EVOLVE YOUR GAME
The typical “top” club player has the latest cleats, haircuts, youtube highlights and are Alex Morgan, Ronaldo and Messi wannabes. I stand by the statement that these players are products of the consumer environment that is making it hard for young US players to succeed, but I believe there is a deeper rooted issue with why we struggle to develop players that excel at the highest levels.
We believe it lies in the definition many coaches, parents, and players have in the word “skill”. Skill means “decision making,” what decisions are you making during game scenarios that are leading to success. Recognizing the situation and having the “ability” to beat a player 1v1 in the right situation is a characteristic of a skillful player. The vision to see an open winger and the ability to drive a forty yard pass from the back to an open winger is skill. Having the ability to play the first time and not give the ball away in tight areas, but also having the recognition and composure to take multiple touches when given space and time is skill.
Watching Thiago Alcantara recently during a Champions League match completely changed my opinion about the Spaniard, I never noticed how much influence he has on the match and how much skill he has when he is “on and off” the ball. He is constantly orchestrating the play even without the ball, suggesting what passes should be made to teammates, ensuring the ball is moved quickly and away from pressure. He plays first time when he needs to with precision technique. His ability to splitting the opposing midfielders at every opportunity to advance the ball to the attacking third was what drove Barcelona forward. He is one of the most skillful players in the modern era. Can Thiago Alcantara do a double step over? Of course he can. Did he do a single double step over in the match I saw? No, because the situation never came about to the midfielder to go 1v1, and the lengthy midfielder would struggle to beat players due to lack of pace. Thiago Alcantara possesses the brain to be a successful midfielder at that level, similar to Xaxi for Barcelona or Modric for Real Madrid. All of these are examples of players who possess skill, they are superior decision makers, not the highlight reel or Nike commercial stars that are flaunted to the young players or America.
So how can players develop similar abilities that are shown by the likes of Xaxi and Thiago Alcantara? Sadly I believe we will never come close to capturing a major prize internationally without a player like this in our midfield. Players like this develop in elite settings, and are not always the most athletic players either, which is where we have failed in the past in US youth soccer. US youth soccer has favored pace and strength over brains for a majority of the past three decades especially at young ages, where quick rewards for coaches were favored over long-term development of elite players. I think US youth soccer is finally starting on the right track to developing these players at a young age, with academy settings starting to come stateside and young players being taught advanced techniques and ideas at the u10 levels and lower. The days of the pacey early developer being looked on as the next superstar are hopefully coming to an end in the near future but doubtful. Hopefully, coaches are becoming more educated to the value of the thinker, the orchestrator, the midfield maestro, rather than the “fast” striker who relies on his or her athleticism to succeed.
Players should be put into realistic game scenarios during practice sessions and decisions should be broken down as to why they were the right or wrong decisions to make. The more a player can play in these game scenarios the more he or she will develop experience in the various situations that come about in actual games. Thus why every session should end in some form of the actual game. Facility restrictions may make it difficult to always have two goals and two keepers, but youth clubs should do their best to supply these items for coaches to then have sessions that end with a game. In these settings players will develop the ability to beat players 1v1, to find penetrating passes, to use the techniques they work on in training and apply them to game settings. If the training atmosphere cannot replicate game scenarios then the training is most likely useless for the individual as they are not acquiring actual skills, they are focusing on abilities. If your son or daughter needs to work on their ability to strike a ball, or their ability to dribble past defenders, then personal training or small group sessions are ideal.
To truly develop overall skill, a player must train on their own. Skill is a concept that has not been clearly defined in US youth soccer and the greed of coaches and companies that provide training to paying customers has feed into this idea that skill = scissors. Parents love seeing their son or daughter perform 1v1 moves and strike balls over and over. The decision making aspect of the game needs to be developed over time as well, and a player who is a real student of the game should look to watching higher level games on TV or in their local areas for demonstrations of skill.
WE ARE THE PROCESS