The greatest area for improvement in American youth soccer is in the sophistication of thought and decision-making of players.
While the USA has no shortage of great athletes, and players with a decent level of basic technique are common in top youth leagues, there is a dearth of players at U-14 and above who can read the game, understand decision-making cues, and show creativity and competence in identifying and executing potential solutions.
This independent decision-making process is the bridge that so few players cross between having the technique to manipulate a ball (more common) and having the skill to execute a soccer decision at the right time and place. In fact, the gulf between the millions of youth players at U-12 and younger playing the sport and the few at U-14 and above who show real game insight reflects a vast, systemic issue in development.
This gulf is not created because of ill intent of those involved in youth coaching or parenting; it is created through a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what it takes to learn the sport and of what it takes to learn how to think in the game. The systemic confusion is destroying the ability of the vast majority of youth players in America to think, understand, and play at higher levels.
Raising the level of thought and sophistication in youth soccer is not a matter of more rules and regulations, or more lines on the field or greater numbers of players, it is a matter of creating more understanding.
Improving understanding begins with educating parents and coaches about what belongs on the youth field and what does not, and just as critically important and often missing -- why it belongs or does not. It is a matter of creating a training process that teaches and empowers young players to make informed decisions based on understanding cues and context in the moment, and in those decisions teaching them to prioritize possession of the ball above all else.
The solutions for change are more obvious than many think, and three suggested thoughts are below.
1. In order to think fast, players must first be taught how to think
This sentence is not a tautology, and understanding the difference between the first clause and the second is critical to understanding how to develop youth soccer players.
Every weekend, on the sidelines of almost every youth game in the country, players will hear multiple variations of the statement “you have to play faster” repeated over and over. While an instruction to “play faster” (or a variant of it) may be a totally appropriate instruction for a more developed soccer player who understands the game, to almost every American player at U-12 and younger, this comment is complete nonsense, and potentially very destructive to thinking in general:
• To a player who doesn’t know what to look for, where to look, when to look, or why to make one decision or another, the comment to “play faster” is meaningless. The response from an older, more mature mind is obvious: “do what faster?”
• To a player who has some understanding of decision-making concepts but who struggles to control a bouncing ball, needs an extra touch to control a pass, or struggles to accurately pass with technique, the comment is also meaningless. The snarky internal response from a teenage player with the same technical problems is also obvious: “I know it should be faster, but I can’t control the ball.”
Telling the vast majority of youth players to play faster -- when they do not solidly grasp decision-making principles or when they aren’t capable of consistently passing and receiving the ball -- is actually unintentionally sending a very different message: “don’t think and don’t make a mistake by losing the ball.” It is equivalent to yelling at an elementary school math student that is first learning multiplication to “multiply faster” -- the instruction itself creates panic and an instinct to immediately respond with a random number and hoping to be right.
The instruction for a player to do something faster when he or she is unable to comprehend the reason for the action or physically execute the action is antithetical to thinking and learning.
The random number provided by the pressured math student becomes the random “decision” from the pressured soccer player. You may recognize the symptoms of this panic: (i) players who play towards the first person that they see in front of them -- regardless of whether they are open or there is a passing lane to them; (ii) players who play in the same direction they are facing all the time and never look around for other options; or (iii) at its worst, players that simply kick the ball forward and pretend or rationalize that there is intent and thought behind the action. But, in a testament to the efficacy of adult instruction, in every situation they do “it” faster -- kick the ball away and lose possession very quickly and very often.
Instead of asking young players to do things faster, we will develop far more thoughtful and sophisticated players in the long-term by asking them to look, evaluate, and decide with the priority of keeping possession, and then by being patient with the time it takes a young mind to process the avalanche of information that comes at them once their eyes and minds are open.
Encouraging young players to take the time to look, evaluate and decide, and to do so while prizing the ball, is what allows them to understand the “why” in their decisions, become creative in their solutions, and then ultimately to learn how to see the game faster and better. This encouragement is the soil for sophistication and empowered decision-making to grow.
As with a math student, a young soccer player needs time to work these things out -- to figure out where, when, and how to look, and to think about what decision to make to try to keep the ball. For a player at U-12 and younger, the quantity and speed of information coming to them in a 9v9 game is massive -- and intimidating. Which brings up point No. 2.
2. Stop coaching and encouraging high pressing: instructing young soccer players at U-12 and younger to press high is not coaching defending, and it is not teaching anything
Similar to the first point, at first blush this sentence may seem counter-intuitive, but there is a difference between teaching defending and capitalizing on youthful incompetence.
High pressing and defending high on the field is a valid tactic when playing games where the result is most important. It is also valid when challenging players who have understanding of decision-making principles and basic passing and receiving technique to learn how to read the game faster and make faster decisions -- in training or in games.
However, encouraging players at U-12 and younger to constantly high press each other is merely using adult, results-oriented thinking and desire to win to take advantage of the naivety and lack of understanding of children. If this sounds harsh, consider a few of the situations in which this type of coaching or encouragement is most obvious:
• Instructing players to press or “mark-up” on the opponent’s defenders when the opponent has a goal kick. At these ages, most players can’t consistently pass the ball accurately over more than 10-15 yards, and most don’t know how to make decisions very well (see point one above). With that knowledge, adults organizing on a goal kick to take away all the options for these players to pass is a great way to create counterattack chances to score -- starting only 15 yards from goal. It involves no decision-making and thinking by the players being instructed to press beyond to “mark” (e.g. stand next to) a specific person. It places the opponent in a no-win situation, and takes away almost any chance for them to make a successful decision. This instruction almost entirely takes away any chance for players to think (offensively or defensively) in exchange for the desired outcome of winning a game through manipulation.
• Instructing players to press or “mark” the opponent’s defenders when the opponent’s goalkeeper has the ball. See all above comments.
• Instructing players to “run through” bouncing balls. In this example, the words themselves betray the thought -- “use your body as a blunt object to propel the ball forward toward the goal with whatever surface happens to make contact with it.”
These examples are 3 of countless different ways in which “tactical” aggression is encouraged to take advantage of lack of ability or lack of understanding of players at U-12 and younger. Adult encouragement of these actions takes away the ability of every player involved to think: on one side, a player is presented with incredibly little chance of successfully accomplishing any potential decision with the ball, and on the other side a player is relieved of any need to decide how to defend -- where to move, when to run, how to make spaces small as a group, etc.
Perhaps most distressing, this type of defensive instruction is most effective when employed against players and teams that are actually encouraged to try to think and make decisions. It is the perfect mis-match of aggression vs. thought, physical vs. mental, now vs. long-term, win vs. develop, instruct vs. teach. While many think it is reflective of “good coaching” it is actually reflective only of misplaced priorities directed very effectively and efficiently.
Instead of encouraging and instructing players at U-12 and younger to high press, development would be greatly enhanced if coaches left defensive pressing totally off the curriculum at these ages, and refrained from coaching it at all (in games and training).
Instead, spend this time teaching almost any other skill or technique in the game (the ability to receive, dribble, pass, or shoot), or encouraging players to think (asking them what they see, where their teammates are, where the space is, etc.). By removing high and mindless pressure from youth soccer, every player on the field would have greater opportunity to think for themselves, find their own solutions, and learn through their own decisions.
Coaching defending at these young age groups should involve teaching footwork, coordination and balance, how to recognize when the ball is protected or not protected, and how to tackle to win the ball instead of just kicking it away. It should revolve around the idea that defending is best done in small spaces, and that players should communicate to try and defend together.
These are sophisticated concepts that players will find much challenge and enjoyment in understanding -- and they revolve around decision-making, communication, and empowerment.
If we can raise the level of adult understanding in the first two points, there is one final concept that will help in greatly increasing the chances of developing more sophisticated players.
3. Stop coaching and encouraging a game of field position: constantly coaching and encouraging players to “get behind,” “go forward,” and “be safe,” is not teaching how to attack
Teaching how to attack involves a few fundamental and incredibly complex concepts: (i) how to keep the ball (individually and collectively); (ii) how to advance up the field in possession of the ball; and (iii) how to create chances to score.
Each concept becomes progressively more difficult than the last, because the closer players move to the opponent’s goal, the less time and space they typically find -- there are more defenders near them and there is more urgency to defend.
It is very easy to skip all of the nuances and details in these concepts, (and all the principles they involve that guide the decision-making process), and jump to the instruction “get it behind the defense.” This instruction has a simplistic charm, ruthless efficiency, and convenient correlation to other American sports: the ball is farther away from your goal and closer to the opponent’s goal, and now every mistake that is made is in your favor, with little negative consequence.
In fact, when paired with aggression and high pressing, the combination creates a devastatingly effective group of … 10-year-olds -- who are not thinking, and who are learning nothing.
Instead of coaching field position, teach players the importance of keeping possession of the ball -- and the advantages it provides. Teach them to treasure the ball, and how to position themselves to be in a passing lane to help their teammate so the team can maintain possession of the ball.
Teach them that, if possible, they should receive facing forward but they should always decide whether it makes sense to go forward -- or in another direction to find space. Teach them how to recognize what the defenders are doing (are they grouped together or spread out?), and how that positioning impacts where space may exist to help keep possession. Teach them that space means time, and creating space is the first concept in keeping the ball.
This final concept, teaching players how to keep the ball, progress, and create chances, is probably the most difficult thing to do in coaching. It is also the most difficult thing for players to do -- because it combines thinking and execution in progressively smaller spaces with more and more defensive pressure.
If as a youth soccer country we can begin to correct the first two areas -- (i) to teach thinking before demanding faster actions, and (ii) to limit encouragement of high pressing, we will have exponentially moved the needle in creating a youth environment that fosters more thoughtful and independent players.
Doing so will allow every player more opportunity to look, evaluate, and decide -- on both sides of the ball. In some ways, the third point in this article will come as a by-product of correcting the first two -- and we will all be better for it.
First, youth players will enjoy the game far more because they will be free to think, learn, and express their own ideas -- to see and feel personal growth in understanding every week. As these players age, they will become more intelligent in their understanding of the game, and more confident in their ability to make decisions successfully -- and the game will be more intellectually demanding with players making decisions independently, faster and better.
Ultimately, when these players mature, we will see them playing the “beautiful game” that everyone hungers to watch -- because the seeds of understanding and empowerment were planted and carefully nurtured so many years prior instead of being suffocated in the results-driven current reality.
(Christian Lavers is the President of the Elite Clubs National League [ECNL] and the Executive Vice President of US Club Soccer. He also the Director of Coaching for FC Wisconsin Eclipse, and has helped develop male and female players that have gone on to play for U.S. youth national teams, professional teams, and hundreds who have moved on to play collegiate soccer. Lavers was an assistant coach for the Chicago Red Stars in the women’s professional league (NWSL) in 2013-2015, helping the team to second place in the league in the 2015 season. Lavers has led teams to National Final Fours at five different levels -- the ECNL National Finals, the USYS National Championships, the USASA National Championships, the W-League Final Four, and the WPSL Final Four. In 2011, Lavers’ U18 girls team became the first and only Wisconsin team ever [boys or girls] to win a USYS National Championship.)