  • Cha’ssem - December 28, 2018

    At some point you will have to introduce diet. Also allow the player to play other sports to develop other muscles and mental challenges. Also it lessens the chances or the player getting burnt out. In my opinion elite athletes are better soccer players than elite soccer players. For example develop the next Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, or Jim Thorpe. Other than that you’re spot on.

  • Latisha - December 28, 2018

    This is great info and perspective. We will certainly take some of these ideas to heart and action. What training websites/apps are you using or recommend?

  • Benita Gaston - December 28, 2018

    Thank you for this article.
    It gives me confirmation that what I am doing is pretty close to right and on target with everything you said.
    I had to learn the hard way not to tell the other club parents that my son plays 5 days a week, and constantly practices at home. I was judged by 2 hour soccer moms.
    I am following.
    Great advice. Please add me to your mailing list, you are a friend in my head.

  • Catherine - December 28, 2018

    Wonderful article with great tips that isn’t about the latest and greatest outside gadget or coaches, but instilling disciple and personal drive which are life lessons that can transition to daily life as he gets older ( school, work etc). I love how soccer has brought you and Adam together as a team. I have seen first hand how Adam’s has gone from a shy soft spoken kid to now exuding confidence. His self assurance, development of skill and love of the soccer has really flourished over the years. It’s great to see how passionate he is about soccer. Keep up the great work with both your boys.

  • Srinivas - December 28, 2018

    This is really helpful.

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