By David Jacobson
Player development is critical to U.S. soccer success. Without a pipeline of prospects, the USA cannot compete with the traditional world powers. The best way to build, fill and maintain that pipeline is to help kids fall in love and stay in love with soccer.
A commonly cited statistic has 70 percent of U.S. youth athletes quitting organized sports by the age of 13. The primary reasons:
* the sport is just not fun anymore
* too much pressure from coaches or parents
* not enough playing time in organizations bent on winning at all cost.
Administrators and coaches at the elite level may not feel responsible for players loving soccer. It's their job to make money, win games and raise the program's profile, so that they can make more money, attract the best players and win more games. What's love got to do with it?
Players who love soccer train longer and harder and inspire their teammates to do the same. They work and play not just for themselves, but also for their teammates; at an age when they become conscious of such feelings, they work and play for the good of the game they love.
Players who do not love soccer quit. A focus on winning - often entailing neglect of less-skilled players, who never learn to love the game - must not drive America's player-development agenda.
Besides, even at age 12, it is impossible to accurately predict a player's potential. We may detect a prodigy, but most will overlook 12-year-old ugly ducklings who need just a boost in confidence, a growth spurt, more repetition and playing time, to become 14-year-old swans ... unless they do not love the game enough to continue for those two years.
A positive approach to coaching helps youth players love soccer by removing pressures that chase children from the sport. The key principle is redefining "winner."
There always will be scoreboard winners. Even in organizations that don't keep score, children as young as 5 or 6 keep track of goals. But the biggest winners in youth soccer are those who move toward mastering their sport.
In Positive Coaching Alliance workshops, we explain the mastery orientation to organizational leaders, coaches and parents by introducing an acronym, ELM, which stands for Effort, Learning and Mistakes. Regardless of the scoreboard, winners give their best Effort, Learn from their experiences and know that Mistakes are OK (because we learn from mistakes and if we do not fear them we are less likely to make them).
In a soccer program that promotes a mastery orientation, players love the game because they can win even when their team loses. In organizations that embrace the value of mastery and reward players for effort, players will strive that much harder, learn that much more and, ultimately, achieve more scoreboard success.
More important to the health of American soccer, more youth players will stay in the sport longer and develop greater skills.
Ironically, the prevailing win-at-all-cost mentality of American soccer at the youth level is precisely what will keep America from international wins at the highest level.
David Jacobson is the Marketing Communications Manager of the Positive Coaching Alliance.