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  • Daniel Kamenetzky

YOUTH SOCCER DEVELOPMENT IN UNITED STATES IS ADRIFT

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

The need for new rational and methodological models


The soccer player developmental process, like any educative model in order to be successful, should be guided by a curriculum with a competitive game and player vision. This document will allow establishing the type of coaches needed to implement that vision and therefore how to choose and educated them. It will also indicate how to control and follow up the implementation to secure that the goals and final “products” are successfully obtained.

Most of the youth soccer clubs and academies in the United States are currently following the US Soccer Federation’s Development Academy curriculum. Now that the program has ended, what is the methodological and structural guide for those academies? Should they still follow that curriculum considering the program’s lack of success?

Besides the financial difficulties that US Soccer Federation reports as a cause for finishing the developmental academy structure, it will be wise to evaluate the methodological aspects of the program and how it influenced the entire life and the end of the project. It is crucial to learn what worked and what not to make the necessary adjustments in the design of new developmental models for the competitiveness of the individual academies, and the regional and national teams.

 

The guide in any educative process (sport development it is an educative process!) is coming from the curriculum that presents the main goals to achieve and the process to follow. When structuring a sports curriculum, the designers are not looking for what the player should learn during each age stage, but what they “can learn.” Each developmental stage is limited by biological and psychological characteristics. Those limitations indicate what are the educative and training priorities for each particular moment in life (Sensible Training Phases).

Therefore, without understanding those “Sensible Training Phases” first, it is unattainable 1) to design an adequate and competitive curriculum, 2) educate or coach each developmental stage, 3) evaluate the outcome of the implemented process, 4) establish who is a talent and how to find them, 5) scout the best prospects for a selective team (professional or national teams).

The goal of this article is to use the analysis of the DA’s curriculum that was implemented during the last few years to exemplify how to evaluate a soccer developmental design criteria, and establish how well aligned to the growth and maturation stages it is and it's potential to generate the desired competitive players that can succeed at the professional and international levels.

 

Initial considerations, to frame the analysis. There are many developmental variables to consider like physiological, neurocognitive, social, psychological, etc:

1) Between 6 and 8 years old there is a great variation in physical, cognitive and social maturation. It should be questioned this grouping strategy.

2) According to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, between 4 and 7 years of age, this stage is called "pre-operational". The “thinking process is dominated and influenced by their own perception of the environment. Thinking is still egocentric, they believe that everyone sees the world as they do and struggle to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Their curiosity grows and they ask questions about everything.”

3) According to Martin (1982) between 6 and 7 years of age, it should be only stimulated (instead of training!) the conditional capacities of endurance and flexibility and only through games and fun activities (avoiding physiological training models).

4) Between 6 and 8 years old, the “impulse to learn” increases. It is an appropriate moment to propose activities that generate new and simple “intellectual knowledge” (simple techniques, rules, tactics, etc.)

5) Close to 8 years old the coordinative capacities like rhythm, speed of movements (instead of the speed’s physiological capacity!), and reaction to different stimuli start to increase for its “initial stimulation” (avoiding structured training!). The speed at this stage is associated with the possibility to perform tasks fast, instead of covering distances at high speed.

Analysis, “Season plan by age: Initial Stage (U6-U8)”


1) Objectives Section: goals have to be measurable to allow objectively the process evaluation. The implementation’s analysis permits controlling the curriculum to adjust as needed (feedback loop).

a) U6-7 Scrimmage: positioning in space is a complex abstract concept that should be avoided later until the latter on. “Spatial order” and “letting others play while he/she is waiting” is not part of their emotional and perceptive possibilities yet. They are egocentric. Imposing those concepts risk the fun and playful experience of deciding what to do and when. This is why we see at this age the typical “grouping” around the ball during a soccer game. This “organization” should be allowed and intervention to gain “order” is not constructive. It is a great opportunity to observe individual and group behavior and identify different types of personalities: the aggressive and fearless fighting for the ball, the scared in the periphery, the strategic in between, etc.

b) U6-7 Technique: at this stage should be prevented a focus in improving any particular technique, just the stimulation through multiple repetitions and basic coordinative experimentation. It is critical to let kids explore as many techniques and ways to do things as possible without restricting them to any particular form or technical model.

c) U6-7 Physical: as explained in point “b”, this is the stage for the stimulation of many different basic motor skills with simple coordination. Conditional and physical stimulation is achieved as an indirect result of playing many different types of games.

d) U6-7 Psychological: it is unlikely that youth feel “comfortable” with external elements (the ball in this case) since it is just the initial stage of stimulation. It is also unlikely that they feel “confidant,” since it is an abstract concept that they can’t understand and also because they are getting involved in a new complex environment. There are no tools to measure “comfort with elements” and “confidence” therefore this objective is not operational.

e) U8 Objectives: it is expected that players be capable of “moving forward when attacking and retreating when defending”. It implies a level of team organization that is conflicting with the individual social and psychological developmental capacities. At this age, they are still egocentric and mainly interested in being the protagonist. Most of the time they will try to keep or obtain the ball for themselves.

f) U8 Objectives: it is also expected to achieve “basic quick movement with and without the ball” what implies a technical mastery unnecessary for the exploratory and multi-skills environment required at this stage.

The “objectives” for the U6-8 Initial Stage are conflicting with the participant’s developmental capacities. Following the proposed goals can create a contradiction between what the coach expects, the activities proposed and the kid’s expectations. It is also difficult the objective evaluation of the process. It might create a mistaken understanding of the coaching and/or kid's limitations.

2) Tactical Section: there are not tactical components suggested for this age group. However, this is the time when the fundamental elements, that are the foundation of all the tactical adult models, need to be introduced. The exploration of space, time, obstacles, limits, volume, distance, partners, rivals, etc. are critical components of future complex tactical structures that have to be developed starting in this stage. In these age groups, those concepts are introduced (avoiding structured trained!) through simple games of collaboration, in limited spaces, with different elements, etc. that might or might not resemble the game of soccer.

3) Technical Section: there are technical elements suggested for training that contradicts the developmental possibilities of this group.

a) “Passing and receiving” is suggested at a load 5 (maximum, in the DA’s scale). As indicated before, kids at this age are egocentric and they have perception only of themselves. To ask a kid to pass the ball or “sharing” something (space, ball, the possibility of kicking for goal, etc.) is requesting an unfavorable psychological task. It is at this stage when is important to encourage individualistic and self-centered behavior and use it as an opportunity to stimulate for example the exploration of individual skills.

b) Dribbling and kicking are still suggested at load 5. These are very complex skills that integrate several basic forms of movement: running, kicking, changing direction, and perceiving space all at the same time or in sequential structures. It requires a level of coordinative development not yet achieved. There is also at this stage a limitation in the coordinative control of the farthest aspects of the extremities (feet and hands) due to neurological development. Therefore, dribbling and kicking is “introduced and stimulated,” instead of trained (maybe level 1-2 in the DA’s scale)

c) Shielding the ball is a complex “concept and coordination” to be performed at this stage. Kids feel that they “own the ball” and might question, “why would somebody take the ball away from me?” Therefore as a complex coordinative skill with not intellectual rapport, needs to be delayed until they request it: “how could I prevent losing the ball?”

A more comprehensive analysis can and needs to be done to review all aspects of this (or any academy’s) curriculum. Its gradual structure over the life of the player’s development, how well it guides the coach’s professional practice, its relation with the process of coaching education and support, and the evaluation and control of the goals during the long-term proposed process. The curriculum is therefore the main guide for all aspects of coaching education, training implementation, and process control. After the presented findings, it can be expected to further find methodological limitations in the coaching license program and in the process of analyzing data collected by the coaching staff during training and games.

Club leaders need to encourage a revision of their player development model to solve the current incongruences and limitations and to enhance their programs competitiveness and safety. I will present in the next series of articles a similar analysis for the next two Developmental Stages and also for the coaching license curriculum and educative model.

Please make sure that you send me your questions and comments. Also, please request other topics that you would be interested in being analyzed. It is with discussion and sharing of ideas that we will be able to helpfully participate in the growth of soccer in the United States.

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