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Making Friends and Mixed Ability Teaching

By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching Instruction, Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association

One of the main reasons that parents initially place their children in youth soccer programs is to make friends. The other top reasons all fit the social skills bracket: Parents want their kids in sports to learn to get along with others, learn to cooperate or play nice and if, as an aside, they have great fun, all is good.

I have yet to meet a parent who starts their child’s soccer journey by saying, “No, they can’t play on that team they have no friends there." Indeed most parents realize that the very reason they have them in sports is to make new friends and meet new kids. The truth is very clear and very simple, the majority of kids make new friends quickly in all environments they are placed within, school, summer camps, dance class, karate and, of course, soccer programs. Indeed, they are likely to make new friends quickly in all situations and as such their social and cooperation skills grow.

Hold onto this thought as we will come back to it later.

Mixed ability teaching is a difficult task at best. I know very few professional coaches who can plan and execute a developmentally appropriate training session, full of mixed ability progressions that ensures all players are challenged at their own ability. Even those aware of the theories of Mossant (slanty line) and expansion (providing as many learning experiences within a practice as possible) still struggle to offer sessions which ensure all are challenged. The statistics are commonly known and unfortunate – in a mixed ability session with an experienced and qualified coach – the bottom 30% get sacrificed the top 30% get sacrificed and the middle 40% get a decent deal.

Even with the most skilled coach, highly qualified and fully aware of the mixed ability nature of his/her players, planning progressions which ensures all are challenged at the appropriate level is a very difficult task. THIS MEANS that if we can avoid grouping kids in a random fashion, which ensures mixed ability teams in training, we should do so. Surely, all parents and coaches want players in sessions where they feel challenged and are engaged. Where the learning environment includes rather than excludes them and their ability to grow.

Let’s make 2 2=4. If you have been following along then these truths are undeniable.

1. Kids make friends quickly.
2. Parents want their children to have enhanced social skills.
3. Parents want their kids to be able to relate to and cooperate with kids from different cultures and situations than their own.
4. Mixed ability teaching is difficult.
5. In mixed ability sessions, the weakest and the strongest typically get sacrificed and remain unchallenged (they get bored).
6. If clubs can place kids in appropriate “banded groups by ability at this time,” all in the group would both make new friends and have a soccer experience that challenged them, helped their development and is FUN.

I know you are reading this and thinking – yes it all makes sense, let’s do the right thing and ensure our kids are in suitable educational environments where new friends abound.

So for all the parents reading this consider how you both would and should react the next time a club say to you, “We have placed Tim in Group B as this is the best environment at this time for him to learn the game. We know his best friends are in another group but we are confident he will make new friends, learn the game, be challenged and HAVE FUN.”

I think you all know the very common response to the scenario above, I think it may be time we reevaluate the reason why we have our kids play sports.