In the past months I have had the pleasure of working with both a U16 Regional ODP team and a U-14 national team. Both camps included some greatly talented players who are extremely well-driven and are strong athletes. The coaches working at these camps are top-notch coaches who are clearly some of the best in the country.
Every day we heard players ask for feedback and information as to how to improve. All coaches felt one piece of feedback was appropriate for all players: Don't be afraid to take risks.
It was amazing how rarely such talented and skilled players were willing to take risks on the field and try something new. Most players seemed to believe that if they did not make a mistake, they would make the regional or national team.
Very few showed the willingness to take any risks. In my roles I spoke to the players about the great work they had done over the years and how they have proved themselves to be quality players who deserved to be at this high level. Their hard work has paid off and made them "very good" players. I asked repeatedly, "Do you dare to be great?"
Only through risking making mistakes and daring to try new things will these players, and any players, find ways to raise their game. Not giving the ball away is not in itself a quality that makes a player "great."
Our country needs players who can change the game positively and dynamically. We need players who can see and make dangerous penetrating passes. We need players who have the courage and skill to take on the last two defenders and slip the ball past the keeper. We need defenders who are skilled enough and willing to join the attack. We need players to be better than we coaches were in our best playing days.
Only by encouraging these players to take risks and to try their own ideas, will these players have a chance to be better than we were ourselves.
If they are only allowed to do what we say then we are clearly restricting their development. Not only are we doing this by restricting their creativity, but we are also greatly reducing the fun they might have in the game.
If they do not feel free to put their stamp on the game and we do not encourage their creativity ... can we truly expect them to play in their backyard or with friends on the street to come up with new moves or deft touches? By taking away from them the opportunity to showcase such touches or moves "when it matters" we will sap them of the desire to come up with such ideas.
It is clearly our job to teach all players the fundamentals of the game and help them develop the skills that are foundational in becoming great. However, it does seem that many of us coaches do not let these players show us what else they could bring to them game.
My sincere hope is that we take the cuffs off these players and push them onto the stage. By enabling great players to find themselves we would be proving ourselves to be great coaches.
This is the players' game more than any other game. Allowing them to own it will prove more beneficial and result in much more beauty on the field. Seems both we the coaches and our players need to "dare" for greatness to occur. We need to dare to let go. They need to dare to grab the glory.
(Mike Singleton is the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association's Head State Coach and Director of Coaching. He is a Region I ODP Senior Staff Coach and a U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer National Staff Coach.)