We need to develop a better development model.

I was listening to Bill Russell as he related being a 5'10" 150 pound high school player and the last man on his team. This is the same Bill Russell who grew to be 6'10" and went on to become a two time NCAA Champion, an Olympic Gold Medalist and win 11 NBA World Championships in 13 years with the Boston Celtics.

This set me to thinking about youth sports and soccer in particular. We've all heard stories of the great profssional player who was cut from travel or high school teams, but persevered to make it as a college and professional athlete. Those are inspiring and motivational stories to be sure. I found myself wondering who in their right mind would cut a future professional athlete from a travel team?

I have conducted tryouts in a couple of different sports either at the request or behest of others. I have watched my sons participate in other tryouts. I have heard the speeches of keeping only the "X number of" best players.  I know each time I walk off the field and am asked to identify the "best" players I find myself thinking a more appropriate categorizing would be "the least worst" players. At youth sport tryouts, they all stink. There's not a refined or polished player amongst the lot of them!

A lawn care specialist, a bank manager, an accountant, a school teacher.... these were among the people evaluating young athletes at a recent tryout. I looked around at the group and wondered what qualified them to judge the athletic ability of  6 - 14 year olds?  I know for a fact two of them never played the sport they were conducting tryouts for, yet there they were with clip boards and stop watches "evaluating talent". They held the athletic fate of these kids in their hands.

I then watched as tryouts concluded and discovered exactly what I thought I would - each of those conducting the tryouts had a son or daughter trying out.  Want your kid to make the travel all-star team? Become the coach of the team! Not about to cut the kid of your best friend or your childs best friend either are you? If your child is not part of the coach's inner circle, the chances of making the team go down dramatically unless your child is physically advanced. You know, big, strong, fast, but not necessarily skilled in a technical sense.

What is the motivation behind tryouts like those described?  To assemble the best team possible in pursuit of winning the travel league and tournaments while lining the mantle with trophies, correct? What about development of the individual players that comprise the team? 

Individual development takes places when the individual works on his game away from structured team practice. In team practice the emphasis is on training in groups, developing teamwork, establishing team chemsitry. There is shadow play and pattern play with lots of match related games played. Team activities take up the preponderance of time in team practices.

It might be helpful to consider a players decision-making abilities at this point. Individual skill sets are the tools a player uses to solve problems encountered in the game, so individual work will help develop a players 1 v 1 decision making ability. It is individual skills that are the foundation of any players success.

However, when we consider that a single soccer ball is shared by 22 individuals in a game of soccer we quickly realize how precious little time any given player will have with the ball during a game. That time can likely be measured in seconds.  I have seen estimates that the average time on the ball for a professional soccer player is less than 2 minutes in a 90 minute game, substantially less. Let that settle in for a minute.

It would stand to reason that a significant amount of time should therefore be spent in traning the soccer athlete on what to do without the ball.  All youth teams, be they of a recreational or travel club level should have this as the basis of their training. The decisions a soccer athlete makes without the ball are what elevates a teams play on the field.

Now, if we refer back to tryouts and the people who often conduct tryouts for the "elite" or "premier" club travel teams a clearer picture begins to emerge as to why the US soccer development model fails so miserably. We focus on team when we should focus on the individual. The short-comings of the many individuals becomes the focus only when the overlooked players at tryouts catch up and pass the physically advanced youth all-stars.

I think back to my own development as a basketball player (we did not have soccer when I was young.)  and what I remember is countless hours spent on my own in the driveway, at the park, in the gym, in the garage or basement developing individual skills. Testing myself in pickup games against any and all comers. It is rather enlightening how few organized basketball games I actually played as kid.  The ratio of individual work to work done with a team is staggering. 

Not so for most United States youth in soccer today.  There is this belief that kids need to play on a team year round, that more games is better.  I see academy and club teams demanding a 10 month committment from players 10 - 18 years of age  and watch as those teams play 80+ games of competitive soccer in those 10 months. Is this really the best developmental model we can come up with?  Factor in recovery time from all these matches and when does an athlete have time to work on individual skills?

The scary part is the people at the grass roots of soccer in this country seek to emulate what they see the "big boys" doing. And so we have the mechanic, the attorney, the laborer and the accountant wielding clipoards, stop watches and whistles at "tryouts" for travel and club teams. The focus on providing their son or daughter a winning experience by surrounding them with physically advanced athletes. The result is an installation of what I refer to as a false passion for the game. True passion is found in those who have a soccer ball at their feet when no one else is watching. All too often the player with true passion is too small or too slow to make the cut at tryouts for youth teams and doesn't emerge until later in adolescence.  I see this all the time. The youthful physically advanced player fades away as others who have worked on developing skills to solve the problems big, fast, strong but unskilled players present take center stage.  They are often asked, "why did you not play club or travel soccer?  The answer is, "because I was cut from the team" or was never asked to play.

I recently had to cut players from a team I was assembling for this spring.  My basic criteria for making the team were demonstrated passion for soccer and a willingness to be coached. Potential players who showed passion as demonstrated by working on their individual skill sets on their own had dramatically better chances of making the team.  Those who demonstrated a willingness to be coached had a leg up over those who demonstrated an unwillingness to correct repeated mistakes. As we progress with our season I still wonder if I was correct in every decision I made.  Did I overlook a kid with passion for the game and a willingness to learn in favor of another?  I don't know for sure. I did my best to select wisely, but there is certainly room to second guess. I already have and there will be more of these moments in the coming weeks.  I hope I didn't cut the next Pele or Ronaldo, but I might have.  I am secure in my knowledge I did the best I could within the goal of developing individual players and forming a winning team. Time will tell.

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