Learning from the Grass Roots

by Philip MacDonald | Last updated

One of the beauties of soccer is that it is never too late to start the sport or improve your skills and knowledge of the game.  A trend we are seeing for many soccer players in North America is they are learning and improving their games later in life.  What is happening though is instead of focusing on developing a complete understanding and skill for the game, players and coaches are simply worried about winning games week in and week out.  What has been proven is that there is a direct correlation to perfecting your trait and developing all aspects of your game at an early stage of your career and the success you will have later in your career.  Teams in North America need to train their players to be complete players so that as they physically develop they will become more dominant on the field and have more successful careers. 

Every year more and more kids in North America are signing up to play soccer; in fact more kids are registering for soccer than any other sport.  This is great for the growth of the game, however, a major downside is kids are not learning and developing the essential traits to become a complete soccer player.

Imagine learning the basics in math but all wrong.  Not only will this become a problem in the more advanced stages of math but if there are gaps you will have to go back and re-learn everything.  The best way to approach it is to learn the fundamentals correctly at an early stage and train them to memory.  The same can be said for soccer.

Former Liverpool and French national team manager Gerard Houllier said that soccer players are 80% complete in their development by the age of fourteen.  This includes all the technical and tactical parts of the individual and team game.  The remaining 20% is complete before the age of twenty which includes speed, mental quickness and physical development.

This is why it is so important to learn from an early age which is something the European system and firmly entrenched in their clubs and academy’s (a fundamental strategy that needs to be applied to the North American youth soccer system).  One of major errors North American teams are making is labeling players as a “center back, left back or striker” from an early age.  As a result players never learn to play all positions on the field and thus become one dimensional. Players need to learn how to play every position on the field.  This will help them in all aspects of their game and make them more dangerous opponents as they further develop.  Later in their careers it will become more evident which position they excel in.

The concept of learning and developing all aspects of your game from an early age applies to many other areas in life. Take Michael Jackson being one of the best dancers of all time.  In the making of the Thriller video he would come on set with all these other professional dancers and simply join in and even contribute to the choreography of the dance routine meanwhile the backup dancers had to train very hard just to be there.  Michael made it look effortless and for him it was.  However, when one looks closer at his career, he was dancing on stage and in a professional musical environment from the age of five.  Surely he was a natural dancer from a young age but just being in that environment, learning and watching from other professionals from a very early age helped him in a way that no other dancer could compete with.  Very few other dancers around the world can say they danced and sang with the likes of the Supremes and Diana Ross at the age of five.  Most other professional dancers are good and work at it when they can.  At a certain age they decide to attend dancing school and then have to train extra hard just to be able to dance on the same set as Michael Jackson.

Similar situations occurred across other sports.  For example, former tennis great Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi once dominated the tennis world.  Few know that both had fathers who build tennis courts in their back yards and had them training every single day from the age of five to become the best.  Professional golfer Tiger Woods was pushed by his father from an even younger age.  He had a perfect golf swing by the age of three.

The common theme from all of this is that proper learning must be done at an early age in order for success to come later.  One can still learn later in life (for example former Argentine great – Gabriel Batistuta) and have success although these are rare cases.  Therefore, it only makes sense to learn from a young age and build upon that knowledge.

What can we do here in North America with all of these athletes that have untapped knowledge and gaps in their athletic abilities?  Well we can still model the European system:

– It is better if former players become coaches so that we can learn from them instead of volunteers who are simply looking for another activity to put on their resume.

– There needs to be a stricter hiring process for coaches whether house league or competitive.  At least this way when kids are learning how to kick a ball they will learn the proper technique.

– Hire new immigrants to coaching positions.  There are many European immigrants who are new to North America and have more knowledge on the game of soccer than locals yet these coaching talents are being looked over.

– Players need to learn all positions on the field and be able to play well in them by an early age.

– Players and coaches can watch video online of top professional clubs and some of the exercises they do in training. One can’t go wrong in learning from the best.

As mentioned above, the beauty of soccer is that it is never too late to start the sport or improve your skills and knowledge of the game.  Once there is a greater emphasis on developing the young talent in North America then the MLS will become a stronger league.  All of this can be done and kids can still enjoy the game in a house league environment.

Finally, the idea of wishing that Canada will qualify for the World Cup every four years needs to dropped.  The changes we make now (or lack thereof) at the youth level that will change the dictate our system on the international stage in the decades to come.  By concentrating more on the youth system Canada and the United States will become more successful on the international stage.

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