5 Things We've Learned
In 2010, Eagleclaw FC started with a simple mission: Create a training program that develops players who are technically sound and comfortable in a possession style of soccer. We had simple, but essential criteria:
Focus on Spanish-style possession soccer, a "positional play" game model and developing players who can thrive in that style of play;
Make individual player development a top priority;
Emphasize early and continuing development of technical skills;
Form a two-tier Development Academy
A Primary Academy and
an Advanced Academy
Implement a no-tryout/no-cut policy for kids age 13 and younger;
Create a training environment that is truly about learning and encouraging players to become active learners;
Develop coaches who are comfortable teaching possession soccer;
Integrate futsal into the training regimen for players;
Organize "Development Teams" for primary academy players so that games are about testing our own players' learning rather than winning for the sake of winning;
Work hard to change the prevailing youth soccer culture that pushes too many kids out of the sport.
Establish Eagleclaw as club to join if a player truly wants to become a better player.
It's 2017 and Eagleclaw has come a long way. Without a doubt, we are developing technically skilled, intelligent players, some of whom in the future could be playing collegiately or professionally on weekends if they want to. We've taught many parents about our vision of player development, and failed to persuade a few others. And we've definitely ruffled a lot of establishment feathers along the way. We've only just begun our effort to disrupt and overhaul the prevailing negative culture of youth soccer. But now is the right time to reflect on what we've learned so far.
1. It Works!
Our style of play, combined with our training method works. We are producing young players with an unbelievable level of technical skill and game intelligence. From the beginning, we knew we needed to address the technical deficiencies in American youth players. In general, American kids are just not as good on the ball as kids in Europe or South America. We've written about it previously and won't drone on again here about The Technical Imperative. We did not deny the existence of the problem, blame it on basketball, baseball or football, or assume (as nearly every club does) that American kids can develop a high level of technical skill through the same old tired "premier" club team-centric training model. Instead, we addressed it directly and provided a solution.
We instituted a weekly training cycle of tactical training followed by technical training. We assumed a minimum training commitment of 3.5 hours per week for kids between the age of 5 and 13, and divided it so that a player receives 1.5 hours of tactical instruction and 2.0 hours of technical instruction. Guess what? It works! With each passing week, the tactical sessions where we teach the possession soccer and "positional play" become crisper and faster. The confidence level of the players grows, and we see increasing outbreaks of creativity and flair, which only further fuel player confidence. As the semester progresses, the players' growing confidence allows them to execute subtle but important bits of play. With growing confidence comes composure and the ability to bring patience into their game. Then, we see players holding up the ball to allow their lines to move forward, passing crisply to each other and toying with opponents to create the perfect time to strike. These are the kinds of players we wanted to develop, and we are succeeding!
Perhaps most importantly, our training method provides a healthy balance between advanced training and the need for kids to be, well, kids! Our primary objective is to keep our players learning and growing in this game for as long as possible. If the training schedule demands too much time, the player (and their family, whose support is critical for the player's development) burn out. At some point, overtraining becomes less beneficial and risks causing injury. Too little training and there just isn't enough learning and growth. Striking the right balance of training time for a given age is really important.
Some local programs believe more is better. They have 9 year olds training 7 times per week, not including weekend games. Three of those 7 sessions are at 6:30am on school days. That's right, 6:30am! Some even take it to 8 weekly sessions by adding a classroom film review session. For young players and their families, that is simply too much, for too many reasons.
For our youngest players in the Primary Academy, we think we've nailed it. An easy metric is the smiles on the player's faces when they come to training. They want to be there and they are ready to learn. Through our Masterclass program (by invitation only) and various clinic programs, such as our Finishing & Free Kick Clinic, Player IQ Development Program, Goalkeeping Skills Training Clinic , Futsal Training Program, First Touch & Spatial Awareness Training Sessions and Rondo Clinic (coming Summer 2017), we can accommodate players and families who want to add more training time to their weekly schedule on an a la carte basis. And of course, by the time players join our Advanced Academy, they are ready for a more rigorous training schedule!
There is another critical benefit of our balanced training schedule and positive learning environment for the development of talented players. Balance in club training for young players can create and maintain the ideal circumstances for "internal motivation". In his groundbreaking book, Bounce, Matthew Syed explained that talent is not the result of genetics, but rather of practice. The people we perceive as highly talented, are really the one who have engaged in the most "purposeful practice". As a metric, Syed latches onto Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule", which breaks down to 2.7 hours per day for 10 years.
Purposeful practice does not need to happen exclusively in the youth club context. Kids can practice on their own at home, by playing with friends in the street or park and at school or in personal training sessions with a favorite coach. The key, however, is that the child has to love what they are doing. If they love soccer, they will seek out every opportunity to play and practice, thereby clocking up the hours toward the 10,000 hour mark. And they will only love it if they are not burnt out on the sport. Love for the sport is the fuel for internal motivation. If club training overworks a child to the point where its no longer fun and feels like work, then when they go home or when they wake up on a weekend, playing soccer is likely the last thing they want to do.
2. It's hard.
To implement our vision, we had to make tradeoffs. Team development or player development? Some critics say its a distinction without a difference. They are dead wrong! The objective of each is fundamentally different. The emphasis of each is fundamentally different. Team development means doing what is necessary to develop a winning team, and player development is a mere by-product. Player development means teaching each and every player what they need to know, and team wins are the by-product.
For our Primary Academy (age 5-13), we chose true player development and dedicated ourselves to pursuing it with single-minded purpose. That meant we had to make tradeoffs in time, emphasis, game results and resources. Winning games and tournaments becomes less important. League games become laboratories to test how players implement lessons from the training ground. Right footed players are played on the left to develop them more completely. Risks are taken in games that leave parents baffled. Teams may not necessarily train together. Players move fluidly through different training groups. And most importantly, one valuable weekly training day is devoted to technical work designed to make the player better on the ball. All of these trade-offs are in service to an individual player's growth and development.
In practice, for us it means we:
Teach possession soccer
Make no judgments about a player and below the age of 14 we don't cut them
Honestly strive to develop each player's fundamental individual skills
Ensure players understand their task is collectively solving problems on the field
Do not build a team around a player's physical gifts
Play out and build from the back (minimize goalkeeper punts)
Require each player to spend time playing as keeper, center back and outside back.
Encourage players to experiment within our game model, to take risks and not be afraid to make mistakes
Stress to players that decision-making is more important than the outcome, and that understanding why they made a certain decision is the most important learning objective
Evaluate coaches based on quality of their training sessions, not the results of games they coach
Expect quiet coaching during games that continues to focus on teaching
Avoid tournaments that create undue mental and physical pressure on young players
But its hard. The tradeoffs mean we don't give parents what the prevailing culture tells them they should be getting from a youth soccer program - consistent weekend victories, lots of travel and pressure-packed, drama-filled tournaments. By making teaching first and winning second, some of our teams may lose more games than they win. We can live with that, but others cannot. Some parents take losses harder than their kids do, lapsing into a belief that a team loss means our method isn't working for their player. For them, positive individual progress is overshadowed by a negative team result. We deal on an almost daily basis with the reality that sometimes a parents' ambition is often far greater than that of their player, which leads them to become impatient with the pace of their player's progress. They look to drive their kid harder and faster, often beyond the emotional maturity of the child and sometimes forgetting how young their child really is. And perhaps worst of all, we see parents who mistake positive development in their young child as a sign that their player is ready to be with a "winning" team at a club that places team development first at the youngest ages.
Yes, its hard work. We love it, though! And we are making a difference in the lives of so many young players.
3. Changing the culture is hard. Preserving your own culture is even harder.
Energizing a revolution in youth soccer training doesn't happen overnight. Evangelizing a new vision of player development requires lots of conversations with many people. Its hard to break through the old ways and convince people to try a better way. People who are used to tryouts/cuts, A/B/C/D teams and the focus on team development are naturally skeptical of new approaches. "How can you form teams if you don't have tryouts?" "Why only 150 kids? Don't you want more?" "How do you know how good your players are if you don't play in tournaments?" "How can Eagleclaw get my kid "seen"?" "What about speed of play?" So many questions, most of which really seek the false comfort that Eagleclaw will be just like all the other clubs they're used to. Taking the time to explain how unimportant those things are is hard, but that's what it takes to change the culture - one conversation at a time.
But the hardest task of all is preserving our own culture, while keeping it vibrant and evolving. This requires persistent, consistent effort. We are simultaneously on offense and defense. We stick to our guns, but it requires constantly avoiding the siren song of conforming to the dominant culture and the temptation to walk away from player development because its more difficult. A weekend game loss does not mean we need to start cutting players and developing teams to win things. It does not mean we need A-teams and hundreds of kids on B/C/D teams to create a financial pyramid. And it certainly does not mean we change our philosophy of possession soccer in favor of a fast, bruising, physical style that produces wins in the short-term, but does not adequately prepare players for the next level. No, we stick to our guns.
Eagleclaw was intended to be the best training and learning environment for youth players. We continue to build it to be the best, not the biggest. Staying true to our principles is the hardest task of all.
4. The hero mentality is the enemy of possession soccer
At the youngest ages, say around 5-7, when kids are playing 3v3 or 4v4, we often see that kid who slalom dribbles through everyone and scores. They get lots of praise and encouragement, reinforcing their individual brilliance. They are the hero! At age 8-10, the idea of the game hero is still dominant and still rewarded by parents. We've heard of parents who offer their players money or other rewards if they score a goal, encouraging their player to go it alone and undercutting all the learning they've learned in training. It's a terrible idea.
So many kids come to us with a belief that they are not good soccer players unless they are the hero. If they don't score themselves, they aren't improving. They've been brought up to believe that the objective is to be the player who puts the team on his/her shoulders and just gets it done, delivering the victory. But this "hero mentality" can be the enemy of efforts to develop intelligent players, while still allowing young players to express themselves with the ball and use flair and creativity to solve problems.
In games, the would-be hero ignores all of his/her training and the instructions of the coach. They keep the ball too long, drawing too much pressure and losing the ball. They take shots from impossible angles when teammates are in better scoring positions and just a pass away. When the game is over, if they aren't the hero and didn't score, they don't join the team celebration. Instead, they look defeated and angry, probably dreading the drive home and having to explain why they didn't score.
One parent recently let us know that at their last club, their player was the best on the team and scored all the goals, but now that they are at Eagleclaw, they aren't scoring as much. This, they described as "regressing". They truly felt their player was going backwards in their development because the child was not scoring all the goals. The metric is all wrong. In the case of this particular player, since joining us we've improved their technique, confidence and understanding of how to play possession soccer collectively. The truth is, we've made the player significantly better. In fact, the player is so improved that we feel they are ready for our Masterclass program. Yet, unless the player is the hero of the weekend game, the assumption by some is that the player is not developing.
To some extent, its a problem of our own making. By focusing on developing technique, we risk players and parents assuming that we are arming players to always go it alone. That's incorrect, of course, but it means we must work harder to communicate to parents that technical skill development is about raising the level of all players on a team so they can play better collectively, the Eagleclaw way.
The objective of technical skill development is not to foster go-it-alone players. Everything we do at the youngest ages to develop individual skill is in service of making that player an effective member of a team, of a collective. Our objective is to make players so comfortable on the ball, with such an exquisite first touch, that they receive the ball well, bring it down close and the majority of their touches in a game are smart, confident one or two touch passes. Yes, there can be a time and place for a piercing running dribble or even for scissors and step-overs in 1v1 or 1v2 situations. We do not discourage young players from dribbling or taking on players by insisting they must always pass. But as they get older, we do stress to our players that the focus must be always be on developing judgment and decision-making and that the ability to play simple is the best way and the hardest skill to master.
Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is. - Johann Cruyff
"Technique" is how well a player controls and manipulates the ball. In other words, technique is merely the ability to perform a physical task. "Technical Skill", on the other hand, is the ability to perform a technique in a game setting and knowing when and where to do so. It's all about judgment....being smart. Players must ask themselves constantly what they can do to help their team keep the ball. At age 6-10, we don't expect them to ask that question of themselves. Instead, we expect them to keep the ball themselves and try to score on their own. That is normal. It's in their nature. In time, and with proper training, young players learn more deeply that soccer is a passing game and grow to realize the power of combining with teammates. That is when they realize there is a proper time, place and purpose for using their "moves." A "Triple Scissor" in the open field is pointless. A crafty "Puskas Pullback" performed under close-range defensive pressure can create time and space to make a pass to a teammate or fire off a shot. The intelligent player knows the difference. Again, the young player's instinct is not the problem. The problem occurs when adults put undue pressure on young players to become the hero and encourage the overuse of techniques in the wrong situations and for the wrong reasons. What is harmful is assuming the player is not developing properly because they did not score the most goals on the weekend. The hero mentality is the enemy of developing the intelligent player.
5. Futsal is a "must" for young players age 5-13.
Futsal is a magical game for developing technically skilled players. Its also a fantastic way to teach possession soccer. The 5v5 format emphasizes the small-sided situations that always occur in the outdoor game. We've always planned to bring futsal into our training program. A year ago, we entered one team in a local futsal league. We learned a lot, mainly that the kids love the game. So, this past winter we forged ahead even further. We opened two futsal training programs, one in Seattle and one in Tukwila. Both sold out! We entered five teams in the Cascadia Futsal League, and those team rosters were also filled quickly. The combination of futsal training and league play only magnified the benefits of futsal for player development. The improvements in players' skills and tactical awareness were obvious. More importantly, all of this was happening while the kids were truly having fun.
We know we need to do more of this. Since our winter futsal programs ended, all we hear from players and parents is, "We want more!" and "When will futsal training open again?" Making this happen is difficult. The biggest problem is that there are no dedicated futsal facilities in our area and it is a battle to reserve gym space at schools and community centers. Its a constant battle as we compete with basketball and volleyball programs and other indoor sports. We will keep at it though!
Eagleclaw Futsal represents our commitment to increase the role of futsal in our players' year round training regimen. We view futsal as critical to holistic development. In the coming weeks, we will announce summer futsal programs designed to get players more involved with this game. And within one or two years we expect futsal to be at least a one-day-per-week component of our players' training in the Primary Academy.