Prioritizing Youth Development

When developing youth players you are helping the players improve their decision making and the executions of these decision in the context of football. Now, for some reason this is not something that everyone seams to understand and as a result there are youth players all over the world doing a lot of strange things besides playing football in training. In this post the subject of training with multiple groups/teams during a single training week will be looked at. In some countries there is a ’quantity discussion’ since they are prioritizing different external interests instead of developing football players that we will shortly discuss before moving on to the non-existing quality discussion.

Imagine going to the gym in the morning to lift weights and then going back to the gym after work repeating the session, will you be 100% recovered from the morning when you start the session after work? Of course not, this is impossible due to the muscle damage (more or less) picked up in the morning. You may feel ’not tired’ when you start your after work session, but you felt more fresh in the morning. For football players, this means that when the players train twice a day, they arrive to the second session without being fully recovered from the morning session. They start the second session fatigued, more or less. When this fatigue accumulates over time, odds are the body of the player will at some time step in and protect the player from its surroundings through injury or illness that gives the player time to rest and recover. It is important to remember that it’s not normal to become injured or ill, even though it seams like too many football coaches think so.

Given these facts it’s obvious that you should only train football once a day, so the burn-out problem in youth players is mostly solved. But let’s zoom out from the now settled ’quantity discussion’ and look at the effects of the quality of football development. What is the consequence for youth players when they train with two or more sets of team-mates (other players) and multiple coaches on different days in the same week? What happens when a player is training one session with one group of players and the next day trains with another group of players? Are these two groups who contain different players using the exact same playing style and therefore the tactical reference is the same in both groups? Or might there be a difference in the tactical reference (the playing style) from one group to the other which means that the job of the player might be vastly different even when playing in the same position in both groups?

This example of potentially different tactical references visualizes the fact that communication between players and their interpretation of the surroundings will be compromised when training with different groups of players one day after the other. Just imagine that you are playing in a central midfield role with one group and developing certain habit patterns and behaviors that make you a very successful player in this surrounding. However, these same habits and behaviors turn out to be counterproductive or even unacceptable in the second group you are training with. If your behavior on game day is the one learnt from the ’wrong’ group you will perform worse than you could’ve done otherwise. As a youth player this poor performance might lead you to think that you are not able to perform at this level and you might end up on the bench as a result. This makes the negative thinking spiral and ’thinking that you can’t do it’ might soon be a common thought in games and trainings. The question you have to ask yourself as a player is if you are only wasting your time in these trainings or if you are actually becoming a worse player?

Now you may be thinking that we have a problem with this picture, and this is before we have  covered the fact that all players in these different groups are different individuals who have their own personal non-verbal communication (body language) and decision making. So even if these two groups were to use exactly the same tactical reference, there could be other problems, so let’s look at a couple of examples of what could happen. Imagine being the central midfielder again, in the one group you would have a right winger who comes towards you wanting to receive the ball in the feet. However, when the right winger of the second group comes towards you it is to drag the defender out, turn and get the ball in the space behind. Now imagine a striker in the first group who has a defender on the right side and calls for the ball, wanting to receive it to the left. The striker in the second group, being in the same position with a defender to the right wants to receive the ball in front to use their body to turn the defender away and go the other way. Could this lead to miscommunication between you and your team-mates and as a result some ’bad passes’ in the game on Saturday?

These two groups may be different teams in one club, it could be club and regional team, club and school programs or any other variant with different groups. The problem is the same in each scenario. As a consequence of continually exposing players to different groups during the training week, the decision making of youth players are being underdeveloped. When the surrounding is constantly changing from day to day the level of communication between players is lower and the information required to make good decision is less. When you add things like growth spurt and hormonal changes with the effects on the thinking of youth players into the mix you will probably agree that this practice by adults, constantly changing the surroundings for these youth players, is irresponsible at best.

Creating a safe environment for youth players should be of the highest priority for all coaches. An environment where the player can think about their football actions and improving their decision making instead of thinking about who they will play with, what pitch to train on, what color shirt to wear today and what coach to listen to. This does not mean that a player should never train with a second group to test that level, however constantly changing groups and/or teams from day to day may not be very smart.

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