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National Soccer Development vs Pro Clubs

Probably starting with Holland in the 70s, many nations have embarked on national soccer strategies. These strategies typically include:

  • An overarching philosophy of how the game should be played. It has included possession soccer, counterattack soccer, prescribed tactics, player decision-making, certain systems of play, or a balanced approaches between skills, tactics, physical fitness, or mental training.  Ultimately it is driven by how the governing body envisions the national teams (now from U15 to adult) to play, and play consistently. Regardless of a particular country’s vision, having one is a better than having none.
  • A player development path starting with toddlers all the way to professionals. This typically includes development targets at various age levels. It addresses when and how skills should be developed, when tactics are introduced, when is full field 11 a side started, etc.
  • A coach development program to ensure that coaches understand the vision and are training their players and teams in accordance with the vision and player development path.
  • Professional club academies to ensure the best talents are honed and prepared for professional and national team play.

All of this has yielded positive results at youth tournaments and adult tournaments for some countries, and not for others. Germany, Spain, and Iceland are examples of success. Holland, the pioneer of national strategies, has struggled recently.

Up to the professional team level these national strategies work extremely well. Consistent player development at local clubs, regional select teams, and youth national teams ensures that players understand the requirements and are able to seemingly migrate to more competitive environments.

But once they enter the professional team academies, things may change. Now the club philosophy, which is based on competitive success and making money, takes over. It is dictated by technical directors and head coaches. These leadership positions, particularly head coaches, are quite often occupied by individuals from different countries. They have grown up in a system that could be quite different from that in the country they coach in. They may struggle with local players and often look to retrain them to comply with their vision. That is difficult. Or they buy players from their nations to have players that understand them better. This leads to a mix of players with totally different training and game philosophy backgrounds. I believe this is why some excellent players from one nation can’t get any traction under certain coaches at the club level.

National teams may also face a challenge. They are made up of players who grew up in the national system and understand the philosophy. But then they play on club teams and get retrained only to come to the national team and be expected to play what they learned in the first place. This is likely why some national teams (often with foreign coaches) struggle, even though they have excellent talent.

So what is the solution?

Having national programs of player, coach, and national team development is good and cannot be changed.

Pro clubs may need to rethink their strategies. Do I buy the best coaches and players and hope that they will retrain themselves to align with the club philosophy? Or do I

  • align my club program with the national strategy
  • hire coaches and technical directors that understand the national strategy
  • focus on local national talent
  • add select import talent who is intelligent and able to adapt their entire youth training to a new strategy quickly.

When you look at star-studded teams fail and “average” teams succeed, look behind the curtain at their strategies.

For national teams, coaches have to stay true to the nation’s vision and systems. They must rely on, or quickly retrain, their players’ ability to remember what they learned, regardless of how they are coached at the club level.

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Soccer Player Development – A National Strategy?

I just reviewed the national soccer programs of some leading (Germany, Spain) and not so leading (Canada) soccer nations. I can say with confidence that both groups have defined visions and strategies. In fact in many ways they are similar. Here are some common elements:

  1. National, regional, and local administrative organizations
  2. Coaching development frameworks – certifications
  3. Player development frame works – regional centers, academies
  4. League structures from recreational to professional teams
  5. Defined club structures with technical directors and qualified coaches
  6. Playing philosophies

The execution and advancement of the vision/goals/strategies into action varies. Countries with long and successful soccer histories are leading in the development of structures, training programs, coaching certifications, etc., while the “newer to soccer” countries are emulating and catching up.

Interestingly enough, both sets of nations face some key common questions:

  1. Should we force all clubs, teams, coaches, players everywhere to follow a top down standard player development model? If so, what should that model be?
  2. Should local organizations, grassroots clubs and coaches have freedom to develop their own player development approaches?

Both top down standardization and bottom up “free for all” have been tried with mixed success. The difficulty isn’t that the sport of soccer is changing dramatically and thereby outdating the latest development models. The issue is that kids starting to play soccer come with varying skills and abilities, coaches have different ideas, and organizations have different goals. Forcing everyone into one model can stifle creativity, allowing everyone to do their own thing fails to develop consistency.

What are some of the issues countries face?

Germany has made great advances in changing from a purely tactical and physical style of soccer to developing more skills and flexibility. They have developed a national program and professional clubs are required to have academies with residences in which youth are trained in soccer and receive their education. The concern is that young people are “standardized” and eventually creativity will suffer.

Spain has placed emphasis on technical and cognitive skill development at very young ages in their club structures. This has led to success through possession soccer. The concern is what will happen when other countries develop responses to this standardization? Which has actually happened.

Canada is in the growing stages and still has a lot of autonomy at the regional and local level. Infrastructures to train coaches and player development systems are in place, yet at the club and team level coaches have lots of autonomy.

I believe there is something to be learned from all approaches. In my opinion it is important to have administrative and development structures defined and  in place. The ultimate objective is to develop the best soccer players possible for a country which come together in national teams achieving maximum success. For Germany and Spain this means to be competitive in World Cups, for Canada it might mean to qualify every now and again on the men’s side. The national women’s team has achieved international success. One might wonder why.

Player and team development has to be a healthy combination of following prescribed programs while allowing coaches and players to be creative and flexible.

I would suggest that the top down administrations provide a framework of coaching and player development supported by training programs, yet allowing coaches flexibility within the framework. What could this framework be? I believe our 4 PILLARS OF SOCCER ™ would be a good model. You can read about it here: 4 Pillars of Soccer.

Defining technical, tactical, physical, and mental (psychological, thinking, emotional) competencies by age group and skill level supported by training programs and plans would be the right path.

Technical Skills haven’t changed much over the years and skill development could be fairly standardized.

Tactical elements change all the time, they even reinvent themselves. This is an area in which flexibility is key. It’s not about possession or fast break soccer, it’s about teaching both. What is the right tactic at which time?

Physical Fitness training is continuously evolving. Proper conditioning, injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, speed, strength, endurance, diagnostics, etc. need to be introduced properly at the right age and competitive levels. This is an area that is underdeveloped at the grass-roots level.

Mental Training has the most potential. As a foundation example I recommend the Seven Speeds of Soccer supported by the appropriate psychological and emotional training programs, for administrators, officials, coaches, and players. The area of cognitive player development has huge potential. If you think about soccer as a high-speed chess game with all pieces moving all the time then developing the ability to analyze, think, strategize, and execute quickly will be the key to future success.

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Youth Soccer – Trophies and Standings

I have come across various articles and opinion pieces discussing two important and related topics regarding the management of kids/youth soccer:

  1. Should there be scores and standings at the youth level? If so, at what age should this start?
  2. Should there be participation trophies for all players at the end of the season?

Traditionally scores and standings were kept at all age levels, I remember even at U6 recreational leagues. At that time players from the season champions got a championship trophy, all other teams received individual participation trophies. In some cases each team awarded “Most Valuable Player” and “Most Improved Player” trophies.

The main benefit of that system was that children learned about winning and losing. If administered properly these are valuable life lessons – not everyone wins and disappointment accompanies success. Unfortunately it wasn’t administered properly. By and large coaches, usually parent volunteers, wanted to win championships at all costs, meeting their own needs. Regardless of whether they coached recreational or competitive youth soccer this led to:

  1. Yelling at kids from the sidelines
  2. Yelling at youth referees
  3. Yelling at opposing coaches
  4. Not giving kids equal playing time, keeping out the better players to win the game
  5. Riling up the parents
  6. Fighting with parents about playing time
  7. Justifying their action by winning
  8. Trying to stack teams
  9. Focusing on winning, not on player and team development

This put a lot of pressure on the entire game and stress on children and everyone else associated with the game. In the end development suffered.

Things needed to change, and they did. A survey of youth practices across the globe indicates that in a lot of countries scores and standings have been abolished. Games are just played and the focus is on player development. Depending on the country and even the league within a country, scores and standings appear anywhere from U12 to U16. Along with it came the philosophy that everyone gets a trophy at the end of the season. The words that come with the trophy are “participation reward”, but in reality trophies indicate winning and kids are meant to feel they won.

This has worked reasonably well and most of the negatives from the old system have been eliminated. I see it every day at the field. Club administrations have put in good development programs.

But have we swung the pendulum too far? Children no longer have an incentive to work hard and to improve, there are no consequences for not trying hard and for not improving.

I suggest a slight adjustment to the current system with the aim to introduce incentives for children to perform better and coaches to coach better.

  1. I would keep the no scores/no standings approach for recreational and competitive soccer until age U12. At U13 even kids are asking for feedback. Weekend tournaments are the exception. The world cup format of group play, play-offs, and championship game should be implemented for all tournaments.
  2. I would not hand out trophies for all players at the end of the season, but some other form of participation recognition. Maybe a certificate or even a player passport which receives a stamp for every season played. These would be good keepsakes for the the future. Non meaningful trophies end up in recycle bins eventually. Championship trophies are kept.
  3. I would institute a new measurement system for players and teams. The goal should be that each player improves from beginning to end of season. Each team should play better soccer at the end than it did at the start. To that effect each coach, or an independent knowledgeable observer if available, should rate each player on the four pillars of soccer: skill, tactics, fitness, mental. Each team should be rated on team play. A report should be issued after observing practice and game #1, at mid-season, and after the last game. Players should be given feedback on where they improved and the areas needing development.

The sport is on the right track, it is now a matter of striking the right balance.