Youth Soccer

Youth soccer: We’re doing it wrong, Part 2

Scott Pugh continues his series discussing some of the important problems facing youth soccer (between the ages of about 5-13). Much of the ideas and content are derived from the work of click here.


What exactly do I mean by talent? While the orgin is nebulous, I think most would agree that the result of talent manifests as the ability to accomplish a certain set of specific and difficult skills at a very high level.

Let me tell you a little secret about talent:

You’re not born with it.

The erroneous belief that some kids just have it, and others don’t, is what leads to so many of the mistakes we make with youth soccer. While it is true that there are small genetic differences that may give some children a slight advantage over others, this contribution does not determine, or even contribute significantly, to future success.

I’ve never met an infant who can play Mozart, solve quadratic equations, or juggle a soccer ball.

If talent was inborn, then why are the majority of Canadian hockey players born in the first few months of the year, as pointed out by Malcom Gladwell in Outliers?

If abilities, like speed, were simply the result of the blending of your parents’ genes, then why are the top seven most recent world record holders in the 100-meter dash all born towards the end of the birth order in their families?

If greatness was a fleeting stroke of good fortune, then how is it possible that the poor, single-court Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow can produce more world number-one players than the entire United States?

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle answers many of these questions as he investigates talent hotbeds across the globe that produce incredibly, disproportionately high volumes of talent.

What’s the secret?


As the original work by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericson found, most of those who we would consider to be gifted with tremendous talent have typically needed at least 10,000 hours of practice to achieve their mastery.

But that’s not the whole story. As Coyle explains, talent derives from deep, focused practice in those who are passionate and guided by master coaches. The scientific mechanism of skill acquisition is now understood in a revolutionary way.

The revolution is built on three simple facts. (1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fiber. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases the signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes the circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

It seems obvious then with respect to soccer that the more time a child spends with a ball at their feet, the better they will become. But to maintain that level of practice, children must be motivated, and that is the trick.

The motivation to continue to practice deeply depends fundamentally on the child’s enjoyment of the activity. The more interested in, and passionate about, soccer a child is, the more they will push themselves to improve.

There is a sweet spot in learning where this mechanism of myelin wrapping circuits is at its best. A critical component of quality practice does not come from rote repetition of easy skills, but rather from pushing the boundaries of one’s current abilities. Each time a mistake is made in deep practice, the brain assesses the circuits used in the skills and rewards the circuits that are getting in right.

As Coyle points out, the people in these talent hotbeds are purposefully seeking out activities that are difficult where they are making lots and lots of mistakes. They take their time, focus on their errors, and repeat the process until the mistakes begin to disappear and the correct movements fire more effeciently.

Mistakes are the currency of learning

This sweet spot of myelin remodeling in the brain is supported by the 100-year-old Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal. Typically represented by an inverted-U line graph, it shows that initially, as arousal (motivation, stress, etc.) increases, so does performance. But only up to a point. As stress increases beyond this “sweet spot,” performance quickly declines. More recent research into glucocorticoids (stress hormones) has confirmed that as blood levels of these stress hormones increase, new memory formation declines.

Children are not tiny adults. They are not motivated by the same factors we are, and they do not experience stress in the same way we do. What many adults fail to realize is that their sweet spot for performance is often much lower on the stress scale than it is for us. So what’s the most important ingredient for motivation in childhood?


As soon as children perceive an activity to no longer be fun, their learning declines. As NSCAA Soccer Journal Editor, Dr. Jay Martin, points out, “The number one reason they stop playing is that they are no longer having fun. That is a real problem.”

For a child to improve their skills and abilities, they must willingly submit themselves to the possibility of failure. This will only happen in an environment that is free of excess pressure, embarrassment, and ridicule. Enjoyment of the sport is critical for development.

As Giovanni Trapattoni, the most successful coach in the history of Italy’s Serie A, put it, “If we have to deprive a player of the right to make mistakes, then we’d best hang up everything and go home.”

In the next section, we will examine how competition and, more specifically, focusing on winning, can inhibit this essential type of learning. Later in the series, we’ll discuss how these vital ideas concerning talent affect issues such as tryouts, coaching styles, tournaments and more.


  1. Interesting. Thats why we need to find talented coaches who played the game at a pretty high level……………with education degrees. And pay them respectively for it. If the demand is starting to manifest itself……thats next logical step. Like the rest of the world. But there in lies part of the problem…………….it stops being fun for kids here because footy isn’t a religion to many families here as it is in the rest of the world. Kids live, breathe, and eat the game abroad………….only a minority do here. And they usually grow up in a household that has been passing it down generations or recently came here from a footy mad country.

    • This is entirely about culture.
      We can hope and hope- maybe someday emulate the Dutch version of producing skilled players, which we have yet to do even one time and when I say skill I mean world class- other than goalies as we do that pretty well. e have never once even gotten lucky with a world class player. Never.
      Football, panna, street play, small sided alley games this is a HUGE reason we lag behind- cause as soon as practice is over the PLAY stops too and kids put the ball away until mom and dad put them in the car til next practice- while in the rest of the world falls asleep hearing their name chanted in the Stadio Sao Paulo, plays keep upy till dark, plays in the street at the behest of homework or dinner, then if they are lucky plays FIFA Xbox during the rest of their free time.
      This is the reason so many kids around the country quite the game in adolescence. It is work for them.
      This is entirely about culture- as I am afraid that turning this game into a pay to play behemoth is not the solution.

      • exactly dude, kids don’t fall out of love for the game abroad because they leave their home and its all the kids are playing in the streets…….

  2. Very interesting read, Scott. Thanks. I have no real training, but when I was coaching younger kids my instincts – for whatever reason – told me some of this. I didn’t, for example, run drills. I played games. If I found a drill I liked in a book or on the internet I’d figure out a way to make a game out of it. Red Light, Green Light, for example, became a race from sideline to sideline requiring kids to control their ball, stopping them and the ball when I called out “red light.” The game was further altered by throwing in “U-Turn” as a command – to have them completely turn around and go the opposite direction.
    I also loathed drills/games that required kids to stand in line and wait their “turn.” Dribbling through cones – even if you tell them it’s a race – is the most boring-ass thing you can ask an 8-year-old to do, I think.
    Basically, kids want to play. I did know from Child Psych class in college that “play” is how kids learn, so I just took that to the field. (I did the same thing in basketball when I could.) Very glad to hear my instincts were right, at least a little bit.

    • That’s a great point, John. The argument I’ve made is that the second you tell a kid to stand still is the second you start to lose their attention. Whether that is to lecture them, or have them wait their turn.
      Keep them moving and keep them playing, and they will continue to have fun. The trick is to distract them from the fact that there is actual instruction happening while they are having fun.

    • 8 year old? Little Kickers has these drills for 2-3 year olds. Most academies in Europe start at U-8.

      • And? I was a volunteer coach who started doing it because nobody else stepped up. I wasn’t given a group of 2-3 year olds. I was given a group of 8-10 year olds (my first time coaching) – because that’s what age my kids were. At least half had never played before. At least half of the remaining kids had only played one year prior.
        I don’t care about academies in Europe. I cared about making sure the 22 or so kids (2 teams) that I had had fun and wanted to play again the next year, and maybe learned a little bit about the game and sportsmanship along the way.

      • John, its not personal….don’t take it that way. I commend you for getting out there and coaching. But honestly ask yourself: are these kids serious players if they’re doing this at 8 and 9 years old? And its ok if the answers no, I’m not putting down those kids or any kid for that matter. My point is…….kids who love the game, for whatever reason ( cultural, familial, etc.) are doing these things a whole lot younger than that……

      • and I know its crazy to ask this of 8 and 9 year olds…….but its a global reality. We could argue whether that is really healthy for youngsters all day long……

      • In the… *counts* … six years I’ve been coaching now, I have had one kid who I would say is a serious player. Two, if you count his buddy from his HS team that he dragged along for this past season. Not serious enough to be an academy player – I’d guess D2 or D3 college.
        I’ve had the gamut from that kid to several kids who couldn’t, proverbially, walk and chew gum at the same time. A few of my kids will likely play for the high school. (And note that in our town, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. The team went 4-10-4 last season.) Beyond that handful, the kids I’ve had are exactly the ones described in many of the other comments – the only time they’re touching a ball is when they’re at practice.
        It’s why I’m big on trying to instill a love of the game – even if just to watch it – along with teamwork and sportsmanship when I coach. I’m not coaching anybody who’s gonna be a pro; I’m not coaching anybody who’s gonna even play college ball. I’m coaching a motley crew of kids whose soccer moms signed them up because it’s what all the other soccer moms are doing with their kids. If they can have fun at practice once a week and at games, get some exercise, learn to handle defeat (and victory) with grace, learn how to help a teammate up rather than putting them down, and so on then I’ve had a good year.

      • amen dude.

      • I was on the opposite end…..I coached the 16-18’s who had to be at a pretty good level. Sent a bunch to DI, a few to the pro’s. What set them apart from the others… ethic, perfectionism, treating their bodies like temples, and they were students of the game, more than the others. Gave it up this year to raise and teach my own little ones. Thats why I probably have a different mindset. But, I’m most interested in the little ones now for numerous reasons, most importantly…to help my own develop.

  3. Great points, Scott. Fun being the source of motivation, and motivation resulting in touches is simple and important understanding.
    I’m sure you will move to this, but this is why practice should be game (not the game but competitive and fun actitivities) based rather than drill based, and why small side is one of the best games ever.

  4. I enjoy this series.
    I am inclined to disagree regarding talent. I do think many are born with talent. Talent can be God given and often is the result of genetics or predispositions. Skill on the other hand is entirely earned and the result of sweat equity. Skill is what sets one apart from another.

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      Was thinking the same thing, some kids are just more athleticly inclined just as some kids have an ear for music that others don’t. The hard works is what seperates the haves from the haves.

      • its have from have nots. Unfortunately our way of giving trophies for first through tenth place has manifested itself here, too. There is nothing wrong with a separating have and have nots, it is actually healthy…..the kid can move on to other things and learns to deal with adversity. Did I say adversity…………….sorry, we can’t have our kids deal with that in our entitled society.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        No, I meant the haves from the haves. I feel that kids are born with varying degrees of atleticism. The work is why some kids who were studs at 8 don’t turn out very good and why some kids who were studs at 8 stay studs.

      • Mules do not breed racehorses………….fact. You know, people peek athletically at different times……whether through genetics or hard work….and they all drop off or stay on and progress the up the pyramid. It happens everywhere………

    • Semantics. The article is saying great soccer players come from work. Talent or skill regardless.

    • Thanks, Joel. I enjoy your comments as well. As I said above, while I agree that their are some small differences that are innate (size, build, etc.), look to the example of birth order. Speed… traditionally considered to be a natural, God-given talent, doesn’t appear to be so when you look at the birth-order effect for world-class sprinters. On average, about 4th out of 5 kids. Why would this be? The genetics are the same for their older siblings. The answer is that from a very (VERY) young age, these later birth-order kids are firing their circuits for speed to catch up with their older siblings more often than their older siblings needed to.
      What about the Canadian hockey players. A majority born in the first three months of the year. Are you saying that they got to be professionals solely because they had it, while the kids born after March didn’t? Clearly, the answer is no. I’ll discuss it in more detail in a future post, but this is one of the biggest misconceptions about talent. The “nature vs. nurture’ argument is so heavily in favor of “nurture” when you look at the research. I urge you guys to be skeptical of your assumptions. There is plenty of good empirical evidence out there to say that you’re wrong on this idea.
      There is an argument about what age these differences become more permanent, and perhaps it is the activity during the early formative years (1~4) that actually set up many of the differences you see by the time kids start rec soccer.

      • So, the hockey player thing. My assumption would be that those players have the advantage because they’re just learning to walk during the winter months. And since they’re learning to walk they’re also learning to skate. Whereas a kid born in, say, October isn’t learning to skate until he’s 12-14 months old. Yes?

      • The theory is that in Canada, the cutoffs for age divisions is Jan 1st, so those born in Jan, Feb, Mar, tend to be bigger, faster, stronger and more mature, which then leads to more coaching attention, playing time, etc., eventually furthering the gap between the “haves and the have nots,” when in reality, all they had was age on their side.

      • yup, the kids born at the front of the year are a little bigger, stronger, and faster than the kids born a little later……….there is research about cognition and learning disabilities around the same thing.

      • Huh, interesting. Is there a similar effect in other sports? For example soccer (I believe) uses August 1st as the “rollover” date.

      • Sure does John. You would likely be hard pressed to see a serious travel team or developmental academy team with kids born in late summer right before the cutoff to the next age group. In soccer February-June birthdays are king.

      • I would say club yes, but the academies seem to trying to get the best of two age groups between each age level…….be it 13/14s, 15/16s, 17/18s……they have the better 15s on the 16s full academy team etc.

      • I appreciate you response Steve and included “predisposition” in my argument above to account for birth order, birth timing and the like..but you are correct- the science is growing for sure. I took the easy way out with not defining the nature of mthe predisposition. Your argument is a strong outlay and I agree whole heartedly with it.
        Skill is a quality of play that is the result of extreme dedication. Talent can be argued to be the same. For me I have always thought of talent and skill differently though not unrelated and define them differently with my own kids.

      • Talent is raw, skill is honed and crafted through time and hard work. Think The Bronx Tale when the dad tells his son: “the saddest thing in the world is wasted talent”.

      • Good call above regarding separating age groups by mid year. You are correct. YSC Union Academy does that at least for the Futures and Juniors I believe.
        I do as well feel talent is something that is a bit nebulous as Steve writes and also feel it is something more given. The dictionary defines it as natural aptitude. Either way, talent and skill are two ingredients- along with ganas (desire/want to), as Jamie Escalante preaches in, Stand and Deliver.

      • I think we need to reexamine how we are defining “talent”. In Jersey, traveling starts U-8/U-9. The majority of the clubs hold 3-5 tryouts which favor the more physically developed (i.e. bigger, faster or stronger) players at that given time. They then play with and against other more developed players, have more access to trainer, etc. End result, they develop faster as soccer players.

  5. The only thing I think makes a big difference that you can not teach is courage and a type of fearlessness That plus atheticism is the magic combination

    • I think there is some truth to that, the kids I’ve seen ascend the ranks all had athleticism……and an edge about them……didn’t matter if they were 5’7 or 6’4…….but they had a don’t $&@k with me attitude on the pitch!

      • An absolute loathing to be beaten or lose. That is why I made such a big deal about it in an article last week.
        Driven kids have a preternatural hatred to lose. I see this in my 3rd born of 4 all the time (5 years old), who not incidentally has uncanny powers of concentration and will &u@king shank you in the jugular to get the ball back when taken from him or fall into a puddle of tears when losing a game, which he doesn’t do very often. One more game dad. One more time juggling dad. I’m going to comb my hair like Messi and go practice dad. Dad give me Jam on It, by Newcleus to dribble to.
        Third born. Driven for attention and he knows I love the game so he is a smart boy as he tends to draw my attention towards him when playing, practicing or mucking around with a ball.
        All this mostly to Steve’s article points.
        oh and by the way, my 4th born will shank you in the jugular even when he has the ball for hatred of the notion of losing it….cause imagine how often the 3 year old gets a turn.

      • The Black Hand says:

        The “hatred” of losing is a double-edge sword, my friend. It is important to nurture a desire to win, while at the same time teaching kids to accept a loss (and figure out WHY they lost). If you get the “hate-to-lose” kids, they could be fucked once they do lose…and we all do, at some point.

      • Agree totally. Behaviors are always malleable. Honor and integrity first always. Mostly giving a gestalt of the situation.
        Considering my first two are passive and really could care less one way or the other if they win or lose at this point, I do like the fire in my other two.

      • Case in point: L. Suarez

      • The Black Hand says:

        You spelled Diego Costa wrong.

  6. Another thing, Mistakes under coaching supervision are much more damaging than mistakes made in unsupervised play. Thats were you can do stupid things without much consequence (maybe your teamate gets P.O d ) but thats also where you can try things without major impact. Players play much less creatively when they play in front of a coach.

  7. I’ve spent time doing the thing that some clubs do:
    Throw 6, 7, and 8 year olds onto a team, and then, a field the first day (when none of them have played before, ever) and tell them to play a game.
    The panic I saw in the eyes from some kids made me sick.
    I tried to get the (not to be named) club to change their approach. I was shut down. So, I fought for my convictions, and again I was shut down by a group of narrow minded people who cared more about their own legacy than the kids on the field. Parents who cared more about themselves than their kids, but claiming the reverse.
    So, I switched clubs. It is better but it seems that almost every local club has the same brain dead problems. Throwing kids on teams and having standings, etc., at the eariliest ages. It is an epidemic.
    I came up with a idea for ‘soccer recess’, I called it. Have kids show up and just play games all day long, but not group games, stuff like, soccer bowling, among other things that focused on ball touches and having fun. I was told I was crazy and couldn’t get funding for my idea.
    Now I’m still trying to see if I can get somewhere to try my idea still, but it is going to take some more years probably.
    Until youth sports stops being about the adults then I will not find support for my ideas. It doesn’t help that I have no monitary resources to just throw at my idea to see how it works. All the research, planning, and effort I put in will someday see the light of day, or I will die trying to see that the idea does at least get tried somewhere.
    Otherwise, most of youth sports is a cesspool of people who are looking to profit off of parents.

    • I have a group of kids (6,7,8) I call Cervantes Small Sided with the same intention. Pick up games mostly. It is even better when the sides are uneven as that is more to the reality of the game. Try not to ‘coach’ but have general principals for play like triangle or diamond lining up when the ball goes out of bounds- to promote order. Stole that from Youtube.

    • Steve H! You are hitting the nail on it’s big fat ugly head, my friend. You would be surprised that many parents actually feel the way you do, but are just misguided about what makes a club, “the best.” I would sign up for your proposed club in a heartbeat. The key is getting the message out, which is my whole motivation in writing this series. Please share these posts and I bet you will have more parents asking for soccer recess.

  8. The Black Hand says:

    Fantastic series of pieces, Spugger! I commend your efforts and look forward to the next.

  9. The Realist Brian says:

    For coaches, an amazing book is Mindset by Carol Dweck. Teaches growth mindset vs fixed mindsets in athletes, coaching and parenting. Truly awesome book.

  10. Scott: thank you for starting this very interesting discussion.

    For those who haven’t read it yet, I would strongly suggest adding ‘The Sports Gene’ to your reading lists. Here’s a quick summary from the publisher:

    “In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this timeless riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence. Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, in fact have important genetic components.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *