The Fourth Path: Rethinking early player development in the United States
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” exclaimed New York Yankees great Yogi Berra to any travelers trying to find their way to his house. Berra meant that whatever way you went, it was the same distance to get there, so go ahead and take your pick.
If only life were that simple.
When it comes to the development of young soccer players in the United States, many parents and coaches come to that proverbial fork in the road, and are unsure what path to take. Most parents want their child to try many sports, yet are faced with the harsh reality of high participation costs, nearly year-round commitments required to have a place on the team, and the fear that if they do not have their child specialize, he or she will get left behind.
Organized free play must not be an oxymoron.
Internationally, there are three traditional paths to becoming an elite soccer player. Each path has positives and negatives, and exists as a reflection of the soccer culture in each country. For the good of the game in the United States, though, we need to have a serious discussion about blazing a new path which will help us not only produce the most elite players, but the next generation of coaches, referees and lifelong soccer fans.
As I mentioned, there are three traditional paths to mastery in sport. They are:
- Early Specialization Path: this path is characterized by the early introduction of organized soccer and deliberate practice. It is the path increasingly followed throughout the world. Supporters of this pathway point to the relationship between hours spent in deliberate practice (sustained effort toward a long-term goal, put off gratification) and skill acquisition that leads to expert performance. Detractors rightly point out that there is scant evidence on how many of these hours need to be performed prior to the age of 12, evidence that points out diminished basic motor skills for early specializers, as well as the numerous medical and psychological issues associated with early specialization.
- Early Diversification Path: This pathway emphasizes the need for deliberate play (focused on immediate enjoyment, increases intrinsic motivation) and sampling multiple sports prior to the age of 12. Following this model, players specialize from ages 13-15 and invest heavily in training toward elite level performance from age 16 on. Supporters point towards this path’s allowance for early enjoyment, ability to find one’s true passion, and improvement of overall athleticism and pattern recognition through multi-sport participation. Detractors point to inadequate time spent training soccer-specific skills during the golden age of skill development (age 6-12), and the prevalence of professional players who specialized early.
- Early Engagement Path: This is a route that is often a single sport path, but during the early years is filled with copious amounts of deliberate play and minimal organized structure and deliberate practice. It is high on intrinsic motivation and enjoyment, very low on adult involvement, and is the pathway the vast majority of the game’s all-time great players followed. I recently read that Spain international Diego Costa played street soccer until he was discovered at 16! Research shows that players on this path are often more creative, possess superior anticipation and decision making, and have higher levels of intrinsic motivation. As a result, they are more likely to be engaged in the game for more hours than players whom are not as motivated, and are perhaps better equipped to take on the increased levels of training and demanding competition during their teen years.
Why the Early Specialization Path Is Failing in the US
While players in the United States have arisen from all three pathways, there is a strong movement here toward emphasizing the Early Specialization path. The rising costs of youth sports, coupled with increased demands for year-round commitment prior to the age of 10, have led many parents to put all their eggs in the early specialization basket. Yet the early specialization path is not working very well, and is driving many kids to quit the game. I do not believe it is one that will best serve our country moving forward.
First, we are funneling all of our players down the same path of extreme commitment, even ones who possess neither the ability nor the desire to make it to a higher level. By demanding year-round commitments from everyone at a young age, simply to participate, we injure them, burn them out and eventually drive them to quit. These players should be our future fan base and coaches for the next generation, but instead they grow to hate the game.
Second, unlike many soccer-playing nations, our American culture is very supportive of numerous sports, and the opportunity to engage in a variety of sports at a young age is far more prevalent here then in most other countries. Soccer is not necessarily the path that popular culture pushes the best athletes down, as might happen in Holland, Brazil or England. Forcing athletes to choose one path when many good options exist – or worse, their parents choosing that path for them – does not lend itself toward numerous teenage athletes ready to put in the time or effort needed to become elite. They are burned-out and looking to try something new at the exact time they should begin to concentrate on one sport.
Finally, we are ill-equipped to properly coach our vast, geographically diverse population of young players. We have what I consider to be a very negative attitude toward coaching education by many coaches, and thus we do not have enough educated and properly trained coaches working with our youngest players. Yes, we have coaches that played the game at a good level, but most of the ones I meet think they should be sent straight to their USSF “B” License because they played pro or college ball. They might know the game, but they know very little about children, proper athletic development, or how to actually teach it to kids! They do not value the necessity of working with players at all ages, beginning with the very young ones, so they better understand the path of player and child development. They just want to work with the best kids immediately.
As a result, most clubs do not have their highly qualified coaches with their 5-10 year olds. Instead of placing our best coaches with the players they can impact the most developmentally, we place them with the teams that can bring them recognition and higher pay through larger rosters, state championships and national titles. If we choose to go down the early specialization path, then we need to flip this, educate far more coaches and perhaps make it a requirement of high-level licensure that a certain percentage of your time has been spent or will be spent with the youngest players. Right now we are inadequately prepared to follow this path.
If you doubt the effectiveness of good coaching at young ages, you only need to look to Iceland, whose entire population of 325,000 would barely qualify as a small city in the US. Yet Iceland currently has over 70 professionals playing throughout Europe, and nearly qualified for the 2014 World Cup! How? Over 40 percent of the coaches in Iceland have a UEFA “B” License or above, many have backgrounds in physical education, and starting at age 5, players work with highly qualified, paid professional coaches. Since we are nowhere near the needed level of educated coaches to match an Icelandic or Dutch model, the early specialization model seems far more likely to turn off more players than it produces.
It is also clear that the early engagement path produces the type of player Jurgen Klinsmann and other American soccer leaders are clamoring for, the soccer version of the skillful, creative, athletic American basketball player. But as far as soccer is concerned, with the exception of some small, mainly immigrant communities, and organizations like Joy of the People in St Louis, that ship has sailed. Free play simply does not exist. We are far closer to the organized, early specialization model than the unstructured, free play pathway. There is too much money, too much structure, a scarcity of pickup games and a cultural shift away from free play that makes this utopian ideal all but impossible on a large scale.
So what are we to do?
We need a fourth path. We need an American path forward.
It must incorporate the positives that our current structure can bring to the table, such as high-quality facilities, widespread access to coaching education, the ability to screen and place coaches appropriately, and the financial resources to be on the cutting edge of sports science, nutrition, athletic development and coaching best practices.
We must continually look for the best player development systems (right now we are highly focused on Holland, France and Germany), not to copy them, but to take the pieces that will fit the American psyche, as well as ethnic and geographical diversity. We need to become a melting pot of ideas from around the globe instead of trying to specifically model one system or another.
Our best coaches must demand, and be required, to work with our youngest players.
We need a massive attitude shift in our coaches. Our best coaches must demand, and be required, to work with our youngest players. We must come to value coaching education, and our organizations must ensure that our coaches are lifelong learners, and not naive know-it-alls who scoff at the notion that they have something new to learn.
We must demand the end of ridiculous things like state and regional championships at Under-11 and U-12, and take the emphasis off of winning, rankings and excessive, results-oriented travel.
While we are at it, why don’t we get rid of referees for 11 and under soccer. Referees become targets for abuse, and make players, coaches and participants more focused on the result, because this particular event matters enough to have an impartial judge. No referees means it is a lot easier to emphasize fun and enjoyment, regardless of the result.
We need our leadership, namely U.S. Soccer, US Youth Soccer, AYSO, and U.S. Club Soccer to stop allowing full-sided soccer to be played by 9- to 11-year-old players. The USSF could do this by refusing to sanction organizations that play 11v11 games below U-12, but they do not have the courage to because they are afraid they will lose money through player registrations. They are selling our kids, and our game, short by allowing dollars to drive their decision instead of best practices.
And finally, most importantly, the American path must blend the early engagement emphasis on free, deliberate play into our organized structure. Organized free play must not be an oxymoron. Coaches must ensure half of their practices or more are free play, especially when coaching kids 12 and under. We need more games with one coaching point: enjoy yourselves! We must teach kids to organize their own game as soon as they arrive, and then let it run into the start of training. We must play more street soccer and futsal, like they do in the countries that produce the world’s top players. In other words, use structure to provide a safe place for parents to drop their children, but then turn the game over to the kids.
When we do this, we will have more players falling in love with the game. We will have more kids carrying a ball around, practicing and playing outside of their organized training. Our kids will become creative and fearless. They will develop the autonomy and motivation to keep playing. With that in place, if they have the genetic ability to become elite, then funnel them down the path that gives them the best chance of doing so.
But more importantly, the 99 percent who do not become elite players can at least become passionate fans of the game. They can coach their kids. They can referee. They can play in adult leagues. They can teach others about the beautiful game that brought great enjoyment to their lives, instead of cursing the game that stole their childhood.
Only by growing the game for all levels and abilities will we become a world power in soccer.
Only by letting the kids play first and foremost will they develop the capacity to train and compete for elite status.
Only by focusing first on building the next generation of fans will be build the first generation of truly elite American players, instead of a handful every couple of years.
Only by forging a unique, American path will we change the game.
Côté, J., Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (2007). Practice and play in the development of sport expertise.Handbook of sport psychology, 3, 184-202.
Ford, P. R., & Williams, A. M. (2012). The developmental activities engaged in by elite youth soccer players who progressed to professional status compared to those who did not. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(3), 349-352.
Tayara, K. (2014) The Path to Expertise in Young Football Players.