Beware of youth soccer orthodoxy

By Paul Gardner

I get a lot of enjoyment out of looking at the Cal South Magazine -- it tells me quite a lot about the youth situation in one of our most important regions, and anyway, there are plenty of photos of smiling kids, and that’s always fun.

The May 2010 issue is no exception, but this one does contain an article that includes some information that seems to me highly debatable. Headed “Teaching the Teachers,” it tells the story of how Cal South is making sure that all of its coaches have a license of some sort.

Things start off with special youth courses, designed by Cal South for novices. The important guy here is the Cal South Director of Coaching Education, Steve Hoffman. It is evidently his ideas that the courses express.

Hoffman, you’ll not be surprised to learn, because it is such a common occurrence in American youth soccer these days, is English. From Liverpool. He looks like an amiable sort of guy -- we’ve got four nice photos of him, smiling radiantly, with various groups of young players -- most of whom seem to be Hispanic.

A lot of what Hoffman is advocating is not directly related to soccer, but rather concerned with teaching methods -- how to keep youngsters involved, and interested, how not to overload them and so on. It all sounds sensible enough.

But looking at what Cal South coaches are required to teach their young players raises some doubts. At age 11, for instance, we are told that full 11 v 11 games begin, while the players are taught the correct technique for “passing with the inside of the foot, chipping and lifting the ball for crosses.”

That, too, sounds pretty standard stuff -- but is it? To me it sounds like standard stuff from a 1970s English coaching course. Inside of the foot? In the fast-paced modern game, surely outside of the foot passing, made on the run (something that cannot be done using the inside of the foot) is more important, and certainly needs to be learned early. As for crosses, they are, of course, the absolutely basic staple of the English game.

The emphasis -- at least in the article -- does nothing to lift my misgivings about a coach from Liverpool teaching Hispanic kids how to play soccer. No doubt there is a comic side to all of this -- for Hoffman talks about “the language barrier” in American soccer. Anyone from Liverpool who mentions a language problem has to have a pretty good sense of humor. Though, frankly, when he makes out he didn’t understand what Americans mean by a “wall pass” (the term is English), things have gone a bit too far.

But it’s not so much what is being taught that bothers me here. It is an attitude that Hoffman spells out, very clearly, that I find unacceptable. An extension of the language barrier, if you like -- Hoffman says that Cal South’s coaches must “be speaking with one voice.” Already, the ominous shadow of orthodoxy threatens. That, it seems is what Hoffman wants: “A kid should be able to go from Ventura County to San Diego County and be coached the same way  ... it’s so important that every coach across the region go through the same program.” The italics are mine.

He talks, disapprovingly, of two coaches having “a different idea of what a sweeper does.” You have the message now: Same is good, different is bad.

I find this an utterly misguided view of coaching. Soccer, of all sports, cries out for inventiveness and creativity, for diversity. But once coaches set up coaching schools, once they start working out curricula ... that’s when the problems start, because that’s when it occurs to them that diversity is actually a damn nuisance, and it would be much easier for them if everyone else simply did as they were told.

So a sweeper must always play in the same way? No more Franz Beckenbauers then. And there will, inevitably, be restrictions on when to employ, the most creative -- but the most rebellious -- of soccer’s skills. So, forget about Lionel Messi.

Remember, Hoffman is concerned here with the teaching of coaches. He wants all of them, in turn, to teach the same thing. That is typical coaching school practice. It means the imposition of an orthodoxy. I cannot see how that can possibly be the key to producing anything other than robotic players.

Coaches who get into this course-giving routine like to stress their role as teachers, and frequently use academic and didactic comparisons to make the point. After all, you could not have one geography teacher declaring that Paris is the capital of France, while another says it is Timbuktu, now could you? No you could not. Because there you are dealing with facts. One of them is wrong, one is correct.

But in the techniques that are used in playing soccer, there is precious little that is correct, in that absolute sense. There is not a correct way to play sweeper -- but there are quite a few different ways of playing it, in both personal and tactical ways.

No doubt, conformity simplifies the teaching process. But the aim here, surely, is to produce players, not to make life easy for the coaches.

It was supposed to be the delight of the Prussian military schools that if they posed a problem to a class of 20 officers, all 20 would come up with the same solution. In soccer, the delight should arise if a tactical question to 20 coaches is solved in 20 different ways.

18 comments about "Beware of youth soccer orthodoxy".
  1. Thomas Sullivan, May 26, 2010 at 8:02 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner,
    As usual I love your insight and take great pleasure in your digs at the English approach and attitude, language barrier indeed. With so much home grown intelligent talent having grown up in the ranks, it's amazing to see how the English carry such weight here. Strict orthodoxy in soccer will eventually prove ineffective but it can do a lot of damage in the meantime. Please keep up the beat for creative play.

  2. Mark Edge, May 26, 2010 at 9:23 a.m.

    good grief, do I actually agree with what Gardner says? Of course creativity is key. However, I'd like to play against a team coached by Mr.Gardner that has no idea how to cross a ball. Mexico were far the better team in the midfield than the England 2nd XI that played the other day, but still lost 3-1. You can't go up the middle with a few hundred passes without mixing it up a little.

  3. Jonny Sinclair, May 26, 2010 at 10:01 a.m.


    I honestly can't believe how much you slate the truly spoils your articles! We get it, you would like Americans running American Youth Soccer, and who wouldn't. But the valid points that you do make regarding the need for creativity and diversity in coaching styles, etc (and as somebody who works at the state youth association level, I agree with your argument) are just over-shadowed by your complete and utter ignorance of the fact that maybe English coaches DO have a role to play in helping your youngsters.

    I will never forget my first ever coaching session out here in the states, when I asked at the start of the session (as a bit of an ice-breaker) what people thought of which the response was "Who?" WTF!! I wouldn't mind if this was a bunch of U6's I was coaching. Or perhaps even a small village Rec team. Or maybe even it was in the late 1990's before the world knew about the guy. But this was 2005, with a U14 Boys competitive Travel team. And not one of them knew who the world's biggest player at the time was!! So my mindset immediately changed. Forget me teaching you how to create space or how to pass with the outside of your foot, I'm gonna teach you what it means to have a passion for the sport! Because that is what makes great players!

    Having grown up in England, I was FORTUNATE enough to be absolutely surrounded by the game of soccer my entire life, for almost every minute of every day, so I happened to gain quite a bit of an understanding of it. Much like an American would no doubt be able to teach a Brit a thing or two about the game of Basketball, Baseball, or Football...because it is part of your culture, and would come almost effortlessly. Sure, I could read every book out there on Football (American) plays and styles, but it will never be in my blood. But soccer is. And now I am lucky enough to be able to share and instill the passion I have for the world's greatest game.

    Jonny Sinclair
    An ENGLISHMAN married to to an AMERICAN, fathering an AMERICAN child, devoting countless hours trying to HELP AMERICAN players and AMERICAN coaches.

    P.S. I had never heard of a wall-pass until I came here, it's always been a "1-2" to me. In the same way, when I see ESPN list a player as a 'Defenseman' or when the presenters on Fox Soccer Report butcher the names of some of the most famous clubs and personnel in the game....people who have grown up in the game could HELP fix these mistakes...making it a better overall experience for all youth players out there.

    P.P.S. Your articles always get me thinking, which is great for me and my development in the game, but I truly hope your opinion of us hooligans from across the pond who only know how to kick people and play long balls is not too deeply in-grained that you are able to see that perhaps you have been making too much of a stereotypical assumption for too long.

    P.P.P.S. Roll on June 12th! :)

  4. Ken Johnson, May 26, 2010 at 10:57 a.m.


    I just broke my long standing rule of never posting on a public forum, lol.

    I was a club coach in the Cal South System during the run up to the 1994 World Cup through 2004. We were all encouraged to obtain our USSF licenses (I earned my D)I found the training sessions to be very helpful. They were demanding physically and required us to utilize a scholastic approach to session preparation and skills assessment.

    There was an expectation that we would "conform" if we ever wanted to coach for the stronger clubs. More importantly, time after time, coaches with natural ability and strong communication skills, (American) were passed over for "Any" coach with a British accent and an "A" or "B" license. it absolutely did not matter if the kids learned anything or understood a single word that was said, they got the gig.

    It was at that time, I discovered Futsal and figured out that the game itself is the best teacher. My efforts to encourage and promote small sided games with a low bounce ball made me a heretic in my local soccer community. With the exception of my local Hispanic community, who renamed the game "Futbol Rapido" Not a single person within the conforming hierarchy would support the idea.

    In my opinion, unless we create environments where kids WANT to play for the sake of playing and learn because they have a deep seeded need to master a skill, we will never world class players

  5. Larry Beguin, May 26, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    Truly an excellent commentary. My youngster is a u-16 classic player who was "coached" this year by someone who was determined to reduce successful play to that of a statistical analysis. The result was a competition between team members for the best personal stats regardless of team success. Lest I spin off on some non sequitar tangent to Mr Gardner's article, I would like to say that in this marvelous day and age of television it is absolutely essential that serious youth soccer players here in the States be encouraged to watch British and European soccer as often as possible as perhaps the best examples of creative, spirited play. Boys do learn by watching, and doing so has an excellent chance in time for elevating U.S. soccer.

  6. Tom Kondas, May 26, 2010 at 1:17 p.m.

    All of this verbage from the Brits! They just don't get it. They are LOSERS!
    youth and national program could be eons ahead in development if the USSF wouldn't have bought the falshood that they were experts. Comparing the recent Mexico V. England game only serves to highlight their lack of credibility and our perception of that which they lack.
    The only hope for British soccer, which has not been in a world Cup for almost half a century, is for more american players, who have been coached by continental european or south american coaches, to play with British teamsand help them improve their game.

  7. Brian Something, May 26, 2010 at 2:11 p.m.

    "Paul, I honestly can't believe how much you slate the truly spoils your articles!"

    It's a welcome antitode the the overwhelmingly Angophilic bias of most of the soccer media in this country.

    Given all the handwringing in England they are having over THEIR inability to develop quality young players, it amazes me that they, not Argentina or Holland or France, remain our model for youth development.

  8. Jonny Sinclair, May 26, 2010 at 4:06 p.m.

    Tom K, you talk of credibility after using the capitalized term 'LOSERS' in your opening sentence...I'm afraid you lost all yours right there. My immediate thought was 'how old is this kid?'

    And are you really that narrow-minded that you would assess the overall quality of a Nation's youth soccer development philosophy on a one-off meaningless pre-World Cup friendly?

  9. Nathan Geason, May 26, 2010 at 4:19 p.m.

    blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
    it is the same thing over and over with this guy - if he was a comedian he would have been fired years ago - get some new material
    here is what we know about Paul
    he hates british soccer, hates the refs, hates FIFA and loves latino players - until you have something new to say - stop boring us

    really - is there nothing good you can say about soccer - nothing at all??

  10. Brian Something, May 26, 2010 at 5:23 p.m.

    Yeah, if a team spends their training focusing on foot skills rather than aimless crossing for hours on end then they might end up looking like Barcelona (a team that's poor at crossing). Oh the humanity!

  11. John Weinerth, May 27, 2010 at 12:13 p.m.


    Thank you very much for your patronage of the Cal South Soccer Magazine. We’re glad you enjoy keeping up with what’s going on in Southern California.

    Your thoughts on the “Teaching the Teachers” article on Cal South’s Coaching Education program were interesting, but a tad out of context. If Soccer America readers would like to read the article, it’s available here - article link.

    The focus of the article is growing coaching education in Cal South. Cal South was the first state association to mandate that all coaches, no matter what level, must take at least one licensing course before they are allowed to stop on a field with a team. That mandate is not about orthodoxy or compliance with a specific coaching philosophy. What it is about is development, which is why the motto of Cal South’s Coaching Education program is “develop a coach, develop the game.”

    Cal South’s Youth Module licenses are developed from US Youth Soccer’s National Youth License material. Our E and D license course curricula are molded from the US Soccer Federation Coaching Education Program. The only English influence imparted by our Director of Coaching Steve Hoffman is his accent. The courses do not demand a style or a method of play. The courses provide the tools for coaches to help kids learn and to get better at soccer.

    Steve is an amiable fellow. He is, as we all are, happy to have you as his guest at any of the Cal South Coaching Education courses. You can join one of the 4,000 Cal South coaches that will attend a course this year offered in English or Spanish taught by our highly credentialed instructor staff. Or, come to our Soccer Nation Expo where our clinics are taught by coaches from the United States, Germany, Argentina, Mexico and England.

    Develop a coach, develop the game. The motto is supported and embraced by our entire state association, and is directly reflected in that we continue to grow the game and attract players to our programs at a 5% annual growth rate now eclipsing 140,000 youth players. If not measured by player retention and growth, we could certainly attribute some coach and player development success to the fact that over 25% of the US Men’s National Team roster heading to South Africa are Cal South Alumni.

    Thank you again for your comments and interest in Cal South. We look forward to your continued readership.


    John Weinerth
    Chief Executive Officer | Cal South
    Phone 714.451.1504

  12. John Weinerth, May 27, 2010 at 12:31 p.m.

    FYI for those of you that would like to read the Cal South "Teaching the Teachers" article being referenced:

  13. Henry Garcia, May 27, 2010 at 1:48 p.m.

    In reading your analysis of the CalSouth Magazine article I believe you are in error in more than one area of your commentary and suppositions. In my opinion, some of the words (prussian) and suppositions you have chosen to accentuate in your commentary can be construed as inflammatory to the general public and hispanics in particular. I believe you are simply "wrong" in this artlicle. Some "fact checking" before your analysis should be paramount, so that you may not have "misgivings". Rather Evidence and Insite.

  14. Wes , May 27, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.

    I am a parent of one of those US youths out there. Never played soccer growing up. My father was a fan of football but basketball was the biggest game in our small town. We would play anytime and anywhere there was a hoop. We learned mostly by watching older kids do a cool move and then trying it out at home against imaginary foes (I was always scoring the winning goal for the US in the Olympics) over and over again. Then it was against a friend, and finally we would take it to the playground. On the playground it was as much about style as it was bout winning. You couldn't just make a layup you had to put something special on it going in. This was all done with minimal parent input. The most skilled players were those that spent the most time out there. By the time we got to middle school age we were well past the basic skill stage. The biggest task for the coach was to get us to quit hot dogging around and actually work togather as a team.

    The problem is that there are lots of American parents that are willing to pay to have someone train their kids to play soccer. That someone needs to be able to speak English, should at least appear to be an expert, and. since we are paying him/her they need to actually do something, not just set up a bunch of pick up games in which kids can voluntarily play or not. We want a curriculam and goals (pun intended) and it would be nice if our kids could win a few championships, the younger the better it is never to early to build that resume for the college scholarship.

    Where there is a demand the market will provide. Unfortunantly, since most of us American parents no nothing about the game and many of us are unwilling or to busy to study it, we are unable to assess the quality of what we are buying. So we judge it by things like, the English accent, (if they are English they must know how to play soccer!), or the the complexity of the drills being run, which probably has very little to do with a child actually learning how to handle a ball.

    Mark my words gentlemen, until we have kids all over our country pretending to shoot world cup winning goals against garage walls, and gangs of teens wandering around looking for pick up games of soccer, then and only then, will the USA develop a style, and become a Soccer power in the world. The revolution will be form the ground up not from the top down.

  15. Brian Herbert, May 27, 2010 at 6:35 p.m.

    Let's not get distracted by Mr. Gardner's nationalistic rhetoric, because he could have left out his replay of Paul Revere's ride and still captured a disturbing issue. That point is about ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, not English soccer. For example, one of the most bureaucratic of all our institutions, The U.S. Dept. of Defense, conducts "war games." Why? Because the outcome is not known until one group of officers square off their strategy against another group in the highest stakes game of all: war. The lesson: Competition makes the whole stronger. Compulsory coaching skills should involve touch, agility, how to organize a practice, how to motivate - but let the coaches battle it out for the best strategies, we will be a richer soccer nation for it.

  16. David Horcasitas, June 1, 2010 at 2:08 a.m.

    I do find Gardner's articles kind of funny. I find some truth in them though. I grew up playing soccer in the mid-Atlantic region in the late 70's and 80's. I moved to S.Cal in 2004. I've seen soccer on both coasts now. It is true that Americans are in love with the British accent, and I'm not particularly a fan of the British style of play, however, I do feel that the passion the English bring to the USA can only help soccer here (at least kids who play soccer these days aren't called communists as often as I was in high school). I thought years ago the USA would become a power house in soccer, just give it time, the money will come in, and soon enough the US will get much better. It never happened though. I wouldn't blame the English though. In general, I believe it's an Anglo style/mentality thing. I've noticed Anglo's think of soccer like they think of baseball or football...Anglo's believe it's more about size & speed, and then you can teach/coach them everything else. Anglo's see soccer as a science. Latinos (by the way Latin also includes french & italian) on the other hand see soccer as an art. And I've noticed that US soccer including coaching at the highest levels still incorrectly treats soccer as a science. Soccer is an art, not a science. And the USA will never get past mediocre soccer until they truly understand this. I have seen the art, the creativity from some of the youngsters in the So Cal Club circuit... only to see it squashed by the 'soccer is science' mentality of most coaches. Yes, it's happening at WCFC, Patedores and LAFC--I see it happening everywhere. When science meets art on the field, Art will always win. Things will change in the USA, but it's taking much longer than needed because coaches at the mid to highest levels just don't understand that soccer is not science. I think if their was a more diverse mix of coaches at the higher levels, the USA would be closer to understanding what soccer truly is, and some creativity would begin to appear in the MLS and the US national team. Although I have not read the article Gardner is speaking of and therefore don't know how valid his criticism is of it, I do agree with Gardner in general that the creativity and Art of soccer is TRULY not understood at the mid to national level coaching in the USA (i believe is Gardner's msg after reading a few of his articles). However I do not agree that the Brits are to blame, the boring lack of creative soccer was already in the USA, and the soccer-is-science mentality of US soccer and US coaching will continue to produce mediocre results. Hopefully coaches will stop killing the creativity these Latino kids and frankly all the kids are showing at the younger levels. Stop trying to 'teach' them, and instead let them teach you. If coaches do this, the USA will start to understand the Art of soccer, and will play more creative soccer, and will actually have people interested in watching MLS games, and WILL become a powerhouse in soccer.

  17. Brian Giammichele, June 9, 2010 at 12:55 a.m.

    Paul, At first glance your article appears to make sense as long as I allow myself to fall victim to stereotypes about English Football. I read Mr. Hoffman’s ideas and I believe you misrepresented his point of view in said article, transforming ‘consistency in coaching’, into lack of creativity on the pitch. Your reference to the “coach from Liverpool teaching Hispanic kids how to play soccer” couldn’t better explain the unique obstacles in the Southern California Soccer community - many folks from many places, referring to similar things by different names. It appears that Mr. Hoffman, as coach of the coaches, would like to get the teachers to use consistent wording to describe various plays, positions, etc. Is it critical? Only if the message isn’t getting across, so why take a chance. As coach of the coaches, it is important to standardize terms/concepts that will be used in trying to get the message across to these young soccer players. This concept parallels the use of English as the international language of business. It is not meant to impose Prussian conformity to American Youth Football. Eee Gads! Mr. Hoffman states that we need “to develop technically proficient soccer players.” Does this stifle creativity any more than teaching writers how to read, spell, and dare I say, write? Mr. Hoffman seems to be emphasizing the importance of ball-handling skills with his statement. His philosophy is summarized at the beginning of his article as follows: “ creating better coaches. It’s not about winning or losing, said Hoffman. It is about development.” Mr. Gardner, you have artfully misrepresented the article. As Mr. Hoffman states, “Our technique in this county is not good enough. Comfort level on the ball is not good enough, because coaches are coaching to win and not to develop.” The creativity that you yearn for, Mr. Gardner, begins with competence and succeeds with passion. At the ripe ages of 8–11, a little fun doesn’t hurt in the pursuit of passion…and a pass with the inside of the foot doesn’t preclude a pass with the outside of the foot when you get the ball back…unless it isn’t successfully completed. Your misgivings about a coach from Liverpool teaching Hispanic kids how to play soccer are anything but inspirational. Let’s hope our coaches do not make such quick judgments about the youths that stand before them. Now for a little aside – your reference to a statement referring to our youth being taught the correct technique for ”passing with the inside of the foot, chipping and lifting the ball for crosses” is off-base. One should not devalue the process of accurately delivering a crossing pass, the execution of which both Mexico and England have mastered. We would do well to learn their technique. Boring? Maybe, when executed poorly, but artful in its finest form. In either case, absolutely necessary. The A,B,C’s that we have not mastered.

  18. The Real Pico, June 9, 2010 at 3:30 p.m.

    I think there is some validity in Mr. Gardner's comments regarding the state of US soccer player development. America does have some kind of infatuation with the English when it comes to soccer and that manifests itself in the large number of coaches of UK descent within all levels of soccer development.

    The problem is that the US is an immigrant nation where studies project that the Latino population will become the largest ethnic group by the end of this decade. We are looking at two very different soccer philosophies that will shape the future of the sport in this country. A poster above made the reference of art vs science when contrasting the two styles and unfortunately the current dominant thought in US soccer is not equipped to deal with such issue.

    There are two things that need to happen in this country for soccer to flourish and take the next step:

    First, we should accept the fact that the English system does not develop young talent of the same level and quantity as other soccer countries in the world. We only have to look at its heavy reliance on foreign players to elevate the level of its domestic league.

    Second, we should consider the Japan experiment and do something similar and bring in coaches from established and reputable player developing programs like Holland and have them work with players at all levels and bring a mentality where art and science coexist together.


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