By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching Instruction, Eastern New York Youth soccer Association
As I have alluded to in many of my recent articles, the last 24 months have seen some great and insightful reports on youth sports and soccer. I think all parents and coaches should read the Project Play Reports that can be found at:
And also the Nike Designed to Move report that can be found at:
If after reading these vital documents, you desire to learn more about youth sports and best practices in soccer, I would further recommend finding time to read and consider both US Soccer's Best Practices document and also my personal favorite US Youth Player Development Model document.
Having read all of the above and also read the US Olympic Committee publications on LTAD, I have grown increasingly concerned that the following factors are leading to youth soccer players playing both too many games and participating in insane sport participation regimes.
1. FREE play no longer exists. The days of kids organizing pickup games where they invent the rules, pick the teams and decide when to stop playing are long gone. Free play has been replaced by parents registering kids for as many teams as they possibly can.
2. In most families, parents are so busy trying to make life work and ensure their kids are in safe environment that they sign their kids up for as many sporting programs as they can squeeze in. They do so with little or no regard for conflicts that may arise through being on too many teams or more importantly overuse injuries that may start to develop.
3. The multi-sport bandwagon is rolling along and gaining momentum as it goes. The benefits of participating in and "sampling" a variety of sports at younger ages (6-12) have been well promoted.
4. Competing youth soccer organizations, in an attempt to out compete against the opposition, offer more and more games and tournaments. Driven by the belief that if they do not offer more games, cups, festivals etc. they will lose teams to their counterparts, all organizations are driven to offer evermore. Frequently, teams and players are now playing in two leagues, two or more cups and four or five tournaments per year.
5. Parents chasing excellence or the elusive scholarship and playing on premier teams demand more – it seems the belief that quantity and not quality is the answer to true player development and therefore the more leagues and tournaments we can play in, the better.
6. Professional trainers, often on pay per game or per session deals, understandably want more money and therefore more games is a great situation.
7. Tournaments – America loves a tournament. These events which generate huge amounts of $ for clubs yet make no "physical" sense at all seem ingrained in American sport culture. Whether it is the social, party atmosphere that kids associate with these events – what kid does not love running around a hotel and dinner with friends or the escape for a few social drinks that the parents get to enjoy? I confess to not really understanding these events. In soccer development terms, they make zero sense.
8. School sports – These seasons take the insanity of games per week and training sessions per season to truly foolish levels. How can any educational establishment conduct athletic programs that simply ignore all best educational principles on rest and recovery? How can schools be allowed to run programs that are detrimental to the health of their players?
The tragic and unfortunate outcome of all the above is that players aged 12-18 playing on many youth teams are now playing (including school games) and of course tournaments more than 100 games per year.
Several issues should worry any concerned soccer coach or educator
1. Given that all best practice documents recommend a maximum of 20 games per year between the ages of 10-14 and 30 games per year between the ages of 14-18, how can the norm be so far away from the suggested best?
2. Given that the suggested ratio of practices to games is 3:1 (see chart below), how can any team be managing to practice 300 times per year.
Recommended Training Sessions to Match Ratio
Under-6: 1 day per week of 45 minutes duration, ratio of 1:1*
Under-8: 1 day per week of 45-60 minutes duration, ratio of 1:1
Under-10: 2 days per week of 60-75 minutes duration, ratio of 2:1
Under-12: 2-3 days per week of 75 minutes duration, ratio of 2:1 or 3:1
Under-14: 3 days per week of 75-90 minutes duration, ratio of 3:1
Under-16: 3 days per week of 90 minutes duration, ratio of 3:1 or 4:1
Under-18 : 4-5 days per week of 90-120 minutes duration, ratio of 4:1 or 5:1
Source – US Youth Player Development Model
3. As the majority of our youth players are multi-sport athletes given the figures above and participation in other sports, how and when do players get to rest?
4. How many players are getting the recommended two-month or extended rest period that is required for their bodies to be able to compete and train at high intensity?
What should be obvious is that a sensible sports diet plan is vital for any family or team. We must realize that rest is as important as playing and that at times it may be more beneficial not to play than it is to play.
If your kid has no real passion for any one sport and if you can resist the urge to comply to the year-round demands that many sports now place on kids, then at younger ages a sports sampling diet is indeed truly beneficial. The broad-based physical literacy benefits have shown to produce excellence later in life. This sampling program where a kid tries one or two sports per season, four or five sports a year- perhaps as example –
Winter sport – Basketball.
Spring Sports – Soccer.
Summer – Beach Volleyball.
Fall – Swimming and Tennis.
Is perhaps one that can be managed to allow full enjoyment of each as a sports sampling program. The unfortunate TRUTH is that all sports now pursue a year-round commitment at very young ages and therefore such a program is very difficult to adhere to.
A word about early specialization
I grew up in the UK, where like many youngsters my heroes were of course the players from the local professional team, Stoke City. I got their uniforms (strips) for Christmas and birthdays. I could only ever envisage being a professional player on the team one day. Long story cut short, I fell in love with the game at a very early age and although I played a little bit of rugby, nothing was ever going to get in the way of my soccer games. Later in life, when studying for a teaching degree in London, I still had the same passion for the game as when I was seven and continued to play at a High level, my mantra continued, the game came first. The point of the story is this, I fully understand the benefits of trying and sampling a variety of sports. However, when I consider my own experience, I have to say that great joy, friendships, life lessons, enjoyment and perhaps a little excellence can also come from a young player deciding this sport is my love and I will commit myself to this one love.
This being the case, I suggest the following
1. Try and gauge which sport your child seems to truly enjoy and find a good developmental environment for them to learn the game within. For soccer, consider number of games, number of practices and quality of environment.
2. Decide and research which sports are good cross-training sports to the game and may help provide a good balance for your child (for soccer volleyball, swimming and basketball)
3. Find out what the practice schedule is for each event and ensure no conflicts exist. Prioritize which games get full commitment and are the number one priority.
4. Try to find good developmentally-appropriate environments with qualified coaches for all sports.
5. Calculate and decide the maximum amount of time and games that is healthy for your child to participate in each calendar year.
6. Plan when they will get the recommended two months rest from organized sports.
One of the most unfortunate outcomes of way too many games and practices is the well documented “burn out” syndrome. The tragic numbers of youth players leaving sports can be a culture we change. This will not happen unless more coaches, parents and educators begin to speak up and suggest sensible sports diets for all their players.