By Pat Johnston
I find it necessary for a brief introduction. I will be publishing many posts here in the future and would like to see to it that you, the reader, have some understanding and respect for the words I write. In that same spirit, I greatly welcome your input on this odyssey of expose’ of the grass roots of our game in the United States. As you will see from this opening insertion, I am receptive to the concept of being taught by anyone. For the record- nobody has ever accused me of exercising humility.
Being a USSF A Licensed coach and having visited top-level Academies in Europe (Chelsea, Liverpool, five other EPL clubs), South America (Estudiantes de la Plata, Boca Juniors), and domestically on over a dozen occasions, I have done my utmost to expand my knowledge on the art/science of developing young soccer players.
As a journalist on the subject, I have done extensive interviews with many recognized experts and have willingly absorbed the knowledge that these leaders in the field have shared.
Of this I am certain, I am not new to the American grass roots and have been coaching soccer in this country for thirty years. I began coaching while playing in college and have always made the effort to get involved in the local youth soccer scene wherever I resided. North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, and Tennessee have been the “beneficiaries” of this zealous soccer soul. I would like to think that I have some grasp of what I have been exposed too. While I am not Albert Einstein, I am confident that I know more than the average bear on the subject. Having been hired as a Director of Coaching for a club in my locality, I was excited to share what I had learned with the coaches of the club and wholeheartedly committed to seeing a player development system implemented to rival any.
It is two years on since that hiring and I have learned even more about the “American System” by being a DOC. I would not label my stint as a failure or even a disappointment, but I am far from satisfied with the job I have done. The reasons for my lukewarm review are several and certainly not entirely in my control, but I am still yearning for a better performance from myself as I look ahead.
While I will dissect the pitfalls of the American Soccer culture in articles to come, I want to focus on one specific hour recently where an affirmation of what I was preaching screamed at me like a siren as I went thru the motions of directing a skill session. The irony is that while I was seeing all the things I knew as right being manifested, I learned even more what I was doing wrong.
I have published articles to prove the following. I advocate player development over any match result oriented curriculum in youth soccer. Never let this statement be mistaken for the perception that I accept a player’s attitude be one where they do not compete to their best! I advocate less coaching and more playing for the players in the technical formative years (13 and under in my opinion).
So with this backdrop I would like to take you out to a set of outdoor Futsal turf fields which were recently built in the inner city where I coach. On a weekly basis I invite all the players from my club in certain age groups for an informal skills and play session. I typically just let the attendees play small sided on these perfectly designed fields for 4 v 4 and then about 15 minutes into the session I will introduce a simple skill type of exercise and have them do that for 15 minutes. The last half hour to 45 minutes we finish as we started, by playing. On this particular night I was working with U9-12 players of both genders.
There are three Futsal fields tightly fitted in an area maybe the size of a large 8 v 8 field. The turf is synthetic and in wonderful condition and the entire set of fields are fenced in much like tennis courts. Each week when I arrive (typically ten to fifteen minutes early) to set up for my session, all the fields are crammed with locals of all ages playing pick up soccer. It is a scene fresh off the streets of any Latin American city in the New World. There is a definite ethnic flavor to the participants. Having reserved the fields for two hours I make the current occupants aware and the spirit of their cooperation has been refreshing.
In weeks gone by, as they vacate I then proceed to train the attending players of my club as I explained. But this week I felt compelled to allow any of the local children of age that were on the site to train with us. Unfortunately I had to turn one away due to not having proper footwear. But the two who did participate, a nine and a ten year old, are as responsible as any for my continuing education.
I set the group up and instead of jumping right into playing as usual, we did a simple reception, pass and move drill. The main focus of the session was to incorporate a first touch that facilitated a necessary opening of the hips to change the point of attack and then move. Something I have noticed amongst the younger players in my club that is woefully deficient. The two local boys struggled initially to perform the orchestrated tasks. After every pass they would stand and “admire” their pass. My assistant and I had to constantly “shoo” them to their next station. By the end of the 15 minutes they were getting comfortable with the scheme but still lagging in some respects.
Then we began to play. There was nothing stagnant about these two boys. Thrown into a group setting with complete strangers would be intimidating for anyone, but once the coaching stopped and the playing started, both youngsters looked as comfortable on that turf as a fish in water. They were technically as capable as any of the club players and brought the element of running at a player, while with the ball, which is so lacking in my club’s current player pool. This aspect of a young player’s progress is something I have encouraged and tried to replicate, but on this night I became convinced that there is nothing better which facilitates a player going 1 v 1 than free play. As obvious as this sounds, seeing it was what really made it hit home. And even more revealing was the constant movement of these two boys to areas where they could receive a ball if they did not have it. The opening drill may not have registered with them, but the flow, tempo, and rhythm of playing was already in their blood. They were the two best players “en la cancha” that night.
So while I have been right all along in terms of instruction, I have been lacking in terms of execution. To my credit I have constantly harped on the need for less tournament and league play, but should I continue in a director’s capacity, I will have to wield the iron fist to see that is the case. So to those who are all about the spirit of the beautiful game, the freedom and creativity it conveys, and have preached about the playground, I salute you.
The formula for these younger players is simple: Absolutely utilize structure to introduce and illustrate the necessary basics of the game, but for the love of heaven, LET THEM PLAY!
Pat Johnston was a collegiate All American at Duke University and went on to play professionally in England and the US. He has been a Region III ODP staff coach and is the current women’s coach at Sewanee: University of the South as well as the Director of Coaching for Chattanooga United Football Club. His articles appear regularly in Success in Soccer as well as soccer365.com.
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