By Sam Snow
In our youth soccer environment the training sessions tend to be fairly sterile in that the U7 team only practices with the U7 age group, girls only practice with girls, and so forth.
We have evolved into a situation where there's little interaction between age groups and sometimes gender too. By allowing this to continue we devolve our clubs into mere associations of loosely connected teams without allegiance to the club. We also miss out on opportunities for the players to help one another grow in the game.
For example, in soccer times past we had pick-up games with mixed ages and occasionally mixed gender. Nowadays far too much of our training environment is isolated by age group and gender. We are missing out on the chance for older players to help the younger players learn a bit more about playing the game.
Not all teaching of the game comes from coaches nor should it. Players should also learn from watching college, professional and U.S. national team matches. They can also learn from the players in their own soccer club at practices.
The coaching leaders in a club should organize times for older teams to practice with a younger team. The U9 and U10 teams combine in a training session one day for example. The U14 boys team has a practice game vs. the U17 girls team as another example.
From this environment within the club the players help each other grow in the game, they get to know one another better and a feeling of club unity expands. They may also begin to support each other's matches.
If the older players come and cheer now and then for the younger players at one of the matches the impact on self-esteem, confidence and club loyalty will be profound.
When the younger players go to watch a match of an older team in the club the crowd atmosphere improves and the younger players are exposed intimately to a higher level of play.
The older players could attend younger team training sessions to play alongside of them or help coach them or just to be the example of how to do certain ball skills. The possibilities are many if we take advantage of clubs with a full range of age groups developing players from within.
The U12 age group works with the U6 age group. The U14 age group works with the U8 age group. The U16 age group works with the U10 age group. The U19 age group works with the U12 age group. The adult teams work with the U14, U16 and U19 age groups.
Indeed, players 16 years old and older should be encouraged to play on both a youth team and an adult team.
(Sam Snow is the Director of Coaching Education of US Youth Soccer. This article first appeared in U.S. Youth Soccer Blogs, which can be read at http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/Blog.asp)