Pinpointing the single most crucial stage in player development is never clear-cut. Every player develops at a different pace and each youngster has a unique set of priorities at various times of their lives.
There is, however, a few constants throughout the lives of these players, and one of them is coaching. A coach, good or bad, can have a tremendous impact, good or bad, on a player, some lasting and some fleeting.
The role of the youth coach is crucial. The people entrusted with the lives of our youth are faced with a daunting responsibility. And that duty becomes perhaps even more intimidating when we define “youth” as the soccer players who represent the future of our country’s national team.
Are our coaches performing adequately? Without looking at it on a case-by-case basis, it’s impossible to say how the United States is doing. Looking at it from a national performance standpoint, it seems obvious that things are on the right track.
But it never hurts to take a step back and listen to what some of the experts have to say, and then measuring ourselves against their advice. We spoke at length with two men who know what they are talking about – former France national team coach Roger Lemerre and former Brazil national team coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Lemerre and Parreira have reached the top of their professions — Parreira coaching Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title, and Lemerre leading France to the Euro 2000 championship.
First, let’s look at motivation. Why do people coach youth soccer? What is their inspiration? Unfortunately, it seems, too many have themselves in mind.
“The most important thing is that he enjoys working with young kids,” said Parreira. “He has to do it because it is fun. You have to enjoy what you are doing because the kids will then enjoy it too. You can’t be doing it for awards and headlines. It is a very difficult job.”
Both Parreira and Lemerre agreed that the most important job of the youth coach is to make players better. Emphasis needs to be on technical development first and, actually, only. Sometimes, however, it is not. Athletic ability is often seen as a skill, or a necessity.
And then there are the coaches who are out for personal glory, or have a “better” job in their sights. The coach who puts winning above player development is all too common, but in France, at least, not tolerated. When asked what advice he would give to these coaches, Lemerre, had a quick answer.
“It’s sad,” he said through an interpreter. “You need to get out quickly or go hang yourself.
“You need to teach the player,” he added, growing animated as he continued. “As a coach you have to challenge your players and control your practice. You have to mold your players. When a coach thinks that just because he is winning he doesn’t have to develop players, that’s a real tragedy. In the long term, these players are not going to go far.”
Lemerre, however, was quick to add that winning should not be discounted.
“The goal of practice is the game,” he said. “The goal of the game is victory. You have to maintain the culture of victory but not at any price. In order to win, you have to be good technically and you have to respect the game. Those are the excuses of bad coaches.
“Obviously, results are not the main thing, but result makes the player better,” he added. “I have a saying, ‘You don’t feed yourself with losses; you feed yourself with wins.’”
A common theme in nearly everything Parreira and Lemerre spoke about was ball control. Parreira pointed out the relationship between the ball and the player in Brazilian culture. He first started in coaching as a physical trainer, and at the time, fitness and technique were separated in training sessions. He brought the two together, insisting that every fitness drill include the ball.
“The difference between young players in Brazil and the United States is that in Brazil, the ball belongs to the body; it is part of the body. We don’t struggle with the ball. The ball is integrated with the body. Players don’t panic when some comes to challenge them. I don’t think any other country will be as good as Brazil with this particular piece of the game
Lemerre explained the value of technique over athleticism in young players. In the 1970s, the French training centers put a premium on athleticism, believing the French were lagging behind the rest of the world in athletic ability. That soon changed.
“The priority is technique at that age,” he said. “Running is not important. Everything they do, they do with the ball.”
Both Lemmere and Parreira are high on structured training environments for youth run by qualified, high-level coaches. France has made an effort over the years to identify and train kids at younger and younger ages in the last two decades.
“The French Federation first started with training centers for 16-19 year olds,” said Lemerre. “Then they realized they needed to get the players at a younger age. So, they started a program for children 13-16. Now, they are about to start a program from 11-13 and they want to start one for seven to 11 year olds. We believe that the younger you get the players, the better they will become.”
Brazil is really no different, although the clubs run the training centers instead of the Federation. And, contrary to popular opinion, it’s at the training centers that kids learn the game
“It’s a legend that Brazilian players are formed in the streets,” said Parreira. “That’s not the case. All the Brazilian players are developed by the clubs. If you went to Brazil, you would see a lot of people playing in the street or on the beaches. It’s because they love to play football. But none of them are football players. They are just normal people playing football.”