Player Development is About Order, Not Age
Many youth soccer clubs don’t have a player development curriculum. And those that claim that they do, have a minimally effective one. These clubs, instead of having a succinct and clear progression of how they will develop their players, have documents that vaguely describe something that they want to teach players. In reality, they don’t have any truly effective player development process at all.
To me, a curriculum is a set of competencies and methodologies by which the players should be learning. Much like school, in grade levels, students are supposed to learn and accomplish certain tasks to show their mastery at that level. Each school also has specific philosophies and methodologies to teach those concepts. Once these concepts are mastered, the student can then move to the next grade level.
For the handful of youth soccer clubs that do have a curriculum, the vast majority of them have a curriculum that progresses based on solely the age of players. This is misguided.
Basing curricula on the age of players is counter active to how children and players develop. Just because a child is 12 years old doesn’t mean that he is at the level to learn the same lessons as all other 12-year olds. For example, if you take your average team of 12-year olds, you will have some who have been playing for six years, some who have been playing for two years, and others that are in their first year playing the game. Based on the different periods, and therefore skill levels, not all 12-year olds have the same needs in terms of what is appropriate for their development.
What I will often say to coaches who have a curriculum that is solely based on age is that sometimes, you may have a 12-year-old whose development stage is more equivalent to a “9-year old” level - and vice versa.
Most curricula that are defined by age progression fail because they are based on the assumption or generality that all kids at the same age are at the same skill or experience level. However, we occasionally come across a player who joins our club who might not have the same experience or skill as the other players. Similarly, we may also have a player who joins the team that is more advanced than the others at his age.
It is our job as coaches and clubs to be prepared to accommodate the needs of these players. There is not necessarily a concrete answer that fits everyone’s situation, but there is an answer that is right for every situation based on the specific needs and environment of the club and players.
Going back to the school analogy, the answer that most schools have for this situation is having children repeat a grade and/or enter at a grade level that places them at their level of competency. This means that they may even skip a grade (or two).
Based on the characteristics of our environment as a soccer club, that may or may not be the answer for us. But the reality is that we will have players of the same age, who are at various competency levels, and for those who are outliers, we need to accommodate their needs.
Development based on age rather than ability also affects entire teams. Most clubs with set curricula will have a progression that teams follow from U8-U18, taking the next step each year. This doesn’t work for the same reason that it doesn’t work for individuals. Just like not all individual 12-year olds are the same, not all 12-year old teams are the same – even if they have each taken the same previous steps.
Not all children – or groups of children – develop at the same rate or time. It is possible to have – and we often do – entire teams or age groups that, although they are 12-years old, are at a skill and/or experience level that matches more closely to what the typical 10-year old team would look like (or vice versa). If a 12-year-old team has abilities closer to that of a 10-year-old team, it may not be appropriate for this team to be working at the “12-year old” level in the curriculum.
My advice to coaches at clubs is to develop a list of competencies and put them in an order of what needs to be learned first, second, third, etc. We then need to ensure that our players are learning these concepts in the appropriate order rather than skipping ahead or getting stuck in an area that is typical for their age. This means that, year to year, one team in a certain age group may not be practicing the same skills as the team in that same age group the previous year or as the next team that comes through the following year. Coaches must have the ability to asses their teams and their competencies each year to then apply a curriculum to the team based on their abilities and understanding of the game.