Tackling Key Challenges in Modern Day Youth Ball

By Mike Woitalla

I was part of a panel at the US Youth Soccer Workshop at the NSCAA Convention: “Youth Soccer in the Real World: Issues faced by a Modern Day Club Director of Coaching.” Moderated by John O’Sullivan (Founder of the Changing the Game Project), my fellow panelists were Sam Snow (Technical Director, US Youth Soccer ), Charlie Slagle (Former Executive Director of North Carolina’s CASL), Brett Jacobs (Technical Director, Washington Timbers) and Karla Thompson (Technical Director, Maryland Youth Soccer).

“We have an ideal world of what we know is right for youth soccer players and we have a real world that we all live in: managing expectations, managing business, dealing with parents,” said O'Sullivan as we launched into the discussion of some key challenges faced by youth soccer clubs, beginning with Winning vs. Development. ...

“You want to try and win, but it’s not must-win,” said Snow. “We want club administrators and parents to focus more on the process. So many moms and dads only look at the goals, the win-loss record -- the black and white. … If you have a U-10 team, and you’ve been working on wall-passes, you explain to the parents what the kids are trying to do, and to cheer that. When coaches help parents look for some of the technical and tactical pieces they’re working on, it helps the parents refocus.”

Jacobs, who has also served as DOC of Michigan and Massachusetts Youth Soccer and in the Colorado Rapids youth program, said patience is the key.

“Most of the time, youth soccer will not look like adult soccer as much as we want it to look like it,” he said. “The patience of understanding how long it takes to acquire the skill to play the game in an attractive manner with quality takes long time.”

He recommends that coaches expose parents to the kind of soccer you’re aiming to play when the kids reach the higher levels by, for example, e-mailing video of older teams playing “high quality soccer”:

“That will help them understand how difficult a journey it is to get there. Why we play small-sided games. Why we emphasize possession, skill and technique. Why results aren’t important at a young age because we have to work on those things. …

“Learning to play out of the back, having a goalkeeper roll the ball out to the right back means a team will give up goals and lose games. But if you show them big the picture they’ll begin to understand the journey.”

I shared what world champion Shannon MacMillan, Director of San Diego's Del Mar Carmel Valley Sharks, told me recently: “No college coach asks, ‘Did you win a State Cup at U-9?’”

On Coaching … O'Sullivan quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” … Slagle emphasized the importance of DOCs keeping a close eye on the youngest ages (“You as DOC need to go watch U-6s, U-7s, U-8s.”) and the importance of an age-appropriate approach: “The teaching at the younger ages is easier. The actually managing of a team is more difficult [because of the vast variety of skill level]. I’d almost rather have a kindergarten teacher learning how to coach soccer than a soccer person trying to learn how handle 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds.”

O’Sullivan emphasized the importance of coaches getting experience at all the age groups.

“A former college player shows up at your door and says, 'I want $50,000 a year and I want coach your best 16s and 17s.' … But you must be exposed to coaching every age. Because if you don’t coach every age, you don’t understand the development process except by what you went through.”

On Free Play … “I strongly encourage my clubs to have free play as much as possible for the younger ages,” said Thompson. “Allow them to develop within themselves. That also takes the pressure off recreational coaches to have this elaborate lesson plan, and let the game teach itself. Sometimes we have to take the game away from the adults.”

Snow said, “Parents need to be educated to understand that free play is actually a development component and when you are offering that at your club it’s part of your curriculum by design over the course of the year.”

On Containing CostsYouth soccer, as we all know, can be ridiculously expensive. The panel agreed that parents deserve to know exactly what they’re paying for.

“A lot of a club’s costs are legitimate,” I said. “We live in a country where, unfortunately, fields aren’t free in most cases. There are field costs, referee fees, coaches need to be paid. We have to cut costs where we can, and the big one to cut is travel. The tournament industry is out of control.

“I have taken teams to tournaments and have seen players have great experiences, but you don’t need to go to a bunch of tournaments a year. We can cut a lot of costs if you’re not concerned where your U-12s are ranked.

“If you think you’re U-10 team is the best in the world and think you need to travel to find competition, find instead some U-12 teams to play in your area. … If you want a variety of competition outside league play, call some clubs in the area and set up some informal games.”

On the ranking of youth teams, Snow recalled when he was involved in ranking men’s NCAA college teams for playoff selection. “And that was difficult. Ranking U-12 teams in different parts of the country is just stupid.

“Rankings are another one of these black and white measures that a lot of people want because it’s simple. Rankings for U-11 teams is not only ludicrous it’s damaging to the overall development of our sport and to the kids. If you have people who participate in that, encourage them to stop.”

O’Sullivan pointed out that in a place like Los Angeles, “you can get a good 30 games a year within a two-hour drive.”

Slagle explained how at CASL he organized festival events within the club, mixing players from the teams at different levels in an age group -- basically creating a tournament weekend atmosphere without the costs and other downsides.

“The parents weren’t screaming from the sidelines because some of their kids’ teammates were on the other team,” Slagle said. “Be creative. Don’t do something just because the club across town is doing it and you’re scared of losing players. Believe in your program."

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif and is a Grade 8 referee. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

17 comments about "Tackling Key Challenges in Modern Day Youth Ball".
  1. cony konstin, January 27, 2015 at 11:37 a.m.

    We need radical change. We need a REVOLUTION. Soccer in the USA is about buying and selling stuff. You want real magical warriors for the 21st century then you need to create a NEW SPARTA. Club soccer sole purpose is not to develop players. You can not develop a 21st world class player practicing twice or even three times a week. The pay to play model is an abomination if your goal to develop future stars. But our pay to play model is the best in the world if our focus is to fight youth obesity, teach life skills and finally give the kids some what a competitive environment. The parents god bless them all but most of them are clueless of what is happening to them. WE NEED 300,000 futsal courts in our inner cities and another 300,000 futsal courts in our suburbs. We don't need anymore coaching manuals, $300 cleats, more coaches, camps, clinics, tournaments, licenses,and any other gimmicks or smoke n mirrors. The kids need a place to play 24/7, 365, no cost, and no adult interference. FUTSAL for the masses. This can be our version of street soccer. We don't radically change our coaching environment to a playing environment then pro soccer in the US will continue to go out and get foreign players to fill the spots on rosters. We USONIANS need to wake up before soccer in the US becomes a cheap way to pay for day care. Our kids need a sandlot, playground free play environment so they can experiment and become creative risk takers. They need a sanctuary, a home, a place that is theirs. FUTSAL is our future in developing devilish players. Then those devilish players need a second phase of development and that is where a NEW SPARTA comes in. Everyone in this article means well but in the end you can't make chicken soup out of chicken s#$%. It is time for a REVOLUTION. It is time for radical change. It is time for unorthodox thinking. It is time for us to awake the sleepy giant.

  2. Scott Nelson, January 27, 2015 at 1:20 p.m.

    Not to pick on any panelist, since the comments are snippets without context or extensive elaboration, but I take issue with the comment “The patience of understanding how long it takes to acquire the skill to play the game in an attractive manner with quality takes long time.” This seems to infer that you are excused from trying to teach attractive soccer until as certain skill level is reached, and it's developmentally appropriate to play it safe, crude, and direct until then. Yes, it does take patience, and no, your U9's won't play like Ajax overnight, but teaching an "attractive style of play" (in relative terms) should be should be linked with technique as part of the training culture from day one. Both really young players and older (but less skilled) recreational players can be effectively taught how to keep and pass the ball and play in an "attractive manner" as long as their opponents are of comparable ability. It does not take superior skill. If you spend some time training GK distribution and your players position themselves correctly & understand a few simple cues, giving up a goal because the right back lost a ball rolled from the keeper should be extremely rare and the rewards will steadily outweigh the risk by a larger margin as experience increases. But you can't teach this by just telling the GK to roll the ball out and hope for the best... which leads to the second issue I have, this unchallenged mantra that "the Game is the Best Teacher". Where is the quantitative or quantitative evidence to back this claim up? The game does teach, and if you go and play with a bunch of older, better, and more experienced players then you can indeed learn a lot from the game. But if you go out and play with a bunch of kids at the same ability and experience level who have all the same bad habits and same tactical deficiencies, the game mostly teaches you what DOESN'T work and reinforces those bad habits. Until the quality of our collective game rises, "The Game" might be a better teacher than a bad coach, but IMO the "best teacher" is a superior coach who knows the game and how to teach it to kids.

  3. Brian Something, January 27, 2015 at 1:44 p.m.

    When I started coaching, I thought that the toughest parents to deal with would be the ones who didn’t know much about soccer. Sometimes, they are challenging – especially when their idea of a coach is the football or basketball model who micromanages every little detail during the game. I had it once implied that I didn’t care that much because I wasn’t barking instructions at my players every time they touched the ball. But for the most part, they tend to recognize their lack of knowledge and defer to the coach. The trickiest parents are usually the ones who DO know something about the game... but are missing key elements, particularly stages of development. How come you aren’t working on spacing and tactics with my 7 year old? How come my son’s U9 games don’t look anything like my other son’s U17 games? When I played, we banged the ball to the corners and looped in crosses... how come you don’t teach that?

  4. Scott Nelson, January 27, 2015 at 3:39 p.m.

    Brian, It is definitely easier to create a new soccer culture with parents who have little soccer knowledge vs those who grew up in the same soccer culture most of us did, where we picked up a lot of faulty or incomplete "knowledge" along the way
    Cony.. we could do a lot worse than incorporate futsal into the US Socer culture. I was down in Santa Cruz Bolivia last summer and most of the grass fields are horrible but there is literally a futsal court every three blocks. Public courts but also schools, churches and businesses all have their own. Everyone has a place to play.

  5. Noe Bastidas, January 27, 2015 at 3:46 p.m.

    If we want more development, then we need to remove the coaches and trainers. What does this look like? It looks like street soccer. It looks like FUTSAL. It looks like kids playing pickup games on a patch of grass, on tennis courts. It looks like kids playing soccer every day before school, at recess, at lunch and after school. It looks like kids playing with adults. It looks like basketball development in suburban and inner-city schools, parks and rec centers. It looks like soccer WITHOUT coaches and trainers. My reference to basketball is important. The USA produces exceptionally creative basketball players by allowing young players to PLAY basketball without coaches (think Rucker Park in NYC). This is not rocket science. Some of the problems: youth soccer in mainstream USA is a business, first, and sport, second; youth soccer in mainstream USA is an organized activity for children, but parents have no history in the sport, parents do not play with their kids, parents do not watch soccer; and youth soccer in the USA where kids play every day and are developing creativity and high-level skill (e.g., inner-city immigrant communities) is considered illegitimate or is simply ignored by the mainstream (e.g., USSF, US Club, USYSA).

  6. Scott Nelson, January 27, 2015 at 5:21 p.m.

    Noe, the problem is that with Basketball there is an established culture of creativity and style. In America "The Game" CAN be the teacher because basketball is established to the highest level as part of our culture. Kids watch the NBA and then go out and try to copy the moves, while here kids watch La Liga or the EPL and go out and play kick and chase.... even the immigrant kids (at least where I live). Back to basketball, if you go to Europe and watch uncoached players where "the game is the teacher" then you see lots of travelling, bricks, and granny style shooting because the basketball culture is weak there. Look at Europeans who have been coached and they can play to varying degrees, often with very good fundamentals. The best can even play in the NBA but the average Euro player is well below the level of the average American player. Kids need proper training AND free play.

  7. Kent James, January 27, 2015 at 10:52 p.m.

    Scott, while I disagree with the initial part of your first comment (explanation to follow), you get everything else right. Your comparison to basketball is spot on, and the reason I think we both object to the "game is the best teacher" mantra is that it works if the kids are playing all the time, but with the limited time most kids get to play, good coaching can provide a more efficient means to the same end (skillful play). I took the National Youth Coaching license with Sam Snow many years ago, and it's child development centered focus kind of blew my mind (in a good way); I highly recommend it. In addition to "the let the game be the teacher", they also push "no lines, no laps, no lectures", primarily (I think) to disabuse the notion of spending practice time with kids on fitness (to make them "tough"), having them stand in line doing repetitive drills, or get bored listening to the coach drone on about positional play (or anything else). So back to your original point, in which you criticize the panel for their suggestion of being patient enough to let the game be the teacher (with the result being some ugly kick and run play), I think they actually are doing two different things. First, they're suggesting parents need to be aware that their little Messi's aren't going to play like Barcelona anytime soon (though watching the Barcelona U10s might inspire some!), which (like the de-emphasis on winning) is to set realistic expectations.

  8. Kent James, January 27, 2015 at 10:57 p.m.

    The second point is more subtle (and you may disagree with this one), which is that is even excellent coaches who impose discipline and get a select group of 10 yr olds to play like Ajax, playing one-touch, making runs coaches who know the game have taught them to make, and being focused and intense (acting like little professional players), is not the ideal model. I think that while such soccer might actually be very attractive, it limits the players creativity (discouraging 1 v 1 play, e.g.), and might burn out the players (with the intensity). An exclusive focus on one-touch soccer (e.g.) at an early age might discourage kids from learning to take people on (I know that emphasis when I was young limited my capacity as a dribbler). Sam Snow suggested that a little chaos at practice is actually not a bad thing; for example, he said that you can set up a game but only give them a few of the rules (instead of taking the time to explain everything), and when situations arose, you let the kids figure out how to resolve the issues (perhaps by leading them with questions, if necessary). So the kids learn to solve problems. I think there one can go too far (of course), but the idea of letting the kids control as much as possible, and learn from their mistakes is a valid one. The kids remember more when they make a mistake and get burned, than if they don't make the mistake in the first place.

  9. Georges Carraha, January 27, 2015 at 11:01 p.m.

    There is so much to say but little room to write.
    Question#1: How many World Class soccer players has the USA produced?
    NONE! All these NSCAA, USSF and other pundits need to take a back seat because most of them cannot even kick a ball straight.
    Question#2: Why is winning the enemy?
    Winning is human nature but it means nothing in terms of accomplishments. We need to stop the American culture of rewarding children for accomplishing nothing. You should not get a ribbon, medal or trophy if you did not deserve it!
    Question#3: What is Player Development? No Coaches can develop players unless these players are willing to spend time on their own working on basic skills and improvisation.
    Question#4: Should my child play multiple sports? Yes if they just want to have fun and NO if they want to be a Top Athlete in their field. Why? Injuries and stress! Having a child practice 5 consecutive days a week is really cruel and senseless. The body needs rest.
    Question#5: Why do we have Soccer Tournaments?
    All these pundits are babbling about fatigue, injuries, boredom etc. Why do we allow soccer tournaments where kids are playing 2 to 4 games a day? MONEY! At any level, no soccer player should be allowed to play more than 1 game per day. Of course, these pundits have no courage to challenge the clubs because tournaments bring thousand of dollars in just a weekend.
    Question#6: What is Coaching: It is a personal vision that requires parents and players to believe and support the idea. Found soccer players should never be thought in a specific style but they should be thought to adapt to any style. There is trend to teach young children Tiki-Taka and make them robots. Where is the fun!
    Conclusion: I have played soccer for 50 years every day and sometimes 4 times per day and I am still in love with it.
    At the end, stop the BS and get rid all of these pundits who have accomplished nothing!

  10. Kent James, January 27, 2015 at 11:08 p.m.

    The thing that highlighted this issue for me was the Coerver method of learning; the Wiel Coerver method (as shown in the tapes/DVDs produced in the 1980s) has kids drilling repetitively patterns of movements with the ball (some of which are quite complicated), and you can see how comfortable the kids become with the ball. I was impressed with the skill the kids demonstrated, and tried to incorporate it into my practices. On the other hand, watching those kids all do the same thing at the same time reminded me of the Hitler Youth, or some other program of making kids into little robots. When I asked Sam Snow about this (since it seemed to contradict everything they were teaching, since they often let kids demonstrate/create their own moves rather than showing them established ones), I thought he might object. But when I told him I did this sort of thing for a few minutes at the beginning of every practice, the thought that was fine. So I think it is okay to have a continuum from discipline to creativity within a program, but at the early ages, most of the emphasis should be creativity (and fun). I think the best development programs mix high level instruction (especially on technique until it's mastered), some high level competition (to push and test the players), with relaxed pick-up games (where kids can try stuff and just have fun).

  11. Georges Carraha, January 27, 2015 at 11:32 p.m.

    Simple question: how many coaches teach children to control the ball and move it with the sole of their feet. 95% of the time NONE. Get rid of most of these coaches and as CONT said: give them fields to play freely and create magic!
    Take the money out of the sport.

  12. Futsal nation, January 27, 2015 at 11:51 p.m.

    Gierge is spot on but what him and Cont suggest will never happen in USA. Look at anything that involves alot of money in USA and you will never drastically change it. You could only hope to manipulate it. I agree with you but come on guys, do you really think all of these guys will just stop cashing in all that money??

  13. cony konstin, January 28, 2015 at 12:48 a.m.

    We are creating robots in the US. The
    Spanish FA Presidents spoke to us a couple of years ago in Las Rosas and told us that the one of the main reasons that they won the world cup in football and the European Championship in football is because in the 1980s he implemented futsal in every school and every plot of open space. This is not rocket science. The kids need a place to call home. We need radical change and if we don't get it than we will never awake the sleepy giant.

  14. Luis Oban, January 28, 2015 at 10:05 a.m.

    I am always taken by those people that seem to have figured out the perfect solution to our problems. While they rant on experts and pundits, they themselves have become set in their ways and expouse their "wisdom" loudly every chance they get.
    E.g. were there futsal courts when soccer greats played (Matthews, Pele, Cruyff)? How many futsal courts are there in Germany, Japan, Croatia or anywhere in Africa? Not too many I bet. Yet, there are great players coming from these countries.
    The fact is that we too have been brainwashed. We attend conferences and trainings where we become disciples of what we are told. We become set in our ways and are unable to assimilate new information and determine for ourselves whats best of the group of 9-year olds in front of us.
    Regarding taking the money out of soccer; a nice ideal bit it's simply unrealistic. It is $$ that keep the EPL, La LIGA and other EU leagues viable. If you suggest "social" sponsorship of soccer in the US, it won't happen. We can't even do public transportation. What we know is that there are no absolutes. That is what makes this conversation so great. There are probably tidbits of truth in all of our comments and some dogma as well. The game keeps evolving and I hope that we are able to learn and adapt and therefore, improve.

  15. Kent James, January 28, 2015 at 11:42 a.m.

    Luis, you make a good point; Futsal is not THE answer, but I think it would strengthen a lot of areas in which the US is deficient. It could be played in the cities (maximizing space and being available to a demographic that is currently often left out), build creativity, emphasize ball skills (and Georges point about using the sole of the foot for control is the most obvious difference between futsal and non-futsal players), so it should be part of the equation. And supporting your point that there is not one answer, it is important that we maintain a lot of options. Especially since even if there is one answer, we don't all ask the same question. For example, a system designed to produce the best high level professionals might be one in which many players (those that don't cut it) are tossed aside, and quit soccer all together. Whereas a system that encourages more people to play the game (by keeping them engaged), may hold back the development of the very best.

  16. Oliver Weiss, January 28, 2015 at 3:14 p.m.

    All good points. Until you get kids to mess around with the ball in their backyard, street, school, and with friends, we will always struggle to "create" the right culture/environment. Forget creating the environment for them as kids will create their own if they are allowed. Always have free-play (semi-unsupervised if possible) during your own practices. Kids love it and get a glimpse of what it feels like to take ownership of the game. Maybe then, they'll play for the fun of it. Outlaw "Must-win" and rankings, especially among younger ages, on par with child abuse. Friday Nite tykes.

  17. GA Soccer Forum, February 23, 2015 at 10:20 a.m.

    No doubt, don't sacrifice development for winning, but their is nothing wrong with winning and developing at the same time -- playing quality soccer and getting results. (winning might mean losing my a goal or 2 also, but implementing what your coach wanted you to do, ie keep possession of the ball for the game etc)

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