Recipe for Player Development

January 25th, 2016 by Matt Barone

Welcome to the Albuquerque United FC blog! I offered to kickstart this blog with the idea that it can become a means of communication between club coaches and directors and the players and parents they serve. We hope to share news and information about goings-on within the club as well as about youth soccer in general. It’s within the latter theme that I thought I’d start off, with a piece about player development. AUFC sees its primary mission as player development, but what does this often-used term mean? And what are the conditions required for the best possible player development?

Player development means growth and improvement as a soccer player and as a person through a carefully developed training and playing program. Player development in soccer is focused on the individual, within the framework of a team game. This focus is especially essential for players younger than 14 years old. Young players need to develop individual technique and the confidence to apply the technique in a game. This is why the majority of practice time at the younger ages should be focused on individual skill, and individualism and creativity should be encouraged. This is a whole topic in itself, so I’ll plan on writing a separate blog on individualism in soccer later on.

So how do we create the right environment and conditions for developing players to their potential? Of course there are many approaches and what I’ll share is my own personal take. I will say our club’s approach is very consistent with this view. I’ll use an analogy to cooking, and propose a recipe for development. It’s not really a full recipe but more about identifying the necessary ingredients for player development, as well as the “cooks”, and their roles in the process.

The three primary ingredients in this recipe are: Learning, Support, and Inspiration. The “cooks” are the coaches and the parents. Both serve important, but different, roles related to the ingredients.

The coach supervises Learning; his or her most important role is as a teacher of the game. The coach, with help from the club, must also create the right environment for optimal learning. Part of this involves grouping of players by ability to create the right level of challenge for each player. Training sessions must be planned in detail, they must be efficient, provide lots of time for the players “on the ball”, and must be enjoyable so the players want to come back for more. There should be a long-term approach in place for development that is not focused just on the next game, next tournament, or even next season. (For more on AUFC’s age based approach to training click here). The coach is also a model for player behavior and a guide for helping the players build the personal qualities of confidence, composure, grit and work ethic.

The next ingredient is Support – which comes primarily from the parents. It’s the parent who can give encouragement on the car ride home after a tough game, the parent who establishes a healthy diet for their young athlete. I think the most important role of the soccer parent is simply getting their player to practice. Missed training time can be a major impediment to development – the learning can’t take place if the player is absent. A note about harmony in the kitchen: the
seasoned soccer parent is careful about monkeying with the learning ingredients which the coach has carefully prepared. An example is the well-meaning parent giving instructions to players during games – this often hurts player development by causing confusion and lowering the player’s enjoyment of the game.

The third ingredient, Inspiration, is a shared responsibility of the coach and parent. Inspiration is about the player developing a love for the game. For me, this is the key – all else flows from this passion, and all else doesn’t mean much without it. Daniel Coyle, author of the book The Talent Code, identifies it as an essential element of talent development – he calls it “ignition.” The coach can help create a passion for the game by keeping practices fun and interesting. The
parent can help connect their child to the broader world of soccer by watching the game with them on TV or in person, or playing video games with them like EA Sports FIFA (which is now an amazingly realistic simulation of the professional game). But don’t worry if you don’t have time to be a soccer fan – often it’s more about what we don’t do as parents and coaches that’s more important than what we do. Stepping back and allowing players breathing room to enjoy the game is essential! After all, while parents and coaches can encourage a passion for soccer, ultimately the love for the game must come from within the child themselves.

As we prepare to guide our young players through the Spring season, having these ingredients in mind can be helpful in focusing our collective efforts and keeping our goal in mind – a season of great enjoyment and growth for all our players!

About the author: Matt Barone is a youth soccer coach and avid fan of the beautiful game. He currently coaches the AUFC 05 boys team and holds a U.S. Soccer D license