Editor's note: This is the second 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.
When it comes to youth soccer clubs, ask yourself this question:
Is the primary focus on what the club can do for the young player, or what the young player can do for the club?
Unfortunately in the U.S., our cultural beliefs idealize winning as the sole marker of success. As Paul Mairs and Richard Shaw note, many clubs are driven by an “insatiable appetite for winning, instantaneous gratification, and a premature focus on what is best for the team instead of focusing on the development of each individual player.”
A quick perusal of the majority of local clubs’ websites — plastered with photos of their teams holding trophies, boasting of goals totals for elementary school kids — will confirm this observation.
Believing these clubs must be doing a good job, parents are happy to drive their children great distances and freely open their wallets to provide the best opportunities possible. What they fail to realize is this culture of winning can have a significant negative impact not only on their children’s enjoyment of the sport, but ultimately on their development as well. It is a vicious cycle pushing clubs to advertise their trophies rather than their retention and improvement of players’ abilities.
In their publication "Foundations of Sports and Exercise Psychology," Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould explain the critical factors contributing to early withdraw from sports are a lack of enjoyment, excessive pressure and an overemphasis on winning. In fact, if you ask young soccer players for reasons why they enjoy playing soccer, “winning” isn’t even in the top 10 most common answers. As adults, we hijack their experience to satisfy our purposes.
All too frequently, games represent the “big stage” and are overhyped by parents and coaches. For instance, listen to pregame “pep-talks” and you’ll too often hear coaches saying things like: “This team is really good, you guys are going to have to bring your A-game if you want to beat them.” Or, “Remember, if we don’t play smart out there, they’re going to punish us.” Or, “If you don’t work hard, I’m going to sub you out.” Or, “Last time we played them, they beat us on a bad penalty call. We owe them this time!”
The great majority of young soccer players already want to do their best; they don’t take the field with the plan of playing poorly. The research is clear: these types of pregame talks actually inhibit young players’ performances by pushing them beyond their “sweet spot” level of arousal.
As we discussed in the last post, the optimum environment for learning occurs when the brain is pushed just beyond its comfort zone. However, in an overly pressured, competitive environment, tension and anxiety build to the point that performance, fun and learning suffer. In soccer, children need to have the freedom to be courageous and try new skills they have not yet mastered. They need to exercise their circuits that allow them to think creatively and develop their on-field problem solving. Instead, the pressure placed on them by adults to produce a win shapes their play into avoidance of mistakes as the primary goal rather than accomplishing difficult feats.
The pressure doesn’t end with the final whistle. Many coaches sit players down for extended periods to go over their individual mistakes and what they could have done to win the game. Further, parents continue this dissection in the parking lot and car ride home. Children are clear that these postgame assessments do nothing but suck the last drops of fun from their experience.
What do players like Maradona, Gerrard, Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez have in common with each other and so many other soccer greats? During their early soccer careers, they all regarded a soccer ball as a toy, rather than a tool. The street ball environment of mixed ages and abilities, without coaches, parents and trophies, allowed these youngsters the freedom to be creative. By having fun, they were happy to play for hours and hours without getting burned out. Research on elite athletes confirms these champions only began to approach competition from a more serious perspective in their later stages of development (often as teenagers).
What is the purpose of games then, if not winning?
Games at this stage of development should be used primarily for learning. This is not just the musing of one idealistic pediatrician. It is supported by elite soccer clubs and coaches throughout the world. Well-informed coaches realize success is not equivalent to winning. Studies on top-level youth academies in England showed, “Despite the elite nature of the programs, winning was de-emphasized; no scores or league positions were kept. The focus was on improving and developing individual players rather than the team’s win/loss record.”
As Dean Whitehouse, a youth coach at Manchester United, puts it:
"It is crucial that everyone understands that games should be utilized for learning, and players feel that they have the freedom to express themselves. We realize that the final score is not as important as learning at this moment. If young players are pressured to win every time they step on the field, they will not receive the opportunities that are vital to their development, nor will they feel confident about practicing and implementing new skills or ideas."
This is how elite coaches approach games. Their egos are tough enough to accept a losing record in favor of a win for their players’ development. Even though many coaches in the U.S. understand this sentiment, the cultural pressure to perform is too great, and they resort to quick fixes for short-term results.
Games provide children powerful opportunities for learning and enjoyment of soccer. If we want players to continue their involvement in soccer and unlock their potential, we must use games for learning. When clubs place an emphasis on winning as the ultimate goal, children bear the burden of adult egos at the cost of their personal development.
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.