Not using referees is part of Schalke 04's acclaimed youth program

By Mike Woitalla

Schalke 04's youth program, currently home to three U.S. youth national team players -- Haji Wright, Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague -- is among the world’s most successful at graduating players to the highest levels.

Schalke 04 youth products include German World Cup winners Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler and Benedikt Hoewedes, and Schalke regularly starts four of its own in Bundesliga play. The 21-year-old Leroy Sane, whom Schalke sold to Manchester City for reported a $50 million, joined Schalke at age 9. Liverpool defender Joel Matip also joined Schalke at age 9 and played nearly 200 Bundesliga games before moving to the EPL at age 24.

Bodo Menze, the architect of the Schalke youth program, spoke to us about some of its key aspects, and provided an update on its Americans.

Bodo Menze modernized Schalke 04's youth program after taking charge in 1991.

At ages 10 and younger, the teams do not use referees.

“At first, the referees said, ‘If we’re not there, the soccer will fall apart,’” Menze said. “That was not the case. The children are self-regulating. The children can do it. They have an amazing sense of justice. They know what is right or wrong. It works.

“If there are complaints with an opponent they think is taking advantage, if there are arguments, we always tell them the same thing, ‘Respond by scoring.’

“They learn to control their tempers and direct their emotions into a positive. They learn not to respond to frustration by lashing out at the referee or making a tackle that gets them a red card. Just put it in the net! They become the master of their emotions. And the coaches learn not to interfere.”

Neither coaches nor parents can complain, or abuse, the referee, thus keeping the focus on the children's play.

Menze instituted small-sided games in the late 1990s and a major part of the program is its communication with parents. He put up barrier tapes at game fields to confine the parents and there’s no tolerance for screaming from the sidelines.

“We have very clear rules that we discuss them with the parents so they know what we expect of them,” said Menze. "And we explain clearly to them what we're doing."

Action from the Schalke 04's youth program, the "Knappenschmiede."

For the parents of the older children:

“Sometimes when a player makes it to our top youth team [A-Jugend],” Menze said, “the parents think that means it’s a given he’ll make it to the Bundesliga team, and that attitude gets passed down to the player.

“It is of utmost importance that the players remain well-grounded and understand just how many challenges are still ahead. And we make great efforts to communicate this to the parents.”

Gelsenkirchen lies in the Rhine-Ruhr region, which with more 11 million people is one of Europe’s most densely populated areas. The 4,400-square mile region -- four-fifths the size of 3.6 million-population Connecticut -- is home to five Bundesliga first division and two second division teams -- providing Schalke with plenty of youth talent to scout and good competition.

“With clubs nearby like FC Cologne, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, VfL Bochum, Arminia Bielefeld, Borussia Moenchengladbach -- we’re guaranteed that not one single Saturday or Sunday goes by without our players having a strong opponent.”

Schalke provides a shuttle service for its players to and from its facilities. It partners with a nearby school, enabling them to practice and attend school before taking the shuttle home.

“We know that very few players will end up becoming professional soccer players so we emphasize education and on making them well-rounded individuals,” Menze says.

While Virginia product Taitague is set to sign with Schalke when he turns 18 in February, Southern Californian Wright and Texan McKennie moved to Schalke last year and have been playing on its U-19 team, which is first place of the U-19 Bundesliga West standings. Wright, who has nine goals in 13 U-19 games, saw first-team action when he spent the Bundesliga winter offseason at its Spain training camp.

“I watched Wright in important games against our archrival Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen,” Menze said. “At Leverkusen, he was dynamite, scored two exceptional goals in the second half, with his right and his left. From my view, you couldn’t say whether he was right-footed or left-footed. He’s fast and dynamic. But he’s inconsistent -- can fade in and out. The focus on his development will be consistency.”

McKennie is captain of the U-19s.

“McKennie plays the No. 6, a defensive midfielder, and is ever-present,” said Menze. “He’s very focused. Not the biggest but has good athleticism and strong in the air. And he’s a leader. Taitague just arrived and my first impression is he’s technical player.2017-01-22

“They’re three players in different positions who bring unique attributes, which bodes well for the team.”

35 comments about "Not using referees is part of Schalke 04's acclaimed youth program ".
  1. Kent James, January 23, 2017 at 9:17 a.m.

    We had a similar experience with not using referees on small-sided games. Most kids under 10 will not try to cheat (yes, there are exceptions). We generally had one coach run each field (doing subs for both teams), and they generally had little to do with regards to refereeing (sometimes the kids would continue to play while out of bounds, and the coach might need to stop them if they went too far, but if not, they just kept playing; nothing wrong with that).

  2. Kevin Sims, January 23, 2017 at 10:14 a.m.


  3. Ric Fonseca, January 23, 2017 at 1:07 p.m.

    Gee, this is the way I remember learning to play the game in the streets of Mexico City no refs or coaches, in front of our apartment, then even going to play in between the railroad tracks in the nearby railroad yard (my grandfather and uncles worked for the Mexican RRs back in the day) and then even going several kilometers to play in the wide open spaces of the Monument to the Revolution.... Ah yes, those were the days... Really, I know there may be some unbelievers out there, and unfortunately my family has dispersed and passed, those that could corroborate these words.

  4. Ric Fonseca, January 23, 2017 at 3:44 p.m.

    BTW, I forgot to include that I grew up in Mexico City on the 40's, then was brought to the US and settled in San Pablo, and Oakland during the 50's.Then, any memories of playing soccer have faded, but I remember the dirt "football field" in Frick Jr. High, then the overly used football field in Castlemont, but, alas, no actual futbol soccer, instead a version of kickball played on a baseball diamond. We weren't allowed to play soccer, sad to say.

  5. Bob Ashpole, January 23, 2017 at 6:10 p.m.

    Ouch. In grade school I played unorganized soccer on school playgrounds. No adults. No organized soccer. Coats on the ground for goals. A few times in high school we played in gym class and during early football pre-season training before training with a football was allowed. Nobody showed us, but we were doing cuts, stepovers, scissors and pullbacks. I don't remember, but am still certain the 1958 finals inspired a lot of us kids to play. Pele got a lot of coverage. I was in 3rd grade at the time. Maybe adults were influenced by the 1958 finals too.

  6. Dennis Mueller, January 23, 2017 at 7:50 p.m.

    When Bob Bradley coached youth teams in Princeton, while the games did have referees, he forbade the parents to coach or criticize referees from the sidelines. It was kind of surreal to see the games with one set of parents screaming their heads off at their kids and the referees and Bob's parents limiting themselves to "good play" and "nice try" with no "coaching" from the parents and very little from Bob during the games.

  7. Wooden Ships replied, January 23, 2017 at 8:58 p.m.

    Bradley did it right then. That's the way it was in St. Louis in the 50's, 60's and 70's. That should be a USSF youth mandate. Be an ass and loudmouth, bye bye.

  8. R2 Dad, January 24, 2017 at 11:50 p.m.

    Many coaches in the USA are like headless chickens running around the pitch, and they've trained their parents to be nattering nabobs of negativism. This development would be phenomenal for referees, as the new U8 parents would get 3 solid years under their belts of quietly watching and cheering their kids instead of buggering it up for everyone.

  9. frank schoon, January 25, 2017 at 9:59 a.m.

    They are just stabbing in the dark, hoping something will help improve the technical development of players. In street soccer there were no REFEREES, the kids made the rules, they were allowed to think for themselves, lead, and choose their leaders based on how good you were as a player, they created their own hierarchy. The kids earned respect by how good you were.
    Fortunately, there were no adults and no licensed coaches walking around in the streets ,telling the
    street soccer kids what to do and give directions .
    The kids just played and played gaining so much touch on the ball playing street soccer that today
    If every youth team had 10 A-licensed coaches per team , the kids still would not gain half the skill touch on the ball. But these organizations today have made another major move..ONE LESS REF! WOW!!!!! THAT WILL DO IT!!! And I'm sure the Soccer Coaches School will are whipping ,presently, a new exciting coaching course seminar called CreatIve Coaching With One Less Referee.

  10. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 10:39 a.m.

    Unstructured soccer is great for players, but it's a huge myth that that's all they need. Structure and coaching has been a major part of just about every single current professional player's development. That includes street soccer maestros like Ibrahimovic and the Brazilians.

  11. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 2:19 p.m.

    Jen - It takes both. You tend to look at things as black or white. The world is not binary, and that certainly goes for soccer development and learning in general. If street skills were the key to becoming a world class player, then all of these youtube sensations would be making millions playing in Champions League instead of wowing people on the street. How often do you see these street skills show up in a game? The truth is that the game is simpler in terms of the skills that it requires and much more team oriented than that. Where it is more complicated is the tactical side, and coaching is very important in this aspect. Street players have no concept of spacing, movement off the ball, vision, combination play, etc. and those things are much more important than whether or not you can meg a guy three times in a row or flip the ball up into your shirt.

  12. frank schoon replied, January 25, 2017 at 3:18 p.m.

    Don, You have no idea what "Street soccer' is for you never experienced it, like I did. The quote " Those things are much more important than whether or not you can meg a guy three times in a row or flip the ball up into your shirt." that quote is a reflection of what kids do today and that has nothing to do with street soccer era. I hardly ever practiced juggling when I was kid during the street soccer era but today I hear kids brag they can juggle a ball a thousand times( what a waste of time), We never talked about tricks in soccer in those days. We just just played, and played , learned moves and became great one on one players. We had a terrific touch on the ball. The tricks these kids can do with a ball today , I never saw as kid. You have no idea about street soccer and what it does. There is a reason why Cruyff said that "Street Soccer' was the best training grounds for kids.
    Do you think Cruyff meant doing tricks with a ball like you mentioned. Street soccer taught you how to position off the ball in a natural manner, finding space in narrow streets or alleys or when playing with 20 some kids in a narrow street , you naturally are forced to find space to get the ball and then being able to get out of a narrow space with the ball on your feet. It was in the narrow confines you learning where to find an open space in a natural manner, and use a teammate to get out of of find space. The positioning game was so much better in the street soccer era due to the environment the street soccer era kids played in. Today the kids have to be taught positional games to learn , which just came naturally for a street soccer era kid by simply playing. You learn vision everything and more than you by continually finding similar situations overtime you playing under these conditions. YOU SIMPLY HAVE NO CLUE WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT WHEN IT COMES TO WHAT A KID LEARNED IN THE "STREET SOCCER ERA".
    The kids from the street soccer era were street savvy and learned all the tactical and technical tricks. No licensed coach could teach "street savviness", that is not taught by these professorial types at a coaching school. Player coming from the street soccer era were more smarter than today's players who are told by a coach what to do.
    Kids spend hours passing balls to each other, against wall and in games they used curb for a give and go or a teammate.

  13. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 5:24 p.m.

    You guys have no concept of what a good coach is. To you, there are no good coaches, which is sad.

  14. frank schoon replied, January 25, 2017 at 6:02 p.m.

    Don, the statement "you have no concept what a good coach is ". Well, I do but not the way you see it. First, the very fact that use the term "coach' with young players is a misnomer. Like Cruyff stated , we don't want a coach for youth but trainers who guide the youth. The term coach is used for the finished product for the A -team .
    In other words it is all about development and not coaching youth. What is the difference between a trainer and a coach. Here the coach typically tells the youth don't do this or that within the team concept, but a trainer will say ,"go ahead and do it learn from and see what you think". Trainers are concerned more about the individual development as compared to a coach who is more team oriented..

  15. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 9:28 p.m.

    If you are going to let semantics cloud your common sense, then I will simply amend my statement: you have no concept what a good trainer looks like. Apparently, you have read about them, but you refuse to believe that it's possible for them to exist in this soccer wasteland know as the USA.

  16. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 9:32 p.m.

    Also, while I'm at it, I'll clarify the difference between a trainer and a coach for you. The trainer generally runs practice (i.e. training). The coach manages the team (i.e. manager). Most youth trainers/coaches are tasked with doing both. Calling them coaches in no way implies that the management duties are more important than the training duties.

  17. don Lamb replied, January 26, 2017 at 10:57 a.m.

    "Most here know reality..." YOU clearly don't. You think that there has been no change in the youth development landscape in the US in the last decade??????? You are crazy. I don't know the percentage of good coaches in the US because I don't pretend to know every single club and coach out there like you do. I do know that there are some great ones and that coaching has improved tremendously from the time when I was coming up 20 years ago. Do some research on the staffs at some of these MLS academies. Do you know who Oscar Pareja is? He is the first team coach at FCD and is heavily involved in their highly successful academy. Many other academies have GREAT coaches and are starting to produce real teenage prospects. LA, NYRB, RSL, Vancouver, Sounders, Philly, etc. etc. etc. have all made DRASTIC changes to the landscapes in their areas over the last 5 years.

  18. frank schoon, January 25, 2017 at 11:15 a.m.

    Don , in the beginning it is not about structure but about touch and skill. Tactics is introduced at Ajax to the youth when they are 14. Of course these licensed coaches , as soon as they receive their license can't wait and make use of their diploma.
    Obviously you can't be naive to think that I'm not for is when, that's the difference

  19. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 2:22 p.m.

    That is ridiculously naive, Frank. You are relying much to much on things that you have read. Ajax might not focus on 11v11 tactics until U14, but their kids are taught principles of the team game in ssg settings much earlier than that.

  20. frank schoon replied, January 25, 2017 at 2:47 p.m.

    Jen, they are guided and they are slip in a hint or so as what could be better but actually tactical things that are serious come at a later age. What you just said began under van Gaal in the early 90's and according to Johan Cruyff ,van Gaal ruined the Ajax youth program all this garbage. Van Gaal is one of those professorial types with a diploma who want to control everything the youth do, thus no creative players came out of the Ajax youth program. This is why you haven't heard any stars of the quality of a Kluivert, Bergkamp, van Basten coming out the Ajax youth system. This is why there was a Cruyff revolution a decade later bringing the street soccer philosophy of the old days back to Ajax.

  21. frank schoon, January 25, 2017 at 1:52 p.m.

    Don, realize there is structure in street soccer but not like you think it is. The structure comes playing in Mixed ages with the younger ones playing with the older ones who have more knowledge and play already with a team, or if not they have more experience. The youth are getting structure while playing. Note here today beginning players in youth all swarm after a ball because none of them know any better. But young beginners in street soccer don't swarm after a ball because the other players are already better and older and more experienced and therefore the young ones begin right away playing better because they play with BETTER PLAYERS!! It is so simple but these coaching organizations just don't get it...

  22. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 2:38 p.m.

    Jen - You talk like you have first hand knowledge of every single club in the US.

  23. frank schoon, January 25, 2017 at 2:38 p.m.

    Jen,These soccer organizations, as far as I'm concerned are a detriment to a youth's development, currently operating as they are.
    At Ajax the age group is combined with 2years. 10-12, 12-14,14-16. Each group has 2teams an A and B squad. So that the best on the A squad of 10-12 let us say moves up to the B squad of the 12-14, for example. Don't forget these kids play back home on sand lots no longer in streets like the old days, and still play pick up games with mixed ages.
    When I go on vacation back to Holland each year, I will stop the car and just watch kids play pick up games. I watched a dutch girl play with the boys every day.she's has become really good, I see her grow every year in soccer when I go back. Of course she is playing with boys which is better than playing with girls. When I go back to Amsterdam, I always go back to the street where I learned the game and sadly enough there are no kids as I when I played after school it was jampacked.

  24. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 4:32 p.m.

    If the recent development trend in the US is a detriment to development, explain why our production of actual professional players has increased exponentially since these highly structured programs that supposedly coach the kids to death have become the very grounds where these players are coming from.

  25. frank schoon replied, January 25, 2017 at 5:50 p.m.

    Don , you have to watch the MLS to see how Americans play and see what they can't and can do. There is where I judge the American players' abilities and sofar I'm not impressed in the least. After all the MLS is the weathervane of American soccer. I can barely take a college game for the 45min. Obviously you're not aware of what I see in these games that shouldn't happen or should happen...

  26. don Lamb replied, January 25, 2017 at 9:37 p.m.

    Frank - There is a humongous problem with your logic. The players you are watching in MLS are mostly range in age from mid 20s to low 30s. The players that I am talking about range in age from teenagers to 20-21. You are talking about the players that came up in a completely different system while I am talking about the net wave that is bringing the change that we have all been craving.

  27. don Lamb replied, January 26, 2017 at 10:51 a.m.

    Jen, if you believe that nothing has changed in the last 10 years regarding youth development in the US, then you might as well have been living in a cave. The ignorance of that statement is ludicrous. The academy system is not perfect, but it has improved the landscape dramatically. And the development of MLS academies is still taking shape. I don't know why I am surprised by you ignorance since you also knew nothing about the most famous academy in the world, la Masia, but you have seriously shown an ignorance that takes away ALL credibility.

  28. frank schoon, January 25, 2017 at 4:40 p.m.

    Jen, this is why we don't have good American one on one players. No tricky wingers , no great individualist types where upon the moment he has the ball goes on an adventure and the crowd stands up in anticipation for a nice move or play.
    All we have are grey mice types as they say in Holland.
    We have a lot piano carriers on the fields in the MLS or an old good player burned out in Europe nearing 40 still looks good even with a walker .

  29. don Lamb replied, January 26, 2017 at 11:50 a.m.

    42 18 year old players no professional contracts. Many more who are slightly older and younger. The progress is smacking you in the face, but you still claim it's not there.

  30. beautiful game, January 26, 2017 at 10:28 p.m.

    IMHO, the primary objective of a coach /trainer is to observe the raw qualities and soccer IQ of a player followed by honing these qualities at every level of development. If something works, use it. Over structuring the do's and don'ts is an impediment to development.

  31. Sam Dean, January 27, 2017 at 8:32 a.m.

    The move toward skills at an early age without the tactical emphasis until later is refreshing. I still see kick and run soccer at the U12 age and it is painful to watch.

  32. Bob Ashpole replied, January 27, 2017 at 9:43 p.m.

    Team tactics is delayed. Individual and small group tactics are taught as fundamentals.

  33. Sam Dean, January 27, 2017 at 8:35 a.m.

    Frank & Don, you both sound like hovering parents at a soccer game.

  34. don Lamb replied, January 27, 2017 at 8:54 a.m.

    I am completely invested in this stuff, so I feel passionately about setting the record straight. I am also obviously very passionate about youth development, and I know the best way for them to develop is to have a lot of guidance in training and freedom on the field, so you can trust that I am nothing like a hovering parent when I am training and interacting with players.

  35. frank schoon replied, January 27, 2017 at 10:48 a.m.

    Sam ,I grew up learning to play soccer in the streets of Amsterdam where you fight your own battles whereupon in those days to have your parents watch you play at games was not cool. Furthermore playing street soccer didn't have a coach to tell you what to do, instead you were left alone to develop.

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