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Carolina Soccer Center of Excellence

Building a Player

(Published in the USC “Soccer Journal”, 2019)


The most basic problem with the player development debate is that too many people view it as a black and white linear process instead of a holistic, cooperative organism. This is typically demonstrated in two ways. First, with sweeping claims such as:

·      “You should only teach technique at the younger ages.”

·      “Tactics should only come at U13.”

·      “The physical stuff will sort itself out,” and

·      “It’s all about strength and speed.”

None of these assertions make any sense. Take them one by one: “You should only teach technique at the younger ages.” Really? (First of all, what technique? There are techniques for at least twenty different areas.) What about coachability and respect? Those are Psychological traits. Even at the younger ages they need to be emphasized. What about awareness of surroundings and basic decision making? Those are IQ traits. They should be encouraged at the younger ages too.

“Tactics should only come at 13.” Curiously, why such an arbitrary age? That aside; creativity, i.e. thinking for oneself to fix one’s own dilemmas; transition, i.e. applying the mental and physical effort to adapt to the most basic change in circumstance, and switching the point of attack, i.e. realizing your path is blocked and therefore choosing a different one: these are all IQ concepts. They are still valid at 12, 11, and 10. They are basic and vital thought-processes! And what about support play? At its core support play is acting in acknowledgement and consideration of teammates. Simple respect and a desire to help are at the very least seeds that should be planted at a young age.

“The physical stuff will sort itself out.” You may not be able to make someone who is five foot ten into someone who is six foot four or develop someone to have Usain bolt-like speed. But to ignore speed, agility, strength, and stamina with the excuse of “nature will take its course” is weak and lazy. And finally, there is the opposite line: “It is all about strength and speed”. While the physical aspect of soccer cannot be over-looked, the actions that must be taken to gain physical superiority are psychological traits like work ethic, practice mentality and discipline. And the situations they need to be employed in are technical situations such as running with the ball or IQ scenarios such as mobility or group defending.

The second type of error in judgement of the development process is blanket dismissiveness of a more inter-connected approach, usually rationalized through over-simplification and misinterpretation:

Example 1.

 “You want to teach decision making at 7 years old? Oh, so you want to set up an 11v11 playing-from-the-back exercise then? Or a high-pressure, two-touch combination-play session?”

No. That is not it. In wanting to emphasize good decision making at 7 years old, for example, a coach only needs to question, and make the player question, simple things like “Is it a better idea to dribble, shoot or pass in ‘X’ situation?” And then guide the player towards an intelligent line of analysis. A coach can do this within a practice on any age-appropriate subject.

Example 2.

“You think we should encourage a ‘winning mentality’ at 9 years old? Oh, so you think it’s o.k. then to make the same demands of 9-year-olds as you would Premier League players?”

Again, no. Just make practice exercises that are competition-based in design and then put into place some light rewards and consequences based on results. It is achievable to apply such demands on players while simultaneously conducting a fun, efficient, developmentally appropriate session. 

The truth with player development is a simple one: everything is connected to everything. Yes, one could assert that a specific trait is more valuable than another, both within the same family and between different families. For example, within the “Technically Family,” receiving on the ground could assessed as more critical than ball striking with the outside of one’s foot. (And we can therefore argue the former should be taught before the latter.) Similarly, between family’s: decision making (IQ) is arguably more essential than strength in the air (Physical).

However, wholesale assertions that prioritize an entire family over another, such as “being technical,” – whatever that means – is more important than possessing an IQ is to essentially claim that quality in control of the ball is more meaningful than having any active brain function. Similarly, a sweeping claim of “Soccer IQ is more important than physical quality” is also incorrect. It is of no use being a tactical genius if one cannot run without falling over. If simply stating “Physical ability is more important than psychological strength,” I would contend that allowing a modern-day Hercules into one’s team, but one who is selfish, unethical, and disrespectful, is not of an overall benefit. And to come full circle: being a pure and righteous individual is not of much use if one cannot kick a ball 10 yards in a straight line, so saying “Personality is more important than technique,” is clearly improper too. More significantly it is not responsible, or ethical, to develop such uncompromising players, and humans, through such terribly linear thoughts and actions. It is a coach’s responsibility, and the coaching community’s obligation, to respect the process of development and to accept and act upon the truth that everything is connected, and a sensible, holistic approach needs to be taken to soccer education. 

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