“One-hundred percent of the focus in youth sports should be on individual skill development!” exclaimed a leader in our city’s soccer club.
“I completely disagree with you. How can you concentrate solely on individual skills when you are introducing the game of soccer – a team sport?” I replied.
“I can guarantee you that the kids that train in our club will be able to run circles around the best players on other teams that haven’t participated in our club.” he responded.
“Okay, but will your players be able to play the game? Will they be able to use the skills they have learned successfully in game-play? Will they be able to use game tactics? Will they have a bond with their teammates? How about with their coaches? Will they love playing the game?” I asked.
“Our training approach works, and we are just going to have to agree to disagree.” he retorted.
“Well, I feel bad for our young athletes who have to have their first soccer experience in training, because they aren’t learning the game of soccer.”
When my daughter turned five-years old, I was excited to volunteer as her recreational soccer coach. I remember playing rec. soccer until I was 14 years old. We would play in the fall against teams from other schools in our school district. One practice was held per week with our soccer coach, and our games were on the often chilly Saturday mornings. I remember the sting of the ball bouncing off my legs in the freezing temperatures. Noses were red, fingers were ice-cold, but we loved it. Players of all abilities came together to learn the game of soccer, and to experience what contributing to a team felt like.
You can imagine my surprise as I sat in on my first coaches meeting for my daughter’s team and was told that the first eight weeks of our ten-week season would be spent in training. I wouldn’t be coaching. I would be watching my players rotate from drill-to-drill – spending five minutes on each skill. Not only were they rotating to different stations, they were rotating to different trainers, so there was no sense of team. Coaches were given five minutes (if we were lucky) to guide our team in a scrimmage – once per week.
Four weeks after the girls had started their first training session, we played our first game. I had yet to coach a practice. To say that they had no idea how to play a soccer game is an understatement. The girls didn’t know how to start the game, they didn’t know where to stand on the field, they didn’t know what the lines on the field indicated, they didn’t know which way to dribble the ball or which net to shoot on, they hadn’t been introduced to passing, and they didn’t know how to play as a team. They didn’t know how to play soccer. They did, however, know how to dribble the soccer ball.
Halfway through the season, parents started mentioning how their daughters were not having fun at training. Several girls also began lying on the grass toward the end of training due to boredom. The club had said that the number one goal for our recreational program was to make soccer fun because then the players would want to continue to play. The training was deterring us from that goal.
Have you ever seen children running drills at recess? How about at the park? Do children get together after school to run drills? Of course not! Drill practice is not fun for anyone.
Once our eight weeks of training had ended, I was finally able to lead my girls in real practices for the final two weeks of the season. We packed in as much game knowledge as we could while playing small-sided games. Within those two weeks, a noticeable difference was apparent in the team’s understanding of the game. The girls started dribbling toward the correct net, I observed the use of rock-paper-scissors to decide who got to take the kick-off, I noticed that the team was beginning to respect the field boundaries, and I even observed a pass or two (developmentally, this is not expected at the five-year-old age). Best of all, I heard conversation happening on the field. The girls were talking, trying to figure-out the game, and using creativity with their skills to move on the field. A light had gone on, and the girls were learning. They were enjoying the game of soccer.
Team Sport and the Overuse of Individual Skill Training
Soccer is not the only team sport that is putting much of the training emphasis on individual skill development. Football, hockey, basketball, and other team sports are doing the same. Before I go on, I want to make something clear. I know that individual skill development is important, but, putting the majority of training focus on individual skill development when introducing a team sport is counterintuitive. Why?
When training programs spend the majority of practice time drilling players, players are not given enough time to use these skills in real-world situations. Also, drills are not fun. Repetition without purpose causes boredom, and the motivation to continue to learn wanes. We need to give youth sports back to the kids. Teachers, coaches, and parents need to allow for the fun to be put back in team sports. Instead of focusing on isolated technique, skill, and drill, we need to use game-play to enhance skills. Replacing dry training methods like drills with game-play will improve skills, tactical understanding (mental plans for game play), creativity, purpose, and motivation.
Training Needs Game-Like Practice Opportunities
Daniel Gopher, Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Human Factors Engineering at Technion, Israel’s Institute of Science, and one of the world’s leading figures in the field of Cognitive Training says “What we have discovered is that a key factor for an effective transfer from the training environment to reality is that the training program ensures ‘Cognitive Fidelity’, this is, it should faithfully represent the mental demands that happen in the real world.”
In the natural process of game-play, athletes hone one of the most critical elements of being a top player. They train their decision-making skills, which reinforces their ability to solve real-time, real-data issues. Children acquire skills when they are most motivated to do so, when they need to solve something important to them – like beating a defender, or needing to increase speed. If you have children, I am sure you have observed this, just as coaches have seen this in game-play. What you are observing is children making meaning. This is how they learn.
Coaches can serve their players better by incorporating position-play exercises, small-sided games, and other real-game activities. According to Travassos et al., 2012, “…in competitive team games, the opportunity to make a pass arises and dissolves according to the spatial-temporal relations established between competing performers.” This, our players cannot achieve when concentrating almost solely on individual technique drills.
To the coaches and club leaders who are using training methods that include overusing individual skill development drills to teach team sports: We should always respect the elite athletes who have inspired you and so many others with their spectacular moves, but perhaps we should allow our young athletes time to be creative, to invent some moves of their own, to play the game that they love. Use game-play to motivate your players, to provide the ultimate learning environment, to increase tactical skills, to increase individual skills, and to strengthen the relationships between you and your team.
Seymore Papert was a professor and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding father of the constructionist learning theory which discusses the importance of discovery learning and how children are capable of using the information they know to acquire more knowledge. I want to leave you with two of his quotes:
“The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a child of pleasure and benefit of discovery.”
“You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.”
Join me in part two of the Downfall of Youth Sport Series where we explore the effects of participation ribbons and not keeping score. Coming on 12/24/2107
Travassos, B., Araújo, D., Duarte, R., and McGarry, T. (2012). Spatiotemporal coordination patterns in futsal (indoor football) are guided by informational game constraints. Hum. Mov. Sci. 31, 932–945. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2011.10.004
Author’s background: Erin is certified in K-12 physical education and adapted physical education. She is also a long-time soccer player and youth soccer coach who loves to share her love of the game with young athletes.