Single-Digit Soccer: Sharks, minnows and reasonable goals

I’ve been writing about soccer on a steady basis for 12 years and irregularly before that. I’m deeply immersed in the issues of the sport in the USA from the national team through the pro leagues down to the youth level.

Now I’ve got another perspective on the game. I have been an assistant coach for two years at the U6 and U7 level. This fall, I’ll be an assistant on a U6 team and the head coach on a U8 team.

Single-Digit Soccer will be a regular SportsMyriad feature in which I talk about some of the issues I have encountered and will encounter. I’ll talk about striking a balance between those who consider soccer at the U5-U9 level a critical development period and those who consider it a glorified play date. It’s the balance of teaching one-touch skills to kids who can’t tie their shoes.

The issues and debates over youth soccer in the teen years are fairly well-documented. Club vs. school.* Club vs. ODP. Perhaps letting kids take a break from overly complicated drills to shoot the ball at those odd objects with netting at either end of the field.

But for the “ULittles” (BigSoccer’s endearing term for the single-digit years), we have little discussion about what to do and a whole lot of people who seem to have the answers. U.S. Soccer has its new curriculum. That seems slightly more skill-oriented than what I was taught in my “F” license training, where fun little games were all the rage. (Incidentally, can we rename the “F” license as “youth” license? I’m finding that the letter “F” doesn’t inspire much confidence.)

The bigger divisions I’ve found are between what I read/hear from soccer-knowledgeable people and what I see on the youth soccer fields. We’re told to keep a light hand as coaches, to encourage players to learn the game by playing — something they don’t do enough in a hyperorganized country like ours that doesn’t have a lot of pickup soccer for kids. Then I go to games and see coaches trying to shift their U7 teams from a 2-2 formation to a 1-2-1 to encourage better wing play. (No, the kids don’t get it.) A high-up bigwig in our local youth soccer organization coached a U7 team and would stop games to dissect what they could’ve done differently in the buildup to a goal.

That coach is clearly overbearing, but at the same time, have we gone too far in just tossing out the ball and hoping kids will learn how to play? Our U7 league didn’t call fouls — hiring referees would be a little extravagant, after all — but shouldn’t we give kids some incentive to stop shoving, tripping and so forth? And what can we do for the 7-year-old who has matured past the “kick the coach” game and wants to become an actual soccer player?

I spoke last week with Scott Leber, a former Stanford and Columbus Crew player who went on to launch iSoccer. His program is designed for players who want to “measure, track, improve” (the company’s motto) their individual skills. In a clever psychological ploy, Leber and company borrow from video games — improve by a certain amount, and you pass to the next level, getting a new avatar. Players can also earn badges and so forth.

He thinks players who don’t develop skills will eventually lose interest.

“The kids are having more fun because they’re developing,” he says of his clients.

Leber wants to remain neutral (“trying to be Switzerland”) in any debates over how to coach. But the iSoccer system is at odds with some schools of thought. First, iSoccer suggests 6-year-olds could start learning to juggle with their heads, several years ahead of current conventional wisdom on heading. Leber discusses the distinction with a doctor here.

When I first saw the iSoccer assessment, I thought there was no way a ULittle player could cope with it. I’ve had players pull off successful backheels and slalom through several players to score a beautiful goal. But if I saw a player pull off a “scissor” move, I’d immediately pull him off the field, hand him over to his parents and give them directions to D.C. United’s academy. I could no more coach that player than I could teach guitar to a kid who shows up and does a perfect imitation of Hendrix (or Vaughan) playing Voodoo Child.

But when I signed up and entered some rough guesses on what one of my players might do, I was hooked. Even if you can’t juggle or comprehend the “scissor” move, you’ll find a few things you can track.

So the tools for improvement are there. And I’ve noticed some clubs offering additional training for kids who want to take things a bit more seriously.

Then I came across this: A program taking the top U8 players out of the “house” or “recreational” league and putting them in a program with professional coaching, more practices and fewer games.

We’ve had a good discussion about the program at BigSoccer, and because I’m one of those idiots who posts under his real name, you can see I have some reservations about it. Playing travel soccer at U9 already seems a bit much — taking U8 kids for a prep program just seems like a recipe for burnout. But read the BigSoccer discussion for some dissenting views.

You won’t find easy answers in this series. At best, you’ll find some good reality checks on certain schools of thought. At worst, I’ll have a bunch of tales of kids weeding the grass when they’re supposed to be playing soccer. U.S. soccer isn’t competing with other sports for its athletes; it’s competing with botany.

Hopefully, it’ll be an entertaining and engaging quest to figure out how to make botanists and soccer players co-exist in one U8 team. Please share your thoughts.

* It’s not relevant to the single-digit years, but I have to say I don’t get the rush to pull kids out of high school and college soccer. For the 1% of kids who will go to play in the pros, it’s a unique chance to play in an atmosphere in which winning matters quite a bit to the hundreds or perhaps thousands of people who’ve gathered — a little different than playing an elite club match in front of a bunch of scouts. For the other 99%, it’s the only chance they’ll have to experience the thrill of meaningful competition. Besides, developmental academy bosses will always tell you their goal is to develop players, not just to win. When is it OK to care about the score and revel in the victory?

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15 Responses to Single-Digit Soccer: Sharks, minnows and reasonable goals

  1. Ismitje says:

    Interesting musings here. I may have to seek out the conversations on BigSoccer, but since I no longer coach that age, I might be out of place.

  2. john smith says:

    why can’t you teach a u7 player a scissors…? also, us soccer offers a youth license already – the national youth license…

  3. john smith says:

    also, i have just read the blog on big soccer, and to be honest, you sound very hyprocritical to criticise a program that your club is copying…

    player development occurs in practices and not games – you would learn this if you sought higher education that your F’

    many clubs in this area offer a U8 or even a U5 programs, where a professional coach can teach the technical skills that a child will need in the game today. it is not about “separating parents from their money” – no one puts a gun to their head and makes them do it – it is about developing players and passion for players that want to learn the game. I have seen some of the U8 juniors sessions and they focus on teaching skill and having fun, incorporating skill-based games from the national youth course. Unfortunately they cannot take every interested player because they do not have the staff or facilities to do so, and because players develop at different rates, so some players just are not ready for such instruction…

    Having worked with a U7 house program and many other recreational teams, i have seen the level of parental coaching and it is not good (working on throw-in plays and corner kicks instead of developing skills). I too was personally was taught by coaches with no formal soccer education until I was in my last two years of high school soccer, and i am bitter that i did not have similar opportunities growing up.

    get yourself some education, do some research about the programs you are discussing, and THEN write a pretty article or open a discussion forum…

  4. Beau Dure says:

    Always nice when someone who doesn’t know me reads about half of what I write, forms an impression and leaves a nasty comment. Yay, Internet!

    In any case, I don’t think you understand the questions here. As a writer, fan, parent and coach, I have several different perspectives on youth soccer, and I’ve been exposed to several more. Some knowledgeable people would argue as you have, that the U8 juniors program (which my club is most definitely NOT copying — I have friends at McLean, but that’s not my club) is terrific because it’s providing “development.” Other knowledgeable people, including the occasional current or future Hall of Famer in this country, would argue against doing anything so structured at such a young age.

    I doubt one approach would fit everyone. Some players would love a U8 program like this. Of the 12 players on my U8 team, maybe two or three would want to sign up. (Perhaps not coincidentally, they’d have the skills to get something out of it.)

    And so you’ll be happy to know that I’m doing what you suggest. I’m doing research. I’ve been doing it for years as a writer, having formal and informal chats with people at all levels of the soccer community. And in launching this series, I’m doing more. If you re-read my post, I think you’ll see that I’m not claiming to have a lot of answers. The sentence “You won’t find easy answers in this series” should be a tipoff.

    I’m researching. I’m discussing. I’m raising questions. I’m trying to bring together several disparate points of view on youth development and seeing what works, what doesn’t, what should be copied and what can’t. I’m apparently off to a bad start with you, but you’re welcome to come back and join in.

  5. Neil says:

    “When is it OK to care about the score and revel in the victory?”

    – When you aren’t paying to play, i.e. everywhere but the club–high school, college, youth national teams (but do I really care if the US wins the U20 World Cup?), and of course the senior national teams

  6. Beau Dure says:

    Interesting answer, Neil — thanks!

  7. john smith says:

    The problem I have is not with your article, but more so with your post, as you posted the link to the U8 Juniors program on Big Soccer without any background information, leaving uneducated people to speculate blindly about what is a good program.

    I did read your entire article (and might re-read it again), and with all due respect, many of your questions in this article and your post could be answered by taking a US soccer course, or asking the people involved (like the U8 juniors staff). Certainly no one has the “right” answers, but these courses can provide some educated insight. I do respect your quest for knowledge and seeking opinions (and that you have even taken the time to reply to my “nasty” response — which I did not think was that nasty…well, maybe the last sentence)

    I have had the pleasure of coaching many age groups, for multiple clubs through my travels, and many levels in the state of virginia, and I can firmly state that licensed, knowledgable, organized, and caring professional coaches have raised the skill level amongst our youth players (and believe that will continue to rise as coaching becomes more competitive and these coaches are forced to gain more knowledge and certifications)

    there are good coaches and bad coaches (the coach you referred to probably did hinder the kids development by stopping the game and tearing down tactics at such a young age) but that does not mean that professionally run programs are “bad” for the kids. If I wanted to learn more about computer programming, I would seek out a person that could demonstrate they have that knowledge…not a parental volunteer… Some parental volunteers could certainly teach you C+, ect… but you would not know that going in, and if I am paying for something (everyone pays to play soccer in this country at all levels) then I would want that assurance.

  8. James says:

    I’m not teaching my kid to code.

    I would add some of these ideas to the mix:

    http://www.evertonfc.com/academy/promising-youngster-to-professional-player

  9. Neil says:

    Beau,

    You could also think of it as begin able to care about the institution you’re playing for. My daughters club (they are U9 and U13) just won a U17 National Championship. Doesn’t do a thing for me, no pride in ownership for a soccer club.

    Last May we watched our future high school’s biggest rival (“City” Central–my daughters will go to arch rival “City” North) play in the state championship game. We’ve been to City Central’s biggest game of the year, but we haven’t seen the U17 National Champions at all.

    Also, girls appear on one of the US Girls YNT (U16 or U18) about every other year from our suburb. I’ve heard of about half of them–the half that played in High School rather than stayed with a club.

    I think it’s a crime that those girls didn’t play in High School. If for some reason they don’t make it in college–injury, not good enough, etc.–they just lost their only chance to be part of a real team, and to play for an institution that people “care about” (City North vs. Club I pay ~$5k a year for 2 girls).

    Hope this rambling has made sense…

  10. Beau Dure says:

    Do you mean the BigSoccer post in which I simply tossed out the link to the program and said “Thoughts?” I don’t understand your objection to that. Nor do I think we should dismiss BigSoccer posters as “uneducated.” Some are, some aren’t. Those that hang out in the youth forums have generally been wrestling with these issues for some time.

    I’m curious to know which questions could be answered simply by taking another U.S. Soccer course. I’m also curious to know if you’re prepared to hear that some of the national team players I’ve interviewed over the years may take issue with whatever that U.S. Soccer course has to say.

    To give just one example of how complex this can get — at last year’s NSCAA Convention, I listened as Claudio Reyna unveiled the new U.S. youth curriculum. I then ran over to the MLS Draft and asked Bruce Arena what he thought about it. Bruce was highly skeptical of any effort to get people in different clubs to take similar approaches to their development. See the story at http://espn.go.com/sports/soccer/news/_/id/6061681/us-soccer-matter-style

    I agree with you on parental volunteers, at least to some extent. In our club, at the recreational level (ULittles, maybe some older non-travel players), we have parents running the recreational teams for one practice a week, and players can opt for more professional training once a week as well. I certainly recognize my own limitations. For one thing, I’m a horrible player. And I’ve often found myself among the most soccer-knowledgeable of a random group of parent coaches. Not their fault — someone needs to “coach” the team.

    The main question I’m raising in this particular discussion is this: How soon is too soon to get players to focus on development rather than simply playing? The Development Academy, of course, is stressing professional practice and fewer, more meaningful games, basically at U14 and up. But do you want to take 8-year-olds and have them focusing on skills rather than playing? Will it sink in? Do you risk burnout?

    So that’s this discussion. This series will raise more discussions. Please do stick around and offer your thoughts.

  11. Beau Dure says:

    Neil, I’ll need to do a separate post on that. I’ve long raised similar objections. There’s a big movement afoot to get players out of college AND high school soccer. But that’s their only chance to play in front of a big crowd, either as a good-but-not-great player who won’t go any farther toward the pros OR as a developing player who hopefully won’t be scared crapless the first time more than 100 people are in the stands.

    People cherish their scholastic sports days. How will people feel 10 years down the road if they gave up that part of their childhoods for a 1-in-1,000 shot at a pro career?

  12. john smith says:

    My only objection to the post on Big Soccer is that some of these folks are now disparaging a program and a staff that they really know nothing about (similar to your objection to my original post above). As someone whose children who have gone through the program, it got me a bit worked up because the coaches do a great job, and I have seen a great deal of improvement in my child’s technical skills. Maybe some of the Big Soccer posters are educated and some are not, and maybe that’s just life sometimes, but it was just a little tough to swallow. In my defense, I never said that the posters on Big Soccer were uneducated or were not a good resource…

    Regarding the real meat of your research, I was just stating that the US soccer courses offer a lot of insight and discussion into many of these topics and could potentially provide some insight into topics such as why practices are more beneficial than games (players on average only possess the soccer ball around 2-4 minutes in a game) As you said, these are very important topics at the moment and many of the coaches and coaching instructors talk about them a great deal.

    With that said, I would like to apologize for my original post, as you are clearly doing your research, so that statement was unfair. And I believe that your question and research are admirable as player development is obviously key to taking the US forward in this sport. However, with that said, I am not sure that anyone will ever be able to offer a clear cut answer. I too know a Hall of Fame player and coaching instructor, and he believes that pick-up is a great way to teach the game. Then you can talk to a friend of his who has coached professionally and coaches ODP, and he’ll say that you need organized sessions. Even the current US National Youth license is based on research from the Brazillian, Dutch and German FAs.

    I personally do not think it matters one way or another if a child is in an organized session at U5 or not… but I do think it’s key that the kids are getting the touches they need, and the earlier the better. So, if they can learn a Maradona playing pick-up at U8, and are doing coever touches and juggling in their backyards on their own, then that’s great. If not, then I would suggest they go to a professionally coached session. As a caveat to that, I think the coaching staff is an important and distinguishing factor in these programs…

    Finally (and then I promise that I will stop besmirching your blog post) I personally do not believe in burn out. I used to go from HS practice, to ODP, and then practice by myself in the basement until midnight and never got burned out… I believe that if the kids have a passion for the sport, it will drive them to want to play as much as possible, and I think that might be what separates some of the elite players. Zidane and George Best probably didn’t have to practice as much as other players growing up, but maybe they wanted to. Of course, I think that in order for a younger player to not get burned out, they have to be enjoying the sessions (or be challenged by them) and that depends a great deal on the coach.

  13. john smith says:

    And to Jame’s comment, I realize that you son is not learning programming… that was just an analogy.

  14. Beau Dure says:

    I understand, John, and I’m sure a lot of players get a lot out of that program. I also have been encouraging my team to sign up for our club’s Friday night sessions with pro coaches — even if I could get my players to pay attention, I’m not the best person in the world to be teaching skills.

    Burnout is an interesting question. I’m of two minds about it, but you’re right that elite players may have a drive that others don’t. There’s always the famous story about Anson Dorrance randomly spotting Mia Hamm doubled over in exhaustion, working out by herself.

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