This past weekend I dove into the intense and unforgiving world of under 10 boys soccer. An area of the game I have somehow avoided for 15 years, and I found that not much has changed to the general over intensified atmospheres that surrounded the younger age groups of the game when I was growing up. Parents are still going crazy at every instance over every missed foul or offside call the lone referee overlooks and coaches still yell at players like they are adults enforcing the horrific win at all costs attitude that plagues the sport in this country. I coached a top level side this past weekend in my opinion, Continental FC u10 boys Dortmund, a team full of players with more technical knowledge and ability then I’ve seen in a group of youngsters in a very long time. To my dismay and possibly due to a few tactical errors from bald headed coach on the sideline who desperately needed to be refreshed to the tactics of the 8 v 8 game, the talented team failed to win a game this past weekend in the local Philadelphia tournament we played in. The superior technical ability of my players were no match for the brute strength of the opposing teams, who were more interested in creating as many foot races and 50/50 tackles around the pitch then passing combinations. Fair play to the opposition, they won the matches and the tournament and I am risking sounding like a sore loser with this piece, and I must assure you I could care less about the results. To simply put it, my players hands down got bullied by these tactics all weekend. Thus my real question from this prolonged introduction, when is the right time in player development to introduce the concept of earning the right to play?
Earning the right to play can be described as matching the oppositions physicality and intensity in order to express your class. This is one of the most important concepts for any player to understand that wants to excel to the highest levels. In the game at every level there are players who getting by on passion, grit, and determination that others fail to match. These players are seen as assets to any team that is result based due to their willingness to put their head where their foot should be and their energy and passion for tackling and defending. Unfortunately players who meet this mold, and are given praise as youngsters for their physical defending and willingness to kick anything that moves, fall behind technical players and never develop on the ability to play. They are inevitably passed over during the adolescent years by technically superior players who learn to match their intensity and physical play.
But until they eventually are surpassed by the technically superior, they will make the life of the artistic, expressive underdeveloped player a living hell. They will tackle, kick, and scrap at these players, beating them with their athleticism and willingness to head the ball and kick it a mile in the air if necessary. The young player who excels in the technical aspect may struggle to succeed if he or she is not as athletic or not willing to match the physicality of the opposition. This is where the coach needs to keep the big picture focus and ensure the players are on the right path to success later as a player while encouraging players to embrace the rougher side of the game. Coaches who fail to see the big picture and only seek after quick rewards and the power that comes with a victory are setting their players up for a long term struggle to reach the technical levels of their opponents. Not saying that it is impossible for a player from a result based team environment to reach these levels in the future, but it will take a lot of personal development by the individual player to catch up with the technical necessities of the game in the older age groups. Most of the time at the expense of the rest of the players on the squad who do not recognize the damage the stress on winning is doing to their son or daughter.
So is it healthy to be teaching young players to stand up to the bullies in the game by delivering their own physicality? I believe that a player should learn the proper response to physical play at the youngest age possible. It should be taught that grabbing, pulling, tackling, and using your body are important aspects of the game. Lessons of how to deal with referee injustice, which is huge deal to young male players especially, as they thrive off of justice and respect, should be taught by coaches. Players should be taught to play tough but fair at training sessions as well, ensuring that the sessions are intense and game realistic. Young players will feed off of the warrior mentality and will thrive to meet the physical challenges the game offers, while working to perfect their technical ability as well. It is ok to encourage physical play, as players should be hungry to win the ball back and express their internal aggressive energies while playing, it is up to coaches and referees to then control the players and enforce what is acceptable and what is wrong.
We see great examples in the elite levels of players who supply superb technical ability, with the necessary steel every team needs to excel at the elite levels of the club game. Especially in countries like England where the game is very competitive, physical and intense. Players like Eric Dier and Danny Drinkwater have been keystones to the foundation of the top two sides thus far in England, both demonstrating excellent ability with a tough physical edge that ensures their team does not lose “the fight” that will rage on throughout the game. The fight usually lasts for the first 15-20 mins of each half when intensity, adrenaline, and energy is at its peak, and usually dies off towards the end of each half as the game opens up and players tire. American soccer at the youth and college levels struggles with the fight period lasting for the entire game due to the unlimited substitution rule which allows for players to run themselves until exhaustion only to be replaced with another fully charged substitute who then prolongs the fight period. These aspects of American Soccer are why it is very important in my eyes to teach the concept of acceptable physical play at a young age to players.
Young players should be encouraged to channel their inner aggressive energies towards the game. Finding the happy medium of expressive, technically gifted, skillful, with a bit of a nasty edge should be the ultimate goal for coaches who are teaching young players how to excel. This comes from the coach looking at the big picture, understanding that his or her players will sooner or later encounter a team that is going to try to bully them off the pitch. Having the courage to stand up to the opposition and match their intensity and physicality is a rewarding feeling for the players, and a life lesson they can then take to off the field situations they may be put into. Dele Alli, one of the brightest young stars in England, has found the happy balance of expressive artist and nasty menace which has allowed for him to shine in the English game this season for Spurs.
Earning the right to play is an important aspect of every game, at every level. If you do not win the fight periods at the beginning of each half and in the moments throughout the game when the tempo shoots very high, you will fail to win very many games in whatever league you are playing in. The reason why Arsenal struggles to be successful in England has long been attributed to a lack of steel around the pitch, a void left by now NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira of the famous “Invincibles” Arsenal side of the early 2000s. In youth soccer I believe there are lessons to be taught to youngsters about the acceptable level of physical play that is allowed in soccer, and coaches, parents, and referees should look to allow for physical actions to occur in a healthy way. Obviously I am not advocating players to injury other players, but players should be taught to stand up and match the intensity of teams who may lack skill and technique and are banking on their passion and fight to win the match. Only when aggression is matched, will class prevail. Soccer is at the end of the day the people’s game, and sometimes the players who are willing to get their hands dirty and fight are able to overcome the technically superior on a given day. Once the lessons are learned however, the blue collar teams are in trouble. Until then I see trouble in the future for many talented young American players who will encounter less skilled sides willing to do whatever it takes to take home the meaningless tournament trophy.