The next time you attend a youth soccer practice or game, pay close attention to how much time passes without hearing at least one adult telling the children what to do and how to do it. Also, time how much actual soccer the children play during a practice session.
Usually the instructions from the adults are non-stop. Usually, the actual soccer-playing takes up a small portion at the end of the practice session, like giving children dessert because they ate their broccoli and green beans.
Of course, soccer-playing should be the main course. And where did youth coaches (and parents) come up with the notion that non-stop instruction is a good way to develop players?
Besides the fact that the adults are invading the children's playtime, an adult-dominated environment isn't what has created the world's great players.
Even Mia Hamm, who grew up in organized American soccer, credits pickup games she played with her older brother and other children, and recess soccer games on her grade school's blacktop, as a key to her success: "I was able to dribble all I wanted."
It should be darn obvious that telling kids when to pass and where to run is not going to help them develop good soccer instincts the way the trial and error of making their own decisions will. More likely it will stifle their ability to improvise and be creative.
The U.S. Soccer Federation's "Best Practices" coaching manual includes advice like this for coaches of young players: Practices should be a lot of playing soccer and little or no talking.
So why does over-coaching reign in American youth soccer?
Let's look at who's doing the coaching. There are the parent volunteer coaches, many of whom have little or no soccer experience.
Coaches who are newcomers to the game often head to the bookstore. And what do they find there?
Here's a few titles: "101 Youth Soccer Drills," "180 of the Best Drills," "248 Drills for Attacking Soccer," "Over 275 Drills and Variations," "300 Innovative Soccer Drills for Total Player Development."
Sound like a recipe for playtime?
Perhaps volunteer coaches are used to traditional American sports, which are by nature more coach-dominated. You can't send a bunch of 6-year-olds onto a baseball diamond with bats and balls and just let them go at it. But soccer is a sport that's safe and simple enough to let the children explore on their own.
Or perhaps the newcomer coaches just can't fight off the parental instinct of trying to help their kids along -- ignorant to the fact that they're impeding rather than improving the children's chances of becoming exceptional players.
Then we have the paid coaches.
When they first appeared on the American youth soccer scene, the paid coaches were charged with creating competitive clubs and coaching teams for the ambitious, talented young players. A kid hits puberty, starts looking like a player with real potential, and needs an environment that truly challenges him or her.
Experienced coaches commit loads of time and energy to their teams, so why shouldn't they be compensated?
"It's a hard thing to talk about pros and cons of the paid coach because the issue for me isn't that they shouldn't be paid," says Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer's Director of Coaching Education and Youth Development. "It's who's paying them. Once parents are paying them, that's when things get a little out of whack.
"If they were able to get paid by an independent source, then I think there's not so much a salesman aspect to it and a lot of the problems go away from the standpoint of number of games, number of events and what you're doing developmentally in your training sessions and how you are approaching the games."
There are probably few easier ways to make money than by convincing parents they're investing in their kids' future. And the professional coaches, including the coaching companies that clubs hire to run their practices and tryouts, have been taking full advantage. They're making a killing by convincing parents that professional trainers are necessary even for tykes. Any child old enough to walk is a potential customer.
"America took free play and transformed it into a business, an industry," says Manny Schellscheidt, head of U.S. Soccer's U-14 national development program. "Self-proclaimed experts sell false hopes and dreams and expectations to kids and their parents and the end result is burnout."
Indeed, when paid coaches encourage children as young as 7 to try out for their "elite" soccer teams, isn't it time to sound the alarm bells? It's certainly time to ask questions, like:
lAre they courting children at such young ages because it's good for the children or because it increases their incomes?
lIs the movement to send kids into competitive clubs at such a young age destroying the recreational leagues?
lIs it really a good idea to break up teams so early in a child's soccer experience?
lWhat message do tryouts send to the players who don't make the cut? Do they get discouraged and lose interest in the game? Are we chasing the late-bloomers away?
lAnd who do the coaches pick? The physically advanced kids? The "coachable" kids?
A volunteer coach gets a group of players and is charged with providing them all a good soccer experience. A paid coach hand-picks his team. Especially if these paid coaches come from one of the firms that are hired on a season-by-season basis, won't they be inclined to pick players who will make the team look good in the short term? Will they neglect the smaller kids or the free-spirited individualists who don't enjoy the regimented training sessions but could end up the best of them all?
And are these training sessions designed for the good of the players or to impress the parents?
The most common reason I hear from parents who send their children to paid coaches goes something like this, "Our coach is real nice but she's not really teaching them any skills."
That always reminds me of another thing Schellscheidt has said: "I don't believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball."
So what would happen if parents are paying a coach $100 per practice and the coach implements the free-play kind of training that U.S. Soccer's coaching education and national team staff recommends?
I think they'll wonder why they're paying so much money for a coach who simply lets the kids play soccer and hardly gives instructions.
So the paid coaches bark at the players to prove to the parents that they're "teaching" and concoct training sessions that look more like Riverdance rehearsals than soccer games.
And the children are denied the free play that Schellscheidt says, "breeds imagination, enjoyment, passion and fun, and leads to the discovery of talent."
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(This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)