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Reevaluating The Role of Youth Coaches

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Karl Dewazien of FUNdamental SOCCER, Emeritus State Director of Coaching for the California Youth Soccer Association 1978-2012, discusses what youth coaches and organized soccer can learn from the pick-up games played around the world.

Reevaluating the Role of Youth Coaches

We continue to wonder why our players’ development has been extremely sluggish over the past 40+ years.  Some think that we (USA) are fated to rule the soccer world just because we have the resources and number of players.  And yet our players cannot perform even the simplest soccer development tasks such as laying out their playing environment.  If you are skeptical, then try this experiment at your next practice… 

Get to the field at your usual time and lay all of your equipment, balls, cones, flags, goals, etc., in one spot.  As the players arrive, greet them and tell them that 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?’

The younger players would impatiently sit around and toss grass at each other or put cones on their heads and sit on their ball.  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 always, “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 fun games organized by older kids in their neighborhood.  Yes, they learned the tricks-of-the-trade in free-style games where they experimented and failed their way to success.  

Pick-up games organized by players are happening constantly all over the world.

Think about it, while our children are waiting for their parents to drive them to the next practice and then wait for the coach to tell them what to do.  Children around the globe 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 simply lay out the environment to start playing their version of soccer.  Why aren’t our players doing the same? 

My personal opinion is that our players do not play pick-up games simply because no one has taught them how important, helpful, and fun they are.  We have a coach-controlled environment where the coach controls all aspects of practice and provides constant direction.  This controlled environment subconsciously teaches our players that they cannot play soccer without adult assistance. 

I believe that it is our duty to teach the players that they are responsible for laying out and adjusting all playing environments in every practice.  This is accomplished by using the same traditional steps to teach them techniques or tactics.  

Step 1.  EXPLANATION – Communicate in simple everyday language.  Create ‘buzz words’ words that ‘trigger’ the mind to highlight points of emphasis.  Some examples: “warm-up area”; “1 vs. 1 field”; “small-sided 3 vs. 2 field”; “small-sided 5 vs. 5” field; etc.

Take into consideration the attention span of your players and adjust the length of your explanation accordingly.  After you have dealt with a point, ask a question to make sure the point is understood. Repeat the verbal instructions only if necessary.  Be brief!  

Step 2.  DEMONSTRATION – Give a demonstration slowly, simply, and visually correct how you want each playing environment to be laid-out.  Show them the difference, for example, between a 1 vs. 1 field and a 4 vs. 1 field.  Show them items that can be used to layout the environment, such as cones, flags, shoes, bags, etc. 

Step 3.  ACTION – Have the players show you that they can correctly layout the environment you request.   Help only those who need help and increase speed as they become proficient at accomplishing the task.  I Do, and I Understand!

Step 4.  ASSIGN HOME PLAY – The key to dramatic player improvement is their playing some soccer whenever, however, and wherever possible!  Your encouragement in this step is vital..! 

Step 5.  ASK them how often and where they played these games as they arrive at every single practice session.  Write down their responses to let them know how important this is to them and you.

Ask your players how often and where they played these games.

When applying these steps:  Be patient and do not expect immediate results.  Be persistent because It will take time and effective repetition.  Maintain that sense of humor, letting your players work in a relaxed atmosphere and reward progress with a positive reaction, a positive comment, or a smile!  

An argument can be made that a coach may end up using a great deal of energy teaching them ‘how to’ layout the environment—considering that this initial investment worked for the older neighborhood kids around the world.  Surely It Can Work For Us..!  

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Karl Dewazien  Emeritus State Director of Coaching for the California Youth Soccer Association 1978-2012. Author of the “Modified Laws of the Game” ©1980 for U6, U8 & U10 players […]

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