I think Johan Fallby-as is on to something big! He's asking and answering a crucial question: What is the best environment for youth player development? These are meaty issues that cut right to the core of how youth soccer programs (or any youth sport program, for that matter) should be structured and operated.
From his unique position as Sports Psychologist for Danish soccer club Copenhagen FC, Fallby works on a daily basis with talented footballers reaching the highest levels of the game. A major part of his job is working with Copenhagen's first team and providing tools and support to help players sustain peak performance amidst the pressures of competing to win. But Johan also works with Copenhagen's School of Excellence and FCK 2, which are the club's youth and reserve team, giving him a unique perspective on youth player development.
Refreshingly, Fallby's ideas begin with his objective: As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible. In one simple phrase, he captures what should be the goal of every youth soccer program and how they should measure success.
Development is a journey. It requires patience. And its never a straight line. Kids develop differently and at different rates. So, train them all, create an environment that keeps them loving the game and learning and don't count any of them out. This is hard, revolutionary stuff! After all, most American youth soccer clubs are built to do exactly the opposite. Try-outs keep exclude many kids, and those who make the cut today train in a pressure-packed environment makes winning games the ultimate goal and players .
"With regard to soccer even during the early teenage years, we cannot predict who is going to be the best. Many things start to happen and it is not until after 20 years of age do we find out who has survived the journey to elite level. That is ten years, plus the glorious years of child football!"
Fallby believes two major pieces must come together to form the ideal youth development program. First, there must be a "motivational climate", which depends greatly on the social integration of "organizational systems", These organizational systems include family, team, sporting organizations, governing bodies, communities and cultures. All of these systems intersect snd interact to determine the enivronment in which a player finds themselves. How they interact and shape the developmental environment should not be underestimated. We can positively improve some of these systems. Others, like governing bodies, are extraordinarily difficult to change.
For Fallby, its all about the environments we create. All creatures, including youth soccer players, thrive in favorable environments and suffer in unfavorable environment. So, what kind of environment should we have for youth soccer players. Fallby advocates for a climate of self-determination and motivation, which essentially is one where players are provided proper training aimed at developing them as individuals, where the player has a greater role in deciding how far they will develop, and that is complemented by a supportive and encouraging network or parents and coaches. The environment feels relaxed, safe and inspiring.
"People in all environments confuse growing children and youth sport with professional adult sport. It should be remembered that it takes tremendous effort to become an elite athlete. This should be respected, you do not rush it. Those who work long-term and are persistent increase their opportunities."
None of this is about eliminating competitiveness, but it is about eliminating the competitiveness of adults regarding youth sports. According to noted sports scientist, Richard Bailey, "….there is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programs operate. Until very recently, talent development programs were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults. Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programs are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions.”
And its critical that parents do their part as well. Too often, parents project their own needs and desires onto youth soccer clubs and in the process do significant damage to the development journeys of children. Are you the parent that is focused on your child playing on the most winningest team, with the most competitive kids and in the most competitive league? Why? According to Fallby, "there should not be a focus on results. In fact the opposite. For the purpose of development, it is best if parents do not engage in comparing their child with others. Each child has their own individual development curve and the most important thing is that as early as possible we help create a climate that can develop the child’s self-determination and motivation."
Change is difficult, but its not impossible. There are progressive youth soccer clubs that are creating environments more conducive for player development. There are even some governing bodies that are going beyond environment to tackle the problem of premature exclusion of youth players, that stunts the development of so many promising players. For example, two of Sweden's 24 football districts, Skåne and Halland, have abolished their district teams. A Swedish Football District is roughly equivalent to Washington Youth Soccer and other state soccer associations in the U.S., and Swedish district teams are roughly equivalent to American Elite Player Development (EPD) and Olympic Player Development (OPD) teams. According to Johan Johqvist, Chairman of Halland District Football Association, “We took this decision for the sake of the children, it was a very easy decision. Our mission is not to exclude children and young people. We have a wide mandate and that is to protect football in Halland." Daniel Oredsson, Zone Leader for Skåne, described their decision as "based on the idea of avoiding exclusion."
Iceland's Football Association is already reaping rewards from its inclusive youth development program, implemented on a national scale.
Here in the U.S., we should be talking more about creating proper and ideal environments for development, and resisting the policies of exclusion that drive far too many kids away from the game at far too young an age. Let's aim for the ideal: as many as possible, as long as possible, in the best environment possible.