I wrote a few weeks ago about the downfall of the American soccer player, and how it lies in pink shoes, YouTube videos, and a wealth of Ronaldo and Messi wannabes. I stand by the statement that these players are a 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 highlest levels. I believe it lies in the definition many coaches, parents, and players have in the word “skill”. An allusive word used by many to trick parents and players into thinking their son or daughter is excelling due to the personal training they are receiving at a top dollar premium, or by many coaches who are being paid entirely to much to run generic “skill based” sessions involving repetitive stepovers and other somewhat useless tricks.
Skill to me 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 1 v 1 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 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. And yes, a center back launching the ball into the other end of the pitch when under immense pressure from the opposing team is skill. Skillful players make the right decisions at the right time, and know how and what the right thing to do is in every game scenario.
To often you find players who can perform techniques but cannot apply them to game situations. These players are usually the product of personal training gone wrong which is over teaching techniques like ball striking and 1 v 1 moves. Too many times I have coached players who can do complex movements with the ball, but cannot apply any of the ideas or abilities to game scenarios. Keepers who can ping balls on a dime to teammates, but fail to recognize the proper scenarios to use these techniques. Expensive personal training, failing to supply realistic game settings for players during training sessions, and improper focus on flare, pace, and strength has lead US Soccer to generations of players who lack the skill to excel at the elite levels ,
Watching Sergio Busquets last week during the Arsenal v Barcelona 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 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. His ability to splitting the opposing midfielders at every opportunity to advance the ball to the attacking third was what drove Barcelona forward against the Gunners.. It’s no wonder there are arguments comparing him to the all time greats like Zidane, he is one of the most skillful players in the modern era.
Can Busquets do a double step over? Of course he can. Did he do a single double step over in the Arsenal match? No, because the situation never came about to the midfielder to go 1 v 1, and the lengthy midfielder would struggle to beat the likes of Bellerin and Nacho for pace. Busquets possesses the brain to be a successful midfielder at that level, similar to Michael Carrick for Manchester United 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 American players develop similar abilities that are shown by the likes of Carrick and Busquets? 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. Coaches are becoming more educated to the value of the thinker, the orchestrator, the midfield maestro, rather than the pacey striker who relies on his or her athleticism to succeed.
Coaches have a major role in developing skill in players. 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 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 1 v 1, to find penetrating passes, to use the techniques they work on in training and apply them to game settings.
If you are a parent of a youth player, I would pass on expensive personal training that does not value game applications. If you see your son or daughter repetitively doing skills he or she is already comfortable with, ask yourself if the trainer is attempting to improve the player, or are they interested in taking your money. 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 skill, a player must work in game scenarios where their abilities can be demonstrated during the proper scenarios.
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 1 v 1 moves and strike balls over and over into the side netting. They then become frustrated and struggle to understand why their son or daughter cannot perform these skills in games. If a player cannot apply their abilities to game scenarios they will fail to reach the elite levels, thus why less flashy players are preferred sometimes to the trickster. The decision making aspect of the game needs to be developed over time as well, and a player who is real student of the game should look to watching higher level games on TV or in their local areas for demonstrations of skill. My hopes are high for the next few generations of young US players, in hopes that the failures of the past can be used to produce a few highly skilled midfield maestros in our domestic youth systems.