The Four Pillars of Youth Soccer

When constructing a building the formal or ceremonial corner stone is given a lot of consideration, but the other cornerstones are just as important to establishing a firm foundation upon which the rest of the building can be built.

At a recent meeting with a local soccer organization I posed this question to its board members; Name the four pillars of soccer development.  Everyone immediately agreed upon technique and tactics. Then there was a pause before someone mentioned "conditioning" or the physical aspect of the game.  There was a longer pause before someone ventured a guess for the fourth pillar, mental?  Psychological is the actual term most often applied to the fourth pillar.


The technical component of the game simply refers to an individual player's relationship with the ball. It is important that players learn to obtain and then manipulate the ball in order that they may maintain possession of the ball. It may help to consider developing technique as empowering the player to solve the problems he will encounter when playing the game.

Establishing the ability to gain and maintain control of the ball is a critical element to the development of young soccer players. However, the end game does not necessarily equate to producing 1 v 1 phenoms.  How the player utilizes his technical skills is more a function of the team environment - the system or style of play the coach / team / club employs.

The real purpose and value of technical skill with the ball is developing player confidence on the ball. Confident players tend to play in a clam and poised manner.  It is confidence with the ball that allows players to combine their techniques in tactical applications for the game.


Tactics are often misconstrued to mean strategy for winning games. While tactics can certainly be used in pursuit of winning games an over-emphasis on tactics too early in the process can stifle Technical development.  Tactics are actually the process of empowering teammates to combine their skills sets to solve the problems they encounter in the game.

Introducing tactics  too early goes to the heart of the Development vs Winning debate that continues to permeate discussions on how to fix the approach to youth soccer in the United States. It is generally accepted and acknowledged that too early an emphasis on winning subverts the development of well rounded technical tool sets required to compete successfully in older age groups. 

The development of tactical understanding should be about exploring the relationship between a player and the game itself, not a particular or specific style or system of play. Establishing a general understanding of the game early allows for a much larger range of tactical possibilities later in a players development. 


The physical pillar of development often falls prey to the same type of shortsightedness the tactical pillar is subject to. In pursuit of wins players may be unduly valued for their size, strength and speed relative to others in their age group. This is a dangerous message to send to young players for it devalues the development of technical skill and tactical insight.

The physical pillar is more about active pursuit of physical activities that produce a well round athlete.  Frankly, this is a major concern in today's world of electronics and Internet.  Kids today simply do not spend the time outdoors playing that past generations did.  Think of the neighborhood pick-up games you played as a youngster - baseball in the summer, football in the fall, driveway basketball, kick-the-can, tag or even hide and seek.  Kids were physically active.

The reality of today is kids are not as active physically of their own accord leaving the coach / trainer to address this pillar of the game to a greater extent.  What we find today is parents paying beau coup dollars to physical trainers to get their child "in shape" to play.  Think about that for a moment.

Another aspect of the physical pillar that must be dealt with today is specialization in a single sport at an early age. Studies are showing specialization is directly related to "over use" injuries that are becoming ever more problematic in the game today.  This physical specialization is not unlike an over reliance on the technical pillar to develop players - it leaves the player out of balance.

Personally, I encourage every player I coach to be a multi-sport athlete even if that means I must share him with another sport or that he takes a "season" off from soccer to play another spot.


This pillar is sometimes labeled "mental" and while I understand the desire to do so, I do not believe this is appropriate nomenclature. 

The psychological pillar deals with developing the athletes mind.  More specifically it deals with the natural progression of development in young minds and relating this to the game of soccer.

It is said the ability to think critically does not begin to truly develop until around the age of 10 or 11 +/- a year or two.  Until that age children tend to be fairly self-absorbed. They do not like to share and often resent being told they must share. Yelling at an 8 year old to pass the ball may not only be futile and distressing to the coach / parents, but may well be confusing and stressful to the child. 

It is important for the coach (and parents) to address and coach players on the players level of psychological development.  I like to use the following illustration to help explain the importance of this: With young soccer players such emphasis is placed on developing foot skill wizards capable of taking on and defeating opponents in training only to have the coach and or parents scream at the player to pass the ball when playing the game.  Talk about mixed messages!  

We admire international players such as Messi and Ronaldo for their individual flair and ability on the ball.  The foundation for their 1 v 1 skills was learned in their youth when they were allowed to explore the game and learn its lessons through owning and managing the ball. I did not see either man play as a youngster, but I bet they were extremely selfish with the ball until their critical thinking ability begin to develop naturally around the age of 10 or 11.


Each pillar of soccer development is of equal importance to the others.  While emphasis might be placed on one pillar over others dependent on the age and maturity of the individual this cannot be allowed to take place at the expense of the others.  The eye must remain focused on what the finished product - a player in his late teens - should like. Well rounded and balanced in his knowledge of and ability to play the game. 

Individual player strengths will emerge and we do not wish to discourage this happening unless it would be to the exclusion of other areas. Just as you would not wish to live in a house that tilts to one side, four equally developed pillars are necessarily for a firm foundation of success to be in place for a soccer athlete. 

You may also enjoy a "companion" article Winning versus Development

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