By Mike Woitalla
When U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati announced the hiring of Claudio Reyna as Youth Technical Director, they spoke much of learning about player development from foreign clubs.
That’s the least crucial element of Reyna’s quest to improve the youth soccer environment in the USA.
Of course we look at what clubs do around the world in case there’s something to learn from them. American coaches have been doing that for ages. And goodness knows foreign clubs and coaches stream over here to tell us how to coach – regardless of how successful they’ve been in developing players of their own.
For sure, observing what Barcelona does, which I myself have, is worthwhile. Many aspects of the club’s approach are worth emulating, especially its style of soccer. But keep in mind, Barcelona employs a massive scouting corps that corrals boys from around the world who already display exceptional talent.
Gulati said Reyna will focus largely on the players in what the Federation calls Zone 1 (ages 6-12), that very crucial stage of development. Whatever Barcelona did for Lionel Messi, who was 13 when he left Argentina for Spain, is just a part of the Messi story.
Yes, Messi played organized soccer at a very young age. But he also spent endless time playing soccer without adults around. In the documentary, “Los orígenes de Messi,” the narrator says that in the Rosario barrio of Las Heras, “there is no street where Messi didn’t spend hours with the ball.” Messi’s Newell's Old Boys youth coach, Ernesto Vecchio, says, “He had superb technique that wasn’t trained by anyone.”
We cannot build a Las Heras in the USA and force children to play on their own. But we can revolutionize American youth soccer, in which overcoaching and over-drilling reign.
At the very ages when the likes of Messi and Marta were playing with the freedom to dribble and experiment, we’re lining children up to perform drills, shouting at them to pass, and assigning them positions.
In fact, the vast majority of American children are coached in way that would discourage them from growing passionate enough about the game to play on their own. Because their first experience with the sport is so similar to a day at school: being told by adults what to do, how do it and when to it.
Hiring Reyna as the Youth Technical Director is the latest step by the U.S. Soccer Federation in its attempt to change the American youth soccer culture, following its publication three years ago of the excellent, "Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States," and the creation of the Development Academy league.
In Reyna, the Federation has a spokesman with impeccable credibility to advocate a different approach to coaching the youngest players. And that approach should be to coach less.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer in Oakland, Calif. He is co-author of Claudio Reyna's book, More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)