The Journey is The Destination
What are the most important years in a young player development? What should us, the coaches, focus on? What should the parents do?
Almost a year ago, I became the head coach of a U10 boys team (currently U11). Most of them played soccer for a few years already, and while they were pretty skillful on some areas, they lacked the basic (proper) skills on almost every aspect of the game. Yes, they all knew how to pass, shoot, or dribble, but technically it was incorrect.
These skills are at the foundation of any soccer player and they will be used for the rest of their lives. As the players grow and these habits are not corrected, it is clear that it is harder and harder to change them. So with the full support of my staff we embarked on our journey. When you played soccer for a few years and you think you know them all, working on the basics does not sound very exciting, so both the players and coaches need to approach this with a lot patience. However, we live in a time where everybody expects immediate results, so you questions arise all the time about your approach. Whether dealing with parents, players, or even yourself, you have to constantly advocate that this is a process, a long, but very rewarding journey in the end.
You might say, we know this, so what's the problem. Well, I think this is the biggest issue that I see youth development. Almost everybody I know thinks and acts with the ultimate goal of wining. They see THIS as the ultimate goal of player development. The parents want to win, the players want to win, at any cost, and NOW.
Don't get me wrong, I love winning, and when playing, whether is a pickup game in the park or the Sunday league game, I give everything I have to win the game. But this is not about me as a player, I am now a big part of these player's future soccer career, so I will forget what looks good on me "winning", and think only about what's good for them "developing the right way".
Most of the people I know in the soccer world say that they do not coach to win and only care about player development, but from thought to reality is a very, very long way. Of course, if you read this post, and we know each other, you are not one of them :). But, what if you are? What if I am from time to time?
The pressure to win is out there, at every practice, at every game. Whether direct or indirect, people ask you all the time about winning. The first question everyone asks me after a game is how did we do, and if we lost, I get a very polite way, "That is OK". Of course it is OK, but the way it is said, even if I know everything we do is according to the plan, I almost feel the need to defend the loss, to apologize for it.
In all these years, I was never asked the right question, "How did the boys play? Are they improving?" No, it all comes down to "did you win?" and in my opinion, this is what is fundamentally wrong in soccer development.
So what's wrong with winning in youth soccer? There is nothing wrong with winning, but when it comes to expense of doing things right, everything is wrong about winning. And from what I'm seeing around, the overwhelming majority of coaches will choose winning every day.
I see coaches at U8--U10 spending precious practice time talking about tactics, advanced positioning, when the boys simply cannot kick the ball properly - toe-poking anyone? At the games, booting a ball as far and as quickly as possible, is greeted loudly not only by all the parents, but by an enthusiastic coach. Just a few weeks ago, we played one of the top two team in standings, and one of the defender desperately boots the ball from the half line like there is no tomorrow. The funny part is that he almost scores and the coach screams "Golazo" and not to mention the parents. Toe poking was the preferred method of defending and just put a great player forward, and guess what, winning is assured.
I believe that these are the most critical years in the development of a player, so we as coaches, should all stop worrying about winning and just focus on player development. And if your parents complain about your record, as long as you see your players improving, just politely invite them to cheer the team.