An article I wrote for AYSO's PLAYSOCCER Magazine, Fall 2013:
By Mike Woitalla
Watch the world's best soccer players, like Lionel Messi or Marta, and you'll be amazed at how they control and stroke the ball while moving swiftly, feinting with their body, improvising ways to elude defenders game after game — a combination of high skill and creativity.
What if we could see these soccer stars playing when they were children? Messi, who today plays for FC Barcelona and is considered the greatest male player in the world, played in the streets of Rosario in his home country of Argentina. Marta, the world’s best women’s player, didn’t join a team until age 14, her prior soccer comprising of pickup games in the Brazilian village of Dois Riachos.
We’d see them lose the ball lots and lots while trying out moves. But they had the luxury of playing without adults around shouting at them to pass or moaning when their moves didn’t work. While mastering their brilliant dribbling skills, they had to fail thousands of times — yet never hesitating to try and try again.
When James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery,” he was talking about life in general. In sports, top coaches recognize that the fear of failure hinders athletes from excelling. “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” said basketball legend John Wooden.
On today’s youth soccer fields in America, parents watch their children closely, bringing with them that innate and powerful desire to see their children succeed. But we must not allow that well-intentioned ambition to blind us to the fact that for children to improve and enjoy the game, they must be afforded the freedom to explore it on their own terms.
“We all know that in the learning process, missteps or mistakes are the beginning foundation of building the stepping stones of developing,” says Dave Chesler, U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education.
Upon becoming U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director, former U.S. World Cup captain Claudio Reyna traveled the world observing coaches at the clubs with the most successful youth programs.
“The coaches were guiding the training,” he says. “They were not controlling. They weren’t on top of the kids. They were not stopping the play for every mistake.
“When you first start coaching young players, you see so many things, because, yes, they make mistakes, and if you see a lot of mistakes, you want to correct a lot of mistakes. But these coaches were really letting the kids learn the game.”
A big challenge for American youth coaches who are guiding their players in an age-appropriate way — AYSO coaches are trained and certified for their teams’ age groups — is that parents may misinterpret their lack of interference. They may expect more instruction when in fact the coaches have correctly created an environment for a natural learning of the game. Parents who understand that kindergarteners aren’t taught trigonometry or forced to read Shakespeare may not have enough familiarity with soccer to gauge at what aptitude a player or team can be expected to play at a particular age group. They may also refer to the other sports that are unlike soccer.
“All of the American sports are coach-centric,” says Scott Gimple, AYSO’s Director of Development. “The coaches call the plays. Te coaches call the defense. They send in the signal in all those sports. Soccer’s not that way.
“The other thing is that soccer is such a fluid game. It’s a game of mistakes. People are making decisions all the time, but it’s the best decision they can make in that split second. As parents, we want to control so we’re yelling from the sidelines like we would if we were watching baseball: ‘Trow it to first! … Trow it to second!’ … Giving them directions.”
That results in players not getting the chance to figure out how to make their own decisions, losing out on an opportunity to be creative and problem solve on their own.
“I was refereeing a U-12 girls’ game and there was corner kick,” Gimple says. “The girl stopped and turned to her dad and said, ‘Dad, where do I go?’”
Scott Snyder, AYSO’s Player Development Technical Advisor, says parents and coaches need to restrain themselves.
“We step in too quickly — trying to correct before the child even has chance to learn on his own,” Snyder says. “I use the analogy of when I’m driving in an unfamiliar city. I’m getting lost and driving all over. Eventually I get to where I was aiming for and by that time I know the city very well!”
Besides the fact that players are more likely to master the game if they’re not over-coached at the early stages of their development — soccer is their playtime, not a time to fear parental disappointment.
“I remember seeing a little girl make a mistake and start crying,” Gimple says. “Nobody necessarily yelled at her. But because she made the mistake she felt like she failed. So something was ingrained in her that taking that risk and making a mistake was something to cry about.
“There’s got to be a cultural change from parents hovering over the kids and trying to prevent them from making mistakes, wanting to do what they think is best for them by giving them instructions, pointing out obvious solutions that they can see, to help their kids be successful … What we want them to do is sit back and let their kids try something different and not necessarily succeed, and then try it again, and keep trying again until they are successful and have figured it out.
“It’s like giving a child a puzzle and telling them where to put the pieces because you don’t want them to make mistakes. When really what children do by trying different pieces of the puzzle, they learn how to put together a puzzle.”
“Parents should allow them to do that when they play a sport.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, played AYSO soccer in Hawaii.)