September 6, 2011

YouthCollegeAdultProHigh SchoolEditorial

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Youth Soccer Development Debate: The case for more practices, fewer games

22 Feb, 2011

By Chris Hummer

Topics relating to player development have drawn substantial interest and discussion on the Soccer Wires recently, with a particular interest in Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) and the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. So I thought I would have a try at breaking down individual topics from the perspective, as we’ve heard it, of the country’s top coaches and the growing commentary on how the U.S. youth development system needs to be “fixed". Then invite the our community of coaches and others to weight in, hopefully for the benefit and experience of all.

Note, these are not my personal opinions Per se, though as a coach I may or may not agree with things herein. The purpose here is to break down the core of the topics being debated, and ask for everyone's input.

We'll look at other topics as well in the future, especially those being held out by the new organizations as things that are "wrong" today, and to the end, what they are investing so much time and effort in trying to change. We'd love to get some private perspective on topics you would like coverd too. Just drop us a line with your position and case for or against.

Now on to the first topic...

Player Development Topic Review - More Practices, Fewer Games
More specificity: Players need to play fewer games compared to training sessions, but even those games need to be a higher quality. Within DA and ECNL literature, this is known as “better training to games ratio."

USSF Development Academy guidelines for club membership list a requirement of three mandatory training sessions per week, a season of approximately 30 games, no outside participation for full-time academy players, and every player starting at least 25% of the games. Though the ECNL format is still evolving and carries less authority since the league is not a U.S. Soccer Federation-operated entity, recent public presentations by ECNL execs state that the goal for the 2011/12 ECNL season is for teams to play a 25-30 game season (which presumably makes it logistically impossible for teams to participate in many of the other leagues and tournaments they have in the past, even if this fact cannot be mandated).

Most of those pushing for a ratio of more training sessions for every game played believe the biggest problem in the "old way" in the U.S. is that the more elite the player, the more games they play.

Before the DA, and ECNL to a lesser extent, the best players typically played more total minutes per game, participated in more tournaments, were on teams that went deeper in state cups, trained and played in the Olympic Development Program (ODP) system all the way to the regional camps – and the really top players also got called into national team camps and events. When speaking with top current players at the national team level, it is far from uncommon to hear that in their U13-U18 years, they often played full games six, seven or more days in a row without a single training session.

Add high school play and most of the country's best players are playing more than 100 games per year, and are considered “lucky” to train at least that many times. Lucky because while it’s believed to be a good thing to strive to have a better training to games ratio, figuring out how to attend a soccer activity 200 days per year borders on the absurd for anyone not in a full-time soccer/school residency program.

Under the old coaching adage that “the game is the best teacher," more games would seem to be a good thing, but the new era of coaching makes a significant distinction between “quality games” and just “games." Quality games are matches against challenging opponents of similar, or hopefully superior, abilities.

Another perspective states that in the rest of the world, elite youth players in full-time professional academies are training five days a week and playing one game on the weekend, maybe two every so often. This approach supports the teaching methodology of Play > Analyze > Teach > Play > Repeat, which holds that you need several days of training between each meaningful game so you can progressively teach new things in each game cycle.

Add in recovery work and full days off, then the busy lives and school demands of American players and it quickly become apparent that reaching the “ideal” ratio is simply impossible unless the players are in full residency – something that fewer than 100 boys in the U.S. likely enjoy, and far fewer girls.

The DA and ECNL are clearly looking to cut out the low-hanging fruit in this perceived imbalance of training to games by eliminating the "meaningless" games from the equation. Top coaches at these clubs say it just doesn’t make sense to play a team you can beat 5-0 every time, or to play multiple games in a single day at a tournament when no one can play at their peak for two full games in one day. And since most of those games happen in non-elite tournament group play, in early rounds of state cups and local league play, those are the first places stakeholders look to cut as quickly as possible.

Most DA and ECNL stakeholders also forbid or seriously question ODP participation. Egos aside in comparing “coaching quality” between them, it’s the lack of time to do both that stands out.

For the DA, limiting the number of games and maximizing the quality of the games has been in their structure since day one, via mandate of the U.S. Federation. For the ECNL, it’s been more of an honor system among the directors of the member clubs. In the first two years of the ECNL, most member teams still played state cup and maintained a showcase tournament circuit outside their 12-game ECNL season.

For the league’s third year, however, they are looking to move to a 25-30 game season in a clear effort to offer teams enough quality games so they pull out of other competitions. Though outright forbidding of participating on other competitions is not likely due to threat of action by U.S. Youth Soccer, don’t be surprised if the ECNL’s calendar makes it logistically improbable for players to try and do more than just ECNL, a few tournaments, and maybe high school.

Summary, Feedback, Debate?

Hopefully this provides a bit of background on this “better practice to games ratio” development statement that’s been flying around the Soccer Wires’ message boards and other youth soccer circles for the past few seasons.

What do you think about this goal within youth development? We’d love to hear from experienced coaches – either simply as a comment below, chime in on our discussion forums, or if you prefer to send a confidential email, write us:

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