The phrase “the game is the greatest teacher” holds many truths. It has been a common refrain of many coaching schools over the past decade. Still, it can also create a false impression that kids always learn best by playing “the game.” If we acknowledge that the game itself is the most complex environment to learn from since one is competing under full pressure (equal number of opponents) while dealing with all the aspects the game presents (attacking, defending, and transitions both to and from), should we revisit the notion that the game is the “greatest” teaching environment? Maybe we can change the phrase to “the game is the greatest revealer” of what needs to be taught, but is it truly the greatest teacher?
Suppose a practice game (scrimmage) is played in a sloppy manner, and the coach allows play to continue uncorrected. Does that teach the players proper habits or instill bad ones? Suppose we observe our players continuously make poor decisions without offering guidance or even pointing out the “best decision” they could have made. Is the game teaching the players to meet the demands of the game, or is it the coach’s responsibility to provide more than “the game” to their players?
Coach Jozak recommends instead of just accepting the “game is the greatest teacher” mantra, that we systematically teach our players the required techniques and movements of the game and instill the ability to read the game through functional exercises in training with an age-appropriate progressive teaching model. Coach Jozak also contends that it is virtually impossible for a coach, no matter their level, to observe all aspects of what is truly occurring during a game. This being the case, we coaches need to observe and understand the game and, based on our conclusions, develop functional, progressive exercises that reveal the flaws in our players’ game. This will allow us to correct those flaws and prepare our players best to meet the demands of the game.
How do we do this?
Windows of learning are well known in the world of education but often overlooked (or underappreciated) in the youth soccer world. When a child first enters a classroom, no matter where they are from, be it America, England, or Croatia, they learn the alphabet as the starting point. A young child writes the letter “A” thousands of times (repetition) since the foundation MUST be set during the first window. Learning to read words comes later in the learning process since it’s impossible for a child to read words or sentences until they’ve mastered the letters. Once mastery of these basics is achieved, a child can create sentences and paragraphs, conjugate verbs, etc. We all accept this as a fact regarding the education of our children worldwide. Still, when it comes to our young players, we often ignore the windows at their development peril.
How do these windows apply to player development?
The order we introduce information is as crucial to the development process on the field as it is in the classroom. Until a player has established a comfort level with the ball where they aren’t fighting to control it, the ability to get their head up and process tactical decisions will be a nearly overwhelming task. The more time we spend at the youngest ages instilling good habits (receiving with all surfaces, taking a look before the reception, hard passes, changing direction and speed while dribbling, etc.) in our players, the better the team play will be at the older age groups since players will no longer struggle to command the ball and will now be able to process situations that are unfolding around them. What have we accomplished if we make our players aware of how to create good supporting angles for their teammates (certainly an important concept) but haven’t provided them a technical skill set to pass the ball accurately?
Why are there so many cracks in the windows?
Adults too often place a premium on winning youth games, even as young as 9 and 10, over instilling the necessary building blocks best learned in the first window. When this happens, holes in players’ soccer education begin to surface. These holes, perhaps not immediately noticeable, reveal themselves as the demands of the game increase (better competition, faster pace of the game, need for quick decisions, etc.). This is NOT to say the kids shouldn’t want to win; they should. Jozak states, “We want our kids to win, we want our kids to want to win, but there are no consequences for not winning.”
At Dynamo Zagreb, youth players are allowed lots of freedom in the first window (approximately 8 to 12 years of age), where players’ touches on the ball are maximized. As players move into the second window (about 12 to 15 years of age), they “take these touches away because the game demands it.” The modern professional game is continuing to trend faster and faster in all aspects, not just in terms of the player’s physical movement but also in the time a player spends on the ball. Suppose one cannot process their surroundings, make a decision, and play the ball accurately (at least 80% of the time) within two touches. In that case, they cannot compete at the highest levels.
The development of the player IS the foundation of the team. This can be a frustratingly slow process that requires a great deal of patience. Still, if the foundation is not set correctly, cracks in the surface develop over time. These cracks may be patched up temporarily, but they never become whole again.
Let’s let the foundation settle and harden before building upon it. During the first window, the team should serve the player; there will be plenty of time down the road for the players to help the team. The youth soccer highway is littered with once “talented” young players left on the side of the road due to a poor foundation being set where windows of development were sacrificed to win games. As coaches, it’s our duty to educate the players properly, even if it temporarily compromises the result. Let’s “teach them to read the book” so they become readers for life.
Romeo Jozak, the Technical Director for the Croatian Football Association and Former Dynamo Zagreb Academy Director, has become a mainstay at the United Soccer Coaches Convention over the past 5 years. Coach Jozak’s sessions are among the best the convention has to offer annually. Coach Jozak’s ability to translate his insights from the modern game at the highest level into a comprehensive model on how to train youth players to meet these “demands of the game” is unsurpassed.
The above is a summary of Coach Jozak’s presentation at the United Soccer Coaches Convention — As observed by Dr. Jay Martin