The Basics of the Development Path

Watching Youth Academy games, whether played in Wisconsin or almost any other place in the country, is always an interesting and entertaining proposition.  Some players run all over the field – some offsides by miles but excited nonetheless, others hang significantly behind the play hesitantly, and others simply chase the ball everywhere.  Some players smile when a decision works, or simply at the attempt, and others nervously look at the ball as it gets closer to them with the usual crush of bodies surrounding it.  Some players throw their bodies anywhere and everywhere with reckless abandon, and others are very circumspect about when and where they will make contact with anything.

On the sidelines you get a similar range of behavior - some coaches excited about every moment in the action, some yelling for shots or “getting forward” or “making a corner kick count”, and even some asking how much time is left in the game in the final minutes of the “big game” they are winning. 

None of this background activity sheds much light on whether players are improving in the sport, but it fills much discussion on the sidelines, in post-game, and more.  As such, it is important to recognize what you should be looking for as a parent in this “arena” to see whether development and learning is occurring.  What you should be looking for is simple – PLAYERS THAT ARE TRYING TO MAKE A SOCCER ACTION

A soccer action has two components: (i) a thoughtful tactical decision; (ii) executed with proper technique.  To give some context, below are examples of the 3 most common actions (none of which are soccer actions), that occur on soccer fields with very young players:

  • Actions with No Decision, No Technique.  Kicking the ball in random directions forward, with poor or totally incorrect technique is not a soccer action.  It is absent of both decision-making and technique.  This is clear with players who kick the ball with their toes, with their toes down when using the inside of the foot, with floppy ankles when using any surface, etc., and with no thought as to where or why they are kicking the ball.
  • Actions Involving a Decision, but No Technique.  Attempting to pass the ball to a teammate, or shoot the ball, but using poor or incorrect technique may be a soccer decision, but it is still not a soccer action – as it is missing the key fundamental of proper body mechanics and control, proper technique.
  • Actions Using Technique, but with No Decision.  Striking a ball with good (or at least moderate) soccer technique, but doing so without an associated decision (a pass to a specific target or space, a shot on goal), is also not a soccer action – as it is missing a decision-making component.

So what?  Why distinguish between these 3 situations?  

The key to proper youth development is in teaching players how to make good soccer actions.  Doing so requires a combination of teaching both decision-making and proper body mechanics – and then shaping behavior to get ever closer in both areas to the desired goal.  In this process, both must be addressed to develop a soccer player!  

So, what signs are there that a good developmental environment is being created, and that players are making progress in learning how to make soccer actions?

Players that are slowing down their decision-making – players that look like they are trying to figure out what to do, or how to do something in the proper way.  In the short term, these players may actually play slower and get caught with the ball more than “more effective” players that are playing without concern for technique or decisions or both.  (On a related note, young players at these ages are very rarely capable of consistently playing in 1-touch successfully (with both technique and decision-making) – most 1-touch play at this age is panic and done without much thought or skill.

Players that are trying to control the ball and make a decision with it – players that look at the ball as something to enjoy, not an object to be whacked.  Again, these players often play slower and get caught with the ball as they try to make a soccer decision with a soccer technique – as they try to execute a soccer action.

Players not concerned with mistakes or scores, but totally enveloped in the moment – players that are focused on the present and what to do, not how far ahead or behind they are, or the time remaining in the game.  These players will often make decisions that may not be “tactically correct” for winning a game (a risky pass in front of their goal, for example), but they are trying to make soccer actions.

When you see the above, you know that soccer learning and development is taking place. 

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