Tim came through the academy system in England with both Bolton Wanderers and Everton as a youngster. He has over 300 appearances semi-professionally in England and in 2007 earned the highest scholarship awarded to an athlete at Maryland, USA. In 2006, he was chosen to represent the UK from 17,000 players for The Pepsi Max World Challenge, a global TV Series screened on Channel 4. Tim competed against the best semi-professional players from ten other countries in 2V2 tournament around the globe; working with Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Thierry Henry. In 2006, he was chosen by Jamie Redknapp to represent England semi-professional team at the FIFA World Cup finals in Germany.
He is also a football skills champion, finishing second in the World 2004 Nike Freestyle Championships and has performed choreographed and body doubled on dozens of commercials and advertisements around the world for the past ten years.
Tim was selected by Pepsi as a Technical Coach alongside David Beckham in Madrid and Ronaldinho in Camp Nou before being recruited by the Watford FC academy where he worked full time with 12-16s at the pioneering Harefield Project. This system saw over 50 players progress from the academy into the Championship first team squad. He was Youth Development Manager of 12-16s at Wigan Athletic, overseeing the coaching programme and philosophy at all age groups before managing the 13-14s philosophy at Liverpool’s academy. Tim was also seconded to coach in Spain by Roberto Martinez in the summer of 2013, holds a BSc Hons Degree in Sport Psychology, a UEFA A Licence and has been a guest speaker at several youth national coaching events.
What made you get into coaching?
“I first got into coaching when I was released from the professional academies and realised I was not going to reach the heights that I had dreamt of as a player. I was a skinny and small, technical deep-lying midfielder with no pace that kept dropping in to receive from centre backs – all they were being asked to do was hit the front players early. The philosophy in academies is very different now than it was in the 90s; the game has moved on so much and I was a very late developer. When I left school I was forced to take a session as part of my college course. I loved it. This is where I first started – and the session I put on was terrible.
“The reason I started was born from my own experiences. I had played under so many coaches and managers who had polar opposite beliefs to me and operated in ways that I felt was completely unacceptable. They would lie continually, were lazy in terms of preparation and applied no thought or creativity to their sessions. We went for three mile runs around the streets, we wouldn’t see the balls for 60 of the 90 minute sessions and we played conditioned games with absolutely no relevance to the game at all.
“I remember at Bolton, being put into a sprint race over 60 yards against the under-15 players and I was chronologically barely 13 with the biological age of 11. When I look back to some of the things I was asked to do I wonder how some of the coaches were even employed. Some people still use these methods and term them ‘making boys into men’ and all that alpha male rubbish that ‘did them no harm’, but what they don’t ask is how much better they could have been if they hadn’t wasted time on things that had no relevance.”
Fans and the media are becoming more privy to buzzwords for coaches such as ‘ideology’ and ‘philosophy’, can you explain what your philosophy as a coach is?
“Philosophy is a really difficult word to get across on a piece of paper or in an interview. My core philosophical values are to treat people with respect and to always be honest with others. In football, the higher you go the more bad people you find. Some of the dishonesty I have seen it truly staggering and due to this I am always open with my feelings with others around me. I never want people to be unsure on what I am thinking whether that be good or bad. When people know you will tell them the truth 100% of the time then you have an environment where people are working towards a goal together. Trust is the most important principle to any philosophy yet it in football it is something that seems to be devoid in most clubs.
“My on field philosophy never changes but constantly evolves. If I was still coaching the same things that I was two years ago then I would not only be naive but also not adjusting to the demands of the modern game. Brendan Rodgers spoke about how the speed of the Premier league changes with each pre-season thus everyone has to evolve. If I don’t evolve and improve as a coach on a weekly basis then I will never reach the levels that I want to. I am not good enough to coach a Premier League first team now therefore I need to know the steps to get me there.
“The core principles I believe in never waver in any circumstances, regardless how extreme or difficult the situation may seem. If you don’t stand for something then you’ll fall for nothing. It’s an easy principle to have as a core value yet one that many abandon when the chips are down. Roberto [Martínez] once said to me ‘never move from your principles, many people will come along who don’t believe in it but you cannot be influenced – if it was easy then everyone would be doing it’.
“In a short sentence, I believe in dominating possession of the football to be in control of what happens. When asked about my philosophy I could detail principles like how many receiving lines I like to use, the number of vertical columns I like to play on, about how to create specific overloads in certain areas of the pitch or how to change the amount of pressure behind 1v1’s in a game from 81% to 30-40% so you are facing the goal in space but it is all irrelevant without the player profiles in front of you. The reality is that you see things in individuals that they need which may give them short term failure but you know long term it’s best for them. You identify things in games which tactically need your input for the benefit of both the team and the individual but it’s extremely hard to document these principles without having two teams on a pitch in front of you. Instead, I will explain from, start to finish, what I would like from any team that I coach and hopefully this will provide a more relevant answer to your question. I want my team to have the ball for several reasons:
Most importantly from a youth perspective, the returns technically are paramount. The obvious passing repetition and myelin built cognitively from a high frequency, repetitive process is imperative. Players receive with pressure behind 80% of the four 1v1 situations so the more times we create this, the more opportunities the players get to dominate players. Champions League players have over 2700 receiving situations per season therefore we need to get as close to this as possible. To get these technical returns, we need the ball.
From a tactical point of view, if we want to dominate the ball then we have to have control of the opposition in terms of their block and their defensive movements. If they show us into specific areas setting traps and working off pressing triggers then we are playing into their strengths. We have to dictate to them what is happening in the match, not the other way around. To hurt teams we need 1v1 situations higher up the pitch where we can outplay opponents but we also need the spaces. Thus, to control the spaces we need to get the opposition’s players in areas on the pitch where we want them; we need the ball most of the time. To have the ball more than the opposition would mean that statistically, in black and white terms, we need to have the ball 51% of the game. However, this is not enough so I aim for my teams to have the ball for a minimum of 65% possession (average of Barcelona and Bayern last season). This is reflected in every possession practice and training session. So, for the above reasons, the first objective target is to have the ball 65% of the time. Although it is not the sole objective, the possession percentage is not just a meaningless statistic, it has specific returns at 65%.
If we have 65% of the ball then I do not want a large proportion of this to be in our own half. You see this where teams dominate possession but never hurt the opposition. To get our best attacking players on the ball in areas where they can hurt the opposition, they need to be receiving in the block and not in front of it. When teams focus too much on playing from the back then game-changing players begin to drop deeper to get on the ball as the game progresses. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing players like Hazard, Sánchez or Coutinho dropping in front of the midfield block and looking up at two lines ahead.
The players who change the game need to be receiving within 35m of the opposition’s goal and ideally in the spaces in between the lines. To do this, we need the opposition closer to their goal and in a low block. Therefore the idea of playing out from the back should be to progress the opposition’s block up the pitch where they are sitting in front of their own goal as opposed to allowing them to press us 25m from our goal. Playing out from the back is imperative to getting the opposition just in front of their goal, however it is not only naive but dangerous to solely focus on this philosophy. There are specific movements, rotations and actions required to progress a philosophy from playing from the back to getting the opposition defending in their own half. The difference is huge.
Once we have got the opposition defending deep, we will automatically now have a lot of the ball and most of the time will achieve the 65% domination. If the opposition are in a low block sitting in front of their own goal then this is physically and mentally very demanding to do for long periods. It saps their energy, it drains their concentration and they give up on trying to even have the ball because they are so far from our goal when they regain. If we are in this position then they are 80-90m from our goal. If we focus on playing from the back and bouncing midfielders for long periods then not only are we more open to counters but we are now 25m from our goal.
Once we can get the opposition to a point where their striker is detached from the midfield and defensive line then their only option on the turnover is to go long to a sole player. At this point several things are vital in order to retain the philosophy. On the turnover of possession, the five second press is imperative to keep them deep. Players must close the net quickly and get pressure on the ball, centre-backs must engage and double up on their striker and not allow the opposition to get comfortable possession. Again, there are specific movements and actions required depending on the system employed.
Once we regain possession, we need to quickly shift it out of the pressure zone and to a spare player. Guardiola works off a simple principle which was influenced by Cruyff; the player who has pressed the ball has focused all his energy on regaining the ball therefore he has the worst ‘map’ of the pitch. He has no idea on our positional slots or shape therefore his only focus should be to offload the ball as fast as possible to anybody. The second pass out of the press should be focused on shifting the ball out of the pressure zone and to find the space on the pitch. Whilst these two passes are happening, on the third pass our shape should now be one with width and depth again. The cycle now begins again where we circulate the ball, show patience in possession and keep the opposition in front of their goal.
“This is my philosophy as a simple structure. The actual system has to be built around the players that are in the squad. The system has two functions – to bring out the best in the best players whilst being setup to give them the best chance of achieving the above philosophy.”
Did any teams or coaches influence your philosophy?
“From the age of eight I was brought up watching a philosophy that was different to the one I was part of in this country. My dad bought me old video tapes of Brazil in the 70s and Barcelona with Cruyff pulling the strings. In Euro 96 when all my friends were cheering England, my dad sat me down watching Hierro playing from the back for Spain so this culture was built into me from very young. From a philosophy point of view, my main influences are obvious.
“Roberto inspired me so much at Wigan and I was fortunate enough to manage his camp in Catalonia for him. From an educational point of view, I developed lots working with Alex Inglethorpe, Pep Lljinders, and Mick Beale at Liverpool. My first job in coaching was given to me by Nick Cox at Watford – he took a chance on me when no one else would and he provided me with a great foundation. I am hugely influenced by Bielsa particularly with his intensity, attention to detail and the tactical flexibility that he constantly possesses. And lastly, Guardiola’s effective reinvention of the game is my biggest influence.”
Does your philosophy influence the type of player you look to recruit?
“Hugely. If I was recruiting from a first team point of view then I would recruit specific profiles that I need to achieve the above philosophy, not to suit a specific system. I know that for the philosophy to work I need very specific profiles – these would be completely different if I wanted my team to drop to a low block and counter. Recruitment of players is more important than any coaching session, idea or principle. And it’s not as simple as buying a game changer to hurt teams 1v1 in the block or finding a passer to sit in front of the back four and pull the strings.
“For example, I know that if I want to dominate the ball for 65% of the time then I need a centre-back who can stop turns on the transition and defend 1v1 – in order to keep the opposition in their half. I don’t necessarily need a centre back with pace or mobility if he can see danger early and prevents strikers turning on the transition. But then, he needs someone next to him who can defend the spaces in behind should we not press the ball quick enough.
“The recruitment of first team players for a specific function is different to that of youth players. In academies, you are looking for one thing: long-term potential. And this looks different in every player and position.We don’t care if we lose the game this Sunday 6-0 because the first team manager will want to know if a player can technically compete at the elite level at 19. When he breaks into the first team the manager isn’t going to ask him what score he won away at Burnley six years earlier. Therefore, coaches in youth football have to sacrifice their ego and ‘status’ for the long term gain of the players – this is easier said than done.”
During your time at Liverpool you would’ve worked alongside Pepijn Lijnders; as a highly regarded youth coach, what is he like to work with?
“There are lots of charlatans in the professional game who are in high profile positions because of who they know but Pep is the best coach I have ever worked with. His intensity, energy and passion is unparalleled and his knowledge both tactically and how to develop players from an individual point of view is incredible. I have no doubt he will manage one day in the Premier League and I feel fortunate to have worked side-by-side with him for a prolonged period. He’s a great guy off the field too.”
Do you think set pieces are under-utilised in the modern game?
“It is becoming harder to score from set pieces because teams are set up so well to not concede from them. Often teams have 11 players behind the ball and sacrifice trying to counter from them for fear of conceding. Personally, I like to control the opposition so I take risks from defending set pieces leaving lots of players out for the counter. If I am defending a set piece and I leave three players high – with relevant profiles to counter and poor profiles to defend aerially – then the opposition have no option than to leave a minimum of three back. If they do this, we now have less players to focus on defensively and our goalkeeper has more space to attack and claim (he has the highest aerial reach than any player therefore needs more space).
“I trust the players whose job it is to defend through a part zonal/man marking system and take out the players who would never defend properly anyway. From an attacking point of view, I think a lot of managers neglect the principles and philosophy and focus more on how to score from set pieces. I have been in team talks as a player where managers spend every minute of their pre match giving instructions on set pieces.”
You’ve been fortunate enough to work with both Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. Tell us about the experience of working with two highly-rated, young Premier League managers.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have worked in a managerial development capacity under both managers’ philosophies. I had to present the academy philosophy to Roberto and he was extremely specific about his ideas on how to develop players long term. The detail he goes into is forensic; people wouldn’t believe the level he goes into. Ironically, I used to travel the country to watch Swansea under Brendan and Wigan under Roberto.
“I loved the way Rodgers dominated the ball against bigger teams, playing from the back constantly with a very fluid and interchangeable 4-3-3. Watching Wigan under Roberto was incredible as they were the only team in the Premier League playing a back three and dominated opponents continually staying in the Premier League when they had no right to. One of my best moments in football was being at the FA Cup final when Wigan outclassed Man City as 10-1 underdogs. When you understand the tactics Roberto used to manage that game, you realise what level he really is at.”
What’s your long term goal?
“My long term goal is to manage at the highest level possible. At the moment I am learning continually and have specific areas I need to develop in order to reach my goals. I underachieved as a player and am determined to not do so as a coach. This is my driving force and motivation on a daily basis. I have worked with some of the best coaches in the world and it burns me inside that I don’t have their knowledge. You only know how much you don’t know when you see the best people operate, whatever your occupation is. People may read stuff online or watch Gary Neville on Monday nights and think they could do it but they don’t understand the complexities of the very elite level.”
I’ve had the pleasure of reading your book, for those that haven’t why should they buy it?
“Since I started coaching at 16, I have a black box which I record every session I either saw or took part in as a player. Two years ago I sat down and pulled out all of the best ones and put them into a book which turned into Developing An Elite Coaching Philosophy In Possession. The book is for coaches who are working with good players and want some detail to use in sessions or when building their philosophy. The first section is the beginning of the theory as to why you want to create a specific philosophy with the second half being dozens of sessions to use with coaching points that I would personally highlight. The sessions that I have put in the book are ones that I have personally seen delivered by Premier League coaches. I received emails from people asking for specific ideas on sessions therefore I thought it would be good to release a book containing them.”
Finally, away from football what do you do to relax? People have an impression coaches just live for football.
“For years I lived for the game and would be working from 9am to 3am the next morning. At Wigan I was responsible for the whole academy therefore I was the last one to leave at 10pm. When I got home from sessions late at night, I would be editing the clips from the games/sessions to show the players what they needed. I would be downloading games that I had just seen on Sky to clip out a two second receiving clip that one of my players needed to see. I would be searching for Chile games under Bielsa or trying to find Ajax from the 90s to see if there was anything tactical that was different.
“Although this working pattern is extreme, I think you have to put those hours in to get to where you want to. All of the best coaches I have worked with are exactly the same. There are no shortcuts. As Floyd Mayweather says, ‘hard work and dedication’. Nowadays I try to switch off when I come home and forget about football. I have learned to do this as it drains your passion if you are not careful and you start counting the days down until May. Away from football I manage a business which I have to look after, I love good food, spend time with friends and family and have just bought a saxophone to learn.”
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Purchase Tim’s excellent book, Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy: In Possession here
This is the article that made me want to coach youth soccer again while coaching college soccer in Iowa. I recommend every coach reads this.
Youth Soccer Coach Wanted: Only Those with Patience and Perseverance Need Apply By Gary R. Allen Virginia Youth Soccer Association Director of Coaching Education
Following are excerpts from an article in The Scientific American by Phillip E. Ross, dated July 24, 2006, entitled The Expert Mind. The article focused upon studies of the mental processes of chess grandmasters and clues to how people become experts in other fields as well. These excerpts can help us address some important points concerning the development of young soccer players in America. "Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." The 10-year rule, or 10,000 hours rule, can be applied as easily to soccer as to chess. Each soccer game involves myriad of decisions, technical and physical challenges in an ever-changing environment, among and against other players of varying abilities, and in different stages of physical exhaustion. More than any other team sport; the game takes on the characteristics of those playing it, and requires development in all of the areas above: mental, physical, technical and social. Kids develop at different rates in all of these areas. Both the game and the players themselves are complex. To help them fully develop their potential as players, we must allow them to unlock in numerous stages the many aspects of the game. As philosophers and numerous experts studying human development throughout many generations have discovered, experiencing, doing, is necessary for perceptual change to occur (Jean Jacques Rousseau—1712-1778), and learning and growth and development owe their efficiency to slow and inefficient experiencing that has gone on before (Dr. John Lawther). It is the "slow and inefficient experiencing" that is captured by the 10-year rule concept. When one combines this truth with the complexity (continual decisions in a constantly changing environment) of a soccer game, it becomes apparent that we must allow and provide players time and opportunity to experiment over a long period of time, rather than seeking to accelerate their play by focusing primarily on the outcome of their games. "Teachers in sports, music and other fields tend to believe that talent matters and that they know it when they see it. In fact, they appear to be confusing ability with precocity." Sports history is rife with stories of the experts overlooking players who later, by sheer dint of their own will, became great athletes. In basketball, Michael Jordan was dropped from his high school basketball team as a sophomore. In soccer, Johan Cruyff did not draw attention until after his teen years. In fact, across the board, those trying to predict who will be the future stars have a dismal record. For example, studies in England have shown that less than eight percent of the players picked by the experts to play professional soccer, even at age 18, ever made the grade as day-to-day professional players. With this kind of record, it is important that we recognize that we must pour our time, resources and efforts into a much larger pool of players, and not restrict our focus to those we think have "talent" at the early ages. The various stages of technical, mental, physical and social development do not necessarily coincide within one individual, let alone in a team of individuals. Thus, while certain physically precocious 12 or 13 year olds might be able to outrun others and win games because of their speed, it would be a mistake to attempt to predict future success in the sport based upon this one aspect and stage of development. Worse, it would be foolish to try to define what successful soccer players look like, or try to select "elite" players, based upon their ability to win games because of their precocious development in one or a few areas.
Yet, this is precisely what we do in the United States. Instead of allowing more players to play in environments that require more varied ways than just speed or size to solve game-like problems, we tend to select out those players we deem to be "elite" at too young an age, and then reinforce the use of the precocious attributes they may possess, by putting them on teams with other players who also may have one or a few precocious attributes.
What the 10-year rule should teach us is that more, rather than selected fewer, young players should be exposed to training and playing together. They should be encouraged through smaller field sizes and smaller numbers per side to develop more varied ways to solve the problems the game presents, as well as to develop better technical ability by touching the ball more in game-like situations.
"Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study." This confirms the point that it is primarily through training that players learn, not in match or tournament play. Yet, how many youth coaches load up their schedules with pre-season and mid-season tournaments and multiple scrimmages, claiming that they are "training tools."
Players must be given plenty of opportunities to experiment and fail; to creatively solve problems in ways that are uniquely suited to their temperaments and abilities. They can only do this to a very limited extent in games. The consequences of a failed experiment in a game cause most players to do only what they think will succeed. If they do experiment and fail, there is a great likelihood that they will be sitting on the bench and not playing. As coaches and parents, we must allow time and opportunity for this experimentation to take place. We cannot be guided by wins and losses that really only provide a snapshot at a particular moment, and do not constitute purposeful training. Games, thus, are not the ends in themselves for younger players, they mainly show the weaknesses at that moment, and provide a guide as to what is needed in training. It is the training environment that should constitute most of exposure players have to the game: training and free play, without the specter of winning or losing affecting a season-long record. Consequently, a much larger percentage of our time should be spent in the training environment, rather than loading up the season with extra tournaments and scrimmages.
In today's youth soccer, there is virtually no non adult organized free play. Kids don't play pick-up soccer the way many of us played various pickup sports in the neighborhood growing up. We may not realize it, but these types of games provide an integral ingredient to the development of top-class athletes. One of the things most of us forget about the neighborhood games we played growing up is that they were, indeed, competitive. Competing to win each day was extremely important, but once today was over, tomorrow was another day, with a new chance to compete, but without the accumulation of a record and standings in a division. This is predominantly what the 10-year environment must be. Opportunities to experiment, to succeed, to fail, to play and to compete. Another key aspect to the freedom to experiment present in the neighborhood pickup games that we lack in organized youth soccer today is the challenge of playing with and against many different levels and types of players. As kids, when we picked up teams we did not just take the best five and play against the worst five. It wouldn't have been any fun. Instead, we always tried to create even teams, and if one team was winning handily, we would have mid-game drafts to create more even teams. This gave each of us the opportunity to play with and against different players all the time, and we had to adjust, both individually and collectively, as to how we solved the problems of the game depending on who was on our team and we were playing against. This ability to adjust and change the rhythm of play is something we lack in soccer played in the US. This development is all but lost in youth soccer today because the adults controlling youth soccer currently do exactly the opposite from kids playing pickup games. We try to put all the "best" players on one team so that we can win the division, etc. It is the result, not the development, that is paramount.
One of the key aspects to effective training is to continually provide players with different types of challenges that are just beyond their grasp. Because of the varied and free-flowing nature of the game of soccer, doing so in an efficient way requires constant innovation, but also a huge amount of time on the ball in game-like situations for the players. It is mainly through inefficient experimentation that players learn intrinsically and efficiently, and develop instincts for the game that are activated once they are engaged fully in play. "They had to work things out for themselves, as did Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and if they fall below today's masters in technique, they tower above them in creative power. The same comparison can be made between Newton and the typical newly minted Ph.D. in physics." Of major interest for all soccer fans, and really fans of any sport, is to watch an incredibly talented player solve problems in ways no one else has tried before. Highlight reels are loaded with heretofore-unseen feats. It is interesting to note that some of the greatest players of all time: Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Platini, Bobby Charlton, etc. were not especially tall players, but each of them was electrifying to watch. Yet, because we tend to focus on the results of games, and selecting future stars out so early, our attention most often turns not to the player with a spark of something unique, but to the physical attributes of the precocious "early bloomers." While this may seem to reinforce collective efficiency at a given time, because of the nature of development, it ends up placing a premium on being bigger, faster and stronger, and eschewing the creative methods that less physically precocious athletes use to solve the problems of the game. In addition to bypassing many future potential stars, this focus also causes the "selected" players, in these very crucial years of their development, to learn to be successful by using a very rudimentary, direct style of play. Soccer is a game played on a relatively large field. Arguments for years have centered on trying to make the field and the numbers per side smaller. Unfortunately, even though strides have been made in these areas, fields generally tend to be too large for younger players. This often results in footraces balls driven into spaces that are mostly won by the bigger, stronger and faster players. Thus, in the formative years when they could be put in smaller environments that require them to solve problems by developing many different tools, these players are rewarded for relying almost exclusively on their precocious physical attributes. Thus, they learn to be efficient, direct players, but don't develop the creativity to work out different problems of the game for themselves. "Motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise." This statement is immensely important, because it affects both the type of players we develop, as well as whom we develop. First, as to the type of players we develop, by placing such importance on the physically precocious player, we motivate those players to perpetuate the physical and direct style and method of play. The premium placed on winning games and having successful seasons actually diminishes any motivation for players to experiment, or try to solve a problem through guile or indirect and crafty play, because of the penalty for failure. Two crucial aspects of the game at the higher levels are patience and concentration. Because success based upon physical prowess often results in promoting direct play, players up through the mid-teen years often have never developed the patience or the concentration to hold possession of the ball beyond three or four passes, and certainly do not have the foresight to use the ball to draw opponents into certain parts of the field so that they can exploit the spaces they create. This sort of patience, concentration, guile, and using the ball as the ultimate decoy are not even considerations for most teenaged players. Most of it is due directly to what has been the reason they have been "selected" and the continual motivation throughout their earlier years: success through physical, direct and efficient play.
The second issue of motivation is "who" is motivated to continue to play. It is well-known that in youth sports generally, approximately 70% of all athletes at age 12 stop playing sports altogether by age 13. Why? Most of it comes back to intrinsic motivation. Players entering their teen years are like all teenagers, they are beginning to search for their identities, and they also start to realize that they do have choices about how to spend their time. Why is there such a rise in "extreme" sports in this country? Could it be that these sports provide teens with a way to express themselves and solve problems in unique ways, without the constant prodding from adults to do things in certain, prescribed ways? Another fact, of which many are unaware, is that almost 75% of physically precocious athletes only develop into mediocre athletes. By focusing all of our "special" attention at ages 9-14 primarily on these players, we are missing many players, who, though they are not precocious, could ultimately be the great athletes when they mature. Yet, currently, we provide them with very little motivation to continue, focusing most off our attention on those we deem to be "serious" players. A 13 year old searching for affirmation as he or she begins to go through tremendous changes physically, mentally and emotionally, is generally not going to be motivated to continue in an area where he or she may not be successful because he or she has not grown enough yet, or may have grown too much too quickly and is temporarily awkward. Yet, instead of focusing on providing intrinsic motivation for more and more young teens to play, we adults do just the opposite, seek to select out those we perceive to be "elite" for success.
"A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates." The study referenced above showed that the vast majority of successful players were born in the first half of the year. Since we place such a premium on physical prowess between the ages of 9 and 14, this makes sense. It is at these ages that there is the greatest diversity in development. For a 14 year old, six months can make a huge difference in physical development. Every parent can relate to the fact that at these ages they have to constantly buy larger clothes and shoes. Most kids born in the second half of the calendar year, therefore, are at a distinct disadvantage having to compete with players born in the first half of the year. Our current push to select Olympic Development Program players at younger ages exacerbates this problem. While we are legitimately searching for ways to increase our ultimate level of play, our efforts in this instance, hurt us more than helps us. We have decided that the solution lies in finding and identifying players at younger and younger ages. There is an Under-14 National Team, for which players must be chosen from Under-12 Regional teams. Thus, at the very ages when we should be expanding the pool of players for development, we are shrinking it, based upon the faulty premise that we can identify the future stars at 13 years old. The issues for youth soccer development in this country are huge, but not insurmountable. To be sure, the solutions will require nothing less than a paradigm shift. All of the modern organization and viewpoints notwithstanding, the nature of how kids learn has not changed. If we truly want to develop players who can play on a world level, and a society that enjoys the game as much as the rest of the world, we have to recognize, embrace and utilize these truths. Otherwise, we will perpetually be pushing the rock up the same hill, only to have it roll back down again.
(For those parents and coaches welcoming a new generation of teenagers, the Youth Soccer Insider republishes this article, which first appeared in March 2012.)
By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
Any coach who works with teenage athletes knows they will have to deal with a lot of weirdness. Biologically and psychologically, children reach puberty earlier and adulthood later. That leaves a lot of room in the middle for an extended period of awkwardness, which often leaves parents and coaches scratching their heads in disbelief.
An excellent article in The Wall Street Journal summarizes a number of research findings, which can be useful to the coach and parent. The main new thinking is that there are two different systems in the brain and body that help to turn children into adults. The first of these systems has to do with the psychology of emotion and motivation. And the second brain system deals with control.
With regards to emotion and motivation, it turns out that teenagers do not underestimate risk, but that they overestimate rewards. Essentially, as noted in the WSJ article, teenagers find rewards more rewarding than adults do.
In an interesting 2012 study, Laurence Steinberg of Temple University did an MRI study of teenagers performing simulated risky driving maneuvers, and noted that the teens took more risk when they were being watched by another teen. The teens wanted social reward and the respect of their peers.
The second system, dealing with control, roughly translates to long-term planning. How do kids learn to do things they will need to do as adults? In the past, skills were often learned by practice, making errors, and then finding ways to correct the errors. Kids these days are expected to be “right” and have fewer chances to fail. And in the relatively long-ago past there were even apprenticeships to teach technical tasks and trades.
So what’s a coach to do? Is this just psychology-junk that has absolutely nothing to do with youth sports? Well, no.
* Emphasize reward. Allow leadership roles by letting players lead drills.
* Emphasize peer respect. Consider allowing players to select a drill or tactic during one portion of a practice session. The coach might offer two or three drills for a designated player to select.
* Consider opportunities for mentorship. In a club, it might be possible for older players to work occasionally with younger players. In a high school team the upperclassmen can work with underclassmen.
* Allow the young athlete to provide feedback, rather than always telling them what they did right or wrong.
It’s not practical to do these every practice session, but you might be able to do at least a few of them once in a while. And the reward for you could very well be a little better performance, and a little less weirdness.
(Dr. Dev K. Mishra is the creator of the SidelineSportsDoc.com injury management program for coaches. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University. He is a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation and is a team physician with the San Jose Earthquakes. Mishra writes about injury management at SidelineSportsDoc.com Blog, where this article first appeared.)
I am passionate about the development of youth soccer. I am eager to see the United States become a powerful soccer nation and believe that it starts at the younger ages. I feel strongly that soccer can help mold people's lives in ways that will help them become better citizens in our communities and be great future leaders. I would like to think that the country could unify on building a soccer nation, not just a handful of soccer teams. Long term developmental goals are more important than the immediate satisfaction of being the best before you have matured enough to know how to handle it with class, humility and dignity. My opinions are just that opinions and thoughts. As i grow and mature I expect some of my views and theories to change. Please feel free to reply to my messages and thoughts as being evaluated is a strong way for me to develop and mature as a person and as a coach.
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