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Youth soccer guest commentary — We're doing it wrong: Players aren't born with talent

The motivation to continue to practice deeply depends fundamentally on the child’s enjoyment of the activity. The more interested in, and passionate about, soccer a child is, the more he or she will push himself or herself to improve.
The motivation to continue to practice deeply depends fundamentally on the child’s enjoyment of the activity. The more interested in, and passionate about, soccer a child is, the more he or she will push himself or herself to improve.
Christopher Futcher, iStock photo

Editor's note: This is the first of a series discussing some of the important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of Paul Mairs and Richard Shaw in their essential book, "Coaching Outside the Box." This series was originally published on the Philly Soccer Page.


While waiting for my 8-year-old son to finish training on a recent night at my local indoor soccer facility, I sat down with my younger son to watch the finals of a U-10 tournament.

What I witnessed, frankly, disturbed me.

I saw 9-year-olds being screamed at by irate parents and coaches. I saw teammates yelling blame at each other with tears in their eyes. I saw some of them so tense and afraid of making a mistake that they could barely take a swing at the ball. I saw parents cursing each other out on the sidelines.

And I had only been watching for five minutes.

What am I getting my boys into? Are these supposedly “best” soccer clubs in the area the place I really want my children to grow into and learn about the sport I love so dearly? Is this good for kids? Does this make them better players?

I love soccer. I grew up in a soccer family and have played all my life. My kids really like it too, and are just starting to enter the world of youth soccer development. How can I ensure they enjoy their experience? Are they talented enough to make it? How can I as a parent help them succeed in the sport? And what exactly do talent and success mean anyway?

I am also a pediatrician. Having decent knowledge of early childhood development and psychology, I’m often asked by parents about decisions that must be made concerning their family’s involvement in soccer. When is too early for travel programs? Is it bad to commit to a single sport? Am I driving them too hard? Should I push them even though they say they don’t want to play?

Soccer has been the No. 1 youth sport for several decades now in one of the richest and most populous countries in the world, and yet, we can all agree that we still have a long way to go before we match the level of countries that have but a fraction of our resources. Why?

I’ve had the privilege of living and playing soccer in Italy, one of the world’s biggest producers of soccer stars, and their youth soccer environment looks nothing like the scene I witnessed above. In the U.S., nearly 80 percent of the children who play soccer drop out before they reach 13. That is a staggering amount of children deciding that soccer isn’t for them anymore. What’s going on here?

I have only just entered the world of youth soccer. While growing up the son of a very successful youth soccer coach, I have never done any formal coaching. I hold no USSF licenses. I’ve never had to endure being yelled at by an overzealous parent on the sidelines or dealt with the pressure to succeed as a coach. I would never criticize any person who volunteers their time to help kids play soccer. But for those who do make a living off of youth soccer, I think the parents, and most importantly the kids, deserve the best we can offer them.

There are experts worldwide who devote their entire lives to the research of youth development, talent and sports achievement. Much of what I will write about is heavily influenced by (and borrowed from) the work of Paul Mairs and Richard Shaw in their book, "Coaching Outside the Box," essential reading on the topic, in my opinion. Their vast collection of both empirical research and expert opinion conveys a convincing indictment of the current youth soccer system. I hope to bring justice to their message.

It goes without saying that not everyone is doing it wrong. Things have definitely improved since my early days of playing. I feel especially fortunate and grateful to the volunteers and coaches my children have encountered so far.

Talent

While the orgin is nebulous, I think most would agree the result of talent manifests as the ability to accomplish a certain set of specific and difficult skills at a very high level.

Let me tell you a little secret about talent:

You’re not born with it.

The erroneous belief that some kids just have it, and others don’t, is what leads to so many of the mistakes we make with youth soccer. While it is true there are small genetic differences that may give some children a slight advantage over others, this contribution does not determine, or even contribute significantly, to future success.

I’ve never met an infant who can play Mozart, solve quadratic equations, or juggle a soccer ball.

If talent was inborn, then why are the majority of Canadian hockey players born in the first few months of the year, as pointed out by Malcom Gladwell in "Outliers"?

If abilities, like speed, were simply the result of the blending of your parents’ genes, then why are the top seven most recent world-record holders in the 100-meter dash all born toward the end of the birth order in their families?

If greatness was a fleeting stroke of good fortune, then how is it possible the poor, single-court Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow can produce more world No. 1 players than the United States?

In his book, "The Talent Code," Daniel Coyle answers many of these questions as he investigates talent hotbeds across the globe that produce incredibly, disproportionately high volumes of talent.

What’s the secret?

Practice

As the original work by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericson found, most of those who we would consider to be gifted with tremendous talent have typically needed at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve their mastery.

But that’s not the whole story. As Coyle explains, talent derives from deep, focused practice in those who are passionate and guided by master coaches. The scientific mechanism of skill acquisition is now understood in a revolutionary way.

The revolution is built on three simple facts. First, every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons — a circuit of nerve fiber. Second, myelin is the insulation wrapping these nerve fibers and increases the signal strength, speed, and accuracy. Third, the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes the circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

It seems obvious then with respect to soccer the more time a child spends with a ball at their feet, the better they will become. But to maintain that level of practice, children must be motivated, and that is the trick.

The motivation to continue to practice deeply depends fundamentally on the child’s enjoyment of the activity. The more interested in, and passionate about, soccer a child is, the more he or she will push himself or herself to improve.

There is a sweet spot in learning where this mechanism of myelin wrapping circuits is at its best. A critical component of quality practice does not come from rote repetition of easy skills, rather from pushing the boundaries of one’s current abilities. Each time a mistake is made in deep practice, the brain assesses the circuits used in the skills and rewards the circuits that are getting in right.

As Coyle points out, the people in these talent hotbeds are purposefully seeking out activities that are difficult where they are making lots and lots of mistakes. They take their time, focus on their errors and repeat the process until the mistakes begin to disappear and the correct movements fire more effeciently.

Mistakes are the currency of learning

This sweet spot of myelin remodeling in the brain is supported by the 100-year-old Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal. Typically represented by an inverted-U line graph, it shows that initially, as arousal (motivation, stress, etc.) increases, so does performance. But only up to a point. As stress increases beyond this “sweet spot,” performance quickly declines. More recent research into glucocorticoids (stress hormones) has confirmed that as blood levels of these stress hormones increase, new memory formation declines.

Children are not tiny adults. They are not motivated by the same factors we are, and they do not experience stress in the same way we do. What many adults fail to realize is their sweet spot for performance is often much lower on the stress scale than it is for us. So what’s the most important ingredient for motivation in childhood?

Fun

As soon as children perceive an activity to no longer be fun, their learning declines. As NSCAA Soccer Journal Editor, Dr. Jay Martin, points out, “The No. 1 reason they stop playing is that they are no longer having fun. That is a real problem.”

For a child to improve their skills and abilities, they must willingly submit themselves to the possibility of failure. This will only happen in an environment that is free of excess pressure, embarrassment and ridicule. Enjoyment of the sport is critical for development.

As Giovanni Trapattoni, the most successful coach in the history of Italy’s Serie A, put it, “If we have to deprive a player of the right to make mistakes, then we’d best hang up everything and go home.”

Scott is a pediatrician and father of two active boys (who he is teaching to say "American football" for the pointy ball sport). You can follow him on Twitter @spugger77.