When I look at all the kids who play soccer today compared to the relative few that played 20-30 years ago, I often ask: do they have the same passion for the game that existed years ago? We see success at the Women's game and not quite as much in our men's game. Why? In the seventies and eighties, there were very few qualified coaches in comparison to today. In fact, I would estimate that we have more coaches with licenses, levels and extra courses today in one district than we had thirty years ago in the whole country. So then, why have our Men's National Team not made it into the World Cup since 1986? Is there something wrong with our coaching development program? One might assume that there must be given the statistics.
I often see coaches today get all worked up about winning a championship, recruiting players, looking for the latest gadgets to improve fitness, or even try and fill their players with soccer until they get sick of it. Between outdoors and indoors, tournaments, league play, and cup play, players today often play over 100 competitive games a year. With this amount of experience, added to the coaching development program we now have, you would expect Canada to be World Champions or close to it. What's going wrong?
I live in a suburban community where there are over 4,000 kids registered with our local soccer club. Each player gets a FREE soccer ball with registration. Unbelievably, when I drive through the neighbourhood and by the parks on a beautiful sunny weekend, I do not see anyone playing soccer on their own with friends. No one in the parks, no one juggling a ball on the streets or in their driveways, and only occasionally do I see a couple of girls playing with a soccer ball. Why?
Something is missing. It seems that if adults are not organizing soccer for kids, they are not playing it on their own. Or at least not enough of them in relation to the amount of kids registered. Do kids not dream of playing soccer in the future and is the game not enjoyable enough for them? If kids do not go out to play on their own all our coaching development programs go down the drain because what we are teaching our kids is not being practiced.
"Those Kids Must be Crazy"
Therein lies a major problem. Are coaches not good enough at exciting their players to go out and practice on their own? I remember back in the early eighties when I coached an under 17 team in the NSL. One day, in the middle of January, while we had a few months off from soccer, I was driving to the Plaza and in minus 20 degree weather with snow all over the field, I saw about 4 or 5 kids playing soccer in the snow. I remember saying to myself; 'those kids must be crazy'. Curious as I was, on the way home from the Plaza, I went by the park but at a slower rate, just to see if I recognized any of them. Well what do you know? All 5 players were from the team I coached during the summer. I still thought they were crazy for being out in the cold but at the same time I realized that I had accomplished my # 1 goal. I had coached passion successfully. You could tell they were having fun and enjoying every minute of their time together playing soccer. No pressure from coaches, players, referees, and especially parents. Just good old fashion fun. I kept driving.
Later that same winter they managed to hook up every Sunday afternoon in January, and February with a bunch of other soccer players who also truly had a passion for the game. They played every Sunday afternoon at Lamport Stadium. They cleared a small patch of snow off the turf with shovels; enough to play a good 6 or 7 aside game and just play for fun. Again no referees, coaches, spectators, or parents. The group included Robert Iarusci, Carmen Marcantonio, Joe Schiraldi, Lucky Raso, Paul D'Agostino, and Rick Morandini, just to name a few. Names you may have heard before from the old NASL and NSL. Players that lived in Toronto but played for famous teams like the New York Cosmos, Toronto Blizzard, and Canadian National Team at the time.
You don't see that free play as much anymore especially in the suburbs where a majority of the registered players live. Coaches pack their players with so much soccer they almost get sick of it. The best players in the world have some very similar things in common. They loved the game so much that they couldn't wait to go play with their friends in less competitive situations.
Coaches, you must teach passion. If your players are not playing on their own enough then you need to look at your coaching priorities because maybe you're doing something wrong.
It also helps to have dreams. There existed a professional league for men back then. Today women seem to have more opportunities. Nurture those dreams, but also make the game enjoyable for them. Do not make them hate coming to your practices because you work them too hard. You cannot learn skill without enjoying what you are doing. Make it challenging but not hard work. Do not get over stressed with fitness. That can be trained quickly. Skill development takes time. I often see coaches of young teams between 10 and 16 spend way too much time on fitness. Players have more fun touching the ball. That's a fact!
"we skate and stretch in 5 minutes and then play at full speed"
Warm ups. That's another overstated exercise. Spending 25 minutes warming up without the ball in a 90 minute training session is ridiculous. I play old-timers hockey and we skate and stretch for 5 minutes and then we play at full speed. When the game is over, no one is injured from pulled muscles. That's not to say do not stretch but let's not get carried away, especially with young kids who tend to be very flexible. I have seen coaches of 10-year-old teams run players on their rep teams for 45 minutes without touching a ball. Please. You are driving kids away. Stop.
Gary Roberts of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had two shoulder operations in July 2002. In Feb 2003, he was back on the ice playing in the NHL, the world's best hockey league. Ronaldo had knee surgery. He came back to win the golden boot in the 2002 World Cup. You can train fitness when it's time in a very short amount of time. You cannot make a player who has fitness and speed into a world class player in 7 months. That takes years. Do not waste time on fitness when skill on the ball is the limiting factor in performance.
Last year I also watched a house league coach of 8 and 9 year olds stretch and warm up without a ball for 15 minutes in their one hour practice. It was 30 degrees outside. Your body is not cold! And besides, when was the last time you went to a children's play ground and saw an 8 or 9 year old child do any kind of stretching routine before they went on the swings and climbers? Did they pull any muscles? Now in Brazil where children have a ball at their feet 6 hours a day, a coach may want to do some warm ups etc in order to build team organization or unity. But in Canada, where most kids will have played some sort of organized sport be it hockey, baseball , gymnastics or dance, team building will not be new to them. Having a ball at their foot for one hour every few days will be.
We are not in Brazil where most 8 year old boys will be able to juggle a ball 10 times without any problems. We are in Canada where most children will barely be able to juggle a ball 2 times. You do not need to coach soccer passion in many other countries. In Canada we do and it should be a priority of any Canadian Player Development Program!
Besides, playing with the ball is much more fun. Coach Passion and your athletes will want to play more often on their own which will make them better. Just a note, our team did enjoy success when it counted at under 18, not under 12. A good coach can coach the heart. Are you succeeding in this?
Thanks for reading,