Tuesday, May 13, 2014
I’ve jested with my colleagues from time-to-time that part of our job in youth soccer is to rock the boat. Don’t tip it over, but do rock it now and then. The objective of rocking that boat is to get folks attention on a particular matter. So here goes – let’s rock the boat.
The topic of competition in the development of a soccer player is one that could be a semester long course in a university, so suffice it to say that a short blog posting won’t cover all of the possible discussion points. I do hope that it stimulates conversation among you and your coaching colleagues.
Let me open the discussion with these thoughts.
Competition = 1. The act or process of competing; 2. A contest between rivals. From the Latin competere, meaning to seek together, to come together, agree or be suitable.
So from the start we need other soccer players to have a game in order to compete. Competition in the development of a soccer player is first and foremost self-competition; improving upon your best. Secondarily that competition is with others in order to once again improve upon your best.
Competition exists in all of youth soccer, in all age groups and in every level of play; often though, people think that competition only exists in outcome-based matches, leagues or tournaments. That has lead us to the unfortunate labels we’ve put on ourselves of recreational soccer and competitive soccer. There are more similarities between those two player development pathways than differences. Below is a slide from a presentation that I made at the 2014 US Youth Soccer Workshop.
The goal of showing the similarities of youth recreation soccer and youth competitive soccer was to show that they are largely the same thing. The biggest differences that I see between the two are the quality of coaching and the quality of soccer being played.
Part of the message that we deliver in the “Y” License is that all youth soccer is recreational – by definition. Until the players receive a paycheck for their soccer talents they are in fact amateur players. All amateur soccer is recreational. I tell the coaches to imagine a ball dropped between two 6-year-olds and watch them compete. Do the same thing with two 19-year-olds and the same thing will happen. That 1 vs. 1 will simply look quite different when performed by the 19-year-olds than when done by the young children. Yet both pairs of players are competing. So the conclusion is that all youth soccer is competitive. The difference is the age appropriateness of that competition. We then draw out the fact that we in youth soccer do ourselves a disservice by labeling two houses of youth soccer as ‘rec’ or ‘comp’ when in fact both exist under the same roof.
The discussion then is not whether competition has a place in the development of a soccer player for it clearly does. The debate is on when do use the score of the match as the primary measure of development. The following discussion ensued not long ago between a high school coach who is also on US Youth Soccer ODP region staff, a State Association technical director [he was looking for resources as he was battling the movement in his state association to start U8 travel teams], technical staff within U. S. Soccer and the NSCAA and two college professors who are “A” License coaches and instruct in the national coaching schools.
“I am part of a committee that is researching the role of competition in development ---I was wondering if you had any documents or studies about youth sports say starting at age five on up –if competition can/does play a role and how much, and when -- is competition detrimental to development, etc.?” - High school coach
“I have attached three research articles that may aid his attempt to curb U8 Travel/Select soccer. There are some elements in these that can aid him. The summary of these documents for me is that the environment has to be sound and educational. If the environment is beneficial for long term athletic development then youth development shall prevail. I know we had this problem too here in my home state. Still do. Basically, he needs to get the clubs on board with him if he can. You can always have him call Bobby Clark from Notre Dame who told me when we were going through the same fight that "Kids spend too much time in cars today". He then said that basically children shouldn't travel one way more than the length of the game. We have so many children playing why the need to travel so far. I found that very insightful. Then ask how many of these children are still in car seats? How many of these children still can't tie their shoes? I spent a lot of time tying shoes for our U8's. Maybe that is specific to my state? I guess the real question he should ask is: Show me where it is better for them to put them in a travel/select environment when they are seven here in America? Maybe there is real evidence. If there is, I haven't seen it. To be fair though, each child is different and it should be up to the clubs to make the right decision for that specific case.” – U. S. Soccer technical staff
“This is all good stuff, but I'm not sure it addresses their primary question: At what age and to what degree should children engage in competition? This of course also depends on our definition of competition. But perhaps the more accurate question is at what age can children successfully participate in organized team sport? And how does the structure influence their child's development.” – College [Midwest] professor
Perfect point! Sam, this is a bit to my point to from yesterday – defining competition. Competition isn’t inherently bad as it is frequently spontaneous with kids. For me, the real issue is how kids perceive competition and more importantly how adults and others are framing and working with kids in competitive endeavors. – College [West] professor
“At the heart of this issue, is the "level of insanity" that the parent-coaches and parents bring to the competitive games at U8. I obviously understand that measuring this in a concrete and scientific way is impossible. This being said, and with such huge numbers leaving the game by 13, I wish we could prove the relationship between specific behaviors and their effects (beyond doubt). My belief is that the move to competitive U8 games, that mirror the attitudes and behaviors shown by their U10, U12, etc... counterparts will simply mean we lose more players even younger. Will our clubs be looking at 70% leaving by 10 years old? – State Association technical director
“Be brave, if you win the fight, some other organization will endorse it and pick up the registrations. So be clear on the principle, be clear on how much stomach for the "fight" and try to educate rather than legislate to the solution. – NSCAA technical staff
Here then is my final thought.
As has been pointed out, I believe the matter about which to educate the adults is not competition per se, but outcome based youth soccer. The fact is that ALL of our youth soccer players are recreational players and they ALL are competitive players. Until they are paid professional players, recreation and competition are one in the same. The only thing that changes is the level of play.
The issue at hand instead is putting young players into outcome (results) oriented soccer environments and when should that experience begin. The adults want soccer that is a spectacle. They want it for themselves and most care little about the players. This is why so many adults rush to having tryouts, earned playing time, won/loss records, team standings, promotion and relegation and championships at earlier and earlier ages. Some of those folks ignorantly think that earlier is better for player development. They need to be educated on the facts. Some folks want this environment early in a soccer player’s life so that they can charge the parents more money sooner in the player’s soccer timeline. They must be taught a new business model. Some adults want children to compete before they have learned how to play the game. They need continuing education.
The challenge before us, as I see it, is parent education. Youth soccer in our country is not driven by coaches or administrators, referees or even the players. Parents drive youth soccer in the USA. If we want to improve our soccer culture we must undertake massive parent education. That would be best lead by the USOC and involve every Olympic sport, not just soccer. I may not be helping your immediate needs, but I am confident that you understand that the encroachment of over-competitiveness into younger and younger age groups is a cancer in youth sports. It is one that we must collectively work to cut out. As rants go this is a short one, but I think the issue of misguided adult expectations in youth soccer is at the heart of everything we are doing.