Youth Development – are we taking the fun out of it?
Youth Development – are we taking the fun out of it? avatar

I’m in Holland today, meeting with the man in charge of youth development at Ajax, one of the greatest academy programs in the world. This is where Bergkamp came from, and before him the mighty Johan Cruyff. Before the recent rise of Barcelona the Ajax Academy towered as the pinnacle of youth development.

The 5,000 seater stadium at the Ajax Academy, De Toekomst.

I’m with Michel Kreek, who runs the the U16’s and U14’s at De Toekomst, the state-of-the-art facility just a few hundred yards from Ajax’s new stadium on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Kreek is considering sending his teams to the World Youth Soccer Championship that GotSoccer is hosting in England next year. It’s a great tournament – designed just for U12’s through U14’s and we’ve already got commitments from Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton, Norwich, Fulham and QPR. I meet with Arsenal on Friday and we’re talking to Chelsea and Manchester United.

But I took the opportunity at Ajax to quiz Michel. A lanky man dressed in an Ajax tracksuit, he walked me through the facility. Ajax pulls in players from 9 years old, albeit it only local players at that age. By U12 they are  drawing players from every part of Holland.

It’s an intense 11-month program that starts in August and runs through the end of June. Unlike the UK, everything is competition-based, even the small-sided games the Dutch are famous for. As Kreek puts it, “the kids like to win” and it’s all about making it fun for the players while teaching them at the same time.

Now that’s the big difference. Are we driving the fun out of the game? I’m a big believer in picking the best out of other systems but retaining the unique identity that makes the USA different. Playing high-school is part of an American upbringing. Climbing on the that school bus is probably one of the most important things for a 15-year boy, and we want to take that away from him?

Tomorrow I’m off to Rotterdam to meet with the director of the Feyenoord Academy, and then I go to Brussels to meet with the Anderlecht youth program, another European powerhouse. The Belgians, although not in Euro 2012 are producing players like Thomas Vermaelen at Arsenal, Vincent Kompany of Man City, Dembele at Fulham and Marouane Fellaini at Everton. Also Eden Hazard, supposedly th best young player in Europe and Chelsea’s Lukaku. They too are doing something right. I’ll find out if it includes having fun.

About Gavin Owen-Thomas

Gavin's a former journalist who worked in both newspapers and television media while also coaching at both youth and professional level. Born in Namibia, he grew up in South Africa before moving to England and then on to the United States, arriving in 1978. Gavin started playing as soon as he was old enough to kick a ball, and like every youngster he dreamed of playing, fame and glory. Oh, well.... But he does have a USSF A Coaching license, and took his UEFA A License in Wales. GotSoccer is a play on his initials. He launched the website in 1996, and for the first few years it was well-known for its soccer forum. In 2003 Gavin commissioned programmer Aaron Wilmoth to build a scheduling program based on a design he drew on the back of a restaurant napkin, and GotSoccer as we know it today was born.
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11 Responses to Youth Development – are we taking the fun out of it?
Youth Development – are we taking the fun out of it? avatar

  1. I agree….this denying of high school participation in soccer does not make sense for the 99%. Regionalizing some areas makes more sense than diluted numbers of players we see in the current system. But politics is not out of it yet.

  2. Walt Badulak says:

    Being a part of local youth soccer for many years, both as a player and a premier level coach. I have been around to see the movement from club teams forming today’s academy teams. Although I understand the push for Academy teams, youth players deserve the opportunity to play for their schools. This is the best opportunity players have to display school pride and spirit. A strong foundation for most players pursuing a future playing for their respective Universities! Afterall,98% of the quality players of today will not turn PRO!

  3. Brad Bagan says:

    While I agree that the phenomenon of celebrating high school sports is uniquely American, soccer does not yet sit on high with Big 3 high school sports celebrated in this country, nor is the breeding ground supporting our college system. The truth of the matter is that Club soccer in this country is and will remain for a long time to come, the breeding ground for college players and youth national team players. There are very few if any college coaches that attend high school matches to scout players they are looking to recruit, instead they attend youth tournaments and academy showcases to evaluate top players against top talent. While the argument can be made that it does a player well to identify with his school and his mates there, I advance the point that by the time a player reaches high school age he has already been identifying with his club and the mates on his club team for years and has been a part of many more valuable training sessions and battles on the field then he will ever gain from high school competition. Lets make it clear what we are discussing here; we are talking about the top level players in this country who play in the US Development Academy, which is going to a ten month season across the board this fall preventing our top high school age players from participating in their high school teams. These players are the future of soccer in this country, and with the greatly varied levels of both coaching and play at the high school level, is it not more dangerous/risky to have these top level players compete in high school leagues where the level of play can be poor from week to week, and where tackles are regularly seen to be of the career ending variety? Call me crazy but I do not trust the majority of high school coach to properly run their teams through the FIFA 11 plus injury prevention warmup, much less know what it is. Above all it is our duty to protect and nourish our top players at all cost. Is there a large number of players that will never be stars at the college level or make it to the full national side, yes, but is the player that helps create the competitive training environment that’s breeding our top level players less valuable, no! If we are to ever emerge as a soccer power in the world, we need protect the competitive breeding grounds that we have, almost as is done with endangered spices, because for those of you that don’t know or are to young to remember, soccer at one point was big in this country and was almost completely extinct with the collapse of the NASL. It is time to leave the soccer to soccer folks, and by that I mean the club systems across this country and the fine folks at U.S. Soccer who are constantly in search of ways to both borrow and integrate techniques from other systems around the world like the Dutch, Belgins, and Spanish meshing them with our never say die American mentality, to give you all not only a product that is quality soccer, but is also Uniquely American…..

    • Arron says:

      “If we are to ever emerge as a soccer power in the world, we need protect the competitive” Wrong! This is the attitude that has been in effect for 30 years. We stink because our philosophy stinks. Down with the oligarchs! Equal time for all players.

    • Jochito says:

      Do you mean to praise the same Premier Clubs that for 20-plus years have skimmed “green” talent from recreational leagues while stirring the same parent and coach debates now roiling anew about development academies?
      If you do, the irony is everywhere: Premier clubs form the very pay-for-play system that USSF has deemed “inadequate” (according to the New York Times article of Marc 3) Even the rationale [the sales pitch, really] is the same: enhanced coaching and competition. Aren’t these Premier clubs – the very ones that already have failed to produce world-class soccer players – the same ones that supply the talent pool for the new development academies? So two more months of training approximately 3,000 players out of a potential pool of 3 million is going to put our player development in line with the top talent-producing countries in the world? Not likely.
      Make no mistake about it. The problem with player development in the U.S. starts at the first phase of development, incubation. We still have kids who have never attended a live soccer match or even watched it on TV. The fact is that the lack of soccer experience (soccer culture, soccer knowledge, soccer history – call it what you will) at the very start of children’s development has proven to be insurmountable. Even with the advent of small-sided games and slogans like “Let the game be the teacher” we still have 5 and 6 year olds re-enacting a level of soccer that hasn’t existed since the 19th century. The grassroots of American soccer is a barren ground because parents and communities have little if any soccer to pass down to their kids. And it couldn’t be otherwise since you can’t pass down what you yourself have never experienced!
      Those who know soccer are painfully aware of the problem, and have tried since the late 1970s to warn youth soccer parents. But how could they heed the warning when they didn’t know of the danger? The parents haven’t experienced soccer either – since they haven’t live it – so it is literally impossible for them to recognize that something is wrong, that something is missing. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the American youth soccer phenomenon erupted out of a need to find a recreational activity for children, not to participate in a world soccer-playing community. This means that American Youth Soccer has never seen itself as a feeder program to professional soccer. Just read U.S. Youth Soccer’s mission statement and compare it to U.S. Soccer’s mission; they are completely at odds!
      Isolating top players from the rest of the high school players is merely the latest sign of how infuriatingly intractable the problem has been.
      We need a new approach, my friends, not more of the same.

    • Charlie says:

      Amen !

      I coach Club soccer and couldn’t agree more on all your view/comments expressed here. My Club team(s) normally start in Late June/early July, with hard work, etc. looking great by October but only to have my players/teams decimated by December with injuries received during high school games, and being coached by teachers or people who had little or no knowledge of soccer.
      American culture is big on playing school sports so it will be hard to keep our club players from playing high school soccer. My option ? I joined a High School and will start coaching there as well this year. Hopefully will make some difference with those kids now.

  4. Rob Nelson says:

    I agree with the above comments about supporting the public school programs. However, there will be players that languish due to poor coaching, lack of a decent school program (not enough players) etc. It would be a shame to not provide these kids with an alternative. Unfortunately, once that door is opened, the Academy recruiting starts. There is a similar phenomenon involving private prep schools spending large amounts of money to establish top tier sports programs and recruiting kids away from their neighborhood public schools. The school sports concept is vulnerable to cannibalizing itself. No easy answer to this.

  5. Arron says:

    Competition soccer is the devil! Dutch football training is egalitarian; kids get the same training; teams are balanced. Everybody plays.

    In the US, we give high quality facilities to some kids we pick, normally by parental income, and call them “competitive.” The rest of the kids get crappy fields, untrained coaches and bad officials. Then in the crappy rec leagues we build up power teams that blow out the rest of the division. The 18 kids on the one-in-ten power team play the next season. Half the 135 kids on the other nine games who lose slaughter-rule games drop out of the sport. Meanwhile, on the comp team the kids get burned out from three-game Saturdays and hours spent driving across the state.

    Until we focus on providing equal access to all kids, American Association Football will never be other than second rate.

    If you are a coach and are coaching a U-12 competition team, you are hurting the sport. If you are a parent, paying for the fancy competition team uniforms for your kids, you are hurting the sport. If you are a referee working competition games, you are hurting the game.

    Stop hurting the game, stop “competitive” soccer.

  6. Pancho Villa says:

    Arron, I get your point. Bottom line is the USA way is to win at all costs at all ages as much as possible. Even soccer experienced parents get sucked into this mentality because it is addicting and is socially enforced. I have seen time and time again how great U8s-U11s get sucked in “Top” Academy Clubs and then get worse after 1-2 years there. Why? Because parents get promises of “first look” from Academies and they beleive this!! It is a general mentality that if you are winning at the highest level you must be doing something right. Yea. You are a hell of a recruiter or have the money to offer free rides!! There should be a rule against having more than 3 subs on the bench which is still too many for me. How can anyone hop[e to get better with 2 practices and 1 game a week and no scrimmages ?? A good coach will inspire a kid to play as much non supervised soccer as possible. Does anyone have such coach?? I bet very few. We have U12 Pre Academies now. What does this even mean ?? Until a majority wake up and stop giving their money a way we will always have this failed system. Too much money involved. I disagree that it is a 3rd sport for all in USA., Hispanics seem to make it their first sport anywhere in the world and if I am correct they are the biggest minority ( I hate that word) in Usa at close to 20%. We know this and are not looking there hard enough. Why?? NOT ENOUGH MONEY.

  7. Great point, in that the problem is from incubation. There isn’t a soccer culture here, yet. Maybe the kids we coach today will create that.

    I also feel that the upper echelon of soccer athlete is at risk playing high school ball in America. Too often, coaches at every level here have the American football mentality of ‘knock ’em down if you can’t out-skill them,” and it results in the skilled players at any age becoming targets.

  8. Michael in Amarillo says:

    Great Article, Gavin.

    This is a discussion that needs to continue.

    Approaching that game as a youth coach and youth organization administrator for the past 16 years in rural Texas [where 12-hour round trips to league games are the norm], I am astonished at the hubris of those who think they can select a14 or 15 year-old for the national pool and think they’ve gotten it right.

    IMHO, the National Academy system is a farce until you realize it pays a lot of salaries, which is what it really comes down to. Money.

    Granted, the majority of US high school coaches are not top tier when it comes to training and credentials; however, that is slowly changing. And what better way to raise the level of play in high school soccer than to have the best players on the field helping their less-talented classmates take their game to a higher level.

    US Soccer could learn a thing or two from the patience shown in the “Big 3” sports. At least in those sports, the (male) athletes are allowed to reach their full athletic potential (most post-college) BEFORE they are selected for professional/national teams (i.e., basketball and baseball). That has seemed to have worked pretty well for the US, although the reliance on athleticism vs. training on fundamentals is hurting the US basketball players vs their European counterparts.

    As for the shortage of “soccer-playing-knowledge” in recreational coaches, that is slowly changing. Many of the young dads coaching entering our organization have had playing experience at the club and college levels. They know and understand the game. They can teach it. They can demonstrate the necessary skills and can correct technical errors.

    Unfortunately, patience is what we’re lacking in the US. Not talent. As for the reason… follow the money.

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