NEXT GEN
DARING TO BE DIFFERENT IN YOUTH DEVELOPMENT
(Part 2)
A series of articles by Next Gen Technical Director – Jeff Bookman – Former Head of International Technical Youth Development for Chelsea FC
WHAT CHALLENGES YOUNG PLAYERS?
A regular question asked of coaches is, “What are the essential focus points for developing young players?” The truth is there is no magic formula that translates Development into Success. Development of players is not necessarily a constant process, with some players shining at a young age, whereas others maybe late developers, and this could be for a whole variety of reasons. However, many would concur that there are some fundamental principles that would almost certainly help the developmental process.
CREATING THE ENVIRONMENT
One of the most essential components to help players along the right pathway is for the coach to set the right environment to have fun and more importantly, if the objective is to “be the best that they can be”, to ensure that the environment and opportunities are there for the players to learn. That may sound odd to some because many might argue that it’s up to the coach to make sure players learn. On the contrary, the players who develop to the higher levels will be the ones who take responsibility for their own learning. That means having the correct attitude to wanting to learn, both at the training ground and with individual supplemental work.

The type of environment that coaches should try to create is summed up by John Allpress, formerly of England F.A.
“Coaches are not there primarily to show or tell players what THEY (the coaches) know; they are there to create environments for learning that challenge the players, but also give them enjoyment, security and support.”

The enjoyment will come from providing challenging practices that stimulate and motivate the players, but as John says, that only represents one-third of creating the type of environment that helps develop players to their maximum potential. They must feel comfortable to express themselves freely, and be able to rely on their role model - the coach - to give them support, guidance, encouragement and help as and when needed. Players should neither be afraid to ask questions of anything they are unsure about, nor should they feel anxious about making a mistake.
KIDS LOVE COMPETITION
In Training
Players enjoy working hard and many will be naturally competitive. So, good coaches will give a competitive edge by adding some form of scoring to many practices i.e. “have 10 goes each, which one scores the most points?” If the session is themed, reward 2 goals for using “themed” method in an end game. e.g. if the theme is “crossing & finishing”, goals scored in the normal fashion count 1, but goals scored from a cross count as two. Those in Next Gen’s ETC or SRP programs will have witnessed this method of creating a fun and competitive environment.  

In Games
Winning vs Development is an age-old argument about which is the more important. In my previous article, I mentioned a discussion with a parent and player about winning v personal performance. Below is an extract from Mark Heffernan’s book “Player Intelligence - The Winning Factor”, an excellent read on Inside Soccer.com. Mark talks about teaching players to think for themselves:  

"We can all recognize the coach who never stops talking and directs everything taking place: 'Play Johnnie. Run with it. Take him on. Shoot. Rebound. DROP! DROP!' Probably we shouldn’t have used the term coach since puppet master may be a better description. The scary thing about this though is that it’s incredibly seductive because if the goal is just winning, at a young age, and the coach knows just enough to be dangerous, it will probably work. While teams at this point tend to be very disorganized, the organized team with the puppet master pulling all the strings will usually win. But if the goal is player development, in the long run it’s a disaster. As players get older the game gets faster, spaces become smaller, and pressure becomes much more intense. There simply isn’t time to listen to instructions and react. Only players who can read the game, and can instantly and instinctively react, will have any chance of maximizing their potential. Soccer is a player’s game.”

Consequently, allowing players to make their own decisions is an important part of development, AND SOMETIMES THEY WILL GET IT WRONG! How coaches and players manage those mistakes will also play an important part of development.
CO-OMPETITITION & VARIETY
That word maybe known to some, but possibly new to many. It’s what we at Next Gen believe is the way forward in the development of young players. It’s a hybrid of collaboration and competition. As Heffernan says, “Soccer is a Players Game”, so let’s do “what’s best for the kids”. If that means shortening huge fields for younger players, let’s do it. If it means breaking the game into more periods to give additional time for positive coaching moments, let’s do it! If it means late developers can play an age group down, let’s do it!
   
That’s why at every opportunity we invite the most promising players from different Clubs across a Region, to play in Next Gen District Development Festivals. Here the players compete against each other in like-with-like games, which we feel helps accelerate their development. Our belief is that when you get all the most promising players coming together, the coach only needs to create a learning environment and roll the ball out and that caliber of talent will automatically rise to a challenge that can rarely be provided for them at any one club. And with no screaming coaches and no trophies at stake, the late developers get their opportunity to shine and impact games as well.  

Some do struggle because they are not now “the best player on the team”, but that’s OK because it’s also part of development. Players can often be in their comfort zone when they are among the best in their team because:
      a) They know they are guaranteed a starting spot, and
      b) They probably have a good relationship with the coach.

Many of those players would enjoy having the same coach throughout their club career – AND SOME DO! But is that good development? I would suggest not! And the reason I say that is:  
  • Because no matter who that coach is, he/she will not be the future college or pro team coach, and their opinion may alter dramatically on a variety of issues.
  • Having a coach that loves you or loathes you will present a variety of developmental learning opportunities.
  • We all have different opinions of players. One coach’s star player may not even be a starter on the new coach’s team. Or vice-versa a non-starter with one coach, may fit perfectly into another coaches’ strategy. Just look at Victor Moses at Chelsea.

So being exposed to different coaches, different methods and different strategies is ultimately more beneficial for players at every level. The only way they will grow is to be stretched, and listening to the same coach and playing against the same players year in – year out, is more likely to stagnate than develop the player.  We must do what’s best for the kids!

Variety and exposure to different philosophies also extends to coaches.  For Next Gen International Development Festivals (IDFs), we bring together coaches from around the world. A few years ago, Club Brugge from Belgium sent across their Academy U14 coach, and a few months later when I met the Academy Director, I asked if his coach enjoyed the experience. “Not only did he enjoy it,” he said, “but he came back a better coach!” He went on to explain that being around coaches from Chelsea, Arsenal, Boca Juniors, Bayer Leverkusen, Sporting Lisbon and Fluminense at the IDFs gave him new ideas and revitalized energy.  

If the goal is to be the best we can be, then when great learning opportunities come along, we must all be prepared to get out of our comfort zone and grab them.
CONNECTING THE DOTS – part 2
U.S clubs that demand their players attend their summer camps with the same coaches they have year-round, is probably more dollar driven as opposed to developmentally driven, and almost certainly not “what’s best for the kids”.  

As I mentioned in my first article, our International Development Festivals (IDFs) are not just a series of one-off summer camps. They are specifically designed to meet the developmental needs mentioned above. We assemble professional coaches from some of the best Youth Development Academies in the world, to work with the young U.S players and demonstrate the kind of practices experienced in training at their respective academies.  

We encourage the players and parents to take time to talk to the International coaches and learn from the professionals what it really takes to be a top player. Pro clubs have their own philosophies, so having an insight into soccer development from such a wide variety of academies in Europe and South America will have huge benefits when it comes to competing for a spot on a National / Pro / College / Club team in the future.  

At either a local Regional or Residential IDF, players have a unique 4-day experience:  
  • Being stretched every day training with a Professional coach from a different pro club
  • Working in the same way as Academy players at the world class clubs
  • Gaining an understanding of roles and responsibilities in position-specific practices
  • Developing game awareness in a Tournament setting with International coaches as team managers
  • Being challenged playing against good players from different clubs around the region
  • Learning from Character of Champions workshops, working on Character, Attitude and Leadership skills to become a better, player, student and person.
We also encourage ANY club coach to come along for their own continued personal development. There is NO COST for coaches, as our ultimate aim is to collaborate and help raise the level of talent in the US. At an IDF, Club Coaches can not only observe sessions from the professionals, but socialize with them and gain insight into all their respective academy activities.  

So, whether you are a player or a coach, 4-days with top International Professional coaches at one or more of our IDFs is a development environment that I would recommend.  

For more information on IDFs or how it could help your soccer development, please feel free to contact me at jeff@nextgenusa.org
IF YOU DREAM OF BEING A PROFESSIONAL OR ATTEND A TOP COLLEGE, YOU SHOULD BE AT AN IDF THIS SUMMER
  Look out for more articles on Developing Young Soccer Players coming soon