This article about how the approach to coaching soccer in Belgium may have contributed to their success at this year’s World Cup is a good read.
I especially like the following two points:
Point #6: Winning Doesn’t Matter
We don’t have league tables until the Under-14 level. That was one of the big battles for us. Coaches shouldn’t be concerned about tables and trying to win trophies before this age – they should be thinking about developing players.
Coaches are inclined to focus on winning the game. That makes them play the big, strong players who give them the best chance of winning, so the late developers end up on the bench 75% of the time.
I agree. Team wins at young ages are poor predictors of future success and can be achieved in ways that do not make kids better at soccer.
While ‘4v4 to get more touches’ sounds good in theory, in reality the two fastest kids get 80% of the touches and the other 6 kids chase them.
While team wins don’t matter at young ages there, in Point #2 the author describes what type of winning does matter in Belgium and how it matters (bold added):
Kids want to play football in their own way, not the way adults want to play. If you put a child on an adult’s bicycle, they’ll say, “are you crazy?” But this is what happens in football, we ask them to play 11 v 11 or 8 v 8 at a very young age. They are not able to do it.
As a child, how did you start playing? In my case, it was with my brother, playing 1 v 1 at home, in the garden, in the garage, dribbling and scoring.
We created a format that is tailor made for this. We put one player in the goal and one on the pitch and at five, six years old, they play 1 v 1 with the goalkeeper and they adore it. They have a lot of touches, a lot of scoring opportunities. It’s all about that fun environment and fun means scoring goals.
They play two halves of three minutes, then they go to the next pitch. The winner goes to the left and the loser to the right. After one or two games they’ll be playing against a similar level of opponent and everyone scores goals, everyone wins games, which makes it fun.
They may be onto something.
1v1 skills — both attacking and defensive — are so important for team success.
1v1’s is a great way to simplify the game for young kids, while also building skills that will help later on.
Plus, winning still matters! But, it’s just used to sort the kids to face like competition.
I can imagine this has several benefits in addition to what he described above.
Players stand on their own results. Those results also provide clear and direct feedback for kids and parents.
For example, average players can’t mistake the successes of their advanced teammates as their own.
Parents can’t shift blame for poor results to teammates, nor can they complain that their child is playing in the wrong position, not getting enough play time or not getting enough chances to score.
This also makes it easier for kids to figure out what to work on at home. In a full team environment, there are so many things to work on, it can be overwhelming.
Does this answer the participation trophy debate?
I think this also sheds light on the mistake made by Participation Trophy advocates.
What they get right is that team records are not helpful at young ages.
What they get wrong is what to reward. They reward showing up. Showing up does not build fundamentals.
The approach used by Belgium above rewards building fundamentals.
Fitting this into my player development model.
Here I recommended kids gain competence in 5-a-side before graduating to 11v11.
The Belgium approach makes me think I missed a step.
Maybe the steps in the competitive ladder should be:
- Soccer starts at home. See Tom Byer.
- 1v1+GK competitions
Ages shouldn’t matter. Competency should be what progresses players through the steps. I see a lot of kids who get interested in soccer at 10 or 12, but have a hard time finding a spot on a team because they need too much work on the basics relative to kids who started younger. This progression would solve that.
If you’re new to soccer, whether your 6, 14 or 42, start with home practice, a lot of 1v1’s, then 5-a-side before moving on to 11v11.