TPSC Long Term Player Development

The following is an introduction to a recent article, “Why Most Kids Quit Sports.”

Twenty million kids register each year for youth hockey, football, baseball, soccer, and other competitive sports. The National Alliance for Sports reports that 70 percent of these kids quit playing these league sports by age 13 -- and never play them again.

According to Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, "The number one reason (why they quit) is that it stopped being fun." With figures like these, it’s time we rethink how we present youth sports to kids.

These findings are supported by the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University, which conducted what is widely cited as the most comprehensive study on the subject. This study —not surprisingly— found that children get involved in sports to have fun, play with their friends, and learn new skills. They drop out when it stops being fun, when there is too much emphasis on winning, and when there is too much pressure from coaches and parents.**

Michael Sharp’s excellent presentation at the 2009 Annual General Meeting discussed these pressures on young children. But additionally, he demonstrated that we are not alone in our concern about teaching fundamental skills. Whether in the various European national programs that he illustrated, or in the many national and state associations here at home, there is a recognition that there needs to be a developmental approach to soccer education -- and a lessening of competitive pressures at the younger ages.

Tremendous strides have been made in recent years towards a systematic and knowledge-based program of player development. Known as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), these principles of player and coach education are being slowly adopted worldwide. LTAD focuses on understanding the social, emotional, and physiological readiness levels of children in designing curriculum and opportunities for effective learning and participation.



Smaller sided games

Part of and along with LTAD in these organizations is a move to smaller-sided games. As with England’s Manchester United program, 4 v 4 is common in the U-10s and below, 8 v 8 through U-12, and full-sided 11 v 11 games don’t appear until around U-13/14.

US Youth Soccer cites the following reasons for encouraging small sided games for players under 12 years of age (full article):
    • Because we want our young soccer players to touch the soccer ball more often and become more skillful with it! (Individual technical development)
    • Because we want our young soccer players to make more, less-complicated decisions during the game! (Tactical development)

    • Because we want our young soccer players to be more physically efficient in the field space they are playing in! (Reduced field size)

    • Because we want our young soccer players to have more individual teaching time with the coach! Less players on the field and less players on the team will guarantee this! (Need to feel worthy and need to feel important)

    • Because we want our young soccer players to have more, involved playing time in the game! (More opportunity to solve problems that only the game presents)

    • Because we want our young soccer players to have more opportunity to play on both sides of the ball! (More exposure to attacking and defending situations)

    • Because we want our young soccer players to have more opportunities to score goals! (Pure excitement)

The above chart taken from the Scottish FA study on youth development is an excellent example of the benefit of small-sided games. Note in the top left chart the number of touches per player in an hour-long 4v4 game versus in a full-sided 11v11 game (117 to 26). In fact, the study showed the right and left defenders in the larger game had exactly two (2!) touches in the course of an hour’s game.

Competitive Programs Start Later

The other significant international movement is a delay in the introduction of pressurized travel soccer until age 10 or older. There is a recognition that 8 and 9 year old players should be focusing on learning the basic skills of passing, striking and trapping and should not be pidgeonholed into being an "outside right midfielder" or "left forward" as almost always happens on a competitive team focused on W’s and L’s.

Developmentally, research shows that age 9 through 12 is the "Golden Age of Learning" in sports. Our new Player Development Academy will be focused on this age range. (This Academy program is a skills development program as opposed to Academy programs seen elsewhere which act as funnels into the competitive ranks. Those of you familiar with the research presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers will recognize the problems with selecting players for elite teams before age 10. Those teams are inevitably stacked with players whose birthdays are early in the age-group year (because they are on average bigger, faster, stronger than children born as much as 11 months’ later). Those same players then get more training, playing time and opportunities than their slightly younger peers - and statistically the latter never catch up. Each year, the gap grows a little wider.)

We recognize (as pointed out by Sam Snow, Director of Coaching Education for US Youth Soccer) that soccer is a "late specialization sport" - players typically peak in their mid-to-late 20’s (further reading). Youth soccer is a time to focus on development.

In countries such as Spain, France, Germany and Holland, players under the age of 12 do not travel outside their communities. We are also seeing this movement in clubs across the U.S., locally in NorCal and with some of our peer clubs (further reading). Similarly, we and other programs will be starting our competitive programs later, but will be pouring additional resources into our House (Rec) and Academy programs.

This is a significant change. We know it is. In planning for it, we have met with managers and focus groups of parents in these age groups and have listened to their concerns and feedback - most of it positive. We also held two additional meetings before tryouts to speak with rising U-9 and U-10 parents about this program. 

Ultimately, we are convinced that this focus on skills rather than pressurized results will help to develop better players at this crucial developmental age and keep them interested and enthused long after they might otherwise have dropped out.

**Here is a link to a Powerpoint presentation based on the Youth Sports Institute research