Our Problems Aren’t New, Solutions Need to Be

By Tim Nash

Ok. Here are two quotes to consider. A little later on, you will find out who said them. They both deal with a couple of the hot player-development topics.

This first one relates to the heavily organized way young soccer players are trained in the U.S., the coach-centered structure that many believes gets in the way of players learning to be instinctive, creative and dynamic.

“Kids today think there has to be a coach present in order to play. They don’t just go out and play. We, as coaches, need to replicate free play in training.”

Everyone, it would seem, would agree with that. Our young players are in very structured environments. Youth clubs offer training programs year-round, including specialized, position-specific sessions. Clubs hire mostly qualified trainers who are paid well and largely judged on their ability to run good training sessions. Kids are taught moves, which by the way have names now. All that’s fine, except the kids are not discovering ways to beat opponents by themselves, not encouraged to make up things on the spur of the moment. Instincts are replaced with reactions. On the other hand, the moves they are taught are repeated and become useful tools.

Even the way formations are discussed points to some micro-management. A 4-2-3-1 is the new name for a 4-5-1, so is a 4-1-4-1. It’s just we have felt it necessary to point out how deep or high the midfielders should play, which seems to be a sign that coaches would rather micro-manage the formation instead of teaching (expanded) roles and responsibilities. After all, aren’t formations just a basic shape that players can play out of? The amount of time a coach spends explaining the formation is a direct indication of how much control they wish to have over their players’ movement and thoughts.

So when you consider the quote, the idea that kids feel there needs to be a coach present, means that we have created a culture where the kids are dependent on their coach. That concept either stems from or is further supported by the way coaches choreograph nearly every movement young players have on the field – pass it to Helen, put it through, pinch in, drop off, etc., etc.

The second quote is about the USA’s inability to have greater success in international men’s soccer, why we don’t perform better in major international competitions.

“If you take 100 Dutch players and 100 American players at around 14-15 years old, the Dutch player will have a better feeling for the game, but the American player will be able to compensate for what they lack with their physical qualities. When they are meeting each other, they will be equal. When they get older — around 19-20 — the Dutch player will be better because the game is harder and what the American player compensates with will not be good enough anymore.”

Without going into painful recent news, I think we can all agree.

Here’s the important thing about the two quotes – they are from 1993. The first one is from Bob Gansler, the former men’s national team coach, who led the U.S. to the 1990 World Cup. It was the first time in 40 years that the USA qualified. The second quote is from Rinus MIchels, the former Dutch national team and Ajax manager who was widely considered one of the greatest and most innovative managers of all time.

So, if you agree with the quotes, you have to ask yourself, why are we still talking about the same things we identified as problems two decades ago?

That, you have to admit, is a really good question, and any discussion about player development should start by answering it. But it seems we find it more pressing to argue over things like whether it’s better to play 6v6 or 7v7 at U10 and 11, and whether it should be 8v8 or 9v9 at U12.

Here’s a general theory on why we tend to get stuck. It’s rather simple but not so easy to fix. It involves a third quote. This one is by a guy named Sydney Harris, a journalist out of Chicago in the 1970s and 80s. He is credited with saying, “Nobody can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own.”

It seems we have too many people who believe they have a better idea. In fact, in soccer, almost everyone believes they have a better idea, a better way to play, to develop players and to teach the game. And that’s part of the problem. Back in 1993, Rinus Michels also said, “There are experts in the game, and I am one of them. You need to listen.”

Will we listen? Or will Harris define us as a soccer nation when he said, “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time. What we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”

Or, as is often the case, I could be completely wrong.

Tim Nash is the author of a new book on the first 30 years of the U.S. Women’s National Team. For more information, go to http://www.the56thMinute.com

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