Youth Teams Don't Matter
We’ve all experienced it. In fact, most of us are probably guilty of it: doing everything we can with our youth team(s) to “keep them together.” Whether that be persuading some of the “better” players to stay instead of going to another team, or joining a new club because the previous one wanted to move some of the players to a higher or lower level team – we’ve all been there. This is dramatically unhealthy and detrimental to the development of youth soccer players. The reality is that teams don’t matter. They are not important. What is important is the players. The players – individually – should be given our full attention and highest priority. What’s the difference? When teams are prioritized (e.g. The Super Soccer Club ’03 Boys), decisions are made based on what is best for the results and performance of the team, which often results in detrimental effects for some or many of the individual players. When players are prioritized (e.g. Johnny, Joey, and Sam), each individual’s situation is assessed and dealt with in order to serve the best interest of each player, which may or may not result in a change in performance or level of the team, or even disintegration of the team entirely. Team-focused = adult-focused. We prioritize teams because of our own self-interests. Maybe the coach is relying on the team for his income, so he needs to 1. Keep the team alive, and 2. Get the best results to keep the parents happy and on the team (which shows a real lack in parent education – they must learn the difference between winning and excellence). Often times the coach just has too big of an ego and defines himself by the results of his youth team, so he wants to win as much as possible. Or maybe, the coach (or other parents) want to preserve carpool situations, or “social status” by their child being on a particular team with a particular group of other children. If any of this sounds ridiculous to you, you’re right. But we are all guilty of it. We need to always remember that the biggest priority is the development of each individual child. That must be the basis on which all of our decisions and actions are made.
Here’s a very common situation: A team has a couple players who are standouts among the rest. At times, they single-handedly win games. Without them, the team would not do nearly as well in the league or tournaments. In fact, the team would likely have to move down a division or two. Although these two players do continue to learn and improve under the coach’s guidance, they are thinking about moving to another club to play on a higher-level team when the season ends. How should the adults handle this? Hopefully the answer is obvious: the team should happily let these two go. Everyone should be congratulating them and wishing them the best. It is a graduation to a new level. Yes, the team may have to move down a division or two. But so what? If that is what is most appropriate for those players, then they should do it. In reality, the current level was too high for the team to begin with. The only reason the team survived was because of two individuals. Most of the other players were in over their heads. The players need to be moved down to experience the appropriate amount of success and challenges. Meanwhile, these two standout players need to be in a place where they can be challenged more. If they deserve to play at a higher level, they need to do it. They do not deserve to be held back because of the interests of the adults to have the team play at a certain level. As parents, coaches, and clubs, we need to be realistic in assessing the levels of our youth teams. Not everyone can be the best. If your team happens to not be the strongest, that’s okay. It means nothing in respect to the quality of the coach, the children, or the parents. In fact, a team developing two standout players who move on to a higher level is proof that they are doing things right! They have supported and nurtured these two in a manner that has allowed them to “graduate.” That says far more about the quality of the coach and players than the number of wins the team earns. And even if a team graduates a couple players, there will be players from another team who graduate to up to them. It is rare that every player on a given team will always be at the same level as each other, so when it is appropriate to change the team personnel, we must do so. Here is why we must serve the interests of each individual instead of the team:
Players need to play at an appropriate level: As described above, players need to experience an appropriate balance of success and challenge – if that means some players need to move up, then they do. If some players need to move down, they do. Players will eventually split up and be on different teams: Maybe it’s in high school, perhaps college or professionally. The reality is that the lifespan of a soccer player is far longer than that of an individual youth team. Players need to be able to adapt and be used to playing with new systems, styles, teammates, and coaches. If a group of players have only always played with each other (and with one coach) they will struggle when the time eventually comes to play in a new environment. Player development is otherwise stinted: If players have always played in the same environment, they get used to it and stuck in one way of thinking and playing. If a player has always played with the same teammates, same coach, at the same level of competition, they do not experience all that is necessary to develop into a complete player. They only hear and understand one coach, which will limit their growth. They are used to playing only one style and with the same players, which – even though “team chemistry” might be really strong – they will never learn from playing in a different role. Maybe they are always playing in the same position or two, which limits their exposure and understanding of the game. They will also likely remain at a similar level compared to their teammates, so they will never experience what it is like to be one of the best in a group or one of most challenged in a group – both situations provide learning experiences vital to player development. Although there may be a few cases in which a certain group of players are fit to stay together for most or all of their youth, this is very rare. Youth players all develop differently and at different paces, accelerating and plateauing at different times. Because of the nature of how kids develop, it is virtually inevitable that a team will need to be changed at one point or another – whether players need to move to a different club or just to a different team within the same club. As adults, we must remember that we are here to serve the children and do what is best for the development of each of them individually, not serve our own interests and desire to be part of a particular team. In the end, a player’s success is not determined by how her youth teams performed, but how she learned and developed within the various environments in which she played.