Before you know it, your young athlete will be walking out the door for their first year of college. This comes fast! It’s important to realize that our kids are only on loan to us for a short period of time. Here is one way to make the best of it!
Know Your Child's Development Window
There are clear development windows for all sorts of things from walking and talking to understanding how to navigate mixed gender social situations. A youth athletic coach is focused somewhere within the period of time between 3 years old and 18 years old.
Each age grouping has it’s own development focus that is determined by a mixture of factors including physical maturity, emotional maturity, and mental maturity. Tables have been drawn up by development experts to show coaches what activities, intensities, time duration, communication styles, rules, safety factors, and equipment are appropriate.
Since every individual is different, coaches for a given age group will often review the development tables for 1-2 years on either side of the age group they will be coaching. Programs differ in the range of players they serve as well. So for example, a travel program has a tryout and sorting function before a given season, and therefore has less variability per team. Recreation programs, by contrast, are open to everyone of all abilities, so they tend to program a wider range of variability and flexibility into their development plans.
As a parent or a coach, knowing that we only have 15 years to work with, and that each years has a specific developmental focus, should put the youth sports window of opportunity into clearer perspective.
Not To Worry
Some concerned parents have become aware of this development window and the fact that there is a specific focus for each age group and wondered out loud to me whether their child has already missed some important developmental windows and therefore will never be great at the sport they are exploring. I’ve taken players on at 14 years old who have barely touched a soccer ball. There was a learning curve, of course, but they didn’t have any less fun.
One thing to remember: those guidelines are just that: guidelines. It’s important for a coach to know when kids are parallel playing, for example, so she doesn’t frustrate herself trying to get 4 year olds to understand game strategy. It’s important for the coach of a 15 year old team to understand that hormonally driven social dynamics are at play so he doesn’t embarrass a player in front of his friends and turn him that player away from the game.
While it is true that players who play more and play longer are generally more competitive players, we mustn’t chose NOT to play soccer because we fear the other kids are too far ahead. Work ethic and nature will both take their course and in the end, can have a really excellent effect on a young person’s life.
Being in Tune With Your Child's Development Cycle
It’s one thing to be aware that there is a development window, another to be aware of what each stage of development is focused on, yet another thing all together to be proactively supportive at each stage. If your coach is trained to know these stages, he or she may be able to share some information with you as to how you might best support your player. If he or she is not trained in the various stages, you can send me an email at [email protected], tell me the age of your player, and I’ll send you a copy of a development table so you can look it up for yourself.
I would first advise any parent to open a dialog with the coach and find out what the development plan is. On my teams, I look at 1-2 years on either side of the age group I’m coaching. I take note of the items I think we’re going to be able to work on given the 8-10 week training cycle we’re in and the strategy I hope my team to adopt, and I start there. After the first practice, I refine the plan. After the first game, I refine it again or change tactics all together depending on what I see on the field - both from our team and from the competition pool we’re in. I may adapt the plan several times during the season as I reflect on the team’s progress and my own coaching effectiveness.
As a coach, I LOVE it when parents engage me about the strategy. I get to learn more about my players by listening to the parents. I get to set expectations for the season that are not focused on the scoreboard. And, if I’m lucky, I get to enlist the help of my parents to help our players get the most out of the experience.
Being in tune means knowing about the cycle, where your player is in the cycle and the things that your coach is working on with players. Being in tune may mean that you may be quietly looking for those 4-5 passes your coach wants your team to make in order to break up the defense instead of yelling at the team to “SHOOT!”
In short, being in tune means that you have a synergistic relationship with your player, your player’s coach, and the development we’re all trying to make happen.
Making a Coaching Connection
Coaching in this country is a mixed bag. I don’t believe in simple labels like good or bad. I believe there are those of us who are improving and making concerted efforts to improve, and those who have stagnated. I believe there are those who are focused on development of our kids and those who are focused on winning games. I believe there are those who win games because they are focusing on the right things, but there are also those who are winning games because they’re not playing against sufficient competition or they are willing to sacrifice development for the win.
Sometimes, we have to win a game. College coaches and professional coaches stake their careers on wins. As youth coaches, sometimes, we need the win in order to boost team morale, boost confidence, and inspire players to to do their best. But it is possible to have excellent development experiences and still lose games.
I was meeting with two directors over lunch the day I recorded this. We got to talking about this phenomenon we see with coaches needing to win - and with coaches who don’t know what to do with a win.
In one case, I met a coach before a game this past Fall who I knew would be winning the game he was about to play. He knew it. The other coach probably knew it too. I knew coaches and players on both teams. I’d seen them play and if history was any indication, the team I was talking to was about to pummel the other team.
What’s interesting is that the coach of the soon-to-be-winning team (and he did win something like 7 to zero) didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to pummel the team. It’s really not fun crushing another team. Players can get lethargic and bored - and everyone can feel like they are wasting their time. He asked me: what do I do when I’m winning and there is no way to stop it.
I told him that I turn the game into a practice. Our focus becomes working on things that we need to work on and things that we worked on in practice. Can we control the ball and move it from the Red zone left side to the Green zone Right side? Can we make sure that every line touches the ball before it goes to goal: attackers, midfield, defense, and even the keeper? Can we move it forward to the attacking line in in through touches or less and keep it under control - meaning no bomber 50/50 balls from the keeper to the 50 yard line?
I told him that after a game like that my players and I genuinely thank the other team and feel grateful that the other team brought their best and gave us a chance to play. Our Post-game huddle makes mention of this and we use it as an opportunity to practice sportsmanship.
I’ve played against plenty of teams that didn’t like that we changed our focus from scoring goals to playing under control - they took it as an insult, but I truly believe that a good development experience trumps a 12 goal win. I mean, after a five goal differential it’s pretty obvious who’s going to win the game. Why not make more from the experience?
On the opposite side of the spectrum, to give you some insight, we talked about another coach who lost every game. I personally like this guy a lot and I believe he does everything he can to keep his players positive and make a good development experience for his players, but he catches heck from his parents if his team doesn’t win.
Parents that pressure the coach to win games all the time at the youth level are missing the point. It’s often only possible to win games if we sacrifice development.
I can also tell you from personal experience that winning every game is NOT fun. We went undefeated for three seasons in a row. It got boring. Players wanted more of a challenge. We needed opponents that could challenge our players to rise to the occasion and take practice seriously. Practices started losing their appeal. “Why do we need to practice so hard if we’re always winning?” was the general sentiment.
Moving our team into a different league where many teams had played travel since the players were very young cured my team of the doldrums. Suddenly, we were back on the development path and happily growing again.
What You Can Do From Here
I share this insiders’ look at development as a way to help you to become a supporter of the process. Maybe you’re already a great supporter - I happen to believe my listeners are already a cut above the average soccer sideliner - but just as coaches should be committed to improving our coaching awareness and abilities, I believe soccer parents should be too.
You’re important! What you say, what you look for, how you approach the game - they all affect how much your son or daughter gets from this 15 year development period. If all you look at are the number of goals scored as your primary connection with your son or daughter, then your defenders, midfielders, goalkeepers - and yes - even attackers - are going to come up short a lot!
Soccer is traditionally a low scoring game. Game results that show under 5 goals per game are pretty common. There is a LOT going on on the field though. A LOT of great stuff you may be missing - that your son or daughter may be proud of - that you could have some really great conversation around. Consider this:
One of the Directors I was meeting with this afternoon shared a thing he used to do with his girls teams when he was coaching. He made up 3x5 cards and had them laminated. On each card he wrote down a goal - a developmental goal - for his girls. The girls would draw a card and hand it to their parents. On the card might be something like completing a string of three passes, making first touch into space, or making five saves (for the goalkeeper). Parents would keep the card and look for their child to accomplish the goal, how many times they accomplished the goal, etc.
Their attention was drawn from the scoreboard to the stuff that really matters when it comes to development. I love this idea and plan to implement something similar in my programs going forward.
As a parent, ask your coach what you should be looking for and what kinds of things you might praise your child for. Reenforce the message that great soccer players are not made at practice alone, but at home touching the ball. Help your player to understand that your expectation is for them to improve - not to be the show boat or score every goal.
As a parent, you can have a huge impact on what we can accomplish during this 15 year development window. Don’t wait too long to engage your coach! Those 15 years go by very quickly, and before you know it, your soccer player will be going off to college or off to some new job and starting their adult life without a soccer ball.
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