The Importance Of Playing From A Young Age

Our kids aren't playing enough and this is a big reason the USA is so far behind in developing world class talent! Maybe it’s time to think differently


We (The USA) don’t have a soccer culture that the Europeans or the South Americans have in this country so we must find a way to implement it within our training sessions.

At all ages, adequate time playing the game is vital to building a love for the game and enjoying the game. Ever asked your kids what the favorite part of training is? It’s playing the game.

“I trained 3-4 times a week at Ajax when I was young. But I played 3-4 hours a day on the street. Where do you think I learned how to play?” - Johan Cruyff

Somewhere along the way, we decided we were going to hire ‘professional’ coaches to run structured training sessions three or found day per week, we were going to hire personal trainers to do one on one structured lessons, we were going to travel all over the state to play structured games with overbearing adults on the sidelines screaming about what decisions to make, league standings and team rankings. In the midst of all of this we lost the thing that kids love about the game the most and the reason they decided to play football in the first place…. To play the game and have fun.

The image above is how every week night looked for me after school. Every kid in the neighborhood would come together to play in the street. Games would vary for 1v1 - 11v11 and would only break for oncoming cars. Games would begin around 4pm after school and end at around 9pm with kids ranging from 7 years old too 13 years old.

Why is it a problem that our kids aren’t having the opportunity to play?

With the pay to play model in the US, many coaches feel pressured to be ‘coaching’ the entire session. I know this because I was once this coach. Many coaches feel the need to stop the game and talk to their players because if they didn’t, what are we paying our coach for, right? We design fancy coaching sessions to show how complex we can make the practice and do stuff we saw Barcelona's first team doing on Youtube with our 9-year-olds.

But realistically above all these fancy ‘drills’, all the stoppages and soccer lingo, what our kids need is to PLAY the game.

Let's look at the Brazilians.

Five time World Champions, four time Confederation Cup champions and nine time Copa America Champions. Brazil is the world's most successful soccer nation when it comes to winning major honors at the international level. Over a long period of time the Brazilians have consistently produced world class talent. But how?

The graph above is from a study that measured developmental activities of elite male soccer players in Brazil. What you can see is the amount of free play/unstructured play the boys complete between the ages of 6 and 11 years.

The Brazilians rack up over 1300 hours of unstructured play by the age of 11. Compare this to an American kid who typically trains two days per week for one hour at u6 and u7 and then at U8 may move to two, 90 minute sessions per week and then at u9 move to three, 90 minute sessions per week. This would give you a total of 380 hours of structured play and absolutely nowhere near them hours in unstructured play. (calculations over 40 week seasons).

So if we are already 920 hours behind the Brazilians at 11 years old, how do we ever expect to catch up?

Here are my tips for coaching at training:

1) Forget the fancy tactics and the mesmerizing passing patterns. Keep the session as close to the real game as possible. Set up two teams and play the game. This can be 1v1 or 11v11. This will give kids the opportunity to practice what they do at the weekends which is playing the game. Kids will have the opportunity to explore, make decisions, develop communication and love the game.

2) Facilitate the game:

The first step for any coach is to facilitate the game being played, not to coach the game. Create the environment for your topic to come out naturally. If you are working on switching the point of attack play a four goal game like the image below. This will naturally bring out opportunities and reasons to switch the play.

3) 80% Rule - Allow the game to flow. Aim to keep the ball moving for 80% of the time within the training sessions. This will allow the maximum time possible in our sessions where the ball is rolling and the players are actively in contact with the ball.

Key point: stop your watch every time you stop the game to coach, send players on a water break. If you aren’t at 80% consider having a multi ball system where one ball goes out of play, the coach throws a new one in.

4) Give Players Ownership:

Give players the opportunity to set up the field, create rules and setup of the game. Studies have found that people perform better if they have autonomy over their tasks, time, technique and team. Allow your players to make decisions for themselves and they will give you more. They will feel they have a say and a part of their own development pathway.

So I have given you four ways in which you can manipulate your session to improve the quality of play and implement more unstructured play, but how does this help us catch the amount of hours the Brazilians are doing?

With the small tips above it may just make your kids fall in love that little bit more with the game as their sessions may become more enjoyable. The kids might now be more motivated to go out on their own or play with their friends in the street, in the backyard or at a local park.

At our local club in California we have an ‘open training policy’ Any player who wants to train additionally to their two or three sessions per week has to option to do so. We now have players doing eight sessions per week from the ages of eight years old following the format above. We are helping kids fall in love with the game from a young age and helping create that European and South American feel to it.

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