Monthly Archives: July 2014

Don’t Play it Safe

It is disheartening to see so many American youth league games that look more like kickball than soccer.  ”Bobby – you’re playing defense, so if the ball comes to you just kick it forward as hard as you can…”  This “safety-first model” is designed to win – not develop, and is a bigger problem than most realize.  If players are not allowed to play out of pressure, then they are simply giving the ball away and will be forced to defend all the time.  Nobody who plays soccer wants to just kick the ball.  Every player wants to enjoy having it, to do something special with it.  Let’s first observe that Germany just played in its fourth consecutive semifinal – and won its fourth World Cup playing a proactive possession game – while the U.S. – which relied on scrappy defending and long clearances in 3 out of 4 games – were happy to escape its group.  Belgium, which beat the Americans in the knockout stage, dominated the game not because of any athletic edge, but because of technical superiority.

This level of technical proficiency comes from practice.  Specifically, it comes from repetition – learning how to control the ball using various surfaces and further honed during increasingly pressurized situations.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it starts with the player.  It’s kind of like a chicken and the egg scenario; if a young player is technically proficient with the ball, he’ll have more confidence and likely be willing to try something new (crazy 1v1 move; risky pass; etc.).  If he’s confident on the ball, he’ll want more practice to become even better so he can try more things.

Looks like it worked for this guy; he was pretty good:

(I had so much fun watching that I found another one, since this guy wasn’t bad either):

The moves these greats executed were not invented by some youth coaching guru at an academy.  They were born from a playful, inventive attitude that exists in free play – not from drills.  As free play time has gone the way of the dinosaur, it is absolutely critical for coaches to create an environment during training (and games) that provides children with the freedom to explore and try new things without fear of failure.  The last thing coaches and parents should do is stifle creativity.  Kids by their nature want to try new things; this is something we should encourage and foster – not take away.

Every player – young and old – makes mistakes.  We must let young players learn from them.  Encouraging kids to merely “play it safe” will not foster the type of player that will make the National Team better – or become a professional – or play in college.  Such players will ultimately quit the game because it will no longer be fun.  Perhaps even more disheartening is the overall attitude this engenders.  What happens to young people who are taught to fear mistakes rather than try something bold?

It’s time for parents and youth coaches to foster a playing environment that inspires players to try the spectacular and not be afraid of mistakes.  It’s not the mistake that counts.  It’s how the player responds to it that matters.  Let players learn different positions.  Let them try the new dribbling move they’ve practiced.  During training, give them a fair amount of time to play without continuous interruption.

Inspire young players to learn the game on their own, and they’ll learn so much more.