Open Letter To Richard Lewis, Executive Chairman RFL & Chairman Of Review Group For "A Review Of Young Player Development In Professional Football"
Gary Allen - United States Soccer National Staff and U.S. Youth Soccer National Staff
My name is Gary Allen, and I am a long-time member of the United States Soccer National Staff and U.S. Youth Soccer National Staff. The views I express herein on my own, and should not be considered as coming from either US Soccer or US Youth Soccer.
I want to commend you on a thorough and succinct review of the Young Player Development Programme in England. We, on this side of the pond, have an enduring interest in the developments being contemplated there. In the United States, we have sought to develop players in a somewhat backwards way from the rest of the world, because we have first created an adult-initiated infrastructure for league and club play, to which we have been trying to fit an ever-increasing number of young players. This has forced us to face many of the same issues you are now facing for a number of reasons. First, we have been trying to fit younger players into an adult scheme, based upon the mistaken notion that they will develop through earlier and more intense competition. Second, we have never had a tradition of "street soccer," so our situation of trying to create such an environment is similar to the dilemma you face of re-creating it.
Three Important Themes
In your review, in addition to the excellent point that coaching should be age appropriate, I noticed at least three themes that have captured the essence of the problems facing development of young players: (1) the need to develop the attributes in the "street football" of old in our modern setting, (2) the notion that there is a need for a system that will accommodate both the precocious talent and late developers, and (3) less emphasis on results at all age groups.
I have seized upon these three concepts because I really believe in many ways they are central to understanding the development of young players, and yet, while many pay lip service to each of these concepts, they fail to see how they are inextricably intertwined. It may be, perhaps, because most view the development of players purely from a football vantage point. The danger in this approach is that one focuses upon the end result and works backwards, believing, mistakenly, that the first step is merely a matter of identifying talent early and then putting it in the right environment. Currently, this is a major error in the Academy Programme, where only a select few are chosen to participate between the ages of 7 and 15.
The current type of selection really limits growth, and has compounding ramifications. First, it assumes that young players are merely miniature adults, and fails to consider the paramount issues of how players develop mentally, physically and emotionally at different ages. Second, it fails to consider these developmental issues in the context of the nature of the game itself. Because it is free-flowing, and both requires and allows players to solve problems for themselves, each game takes on the character and personalities of those players. It is only when the differences in players’ developmental stages and the nature of the game are considered together that true breakthrough is possible for youth development. Application of the three concepts you present, coupled with a better understanding of youth development generally is what is needed.
Since the game is the only team sport in the world that truly takes on the character of the players playing it, all of our developmental focus must be on guiding, but also allowing, young players to solve the problems the game presents, technically, tactically and physically. I say "allowing," because there is an all too pervasive mentality among adults to prescribe the ways that young players solve problems. This is part of what is missing with the absence of "street soccer." In the days when young players played "pick-up" soccer, they often played with and against many different types of players and therefore had to sort out the problems not only presented by the opponents on any given day, but also their own teammates, and, in many cases, the quirks of a particular pitch; all without the aid, or interference, of adults.
We bemoan the lack of creativity in today’s youth, and often chalk it up to the amount of time many of them spend with mind-numbing video games, etc. However, the issue in sports goes deeper than just this. Today’s youngsters, indeed, do find creative outlets, as is readily apparent in the rise of extreme sports like snowboarding, skateboarding and BMX bike riding. The common thread appears to be an environment where they can experiment with outrageous concepts, without the constraints of adult interference. Therefore, I would argue that an important component to any attempt to recapture what has been lost with "street soccer" should include a healthy dose of providing environments where young players can play with and against many teammates and opponents of different types, sizes and abilities.
The small numbers of players at each age group currently selected for the Academy Programme present a major roadblock to developing the same type of player as the "street soccer" of the past. Such limited numbers inhibit three major aspects of "street soccer" that foster development: (1) the opportunities to mimic or copy from observing many other players; (2) the freedom to experiment without the fear of being cut from the squad or benched; and (3) playing with and against many different players each day, allowing each player to adopt many different roles. When players play with and against the same small group of players, they quickly see and learn the strengths and weaknesses of the limited variety of players around them, and repeatedly fall into the same roles. A main ingredient in "street soccer" is the inclusion of supposedly (I will explain later) stronger and weaker players. It is only through the freely repetitive and, to the adult eye, inefficient, experimentation by the players themselves in many different situations that creative problem-solvers are nurtured.
Yesterday’s Results Should Be Meaningless for Today and Tomorrow
A second component of the old "street soccer" was the fact that even though one might compete with all of one’s effort each day, yesterday’s results had no bearing on today’s or tomorrow’s games or who would or would not play. Therefore, there was no dearth of experimentation, even if certain things didn’t work the first few times. This is an extremely important component of learning. I think you have captured this notion with your point about placing less emphasis on results. While this is often understood in the larger concept of standings in a league, it is not often applied on a day-to-day basis. The concept of having less emphasis on results permeates each area of development, not only because the players are not yet mature on numerous levels, but also because the only real way for them to learn to be creative is for the adults to truly "allow" them to inefficiently experiment, in essence, to fail and try again.
I had the opportunity recently to spend some time with Mark Dempsey, the wonderful youth director for Manchester United’s Academy programme. As part of my interaction with Mark, I viewed a video of 12 year olds in the programme, which has selected twelve players at this age from the surrounding area, playing 4 v 4. At first blush, the players seemed advanced, freely taking on opponents, and trying to win one v. one battles. That part was, indeed, exciting; however, I began to notice as I watched that all of the players used the same repertoire of moves to beat opponents. After a while, it became obvious that they had been shown certain moves and had practiced them with and against the same group of players. While the coaching guidance in and of itself is good, the limitations of the current system are apparent. Part of the problem again relates to the numbers and similar qualities of the players involved. It seems that there would be much more creative development with an increase in numbers, as well as many opportunities for experimentation without consequences. With the increases in numbers and variations in quality of players, even though certain moves might be shown, the opportunities for players to develop their own interpretations of these moves and expand their experimentation would increase dramatically.
A System to Accommodate Both Precocious and Late Developers
The second point you raise about precocious and late developers recognizes that players grow and mature at different rates physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. The game played by adults, rewards physical and technical speed, the abilities to see and create space, and the abilities to work together collectively in groups to create numbers up and exploit the weaknesses of opponents. In the adult game, physical attributes and maturity are important, but so is the ability to understand abstract concepts. Your point about the need for a system that will accommodate both the precocious talent and late developer is extremely important. This issue cannot be overemphasized because the players being targeted are not small adults. In each of the areas of physical, mental and social development, players they may mature at different rates (with differences in any particular area being as much as 36 months for players chronologically the same age). Attempts to predict who the top level players will be at these young ages are misguided, and most often spectacularly inaccurate.
My understanding of the focus in the Professional Football Academy Programme is that each club chooses aproximately eight to 10 players at seven years old, with similar numbers at eight and so on, with slightly larger numbers at each successive year. Just as the numbers should be dramatically increased to more successfully accomplish effective "street soccer," and place less emphasis on results, the same is even more important for developmental reasons. The whole notion of trying to identify players too young flies in the face of what child development experts universally espouse, especially for the ages between seven and 15. There is tremendous diversity in the rates of maturation – physically, mentally and emotionally – in players of these ages. When only a few players are selected at these ages, both the chances of choosing correctly and developing a higher general level of play are dramatically limited.
Furthermore, the most likely result, even for the few selected, will be the development of solid and efficient, but not artful and creative players at the professional level. This truth has played itself out repeatedly in places like China and the old East Germany, as well as in Canada in the National Hockey League, where, for many years, attempts have been made to identify and develop top level athletes at early ages. The main problem is that adult selectors, knowing what it takes physically, mentally and socially to play the game at the highest adult levels, tend to focus upon those attributes in players who still have many years to mature in all of these areas.
Physical Development – the Late Developer
The result often is that both the players selected and those not selected are harmed by this early selection process. Most players are not selected because physically they may not be as advanced as others. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning ignores the well-documented fact that the majority of physically precocious players ultimately become only mediocre athletes. It is more often the "late developers," whose muscles have grown and adapted over a longer period, who develop the sustained strength, coordination and speed required of a top-level athlete. Yet, in our quest to predict the future players, we often mistakenly focus most of our resources on the "precocious developers," who, we believe, exhibit the physical qualities of future high-level players.
The "late developers" most certainly will develop these attributes later, but with our current process they are relegated to a track where they are not being offered the opportunities to participate in the better environment with better coaching during these formative years for development. Unfortunately, their early non-selection often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Later, when they do physically mature, they may no longer be interested, or may consider themselves too far behind to catch up. Yet, they may ultimately be the very players who ultimately could be the very best. (Paul Scholes comes to mind as a player who could have very easily been left behind based upon early physical development).
Physical Development – the Precocious Developer
Most of the physically precocious players who are selected early never develop into creative and artful professional players for different reasons. First, as noted above, their early physical development may not portend future development at the same rate. More importantly, perhaps, many of them will be on track to becoming "cookie-cutter" players, who solve problems in efficient, prescribed ways, but lack novelty, flair and artistry. There are numerous reasons for this. First, because it is their physical advancement that initially warranted attention, this is often the quality that both they and their coaches try to develop. It is natural to do so because it brings immediate success. This natural emphasis, along with the flawed perception that because of their early physical ability they are really playing at a higher level, often means that players will be encouraged to do what they naturally do best, rather than experiment with new ideas (as they did and would do in "street soccer") for fear of failure.
For example, a player with exceptional running speed is often put into areas of the field that are more open, and where his physical speed will gain him an immediate advantage. He is seldom allowed to play in areas or positions where, to succeed, he must develop and rely on qualities other than his speed. This is especially true when he has been selected to participate with a small group of highly competitive players who have also been identified for certain precocious "strengths." The increased competitive environment, regardless of the adult’s intent to place less emphasis on results, requires each player to rely more heavily on his particular strength, just to survive, rather than feel free to experiment, as he might in "street soccer."
The difficulty with the concept of not focusing on results is that it runs counter to everything else that is organized in our society. When things are organized, there is a constant tendency to seek measurement of success. By selecting out a few players at too young an age, we unconsciously feed this because the pool for comparison is so small. It is natural, therefore, in such an environment for a young player to rely on his particular precocious quality or qualities to stay with the elite chosen few in these formative years. In these very formative years, when he should be experimenting freely with many different ways to solve the game’s problems, the player instead confines his efforts to a chosen few. Later, when he is 16 or 17 years old, the particular quality or qualities may no longer be special. Then, when results are considered more important, and the pressure to succeed is more intense, the player often finds it very difficult to discover new ways to solve the game’s problems.
The physical differences between the precocious and late developer are often more readily apparent than a player’s precocious or late cognitive development. These physical and cognitive differences do not necessarily occur simultaneously in the same player. The very nature of the game itself, as a free-flowing, ever-changing environment, demands that the highest level players assimilate quickly what is happening around them and make split-second decisions concerning different solutions to problems the game presents, with and without the ball, i.e., the ability to think abstractly. It is, therefore, crucial that we understand and accommodate how children learn, and their built-in limitations at certain stages, or we will be doomed to devise development programs that continue to make relatively little progress.
Perhaps the leading authority on the stages of cognitive development is Jean Piaget. He described four stages of development – three of which should concern us when considering players aged 7 and up. Piaget noted that every one must pass through each stage at their own speed (no one can be forced to skip a stage), and that there can be the same type of variation as exists in physical development as to when each child attains a particular stage.
Of central importance for Piaget is the participation of the learner. Knowledge is not merely transmitted verbally, but must be constructed and reconstructed by the learner. Thus, children learn in active learning environments, where they explore, experiment and search out answers for themselves to the problems presented – the very environment the "street soccer" of old provided.
But creating the environment for active participation is not enough. Piaget stated that, in addition to participating, the child must be "ready" to learn, i.e., his ability to learn cognitive content is always related to his stage of intellectual development. Simply put, children who are at a certain stage of development cannot be taught the concepts of a higher stage.
So what does this mean for developing prospective footballers?
Pre-Operational Stage of Development
Some of the younger players between the ages of 7 and 11 are still in Piaget’s Pre-Operational Stage, which means that they cannot think logically in the adult sense. They are also ego-centric, meaning that they only consider things from their own point of view, and imagine that others share this point of view, because it is the only one possible. A late developer in this area will not be able to understand the concept of "sharing the toy" – the ball – so they will not cognitively be able to understand the concept of, or see the opportunities for, passing. Yet, in a system that selects only 10 seven year olds, the late developer will probably not be considered because it appears that he is just a ball-hog who is not interested in passing. By opening up the programme to larger numbers, there is much less likelihood of making this mistake.
Concrete Operations Stage
Most players between the ages of 7 and 11 are at this stage. While they have the ability to develop logical thought about an object, such as the ball or another player, they can only do so if they are able to see, and, in the case of the ball, touch it. Even, though at this stage, players may have developed a point of view beyond themselves, it is "concretely" related to objects. They cannot think abstractly. So, even though they may dribble around players, or can learn to pass a ball to another player, they do not see the space behind and beside players, and they cannot understand or visualize passing a ball or running into empty space to receive a pass, or even the basic concept of a wall pass, because such ideas involve abstract thinking.
Formal Operations Stage
Between the ages of 11 and 16 most adolescents develop the stage of thinking. It is only at this stage that the structures of development become the abstract, logically organized system of adult intelligence. When faced with complex problems, the adolescent speculates about all the possible solutions before trying them out in the real world. As discussed above, the game itself involves a myriad of decisions and problem solving situations, and, it is really at this stage of cognitive development that players can fully develop as players. Yet, how many players have we missed because we limited our selection before the age of 16?
For the same reasons that we must be careful not to ignore the late physical developer, we must also not do so with the late cognitive developer. In these preadolescent and early adolescent years the fact that a particular player may not have yet matured in this cognitive stage does not mean that he will not develop into a future soccer genius. Once again, in this area, as well as the physical arena, developmental maturity is not uniform, and selection of future stars cannot reliably be made. Therefore, increasing the numbers will dramatically improve the predictions.
The concepts you have raised are extremely important for improving the development of young players. The linchpin, however, for such efforts to coalesce into a leap forward will require that many more players be involved at each age level – say, for example, a 50 per club in each age bracket, rather than the current 10. There is a saying: "The cream always rises to the top." The point is that though you are concerned with finding and developing the cream for the Premier League, you must first take care, in the early ages, of raising the general level, above which the cream must rise. This can only be accomplished through providing an environment that reaches and affects more, rather than fewer, young players.