Someone from a soccer forum I frequent asked for my thoughts on whether a potential keeper should begin specializing (become “full time”) at the U-9 level. There had been an ongoing discussion in a thread with parents falling on both sides of the fence. So here it goes …
From a developmental perspective only, at U-9 a kid should not be specializing as a keeper. That is, they are in goal the whole game, every game. That would be a huge mistake. If you want to produce a high level keeper, they need to have good technique and a good soccer brain. Not to the extent of a center mid, but it’s an absolute must that they be comfortable on the ball under all scenarios. Without adequate field experience, you can kiss that goodbye.
Maybe, maybe at U-12. But even then, they should be playing on the field at every opportunity during training (drills, scrimmages, etc …). In case you weren’t aware, this goes for keepers up to the professional level. Most recently, I attended the Barcelona training session at the Rose Bowl in preparation for their game against the Galaxy. Victor Valdez did every field player activity.
Additionally, keepers must be capable of barking correct orders throughout the game. They can only develop that by knowing what the hell they’re talking about – which doesn’t come without playing on the field.
Field Players Specializing?
As for other positions, there is and should be far more flux. It’s possible, you won’t know what you are best suited for until U-18. A large majority of professionals did not play their current positions at the youth level. The most frequent case are defenders. Most of them were converted from the midfield. Oh and just a couple weeks ago, Dani Alves (Barcelona), arguably one of the best outside backs in the world was slotted as one of the three strikers in the game against Real Madrid.
You can not develop a complete player without them having played everywhere. But that doesn’t mean implementing some harebrained scheme of player rotation. Experiments for the sake of experimenting is the sign of a newbie.
LE Eisenmenger says
Agreed. They need to learn other positions not just because their interest and abilities will develop/change, but if they return to a favored position they’ll be able to communicate with other players because they’ll understand their positions, challenges.
Too often I’ve seen young strikers flame out because they don’t learn how to defend and possess the ball and defenders fade because they lose field mobility and the incentive to push forward.
I like your column.
Gary Kleiban says
Nice contribution LE.
I’ve seen many players hit a “glass ceiling” in their positions as well.
Usually it’s due to not pushing themselves outside of training, but another component is definitely a deficiency in their skill set that would have been developed through exposure in another position.
I had a more general question on specialization, do you think its good (for soccer) If kids play multiple sports growing up? its not that it would make much difference for my kid, but I’m just curious about this debate. For the Luis Gil’s of the world, does the kid have to be focused only on soccer from an early age? or is there a path where the kid plays basketball/baseball during those seasons and eventually focuses on soccer?
Gary Kleiban says
Good question Rivelino.
The short answer is have your focus solely on soccer. As with everything, there is a “conservation principle” at play. The more extra-soccer activities, the less time there is to work on your game and develop.
You may see youth soccer players who also play another sport or two and seem to be just as good, if not better, than those who only play soccer. To that I look no further than the traditional 2 training days per week with a game on the weekend. If both sets of players (ie single sport / multiple sport) pretty much only follow that schedule, of course they remain on equal footing. But if you want to be truly elite, you must have the ball at your feet all day every day. And that can not be accomplished if another sport is taking up time.
Are there exceptions? Maybe. But exceptions prove the rule.
I beg to differ on this point, Gary. Go to Long Term Athletic Development models that say something different. I don’t deny that to become a top flight soccer player you need to play soccer A LOT, and that as you get older you need to specialize more but playing hockey, basketball, tennis as a secondary sport at an early age has great effect on soccer. Many top flight players grew up playing other sports also (Rafa Nadal, Federer, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ganobli) and have all said that playing other sports helped them. The simple fact is: playing soccer (or any sport) the 4-5 hours/week only when your team is training will NEVER be enough to develop into a top flight player i I do agree that soccer has to be the priority sport throughout the formative skill building years (8-13) but there is still room (and it is healthy) to play other sports too. Do not discount the importance of general athletism is to soccer and the crossover effect on balance, coordination that other sports have.
NOVA Mike says
Maybe you can help resolve a running debate within our club.
Can you (or anyone) name a single world class soccer player who committed a significant amount of time to playing another competitive sport growing up?
Uninvited Company says
I believe that Diego Forlan played tennis competitively as a young boy, and did not devote himself exclusively to soccer until sometime around U12 or U13. This is mentioned on his Wikipedia profile, and I also believe I heard commentators mention it during the 2010 World Cup.
With that said, I do not believe playing other competitive sports helps at all with respect to soccer development.
Great point hincha. My son played basketball and I believe it helped his speed of thought as well as directly helped his 1v1 defending with soccer.
Now, here’s the difference. Even playing basketball for his school team, he still got technical footy work in at least 4 days a week. You can’t put the soccer ball away for months at a time. Your technique fades. period.
I look at basketball/other sports as ‘crosstraining’ opportunities. Clairefontaine often has their players play handball and basketball.
Even Gareth Bale and Ryan Giggs played rugby and ran track meets up until they were 15 or so. Didn’t seem to hurt them.
That said, I think the crosstraining (other sports) probably helps the defenders moreso than the pure attacking types.
Remember too that very few American players are truly immersed into a 5-6 day a week training regimen like their foreign counterparts. So, spending some time on the track or in the weight room can help bridge the gap for a serious, committed American player.
Clairefontaine plays handball and basketball.
Ajax does judo
Brasil, Spain are heavy on futsal
Do players develop better because of that or still develop well instead of it, or is just irrelevant?
Any scientific answers or just more or less informed opinions?
Gary Kleiban says
It all makes for interesting discussion Nuno.
Gary Kleiban says
But there might be some important “truth” to learn from anecdotal evidence, no?
On this particular for example, I believe (from anecdotal evidence) that futsal can be an important developmental tool (no an evaluating one though)…judo not so much…
What does science tells us on this particular?
Gary Kleiban says
Of course. But *might being the operative word.
There’s no problem when we say “I believe” this because of this, or “I believe” that because of that.
What does “science tell us”?
It tells us that
1) identifying correlation is not easy
2) allocating a magnitude to that correlation relative to other factors is even more difficult
Remember, the earth was flat and the stars revolved around the Earth once. And that was based on very convincing logic and evidence.
So at this moment it tells not much about this…maybe in the future it will, until then learn as much as you can from anecdotes 🙂
Gary Kleiban says
Going off what I said on twitter:
* Learn from the masters
* Try to imitate the best
Gain enormous experience in those things.
Then, I believe, one can start innovating or concluding ‘truths’ from the amassed reservoir of anecdotes.
Dr Loco says
A player’s weaknesses can be tested from a purely kinematic perspective and improved upon. This will create a better athlete but not necessarily a better player. Testing along with developing will improve the chances of creating a better player.
Dr Loco says
Just wanted to add playing any sports does little to improve a player unless they specifically target their weaknesses. Playing just to play is a waste.
Agree with you Gary…in the end I believe this is really a matter of opinion, common sense and love for the game…scientific efforts to produce the perfect footballer have failed miserably (USSR gave it a try for a while)…even Ajax seemed to have gone off the rails for a while with the diversication experiments…in the end Maradona, Pele, Cruyff, Eusebio, Platini, Best, Iniesta, Messi did not fulfill their genius because they diversified aplenty, did they? They discoreved and followed their true love with passion
Gary Kleiban says
It’s interesting Nuno,
Due to the increasing availability of information and data, the game, like so many other things, is becoming increasingly “scientific”.
Sadly, few people appreciate what good science is.
Surely not discounting the value of information or method. Question is interpretation and application according to one’s goals.
My beef is pseudo scientific practices, or scientific practices with little / no relation to soccer objectives…or they might serve well some soccer objectives but are those yours objectives as well?
Well surely there is no lack of “data” available…
“Si el equipo está bien físicamente?Físicamente no existe.Lo q existe es el rendimiento,y el rendimiento no es físico es global”
BTW, have you seen this doc? It’s a good one…
The best in the art 🙂
Dr Loco says
“They discovered and followed their true love with passion”
Our society in the US is unique. Regarding anything most kids haven’t discovered their passion. Ask most kids 5-15 something and they just reply, “I don’t know” or “huh”.
For US kids, it’s healthy to experience multiple sports (football, basketball, baseball, soccer) up to 8th grade. Funny most rec team sports end after 8th grade. The key is learning proper technique and fundamentals which are common among most sports. The real problem is no coach teaches it so players never truly develop athletically. Only the naturally gifted ever progress to the next level in the US. Other smaller countries must rely heavily on actual player development.
I am relatively newer to club soccer and have seen minimal movement among young players to multiple positions. all the emphasis is placed on winning now. winning now means promotions to higher status. higher status means players come to your club which generate revenue.
i took my kid off a “higher level” to a coach that with a lower level team but much better development focus. The “high profile” clubs seem to scout/poach already skilled players from other teams reducing their need or developing.
In the long run, IMO as stated who knows what position they will be playing at 18, so development and knowledge of as many as they can learn will benefit them and the team they end up with.
Gary Kleiban says
Hi Jess! Thank you for the comments.
I agree with how most “high-profile” clubs remain at the top. Most of the best players in the age group either flock to them or are “poached” from lesser clubs. I have no problem with this – it’s the nature of the beast.
Like you stated, it seems logical that if a coach already has many of the best players, there is little incentive to “develop” them. After all, the team wins right?
Here is where we need to be careful. “Common sense” logic can easily lead one to the wrong, or incomplete, conclusions. In this case, you are partially correct. There is “reduced need/incentive for developing”. However, the root of the problem is that the vast majority of these coaches are simply not capable of developing.
There are also many thing that are right and wrong with the “winning vs development” argument. I will leave you with this: if winning were taken out of the equation, what metric(s) could be used to assess “development”?
So,Gary…what an incredible question. “if winning were taken out of the equation, what metric(s) could be used to assess “development”?
Possession %? Who linked together the most passes? What team was in the attacking 1/3 more?
How would you answer this question?
Gary Kleiban says
My intent is to stimulate thinking.
If people can stop believing they’ve already got the answers, then there’s hope for them.
“Winning” is being demonized. And that’s a mistake.
You can’t remove winning from the development equation. I briefly touched on this here:
thanks for the food for thought, i like and agree with what you stated. so how do you know if the coach has the ability to develop?
i like this site and have referred others to read the many good articles.
Gary Kleiban says
You have asked perhaps the single most important question and problem in US Soccer!
The answer is not straight forward – a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience in the game is required. But we are trying to divulge what we know in a manner that hopefully can be easily digested.
Aside from articles, I think the best way is through video and audio showing:
* What a proper training session looks like.
* What proper player/team instruction is.
* Proper game management.
* etc …
The greatest coaching deficiency is not in developing a player’s technique. Fortunately, that responsibility falls mostly on the player themselves (2 training sessions per week doesn’t cut it regardless of how good a coach is).
Where coaches fall flat on their face, is in teaching proper decision-making for every position under every game scenario. In other words, developing a player’s Soccer IQ.
We’re just getting started with video production … it’s coming. 🙂
Thanks for spreading the word Jess!
Can soccer IQ be ‘nurtered’…absolutely! Just like a good teacher, a quality coach can stimulate a thirst for knowledge and a quest for excellence.
That said, the basics have to be there. I see plenty of u15/16 players that are very skilled attackers. What I don’t see is a high number of players that are both technical and tactically sound.
Using a central midfielder as an example. Supposedly the brains of most team’s attacks, right? The vast majority of kids I see playing central mid really should be playing on the flanks. Why? Because by and large they hold onto the ball too long. To me, measuring the quality of a cm should be based on keeping the ball and knowing when to slow the game down to reset….as well as knowing when to play the through ball or switching the field.
That takes a quality first touch, vision and the technical ability to pass the ball accurately using different parts of the feet.
All too often I see coaches (mistakingly) playing their perceived most technical player centrally. Big mistake IMO. If they are constantly wanting to take someone on…play them out wide so they can create from there.
By and large, I think a player either has game intelligence (IQ) or doesn’t. It’s more inate.
Does quality coaching help? Yes. But by the same token I disagree that without it (depending on age) a player can’t or won’t develop the tactical accumen to play professionally.
Teaching proper decision-making for every position under every game scenario….sounds daunting! I teach my kids much more explicitly about position responaibilities now and how to execute 2v1s, 3v1, 3v2, etc. where they’d occur on the field but definitely not at this level yet.
I’m curious as to what criteria Gary (or anyone else) use to identify an ‘elite’ defender?
it sounds like a stupid question. But I’m curious as to what separates the good from the truly special?
My son has recently been ‘converted’ to a defender. Primarily a centerback. He’ll turn 15 next month. While I see him eventually playing there (or defensive mid or even fullback) I’d rather see him still play at least a holding cm role.
For development purposes. He certainly has the technical and tactical qualities. But the coach played him there once and he really stood out. (Rarely if ever actually has to ‘clear’ the ball.)
My guess and from the coach, is that he is playing there because (A)He can and (B) There was certainly a need for a ball playing centerback in order to initiate buildup play.
I’m thinking more longterm. I don’t mind it but I’d like to see him ‘retain’ his cm skills set. he certainly isn’t playing back there because of pure size and strength.
Hall97, I think the better question is what makes an elite player or why USA not developing those. For whatever reason, we don’t develop top class center backs. American’ athletes are typically big and strong, so obviously that can’t be the answer. Off topic, but had to rant!
I think ability to play out of the back, good touch, good range of passing, vision, understanding defensive of shape, limiting touches, ability to command defense are things that make a good center back. They need to work well with keeper and CM / holding mids. Great center backs often go unnoticed in games. If they lack discipline or can’t read the game and poor positional understanding – they get burned and they get noticed for wrong reasons. If they just whack the ball, up the pitch, that’s no good. I also think what defines a solid center back depends on the system / playing philosophy of coach.
I agree. I guess I just needed to hear others’ thoughts. The typical parents/naive us soccer fan seems to be more focused on strength and size. I’ve always impressed upon my son that defending is done with the mind and the body.
I just want him to retain his attacking/central midfield instincts and skills to excel as a centerback or even outside back. It should make him stand out that much more. He needs to look at Pique, Vermaelen and now Jan vertonghen type centerbacks.
Not the John Terry’s and lescotts of the world. They to me are a dying breed. The modern centerback has to be more technical.
Problem is, how many American coaches even ‘get it’?
My son moved from primarily offense to defense (outside back). I was againist it a first, but grew to like it. It made him tougher and by playing offense for many years, he understands what attackes think and do. He also said playing defense has way more pressure because one mistake and you get scored on. While offense can have chance after chance and not a huge issue, but they get the glory. Playing outside back, he also runs a lot and has to contribute to both offense and defense. He likes that better because sometimes in attacking role you exert a lot of engergy making yourself available, pressuring defenders and passess never come. He feels less involved.
He has also learned that when teams come at you with speed, quick passing and movement, and lots of attackers — it’s hard as hell to defend because you got a lot going on and communication at the back becomes critical. So when he gets chances to play up top or on wings, he remembers this and his defensive knowledge helps. I truly belive this is something all coaches should do (produce total football type players who understand how to play differrent roles). I’m not a fan of specialization. Didn’t realize that until I saw the benefit of my son playing multiple positions.
So what I’m saying is your son should appreciate the new challenge and perspective of playing center back. It will make him more rounded.
Totally agree. My son is a rather ‘conservative minded’ player. Him playing defender has nothing to do with lack of attacking/playmaking or even technical ability in general.
And frankly he likes playing back there. I was just concerned because I wanted him to not ‘regress’ in that regard.
He’ll be 15 next month. So, I guess it is time to start narrowing it down to at least 2 positions.
How old is your son by the way?