How to Measure Success in Youth Soccer.

As a youth soccer coach I have occasionally lost players from my club teams when they (or their parents) have heard me proclaim I am not overly interested in our won / loss record, that I am more concerned with developing players. 

Lost in the translation is the simple fact soccer is different than most team sports in the United States which are coached centered and statistically driven. 

Think of the other major sports – football, basketball and baseball. In each of these sports the coach is often the primary decision maker. In football, coaches call offensive and defensive formations and plays from the sidelines. The same is true in basketball. In both sports a coach can call a timeout to further instruct their players. In baseball, coaches go so far as to call what type of pitch should be thrown and on the other side whether the batter should swing or “take” the pitch. In soccer the privilege (and burden) of in-game decision making resides mainly with the players on the field. Not just a single player such as a quarterback, point guard or catcher either.  In soccer the decision making responsibility is shared among all 11 players on the field. 

Let that sink in for a moment.


In soccer the decision making responsibility is shared among all 11 players on the field. 

This simple sentence explains why soccer is the most popular sport world-wide and is the fastest growing sport in the United States. Soccer is a player driven sport. Soccer offers players freedom - The freedom to make their own decisions, to test themselves against others on their own terms. Failure or success on the soccer pitch is determined based largely on the quality of the players decision making abilities. 

In youth soccer dominant “teams” are often those with big, strong fast players that impose their will on smaller, weaker, slower teams.  This is the result of using the number of wins a team garners not only as the measurement of success but also as a measurement of development. In traditional American sports this may well be true, but not necessarily so for soccer. 

We have established that soccer relies on the decision-making abilities of the 11 players on the pitch. If the depth of the player’s decision making goes no further than to kick the ball down the field for a big, strong, fast teammate to run onto wouldn’t the professional model of soccer be filled with 6’4” forwards that run 100 meters at Olympic speed? Instead, soccer’s great goal soccer’s are people like 5’7” Lionel Messi or 6’0” Cristiano Ronaldo and the legendary 5’8” Pele.  Where did all those big, strong, fast players from the youth ranks go? 

Mostly we find them in the defense or playing as goalkeepers, if they have remained with the game. Many move on from soccer because their on-field decision making ability was never developed significantly beyond “See ball. Win Ball. Kick Ball towards goal.” and they were left behind as players whose decision-making abilities were developed more extensively passed them by. 

In youth soccer, development (and ultimately success) is truly measured not by wins but by the growth an individual player’s decision-making ability and that of his teammates. Technical skills are tools players use in their individual decision making process. Tactics are combining the decision making abilities of multiple players.  A system of play seeks to maximize the strengths of the collective decision making capabilities of the team.  

If a team and its individual members exhibit sound decision making skills on the pitch, (and solid execution of the tools associated with these skills) winning will take care of itself.  This is why my focus is on developing technical and tactical skills around decision making ability. Teams proficient in these areas will win as their individual and collective capabilities in these areas grow.
Just as we ask our players to watch and emulate the professionals they see on TV we as coaches should observe the professional model and do our best to follow it in the youth ranks of soccer. This approach has worked in the traditional sports of football, basketball and baseball. It will work in soccer as well once youth coaches realize the professional model for soccer differs significantly from those of the traditional American sports.

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