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CHAPTER TWO
SOCCER - THE UNIQUE GAME

Soccer is often called the "player's game." Think about it - no time outs; no stoppages in play for a coach to run in a play or act as a puppet master; and, if coaches shouts out instructions, if their players can hear them, so can the other team.

More than any other sport, in soccer a player has to learn to think for themselves. They must learn to anticipate the run of play or read the game and react quickly. Coaches - and parents - who shout specific instructions, who yell for an action, rob the player of a chance to learn to think. The player becomes a puppet; a predictable, uncreative puppet.

For this reason we do NOT train players by giving them specific instructions. Go to many games and you will hear the parents and too often coaches shouting for players to do a specific action such as -

Throw down line;
Don't pass to the middle; or,
Run to the corners;

and so on. It is easy on the coach to teach an action that is correct perhaps 80% of the time. It is easier to give a specific direction. However, easier is often bad. You see this same mentality at work in coaches who tell defenders to always stay back or assign specific areas of the field to stop bunch ball in little ones.

It is harder to teach a concept. Teaching the concept takes more thought, more time and the results, while far better and in the end surer, take much longer to appear - and for some players never appear.

Teach an action as opposed to a concept and you have lost time for you often have to unleash the action and you create confusion and indecision when doing this. Consider the above while reading the following article that recently appeared in Soccer America:

DO WE WANT ROBINHOS OR ROBOTS?
"How over-coaching and the emphasis on winning stifle young American talent."
By Mike Woitalla, Soccer America Magazine

The little boy dribbled and kept dribbling. He had taken the ball away from the midfield pack and zoomed toward his own goal. This surprised the other children and allowed him to keep the ball to himself for much longer than any player had managed during this U-8 game.

Having put some 15 yards between himself and the other players, he slowed down and seemed to marvel at all the territory he now had to himself. He started making a wide U-turn and flashed a big smile.

He moved down the sideline and back into the other team's half, then put his foot on the ball and stopped. When a couple of his little opponents approached, he accelerated toward their goal and took a shot that nearly scored.

What creativity, improvisation and savvy! And in his smile was the joy of soccer.

So how did his coach react?

First with red-faced screams of "You're going the wrong way! You're going the wrong way!" Then furious shouts of "Pass it! Pass it!" -- a chant that several parents took up -- followed by head-shaking in frustration.

Of course, the coach was shouting instructions to all his players throughout the game. That's the norm in youth soccer, in which misguided coaches -- and the other adults on the sideline -- believe they're helping children become better soccer players by telling them where to run and when to pass.

But what really irked the coach about the clever boy's maneuver was it was risky. A misstep and he could have provided a scoring chance for the other team.

And, absurd as it is, there are adults -- lots and lots of them -- who place great importance on whether their 7-year-olds beat another team of youngsters.

Youth coaches who want to rack up wins discourage their players from taking risks, such as dribbling the ball out of the back, by ordering them to boot it up-field or out of bounds. "Clear it!" they shout.

"The emphasis on winning is a detriment to young players because it prevents us from developing technically proficient players," says U.S. U-17 national team coach John Hackworth. "And we're not giving them the ability to make decisions. You can't find a youth soccer game where the coaches aren't screaming the whole time, telling kids what they should do and how they should do it."

If players aren't allowed to make mistakes and take chances when they're exploring the sport -- if they're constantly being told what to do -- how can we expect them to develop the soccer instincts they'll need to make the split-second decisions that are so much a part of the game?

"They hear 'Clear it ... Get rid of it ... Pass it ... Kick it up line' so often that by the time they're 13 or 14, when they get the ball and they don't hear the instructions, they don't know what to do," says Tab Ramos, the great U.S. midfielder who is now a New Jersey youth coach.

Telling young players what to do with the ball, bossing them around to stay in certain positions on the field and taking strategic advantage of the bigger, stronger kids are ways of increasing a team's chances of winning. But at what cost?

"If you want your 8-year-olds to win tomorrow, you're going to address that group differently than if you say, 'I want my 8-year-old to win when he's 18 years old,'" says Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer's Director of Coaching Education.

It's not just that the coaches are obsessed with winning -- there are the parents. A coach of a U-9 team told me that if his team compiled a 12-1 win-loss record, his parents would want to move their children to the team that went 13-0.

Ramos encourages his younger players, the 9- and 10-year-olds, not to kick the ball out of bounds when they're under pressure in their own half.

"We want him to find a way out of it," Ramos says. "Half the time, he's not going to come out of it and very often he's going make a mistake that's going to cost a goal. But this is when players should be allowed to take the risk so they develop their skills."

Too few coaches are willing to provide such learning experiences because they can lead to losses.

"A lot of parents are living through their children," Ramos says, "and for them it becomes a matter of them beating the other coach because that's the guy who beat them three years ago when their older child played." Hackworth, who doesn't believe in assigning positions to players under age 10, proposes eliminating the "ultra-competitive premier flight" until at least U-12. And even then coaches should still resist becoming results oriented.

"We want competition," he says. "They'll always be competition and it's not bad. The bad part is the emphasis on winning."

That emphasis often results in coaches putting the physically advanced kids in particular spots. For example, a big guy in back who's instructed to boot the ball to the speedy guy up front. This denies smaller players opportunities to play significant roles while bigger players can rely on their athleticism instead of developing their skills.

Aime Jacquet, who coached France to the 1998 World Cup title and has also been in charge of France's renowned youth development program, said he investigates youth teams with winning records and if he discovers they won by relying on big players, he fires them.

If a coach isn't obsessed with results, he's more likely, when they're at the age level in which assigning positions is appropriate, to expose players to different roles. Keeping a player in the same position all the time won't help him adjust to new challenges when he moves to higher levels.

"Worrying too much about winning and losing gets in the way of development," says Manfred Schellscheidt, head of U.S. Soccer's U-14 program. "There are always shortcuts that you can find to win the next game. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll be winning five, six years from now.

"The kids all try to win anyhow, so I don't think we need to add to this.

No kid ever steps on the field and says, 'Today I'm going to lose.' They're naturally competitive. We should be concerned about the players' performance, not the final score."

Coaching soccer really isn't that complicated. When children first become involved in organized soccer, the coach's job is simply to create an environment that gives the children a chance to enjoy the sport. It's such a wonderful sport that setting up goals and letting them play usually does the trick.

It should also be an environment that allows them to be creative, to express themselves and to bring their own personalities to the sport.

No doubt, the USA has produced legions of good players. But how many great players have come out of our youth ranks?

How many excellent American dribblers are there? How many American players can dazzle fans? How many defenders do we have who can play their way out of trouble, who can consistently contribute to the attack? How many American players can dictate the rhythm of a game?

Far, far too few.

And one wonders how many players with the capacity to bring individual brilliance to the field have had that hammered out of them by their screaming coaches. Creativity is not just being hammered out, sometimes it is never allowed to appear. Young children crave absolutes. They live in a world that is black and white. For them it is tempting to give the absolutes, especially to stop bunch soccer. Give them absolutes and you can create the illusion of good soccer, but it will only be an illusion for they will not understand the basic concepts on which soccer depends.

Dribble with your head UP

Soccer is not basketball, football, baseball or hockey. Coaching methods, specific plays, a fixed hierarchy of commanders, sideline and specialty coaches, found in these sports do not exist in soccer.

However, these are not the only differences.

To understand soccer you need to think not about positions. Positions mean very little, especially at the youngest ages. What matters is SPACE. Where is the vulnerable space? Where is space filled with opponents? How can we penetrate space to gain a shot on goal? When we are defending how can we deprive our opponents of space?

To be effective players need to be able to play with their heads up. When they can dribble with their heads' up, when they no longer need to see the ball, they can see the options, see when they need to pass and when to dribble.

When you shout directions to players, they have an extra set of eyes - a set they will not have later. They will also have an extra brain thinking for them, and will not learn to think for them selves.

If you want to rob your player of learning the game shout instructions to them. If you want to rob them of learning tell them specific actions they should have done. If you want them to really learn the game ask them what they saw, look at the options they have and ask them to describe the game they saw. In this way you can guide them to consider possibilities and options and learn see the cues that can guide players to the proper decision for them at that time on the field.