Friday, September 21, 2007

Balancing Development and Creativity

Dear Bob,

Soccer Dad over at On the Pitch has an interesting post about player development.

One of his points is this:

If proper development means less structure in practice to allow for creativity at the expense of a few wins, I think many would be cool with that. But they have to be convinced that there is ‘a better way’ and shown why and how.

In my opinion, less structure is not the entire answer, just as too much structure is not the entire problem. Soccer Dad is posting about the balance between individual skill development and nurturing creativity in young players. He begins by talking about how we strive to create players that can pass well so we can create teams that can pass well.

There are two separate issues here, so first is a little history. Thirty or so years ago, the U.S. coaching community was greatly influenced by the Dutch, as was most of the world. The Dutch, led by Rinus Michels, promoted small-sided games as a means of training youth players. Four-v-four was main component. We adopted that into our coaching education. But being a naive soccer country, we saw four-v-four as a shape to play out of, not a teaching environment. We started teaching two-touch play. Everything was two-touch. It's pretty obvious that you can't dribble much with two-touch restrictions, but it wasn't obvious to us at that point. Our national team was lucky to be able to play two-touch soccer, let alone our kids.

As a soccer country, we have always been influenced by the Europeans, not the South Americans or the Central Americans, because, frankly, our immigration heritage has seen Europeans emerge into leadership roles much faster than any other ethnic group. The European model is structure, organization and team. South or Central Americans lean more on flair, creativity and individualism. But both have heavy emphasis on skill development.

So, that left us with a bunch of two-touch players who had never been allowed to be creative.

Now back to the idea of what coaches allow in training. If we allow and encourage players to make creative mistakes, we promote creativity. If we put players in an environment where they can be creative, they will become more creative. But we can't just throw them out there and let them play. They need to proper technique first, obviously.

And we can't allow improper technique, even in their free play. Receiving the ball with their shin guards or with their knee is not creative, waiting for the ball to arrive before playing it, is not something we can allow, nor is reaching across your body to receive a ball with your dominate foot. The worst is lazy technique -- a half-hearted effort at an important skill.

Less structure, more freedom is an easy way to look at it. But it is kind of like talk radio -- Conservatives good, Liberals bad. There's more to it, and that is what I love about soccer -- there is always more to it.

I think the ideal training environment is when a coach can organize free play -- combine the European structure and the South American freedom. We have to create a situation where players learn the proper technique then have the freedom to learn by themselves how to best utilize that technique.

A different -- and a little more high-faluting -- way to look at it is how a national team coach once explained it to me. "Players have to have technical solutions for tactical problems." That makes sense. We have to have the skill to get out of sticky tactical situations -- whether it's in front of our own goal, in midfield, or in front of the opponent's goal. And we have to be able to do it under pressure. I think it all begins with what we allow.

Oh, and by the way, we should never allow a kid to be called a "ball hog" unless it is said in praise. Ball hogs just haven't learned their options yet. So if you have one on your team, you are a lucky coach. I'll write about ball hogs soon.

When I think of more, I'll write
You know who

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