By Adam Tinkham
Nearly all discussions in the soccer coaching community of the United States concerning how to improve youth soccer arrive at the conclusion that youth players do not spend nearly enough time pursuing soccer on their own and/or in a street soccer or pick-up soccer environment.
It does not take much research to discover that the world’s top players all have one thing in common: at a very early age and the subsequent years, they had a soccer ball with them at almost every waking moment and participated in pick-up games at their school, in the neighborhood or nearby park, almost daily.
The difference between an aspiring, American youth soccer player and, for example, a Brazilian or Argentine, amounts to thousands of hours and touches as early as the age of 10. With closer examination, it would probably be revealed that American youth soccer players often spend more time in transit -- to and from soccer games and practices -- than they do on the ball. As a coaching community we are not providing the necessary foundation at the earliest ages for players to have the greatest chance of success and discovery. So what can we do?
U.S. Soccer has tried to address this problem with the youngest players, called Zone 1 in their parlance, by issuing a well-researched curriculum to be used across the country by youth clubs willing to take the time to read it, understand it, and apply it. This is, no doubt, a step in the right direction but does not get the soccer ball out of the bag in between training sessions and games.
Training sessions must, again and again, return to working on the technical with the most fundamental aspects of the game still unlearned. So, under-8, players become under-9, and then under-10 with only limited passing and trapping ability. All of the money, time, and travel spent for what exactly?
This issue will not go away, is one that I take very seriously and would like to be a part of the solution, or at least working toward the solution. Technical mastery leads to tactical wizardry and thrills millions of spectators around the world. Jurgen Klinsmann took the U.S. national team job wanting to play a more possession-oriented style, and perhaps has done so, but also quickly learned the limitations of even our top players and was forced to return to a more athletic style that has been our ticket to success as far back as the famous win against England at the World Cup in Brazil in 1950.
We need to create artificial (lightly supervised), pick-up environments that are readily available for children of all ages and economic realities. The days of kids going out into the neighborhood for unstructured and unsupervised playtime are mostly if not completely behind us. Some would suggest futsal on defunct tennis or basketball courts, games at the local park district and after-school program, and these are all good ideas. The challenge, I believe, is to make it fun and consistent enough that kids and parents will come back time and time again, daily if possible.
We are attempting just such a program in Chicago that utilizes a field system that was imported from Europe. (To learn more, please visit www.fourplusone.net). It is portable and creates an ideal playing environment to maximize fun and learning in a 3v3 or 4v4 format. We have worked with schools to set up our field on their grounds, inviting children to use it after school, and later hosting 5v5 games for recreational adult players.
We have received positive feedback from the principal and local homeowners about the influence on the community, but we would like to reach many more youth players, in and outside the club environment, than we are. There is much potential and application for such a field system but the momentum has to be created jointly.
Our effort is one example of how we can move American soccer players along to the 10,000 hours required for mastery, or, simply discover at an earlier age that a child’s passion lies elsewhere, thereby potentially saving a family many thousands of dollars and hours spent driving on weekends. It can also serve in the fight against obesity.
There are many, many possible directions. Ultimately, this is an appeal to the coaching community, to soccer governing bodies, to youth clubs, to parents, to schools, to all interested in the welfare and good health of children to come together and create environments for them to discover just how beautiful the beautiful game really is.
(Adam Tinkham is a USSF "A" licensed coach who has been working in youth soccer in the Chicagoland for more than a decade. He coached at the Division I collegiate level for six years and is currently a staff coach at Team Evanston in Evanston, Ill. Tinkham was a member of the U.S. team that finished fourth at the 1989 U-20 World Cup and earned all-ACC honors at the University of North Carolina.)