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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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