By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching Instruction, Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association
People hate change and, based upon actions I observe and comments I hear, most people would prefer the status quo and go down with a sinking ship than go about doing things differently. As I have written and presented about on numerous occasions, youth sports in the US has issues. At the heart of many of the problems is the simple truth that many coaches and parents put winning before development. They are more happy for their child’s team to have a winning record than to see their child learn to master the fundamental skills and ideas of the game.
The problem is more serious than that, I believe. It would be true to say that a large number of parents and coaches, given a choice between development or winning––you can have one or the other, would unfortunately jump to the give me the win, nothing else matters, position very quickly. Leagues, clubs, governing bodies and administrators frequently caught up in the moral dilemma of “We can do what is right by the players or we can try to placate the parents (in the hope we do not lose some registrations)," unfortunately have often been forced into decisions based on self-preservation.
So US Soccer, in a brave and amazing move, recently made sweeping changes to the game format across all leagues and clubs. That is right, regardless of which banner you play under and claims to the contrary, within the next 12 months, all will be playing from the progression in numbers from 4v4, 7v7, 9v9 and 11v11 model. This decisive and sweeping change was brave enough and had player development at its heart. Thankfully in some situations they went even further to protect the game and player development and so we have the 7v7 build out line.
The concept is a simple one. On any goal kick, the opposing team is forced to drop behind a line on the field (equidistant between the edge of the penalty area and the half way line) until the goalkeeper's pass leaves the goal area. Brilliant! Even better, goal keepers in this age group are no longer allowed to punt the ball (mindlessly down the field to their lone forward, who is often heavily outnumbered). At last changes in the game that make developmental sense.
Admittedly the change only makes sense if you understand the following logical recipe:
1. Players learn and develop by touching the ball in a controlled fashion.
2. Players learn to make decisions by having the ball and being allowed to decide what to do with it (without fear as the driver).
3. The more passes a team plays, the more each player touches the ball and, therefore, the more they learn about the game.
4. Any team or coach who states they are most invested in player development is therefore honor bound to play a possession-based game. Yes. playing style and formation do have a direct impact on player development.
5. Possession soccer starts with the goalkeeper playing a calm and short pass to his nearest supporting player.
6. This pass causes the chain reaction in which passing and possession breaks out and player development occurs.
There are not many hard and fast rules in soccer but the recipe presented above for player development at younger ages is without doubt something we should enthusiastically encourage.
Thankfully, US Soccer understood this and initiated the build-out line described above. How do I know people hate change, because despite all of the above there are those that say they hate the build out line but put player development first? For the record, this statement makes no sense. It’s a bit like the parents who claim they know the screaming hurts and yet go to every game and yell at their child every time they touch the ball.
This rule change presents a chance for a real tipping point, a change in culture where learning skills and having fun get placed as a priority before win, win, win. This will only happen if all concerned coaches, refs, educators and administrators take the time to both support this change and teach parents what it is all about.
As I said, not many absolutes in soccer but the build-out line idea is one we can bank on.