In my last article, “Inadvertently Failing Our Players,” I stated that relying on FUN games limits young soccer players’ growth and development, hindering them from reaching their full potential. The beauty of soccer is that it is simple to play – all you need is a ball, objects for goals, and a few friends. This simplicity and accessibility make it a game that can be played anytime and anywhere.
However, as adults, we often feel the need to micromanage our children’s activities, including their sports participation. When they are given the opportunity to ‘play-freely,’ children can experiment with different techniques and strategies, develop their creativity, and build problem-solving skills. They can create their own rules and challenges and, in the process, learn how to resolve conflicts and make decisions on their own.
In my opinion, our players do not play freely (pick-up soccer) simply because no one has taught them how! I am positive that many of you don’t believe me. So, I encourage you to try the following experiment at your next practice…
Get to the field at your usual time and lay all your equipment, balls, cones, flags, goals, etc., in one central spot. As the players arrive, greet them and tell them you will meet them by the equipment. Pretend to be occupied with something a distance away from the gathering spot. Stay occupied until one of your players has the courage to come to you and ask, “What do you want us to do?’
It is crucial that you do not give a directive response like, “Go ahead and Warm-up!” But say, “I will be right with you!” and continue to stay away.
I have conducted this experiment in more than 30 states in the USA and twice in Canada. The teams and players used in the experiment ranged from U6 to U18 Olympic Development players. The results were almost always the same,
The younger players would impatiently sit around and toss grass at each other or put cones on their heads and sit on their balls. Most older players would serenely lay in the grass, listening to something in their headphones. Rarely would players take the initiative to juggle or even pass the ball around. When eventually asked, “What are you waiting for?” The universal response was, “We are waiting for the coach to tell us what to do!”
Sadly, not even once did any of the players take the initiative to ‘lay-out’ a field and start playing soccer.
What does this have to do with our player’s lack of development? Anyone who has traveled abroad will tell you that it is only a matter of time before you come across children playing soccer in pick-up games. We also know that ALL world-class players learned to play in pick-up games organized by older kids in their neighborhood. Yes, they discovered the ‘tricks of the trade’ in free-style games where they experimented and failed to succeed.
Think about it, while our children wait for their parents to drive them to the next practice and then wait for the coach to tell them what to do. Children worldwide walk to the nearest open area in their neighborhood and adjust it to be soccer playable. Strange as it may seem, no one has ever seen them organize a ‘drill’ of any kind. They use what is available and ‘lay out’ the environment to start playing their version of soccer. Why aren’t our players doing the same?
Our current practice environment is coach-controlled, where the coach directs all aspects of the practice, from laying out cones and handing out bibs to choosing teams and starting the games. While this approach may seem efficient, it can unintentionally teach players that they cannot play soccer without adult assistance, hindering their development.
To overcome this limitation and encourage player development, we must teach our players to take responsibility for laying out cones and handing out bibs to choosing teams and starting the games.
To encourage player autonomy and responsibility, here is a Five-Step Process:
Step 1. EXPLANATION –Be Brief!
- Communicate in simple everyday language.
- Create “buzz words” or phrases that highlight key points.
- Consider the attention span of your players.
- Ask questions to ensure understanding.
- Repeat instructions but only if necessary.
(What I Hear, I Might Remember!)
Step 2. DEMONSTRATION – Show, Don’t Just Tell!
- Show the players visually how to lay out each playing environment.
- Use items such as cones, flags, shoes, or bags.
- Show the difference between field sizes like a 1vs.1 field and a 2vs.1 field.
- Show the difference in the number of players involved in each game.
- Encourage players to ask questions and offer feedback.
(What I See, I Might Remember)
Step 3. ACTION – Good Repetition Will Lead to Success!
- Have players show that they can correctly layout your requested environment.
- Help only those who need help.
- Allow players to learn from their mistakes.
(‘What I Do, I Will Eventually Understand!’)
Step 4. ASSIGN HOME PLAY
- Encourage players to play soccer outside of practice.
- The key to dramatic player improvement is playing soccer (pick-up games)
- Whenever and Wherever possible!
- Your encouragement in this step is vital..!
Step 5. ASK for FEEDBACK
- Before every practice, find out how often/where they played their pick-up games.
- Write down their responses emphasizing the importance of playing soccer outside of practice.
When applying these 5-steps:
- Be Patient and do not expect immediate results.
- Be Persistent because it will take time and effective repetition.
- Maintain that sense of Humor.
- Let your players Play in a relaxed atmosphere.
- Reward Progress with a positive reaction, comment, or smile!
An argument can be made that a coach may use a great deal of energy teaching them ‘how to’ layout the environment—considering that this initial investment worked for the older neighborhood kids worldwide. Surely it can work for our players/children..!
By allowing children/players to take responsibility for their development and emphasizing the importance of playing soccer outside of practice, we help them develop essential skills and build a Love for the Game that can Last a Lifetime.
I encourage you to try out these strategies and see the impact they can make. And don’t forget, if you have any other tips or ideas that have worked well for you, share them! Because, together, we can advertently help our players reach their full potential.