In search of youth soccer ... and do we really want it anyway? Part 1: The young naive mischief-makers ...

By Paul Gardner

Back in 1977 FIFA initiated an under-20 tournament and called it the FIFA World Youth Championship. With that title, the event sailed merrily along through 15 editions until 2007 when it suddenly became the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

For whatever reason -- maybe just the difficulty of deciding the age boundaries -- the word “youth” disappeared. And the truth is, we don’t talk so much about youth soccer these days. We do, though, have plenty to say about youth development.

Which is not the same thing at all. Because youth development has become a massive, pervasive, intrusive global industry. I Googled “Coaching Youth Soccer” -- and was promptly informed that there were 33,300,000 results. Good news? Well, assuming an accurate count, it’s certainly a massive affirmation of the widespread popularity of soccer as a youth sport. The bad news is that youth development is, covertly, a strongly anti-youth soccer activity.

First, we need a definition of “youth.” When does youth begin and when does it end? Reaching the age of 18 would seem to be the most widely accepted end-point, but the beginning apparently takes in all ages below that. Anyway, I’m making my own rules here. I’ll set the top limit at 17 years (which coincides with FIFA’s U-17 World Cup) and the beginning at 13. Most of the teenage years. Below that is what I tend to regard as boys soccer. I’ll take the five-year span between 13 and 17 as being representative of the youth game.

Which means that “youth soccer” is the sport as played by boys in that age span. But that is a miserly definition, almost a lifeless statistical one. There has to be more to it than that.

I think so. I believe there is something special about the sport as played in those boyhood years -- that “youth soccer” is not just a matter of birthdates.

Those years I’ve singled out -- from 13 to 17 -- are tumultuous times in any boy’s life. The growing-up years, the rebellious years, the self-discovery years … the years of awakening.

Is it even thinkable that the whirlwind of teenage emotions would not be present -- positively or negatively -- in the soccer that these boys play? No, it is not. Youth soccer has its own character and personality, a mirror of the young naive mischief-makers who play it. It should not be dismissed as a not-that-interesting stage on the path to the adult game.

Allow me turn poetical for a moment: Wordsworth, with his “The child is father of the man ...” thought. It is in youth soccer that the future player is born, it is his final fling, his last opportunity to play as he wants, before the instructional adults, the coaches, descend upon him and let him know what’s what.

I’m dreaming, of course. These days the coaches can’t wait until the boys are 17. They turn up earlier than that -- maybe even before the age of 13, the age I’ve selected as the beginning of youth soccer. If the youth-development coaches take over that early, what chance is there for genuine youth soccer to be played?

Almost none, I’d say. The youth development coach is not there to develop youth soccer, but rather to banish it and replace it with adult soccer. The world of soccer now has tens of thousands -- probably hundred of thousands -- of coaches devoted to this end. That is an indisputable fact. In a strictly academic sense, theirs is a worthy cause. It is a part of the educational process, part of growing up.

Boys -- youths -- must be eased away from boyhood frivolities, must be introduced to the more serious responsibilities of behaving like an adult. I use the word “frivolities” deliberately, because so much of what young boys do is regarded by adults -- either patiently or disapprovingly -- as mere “play.”

Play is OK for a while, but at some point it has to be abandoned for grown-up realities. Which will not be so much fun, but will be a lot more useful in adult life. When the time comes to turn away from play and embrace work.

All of this -- the maturing process, and the instructional education programming that goes into it -- is regarded as a good thing. No doubt it is. So let’s take a look at how youth development in soccer fits into this ostensibly beneficial scheme.

Look for Part 2 of "In search of youth soccer -- Correcting bad habits, or the intrusion of the adults" -- on Friday, Feb. 20.

11 comments about "In search of youth soccer ... and do we really want it anyway? Part 1: The young naive mischief-makers ...".
  1. Kent James, February 18, 2015 at 5:22 p.m.

    Paul, while I'm interested in seeing where you're going with this, at the very least, your elimination of U12 and below from "youth soccer" as "boys" soccer demonstrates a limited vision. Yes, in your youth, I don't doubt that the "youths" playing soccer were boys, but I don't think the word "youth" in youth soccer is referring to your youth, so your male focus has eliminated half of the subject. I agree with your age limits; U12 and below is a very different animal from U13 and up. But I would suggest that even if you are only looking at the development of professional or national team level players (which I'm guessing is your intent), ignoring U12 and below demonstrates limited vision. I doubt many players of that caliber start playing at age 13. I think the more interesting question is can you have a "youth development program", especially at U12 and below, that both develops high quality players (that you seek) and well-rounded, happy, healthy, kids, which is the preferred outcome for the 99% of the participants who won't reach that level, or does one goal have to be sacrificed for the other?

  2. Andrew Morrison, February 18, 2015 at 6:29 p.m.

    Um, Paul....

    What about girls? Or don't they count?


    A father of two soccer-playing-as-hard-as-that-may-be-for-you-to-believe girls

  3. Raymond Weigand, February 18, 2015 at 7:36 p.m.

    I am not sure if your intent is to help us remember the Woe Be Gone Daze when the parents and coaches were mostly clueless and us kids just went out and had fun kicking the ball up and down the field.
    I know I had fun in the 70's ... and it was especially fun thinking I knew more about something than my dad!
    Somehow the current culture is all the little guys from the 70's - have all grown up - and they are bringing something a little different to their kids.

    The parents have gotten on board with a year around club approach - where it reinforces the idea of one sport - year around - to be on the look out for ways to incrementally improve - to include winning as an expectation - to accept hours of boredom (I mean, practices) to achieve the goal of winning - and to accept the idea that it's only 'fun' if you win.
    Remember when kids had many brothers and sisters and they were lucky if one of their parents even showed up to a game. And the kids rode their bikes to practice. Wow! Woe Be Gone Daze of the hands off - non hovering - know it all - soccer parents.

  4. uffe gustafsson, February 18, 2015 at 9:21 p.m.

    Oh yes kent, we have more girls teams than boys teams and as competitive as the boys.
    And the younger the teams the more competitive parents. Somehow after many years on side line parents gets more mellowed.
    But the fun part of kicking a ball is now left for the rec teams. Soon as you get on a traveling team it's serious business. Though still they have a good time but with the caveat of winning games.
    Not sure why that is not a good thing if you don't put to much pressure to win at all costs.
    Player development is still the main focus and should always be that or you need a new coach.
    Waiting for page 2.

  5. BJ Genovese, February 18, 2015 at 9:33 p.m.

    I dont know, soccer is growing so much. Parents are helping the game mold as well by having high expectations on coaches. This as with all things has its positives and negatives. But clearly PG is correct with regards to instructing to much at an early age. I have heard talk amongs coaches at high youth levels that they need to be left alone during those expressive formative years like 12 13 14... maybe even 15 for some.

  6. rocky rockwell, February 19, 2015 at 5:29 a.m.

    Might be nice to recognize that girls now play soccer also and that they too play "youth soccer and are involved in "player development" programs

  7. Jogo Bonito, February 19, 2015 at 9:09 a.m.

    As an avid PG reader for so many years, I'm looking forward to part 2, but first a word to some of the folks commenting: 1) don't ever look for any mention of girls/women's soccer here. PG simply doesn't cover or comment on any female soccer playing. It's a column, so nobody should get all "title 9" about this. 2.) I think the best way to read PG, is to clear your mind and understand that he's giving his opinion. 3.) As a columnist, he makes his own rules, so just read and try understand what he's saying. PG has spent many years battling the coaching industry in our sport. Soccer is a player's game and the "advancements" in soccer coaching education has brought me nothing but boredom and disappointment. Which is why I look forward to reading PG every chance I get.

  8. ted kroeten, February 19, 2015 at 1:37 p.m.

    Paul, I remember an article you wrote many years ago that influenced me greatly. It was on the unbelievable ineffectiveness of academies in scouting, predicting and developing youth players. Your point was that development was mostly smoke and mirrors and the question of which youth players would emerge as successful adult players—despite the academies claiming otherwise—remained snake oil.

    But you are right on understanding there must be something about the relationship within a developmental system of PLAY and WORK.

    ”I didn't have my first coach until the age of 16, I believe in play early, learn late." --Michael Jordan.

    If you look at retrospective studies of the highest performers in team sport history (soccer, hockey, basketball) you will find that before the age of 16 they put in thousands of hours of unstructured play (pick up basketball, pond or backyard hockey, street soccer). This is called free play or deliberate play and there are only three objectives: fun, fun and fun. Then, usually after the age of 14-17 they began more formalized training.

    This seems to make sense physiologically as well, as the slowing of adolescent growth that happens around the age of 15-17 singles the period when the child may safely take on overloading—weight training, speed training, etc.It also makes sense neurological as the prefrontal cortex develops and executive function (decision making) is ready as well.

    Pele played only outside his house until the age of 15 when he left for Santos.

    Play early, learn late.

    Learning and work are not the issue. Every year there are newer and more systems of ‘ball touches,’ “awareness training,’ “Possession,’ ‘play like Barcelona,’ the list is endless.

    But it is all work, therefore only %50 of the players development, and the best we can hope for are players %50 as good as the world’s best.

    You might be interested in Joy of the People (JOTP) (named after Garrincha),JOTP has built a development model that places FREE PLAY, that seemingly frivolous, unproductive time, as the priority before the age of 16. JOTP sets up safe spaces and environments for kids to just play.

    Free play produced Maradona, Cruyff, Phenomeno, Magic Johnson, it produced Herb Brooks and the 1980 Olympic hockey team. Free Play can literally change the world.

    Coaching adult objectives into our kids at young ages takes it apart.

    We all understand Free Play is important, why are we not building it into the curriculum?

    The lack of understanding of best practice has allowed adult objectives to filter so heavily into the young age groups that kids—training with very serious coaches at the youngest age groups—have no time to just play, losing that opportunity to learn.

    If we want to produce players that make us smile and inspire us, we need to pull them out of youth soccer leagues and get them back to the park to just play until the age of 16.

  9. Thomas Brannan, February 20, 2015 at 3:32 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner:
    Don't know if you read these and I don't know where you are going with this but normally it winds up with some comment like "coaching is bad". There is a lot of "bad coaching", a lot of it. However, Mr. Gardner, Messi even though a diamond was still polished by La Masia. At the very least it didn't hurt him. And footballers are not the Splendid Savage of Rousseau. Life and football needs structure. Having said that I must say immediately above I also agree with Ted. Some difficult but good books might be by Johan Huizinga and Robert Callois.

  10. Kent James, February 20, 2015 at 11:36 a.m.

    Ted, I like your distinction between play and work. Certainly the USSF Youth coaching program encourages "letting the game be the teacher", and I agree, that kids playing on their own is probably the most crucial aspect of their development. The problem is, for the awesome athletes you mentioned who developed their skills that way, they were generally immersed in a culture in which their sport was dominant, and they played every chance they could. While I would like such a culture to develop in the US, we ain't there yet (and given the broadening array of choices for American kids, soccer is unlikely to ever dominate in that way). So given that lack, can development programs accelerate the process? I think if done properly, they can. And first, the focus (as you suggest) needs to be on kids having fun, not on teams playing like Barca. But coaches can structure practices to include games (that are fun) that still develop skill. At the younger ages, there are two games in particular that demonstrate what I mean; "deerhunter", where 1/4 of the kids have balls and try to hit the remainder (the deer) with them (while the deer dodge and run). It teaches dribbling and passing accurately, as well as general coordination, and the kids love it. The other is "pirates", where about half the kids have balls, the other half don't, and the kids without the balls (the pirates) try to steal them and then maintain possession. So it teaches shielding and dribbling (as well as tackling), but in an rather intense way (and is also lots of fun). On top of such fun activities, I think it is good to incorporate a few minutes of each practice to teaching/practicing skill (push passes, dribbling techniques/moves), all in a very low pressure environment. Not exactly the streets, but not expensive "winner take all" tournaments, either. So I think PG is missing the boat by avoiding development at the younger ages, but I agree (with both you and he) that the more serious training should be reserved for later.

  11. Chris Morris, February 20, 2015 at 5:41 p.m.

    To reinforce Ted’s point above about Herb Brooks and free play, this from a recent bio: “Brooks called it ‘sophisticated pond hockey’ because he knew that the freedom to experiment and develop skills, dekes, and passing is a staple of unstructured pickup games on outdoor ice. . . . Brooks selected players for their perceived hockey sense in addition to their skill, then tried to “unstructure” them into a pond-hockey mentality” A similar comment was made a couple of weeks ago in another SA forum by West Germany and Bayern legend Paul Breitner.

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