By Mike Woitalla
What's really important about the U.S. Soccer Federation's ambitious move into youth soccer isn't just the U-16 and U-18 boys leagues of its new U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
For sure, taming the wild west of youth soccer that overburdens elite teen-age players is a crucial part of steering player development in a better direction. And expanding the player identification process by incorporating the nation's elite clubs into the national team program should decrease the chances of missing young talent.
But what will make the most profound impact is whether U.S. Soccer succeeds in its stated goal to change the approach to how the nation's very young players are coached. The Academy launch, stress its architects, is only the first step in their quest to change the youth soccer culture in the USA.
Specifically, U.S. Soccer aims to have youth coaches adopt the Federation's Best Practices Player Development Guidelines.
A year and a half ago, under Director of Coaching Education Bob Jenkins, the Federation published "Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States."
The booklet was created by the Federation's coaching education staff and men's and women's U.S. national team coaches. Unlike so much of the pseudo-scientific coaching literature that has turned youth soccer into an adult-dominated environment, "Best Practices" is plain common sense. It is a welcome response to the overemphasis on the coach's role as a "teacher," as an "instructor."
The inclination to constantly "correct" young players as they explore the sport may be driven by good intentions, but it neglects the important difference between learning and being taught.
"Young players should be allowed the opportunity to experiment, and with that, succeed and fail," says U.S. Soccer. "A coach's long-term goal is to prepare a player to successfully recognize and solve the challenges of a game on his or her own."
"Best Practices" helps youth coaches understand the different developmental stages of young soccer players.
The youth coach's role at the younger ages is simply to create an environment that gives children the opportunity to discover the joys of the game. Some children will decide the sport is so much fun, they'll start dedicating themselves to it so fervently that they will become exceptional players.
Unlike so many coaching guides that preceded it, "Best Practices" does not make youth coaching seem like a daunting task. Too often, coaching instruction has encouraged coaches to expect too much, too soon from young players.
The guide explains convincingly why an adult-dominated environment is not conducive to developing great players.
Here are a few excerpts from the "Best Practices" Guidelines on coaching younger players:
* A primary focus for the coach at the youth level, through the U-12 age group, is to provide an environment that comes close to simulating the "pickup" games of our youth.
* Coaches should think of themselves more as facilitators, monitors, guides or even participants.
* Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player's development by organizing less, saying less and allowing players to do more.
* Set up a game and let the kids play.
* Encourage the dribbler at the younger ages.
* At the younger ages (6 to about 10), soccer is not a team sport. On the contrary, it is a time for children to develop their individual relationships with the ball.
* Do not demand that the more confident players share the ball. Encourage them to be creative and go to goal.
* Coaches should avoid the impulse to "coach" their players from "play to play" in order to help them win the match. Coaches should not be telling their young players to "pass rather than dribble," to "hold their positions" or to "never" do something (like pass or dribble in front of the goal).
* The game is the best teacher for young players.
To download a copy of "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States" for free, or for information on ordering printed copies for $15, click HERE.
Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches U-10 soccer in Oakland, Calif. He is co-author of Claudio Reyna's book, More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.