School has finished for the day, parents are just leaving work, that means it is time for soccer practice. Twice a week this ritual happens throughout United States, as the kids show up at the field in droves. The Coach is there a little early, setting up the training, getting ready to put the players through a few exercises, followed-up with a scrimmage game. The 90 minutes is over in no time, as the players pack up, some are off to baseball practice, some to lacrosse and some head home! All across the country this is a familiar scenario; but of course there are also the more rigorous academies and elite type of clubs, where the trainings are more frequent and the season is longer, but these situations come with drawbacks as well. It’s very possible that a parent in a club like this, will have to drive their child 4-7 hours’ round trip to a game, just for the player to sit on the bench. Obviously, this would not be the ideal situation for player development or motivation. The reality is, the American soccer landscape is not easily understood, and it is unlike anyplace else in the world.
Among soccer coaches there are always the same hot topics up for debate, why does America produce so very few world class players? How come a country the size of the United States can’t produce a world class striker? The questions then turn towards coaching education, can the USSF come up with coaching education curriculum that will develop these types of elite pro players? Why is the cost of USSF licensing so expensive? Is the path to elite player development, just a simple intelligent linear curriculum, that builds players up in a logical systematic way? Is there enough freedom in the academy system and USSF curriculum for coaches to implement original ideas and innovate on their own? Should the game be taught with best practices across the entire country, regardless of the diversity of a country like America? Why do so many people say that America is missing “creative” players? These are the questions you will hear when coaches are debating the state of American soccer.
Of course I don’t claim to have all the answers to the USA’s developmental issues, but I do have some ideas that will at the very least make people think. Let’s start by looking at the country, and what makes America different from the rest of the world. First, the United States is geographically enormous, the population is extremely diverse and the countries soccer history and culture is still in its infancy. Why is all that relevant? Because the United States is comprised of diverse talent bases, which are located all over the country in both small and large communities. We have the privilege of having players and coaches who come from Haiti, Africa, Jamaica, Poland, Serbia, Ireland, Mexico, Ecuador and so many more places. The question is, do we as a soccer country embrace our diversity? Do we reach out to all those diverse communities and really scout all players equally, turning over every rock? Do we offer free or at least affordable coaching education and licensing courses to every coach that can’t afford the outrageous USSF fees? Are there enough resources provided outside of the academy system? Does a universal approach to developing players work in all these diverse areas? The population of Croatia is smaller than NYC, so on a comparison level by population, the United States should be able to field roughly 75 full national teams. How do I get 75 national teams? Croatia=4 million people & USA=300 Million people = 300/4 = 75. Holland only has 16 million people, while Texas alone has 27 million! However, this is not as simple as a numbers game, the reasons the United States is behind in player development are many, and it is not so easy to just put them on a list.
We should keep in mind that most soccer programs all across the country don’t have to produce world class talent, it’s simply not what they are meant to do or equipped to do. Soccer for 99 percent of the participants is about having fun, building self-esteem, increasing social skills, establishing friendships, learning the value of hard work and so much more. I’m personally happy if my son goes to training twice a week and really enjoys it, creating a soccer participant and fan for life! If my son does end up deciding for himself that he wants to pursue the sport, going as far as he can as a player, then it would be my job to help find an environment for him to pursue his ambitions. Notice, the key factor is if the player decides, not the parent, not the coach, but the player. This is very important because it leads into my own personal philosophy on player development. Player development must be player motivated and player directed. Let me explain this a little bit more using an example from a friend of mine, who has a very talented 12-year old son. His son plays on a good U12 USSF Academy team, and is being watched as a potential future youth national team candidate, both here in the United States and in Ireland (dual citizen). When I visited his house, the front yard had literally been converted into a soccer field, with neighborhood kids coming by to play pick-up games all day. Right away the soccer field in the front yard reminded me of the book “Bounce”, where world class table tennis players were developed from a small area, in fact all the players were from the same tiny street in Reading, England. The secret seems to be that the coach put up a garage, which housed the tennis tables, he gave all the players keys for 24-hour access, they played against top players every day as the coach provided expert feedback. There are definite similarities between my friends set up and the table tennis example, but there are more important aspects as well. The more I spoke more to my friend, the more clues came out to why his son is a top player at the early age of 12. He told me his son was gone for 6 hours the other day, he asked him, “where have you been for so long?” The son replied, “I was at the local high school, playing pick-up games with every high school player that showed up throughout the day”, from 12pm – 6pm. If that isn’t player motivated, then I’m not sure what is. It’s no coincidence that he just flew down to play with the Houston Dynamo this month and did very well. My friends story is similar to the many top Brazilian players that I have coached over the years, where the players would play soccer 5-6 hours a day on the street, from 5 to 13 years old. That equates to around 15,000 hours of playing soccer by 13 years old, far surpassing the Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hour rule. These examples prove, it wasn’t the coaching curriculum that was ultimately responsible for creating these amazing players, it was player motivation that flourish in a soccer culture.
Take a look at this summer’s Gold Cup, notice how good the smaller countries have become. The technical ability and overall style of play was impressive from Curacao, El Salvador and Martinique. I am sure those countries afford an easy opportunity for kids to play long hours, on a daily basis, immersed in a soccer culture. They are exposed to beach soccer, playing on various surfaces, futsal, soccer beach foot-volley and more, plus all this can be done year round in a warm climate. However, in my opinion, the one major change that has made a huge impact around the world, in terms of soccer development is technology. You can literally be anywhere in the world and pull up soccer on the internet. Want to watch the best soccer players of all-time, incredible soccer skill videos, soccer coaching videos, fitness videos or the champions league final, it is all just a couple clicks away on the internet, this was simply not possible when I was growing up. Welcome to the information age, where the latest news and information is at your fingertips for free! It makes me think of a story that a South American gentleman told me about 25 years ago, he explained how the Brazilian league has changed to become more physical, with players tackling more, winning more head balls and emphasizing defense at more. His reason was simple, the English and European soccer leagues started to be shown on Brazilian television, and this alone massively influenced Brazilian soccer. Fast forward 25-30 years with technology being so advanced, the influence of technology in soccer must be considered, especially from a player and coach developmental aspect? It is my belief that technology does and needs to play a key role in player development and coaching education. To illustrate the point, I have added a link to a video from Indian education scientist Sugata Mitra which is a must watch, it will help you understand the power of technology and how it can be used in the education and learning process. Another incredibly powerful video is from Sir Ken Robinson, he speaks about how people learn and the non-linear path of education, but how does this relate to America and our inability to produce world class players? Let’s start with coaching education. Because America is so large geographically, how about putting every USSF coaching license on digital video, while giving every coach in the country the chance to download them. Yes, all the courses, right through the new Pro License, this would allow coaches across the country at every economic level the opportunity to study and further their coaching education. The final step would be online testing for a small fee. If college in America can be completed solely online, why can’t a simple soccer license? If online study is good enough for a Master’s Degree or PHD, don’t you think a simple soccer license should be? I’m not devaluating what you learn in a coaching course, but I have said this many times, you learn to coach by working with top coaches on a daily year round basis, there is nothing in a 9-day soccer course that is worth $5,000 or that can’t be answered on the internet. As far as player development goes, it’s about creating a soccer culture where the players can be completely immersed in the game, while giving them the tools to become well rounded learners, problem solvers and innovators, on and off the field. It’s the old adage that, giving a person food is one thing, but teaching them to grow their own food will empower them for life.
I could write forever on the topic of player development, if you want more details into player development, I suggest taking my “Online Cognitive Soccer Instructors Diploma Course”.
Also, please check out all my cognitive soccer products at www.cognitivesoccerproducts.com