I have been around the game of soccer in the US, first as a player, then as a coach and administrator for over 40 years. I have probably learned more and have seen the game advance more by a factor of 2 or 3 times in the last 10-12 years than in the 20 preceding years.
As part of a large club with about 40 teams that compete regionally, I have the opportunity to train, coach and watch a lot of soccer across both boys and girls from about 4 years old to 18. I have noticed over the last 2 years that for the most part, very few teams or players for that matter, are good in the air at all. When I look at all of the teams that I train or coach, the only players that are dangerous in the air are the players on my 2000 Boys team. When I point out the poor air play to other coaches, I rarely get an opposing view.
This is what I think we did to ruin this part of soccer, from about 2008-2010 or so, all of the experts said that sports specialization was critical and that players needed to pick a sport. The prevailing thought was that Soccer in the US is behind the rest of the World because the athletes are playing too many sports. The players that are about 2001 and older were 9 to 10 years old at the time but still played football, baseball, basketball etc and developed their hand eye coordination. That ability to catch and throw also required them to understand how to track the ball, we routinely scored goals on headers from crosses and corner kicks when those same 2000/2001 players were U11, U12 etc. To me, it seems like a large majority of players born about 2002/3 or later probably didn’t play a lot of other sports, if they did, it was likely organized, they probably didn’t play pick up football, wiffle ball, playground hoops or even throw rocks (snowballs) at each other. I find it crazy how many kids cannot throw or catch a F’ing ball these days.
And US Soccer just took heading out of the game for 11 and under. As a safety concern, it is a good thing, but as someone who’s focus is on player development, it could contribute to my argument.
In the last year or two, early sports specialization is suddenly bad and multi sport athletes are back in favor. As an educator in the sport, I have a lot of go-to articles that I keep handy when I am trying to support an argument with players, parents and fellow coaches. I recently sent a response to an article written by a highly credentialed and respected authority on youth soccer, who is a good twitter follow (I wont call him out and will protect the unknowing). His article was about the importance of multi sports participation. My comments included a link to an article that he wrote in 2009 supporting specialization which essentially said that US Soccer is behind because too many kids are playing too many sports. The original article said that our young athletes are not specialized enough and are behind developmentally as a result. So my question was really…which is it? He did not respond by the way because I asked if this is supporting the argument that eggs are good for you, no they are bad for you, wait no, they are good for you. Perhaps if I took a less sarcastic tone, I may have elicited a response…perhaps not.
The point of all of this is that everything is seemingly coming full circle. We have coaches, trainers and administrators who are working hard to stay current and follow best practice guidelines in an effort to advance the game. Collectively, it would seem that we are doing a pretty good job overall. But back to my original question and title of this article. “Do we really know what we are talking about?” It would seem that we have a generation of very good athletes who have selected soccer as their primary sport who are actually, not very good athletes when you consider that while they may be able to juggle a soccer ball 100s of times, they couldn’t juggle 3 tennis balls. The lack of reps of throwing, catching, avoiding and tracking a ball, rock or frisbee has corresponded to players who struggle judging the flight of the ball to effectively get the ball under control or win the ball in the air.
This is not intended to be a debate about specialization vs Multi-Sport. It is really an observation that the prevailing thoughts of the day may be causing unintended consequences in the future. Will the current multi-sport benefits of injury prevention, cross-sport training and the creation of more rounded athlete result in better soccer players 5 years from now or will be blame multi-sports on the then current state of US Soccer? I suppose that time will only tell. Who knows what will be said about eating eggs.
For the record, I have no answer for why kids just don’t play outside anymore where they have fun, get tons of reps and develop all kinds of skills in the process. Not just physical skills but organizational, leadership, conflict resolution and how to take a hit to name a few. Another topic for another day.
Thanks for Reading.