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“The age at which players can realistically, due to physical and intellectual development, be expected, with sensible effort, to master certain techniques and tactics.”
Tim Bradbury, ENYYSA Director of Coaching Instruction
The readiness debate, due to the following characteristics of the game and how it is taught in America, is one which all professional soccer educators, club officials and soccer parents should be aware of. The following factors should all be considered in forming any training curriculum for youth players.
? Practice Time/Soccer Time
The majority of youth players between the ages of 5 and 10 practice a maximum of twice a week for approximately 60 to 90 minutes. Due to such time restrictions, as well as the sporadic nature of “soccer time” (the total amount of time that a player has spent with a ball in practice, recreation and games) prior to this age, most professional coaches could agree on a curriculum which examines moves, first-touch, passing and possession at the core of the curriculum. Conversely, if the practice schedule was four sessions per week and the “soccer time” prior to this age was high, perhaps instep striking, overhead kicks and zonal defense could be taught instead.
? Educational Theory
In devising a soccer curriculum for youth players, it is essential to consider their cognitive development. The theories of Piaget and the manner in which it is possible for a 7-year-old to see and understand the world, MUST affect how and what we teach. For example, it is simply counterproductive for a 6-year-old to focus on possession work when they cannot yet fully grasp the concept of space or sharing.
? Physical Development
In devising a soccer curriculum for youth players, it is essential to consider their physical development. Although the debates on levels of physical fitness and flexibility regimes seem to be cyclical in nature, certain truisms must be reflected in how and what we teach. For example, if it is probable that formally stretching 5- and 6-year-olds does more damage to their bodies than it does good, then formal stretching for players of this age should be removed form any suggested training programs.
? The Modern Game
Perhaps the easiest way to look at how the game has evolved is to look at the ball itself. Fifty years ago in England, the professional game was played with a leather ball which when wet became heavier than lead. At such a time, to swerve the ball with the outside of the foot was practically a physical impossibility. Now a team of “nuclear physicists” designs the World Cup ball over a period of four years using synthetic materials that NASA would be proud of. This expert knowledge and scientific advancements produce a modern day ball that is tolerant to any amount of rain, temperature and pressure swings, and can be swerved (by the likes of Beckham and Carlos) to degrees that leave goalies and spectators bewildered.
Changes in attitudes towards nutrition, and advancements in training methods for modern athletes have all helped produce quicker more athletic players at all ages. In the glory days of fifty years ago (with the lead ball), the idea of a player like Mia Hamm flicking-up the ball, skipping a tackle, taking off on a sprint and then toe-poking a precision pass to a teammate would have been ludicrous. After all, the ball was way too heavy to flick-up, so why teach them that? And of course, passing with the toe is a big no-no! If our forefathers only knew!
? Cultural Impact
Newspapers, magazines, television shows, and of course, teachers have all attempted to document what they consider to be radical changes in attitudes. Apparently, the days of being able to play in the street and leave the door open are now a fond memory. We now live in a time where locking our children up safely in the house with blinds closed is sadly the norm (thus, impacting the frequency of “soccer time.”)
One of the most current social attitudes of all is the desire for immediate rewards or winning at all costs. And it is perhaps this attitude that drives parent coaches to bring unrealistic objectives to practice as they strive for the next big win with their U-6 team.
If professional players run six miles before practice and work on free kicks for 2 hours each day, can we accelerate our 6-year-olds to this level by simply doubling the work? This perspective is sadly prevalent today and contradicts the fundamental premise that soccer learning should be an extended “journey” and not a quick trip.
Simply because you saw the New York Power play 3 V. 1 in their warm up, does not mean it is suitable for your 5-year-olds.
? Coaching Impact and Current Knowledge
There can be no debate that the game has indeed evolved significantly and continues to do so. Better athletes, better equipment, comprehensive video analysis of techniques, combined with a more acute understanding of educational theory are but a few of the factors that have led to new techniques being tried, learned and applied. No “good” coach can rest on his or her laurels and assume that the way they were taught and what they were taught MUST be the only way to learn and teach the game. The days of one ball at practice and long lines of players waiting in turn to have “their go” are gone forever.
? Family Matters
As previously stated, the amount of “soccer time” undoubtedly affects a player’s ability to master new techniques and concepts. Those youngsters lucky enough to have been socially immersed in the game from an early age, playing in the garden against an older brother or sister, ultimately have had a huge amount of “soccer time” compared to the first-born of a family with a mom and dad who have never kicked a ball.
Mixed-ability teams (which differ greatly in their levels of “soccer time”) should be approached with a customized teaching method and adaptable curriculum. Any experienced youth coach working with 5- or 6-year-olds will have designed practices and games that are easily adaptable to different levels. All players participating within a mixed-ability group should be ultimately challenged at their own individual level.
? Low Expectations
The majority of volunteer parents with little or no playing experience often have difficulties performing many of the basic techniques of the game. This lack of playing experience (and demonstration ability), frequently leads to low expectations being set for the players. Parent coaches who cannot demonstrate a drag back turn are reluctant to teach it and far too frequently jump to the belief that the suggested skill is far too difficult for the 5-year-old player.
Therefore, it is essential that any parent coach designing their own training programs refuse to be captured by the limits of their own playing and demonstration ability. Simply because you cannot juggle does not mean it is a skill that should not be introduced to even the youngest players.
? Why the Debate?
Any debate on “readiness” is good for the game, coaches and players. Informed discussion and passionate disagreement can only serve to ensure that we continue to provide contemporary ideas on appropriate training methods, techniques and tactics, and when and how they should be taught.