A New York Times article by by Rob Hughes titled “Recipe for Soccer Success: Let Young Talent Blossoms” juxtaposes the efforts of China and the United States to develop its next generation of footballing stars with the development of the world’s best footballer, Lionel Messi.
“He wasn’t trained, he was born like this,” Ernesto Vecchio, the garage mechanic, says in a documentary, “Los Origenes de Messi,” that traces the roots of the world’s most beguiling soccer talent.
Watch that documentary, by Michael Robinson, and marvel at the humility of everyone around Messi, from his parents to his mentors. Essentially, they knew what he was capable of becoming, and they knew that the best they could do was simply let it develop — on the streets, in the parks, on the dusty courtyard where he and the ball were inseparable.
Of course, this approach differs greatly from the common approach in the United States, where structured practices, games and training session start at an early age and create a regimented development program for an aspiring athlete.
Hughes references an out of print book titled Common Sense about Soccer written by Nils Middelboe, a Danish merchant banker who played as an amateur for Chelsea in 1913.
He used the phrase “to systematize is to sterilize” in imploring coaches not to overload kids with theories, not to spoil their joy in letting imagination guide them with the ball. Even then, back in the 1950s and 1960s, Middelboe feared the regimentation of adults’ inflicting their control on kids.
Of course, Middleboe’s fear echoes the refrain from books like Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning and more academic books like Talented Tennagers by Mihalyi Csiszentmihalyi and Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People.
To develop talent in young people, the first stage is a time of exploration and discovery, a time to ignite the youngster’s passion. Technique and “the right way” are of lesser concern. Instead, coaches and parents must create an environment that allows the players the space and freedom to explore and develop an interest in the activity.
Children like to play, it is in their nature to play, try new things, explore, test out new ways to do things and more. Unfortunately, coaching often stifles these instincts and directs players to one way of doing things. Coaches and parents offer a structured environment which, in Middleboe’s words “sterilizes” the athletes.
With young players, details are not important. Instead, keep practices and games active and continue challenging players to learn new things and try new skills. Ignite their passion for the game rather than dampening their enthusiasm. Create a playful environment rather than eliminating play in favor of drills and instruction.
By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League