What American Youth Soccer Can Learn From Youth Hockey

Participation in U.S. youth soccer is up, but why is the talent lagging behind?

Youth soccer has experienced tremendous growth in America over the last three decades.

There's been roughly an 89-percent increase in youth soccer participants since the 1990 World Cup. The momentum shows no signs of stopping, as U.S. Youth Soccer has reported participation growth of over 4 percent in their U-18 leagues since 2014. These are all great statistics for the sport! However, more participants may do little to improve the overall quality of the game inside our borders if we don't change the standard youth soccer model.

There's a common theme when speaking with soccer coaches at all levels. Be it junior high, high school, college or professional, coaches believe the level of talent has stagnated. The amount of U.S.-born players coming through the U.S. Youth Soccer system are at an all-time high, but the talent levels don't reflect those record-high participation levels. The numbers are up, but the talent isn't increasing along with it.

At a quick glance, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If youth soccer leagues are growing, the amount of top level players should also be growing. There's only one problem—the level of talent teaching our youth isn't growing at the same rate as our participation levels. Our coaches and volunteers are simply there because they need to be present in order for the leagues to operate. Many youth soccer coaches are not being properly educated on how to instruct the game the way it's meant to be played.

So, how do we fix this? Steal an idea from USA Youth Hockey. In 2009, USA Youth Hockey adopted the American Development Model. This model is built around teaching kids the fundamentals of sport in an effort to limit the amount of youth athletes who drop out before reaching competitive leagues. By keying in on the basics like balance, strength, coordination and fundamentals, the ADM is rewriting the way we look at youth sports.

The ADM states that we spend too much time focusing on making our kids great before they can become good. We want our youth to be all-stars before they even get a chance to learn the game. We focus so heavily on results that we disregard performance and what it takes to yield those results. When we focus on the end result more than we emphasize the process and learning the game the right way, it leads to injuries and burnout. A recent trend in American youth sports (and soccer, in particular) is parents pushing their children to specialize in a single sport.

In the parents' minds, pushing their kids to focus on one sport from an early age increases their odds of developing throughout their adolescent years to ensure stardom by their late teens and early 20s. There are several problems with this approach. For one, there's no proven link between sports specialization and eventual stardom in said sport. In fact, athletes who play multiple sports during their youth seem to reach higher levels of competition than peers who specialize early, on average. Another big issue is that early sports specialization can lead talented players to get burnt out on the sport in question before they can ever become close to reaching their full potential.

To change the growth model of American youth soccer, we must change the foundation the sport is built on. Here are a few things I believe we can implement that will have a lasting impact on American youth soccer and help increase the talent and participation levels across the sport.

1. Focus on Mastering Basic Movements

To build better athletes, we have to consider all stages of athleticism. Most youth athletes don't have the skills to be great athletes at a young age. We must rely on improving strength, balance, coordination and proper motor skills to get the best product from our youth soccer players. Beginning each practice with a series of basic exercises and mobility drills will help give our children the foundation they can then build upon to become a great athlete later in life.

2. Say No to Specialization

Let kids be kids! There is no reason for a child to have to choose between one sport or another solely based on an ultimatum from their parent. Allow kids the freedom to choose which sports they want to participate in and allow them to compete in what they enjoy. Even if a child shows signs of being tremendously talented in one sport, the likelihood of that child becoming tired of the sport by the time they reach high school increases greatly if they are forced to play only that sport and nothing else. Participating in multiple sports allows kids to recruit different muscles, utilize different motor skills and learn how to function on different teams and take different coaching. All of this will help them in the sport they eventually decide to focus on later in life. Playing multiple sports allows children to develop and build a stronger foundation. An army of professional athletes have come out in defense of the benefits of kids playing multiple sports, while nearly none have advocated for early specialization.

3. Educate the Coaches

If we want to increase the likelihood of building more talented athletes, they have to be taught the right fundamentals from an early age. Requiring coaches to take certain classes or obtain a basic level of certification can sometimes be difficult and unrealistic with the huge number of kids now participating in sports. An easy way to gain some of this foundational knowledge is by getting all league coaches to attend a mandatory training session led by an accredited coach. By bringing in a qualified coach to teach their methods and strategies, leagues can gather their coaches and ensure they're all on the same page with what they're teaching their athletes.

4. Allow Time Off

Allow children to take a break! It's easy for children to get involved with many activities at once and quickly become overwhelmed by their busy schedule. While multiple sports are great, leaving them no time to just be a kid can exhaust their love for sport. By giving them a break between seasons, we can help children make time to focus on other hobbies, or just give them the time needed to rest and recover for the upcoming season.

5. Smarter, Not Harder, Practices

Coaches, take note: not every practice has to leave your athletes exhausted! Most kids chose to play a sport because they have fun playing it. That enjoyment may stem from spending time with friends outside of school, engaging in competition, or simply running around outside. We should encourage all of these things and focus practices on kids having fun while also learning basic fundamentals. We should not try to crush our youth athletes with endless sprints and exhausting practices just to "build mental toughness." If we want to increase retention rates, kids have to enjoy the sport they're participating in. Set up your practices to include multiple miniature games or drills that allow them to experience success. Kids want to win! Allow them many opportunities to excel in small-sided games and they will work harder to achieve that winning feeling.

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