Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: We’re Doing it Wrong, Part 3

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


When it comes to youth soccer clubs, ask yourself this question:

Is the primary focus on what the club can do for the young player, or what the young player can do for the club?

Unfortunately in the US, our cultural beliefs idealize winning as the sole marker of success. As Mairs and Shaw note, many clubs are driven by an “insatiable appetite for winning, instantaneous gratification, and a premature focus on what is best for the team instead of focusing on the development of each individual player.” A quick perusal of the majority of local clubs’ websites — plastered with photos of their teams holding trophies, boasting of goals totals for elementary school kids — will confirm this observation.

Parents, believing that these clubs must be doing a good job, are happy to drive their children great distances and freely open their wallets to provide the best opportunities possible. What they fail to realize is that this culture of winning can have a significant negative impact not only on their children’s enjoyment of the sport, but ultimately on their development as well. It is a vicious cycle that pushes clubs to advertise their trophies rather than their retention and improvement of players’ abilities.

In their publication Foundations of Sports and Exercise Psychology, Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould explain that the critical factors contributing to early withdraw from sports are a lack of enjoyment, excessive pressure, and an overemphasis on winning. In fact, if you ask young soccer players for reasons why they enjoy playing soccer, “winning” isn’t even in the top ten most common answers. As adults, we hijack their experience to satisfy our own purposes.

All too frequently, games represent the “big stage” and are overhyped by parents and coaches. For instance, listen to pre-game “pep-talks” and you’ll too often hear coaches saying things like: “This team is really good, you guys are going to have to bring your A-game if you want to beat them.” Or, “Remember, if we don’t play smart out there, they’re going to punish us.” Or, “If you don’t work hard, I’m going to sub you out.” Or, “Last time we played them, they beat us on a bad penalty call. We owe them this time!”

The great majority of young soccer players already want to do their best – they don’t take the field with the plan of playing poorly. The research is clear that these types of pre-game talks actually inhibit young players’ performances by pushing them beyond their “sweet spot” level of arousal.

As we discussed in the last post, the optimum environment for learning occurs when the brain is pushed just beyond its comfort zone. However, in an overly pressured, competitive environment, tension and anxiety build to the point that performance, fun and learning suffer. In soccer, children need to have the freedom to be courageous and try new skills they have not yet mastered. They need to exercise their circuits that allow them to think creatively and develop their own on-field problem solving. Instead, the pressure placed on them by adults to produce a win shapes their play into avoidance of mistakes as the primary goal rather than accomplishing difficult feats.

The pressure doesn’t end with the final whistle. Many coaches sit players down for extend periods to go over their individual mistakes and what they could have done to win the game. Further, parents continue this dissection in the parking lot and car ride home. Children are clear that these post-game assessments do nothing but suck the last drops of fun from their experience.

What do players like Maradona, Gerrard, Messi, Ronaldo, and Suarez have in common with each other and so many other soccer greats? During their early soccer careers, they all regarded a soccer ball as a toy, rather than a tool. The street ball environment of mixed ages and abilities, without coaches, parents and trophies, allowed these youngsters the freedom to be creative. By having fun, they were happy to play for hours and hours without getting burned out. Research on elite athletes confirms that these champions only began to approach competition from a more serious perspective in their later stages of development (often as teenagers).

What is the purpose of games then, if not winning?

Games at this stage of development should be used primarily for learning. This is not just the musing of one idealistic pediatrician. It is supported by elite soccer clubs and coaches throughout the world. Well-informed coaches realize that success is not equivalent to winning. Studies on top-level youth academies in England showed that “Despite the elite nature of the programs, winning was de-emphasized; no scores or league positions were kept. The focus was on improving and developing individual players rather than the team’s win/loss record.”

As Dean Whitehouse, a youth coach at Manchester United, puts it:

It is crucial that everyone understands that games should be utilized for learning, and players feel that they have the freedom to express themselves. We realize that the final score is not as important as learning at this moment. If young players are pressured to win every time they step on the field, they will not receive the opportunities that are vital to their development, nor will they feel confident about practicing and implementing new skills or ideas.

This is how elite coaches approach games. Their egos are tough enough to accept a losing record in favor of a win for their players’ development. Even though many coaches in the US understand this sentiment, the cultural pressure to perform is too great, and they resort to quick fixes for short-term results.

Games provide children powerful opportunities for learning and enjoyment of soccer. If we want players to continue their involvement in soccer and unlock their potential, we must use games for learning. When clubs place an emphasis on winning as the ultimate goal, children bear the burden of adult egos at the cost of their own personal development.

Next week, we’ll begin to examine some specific examples of how these ideas play out from the perspective of parents and coaches on the sidelines.


  1. pretty true on all points. This just further emphasizes the need for academies from ages 8-12. I’ve heard the next progression of the DA is U-12. But every part of me thinks that this is too old to start proper development. U-8 and U-9 academies that emphasize time on the ball, fun, cognitive development, nutrition, and yes tactical movement and progressions……..they will get it, as the author suggests…..positive stress. Matches shouldn’t be results driven at this age, but confidence driven. Give the kids a match every now and again to test what they have learned and build confidence…..thats all. U-13, results start to matter. Here we go………..

    • Dead Solid Perfect- just like the 5 iron I hit at Torrey last week.

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:


    • my wife thinks I’m nuts to ask 8 and 9 year olds to enroll in academies for footy, lol! So please, if you disagree….I have had this conversation before.

      • More like Moons Over My Hammy for my taste.
        You are not nuts at all. Organized setting with spectacularly credentialed teachers teaching the best players in a given area the right way to play the game.
        The rest of the time street ball and pickup.

      • I could never order that at Denny’s with a straight face………….would lose it every time!

  2. Welcome to America where winning is always the metric.
    anyway…..aren’t they all just festivals now? We don’t play in needless tourney after tourney anymore.
    Tongue in cheek. Wink Wink.
    A win isn’t as important in a festival. I mean hell, you get the pink miniature rhinoceros just for popping a balloon with a dart now- not the Spongebob Squarepants doll but at least the rhinoceros.

  3. The Realist Brian says:

    The simple fact is we don’t play enough soccer in this country. And kids that age should be doing it for fun, and learning at the same time.

    • +1
      The article says it all, “What do players like Maradona, Gerrard, Messi, Ronaldo, and Suarez have in common with each other and so many other soccer greats? During their early soccer careers, they all regarded a soccer ball as a toy, rather than a tool. The street ball environment of mixed ages and abilities, without coaches, parents and trophies, allowed these youngsters the freedom to be creative. By having fun, they were happy to play for hours and hours without getting burned out.”

      It’s a cultural thing in the US, unfortunately. I think the time before Academies is crucial. The street ball or pick-up environment with mixed ages and abilities is the best starting point for the game….

  4. Excellent stuff Scott.

  5. Growing up in Olney- you could play pickup basketball and football and even street hockey, but not soccer. We had one game that we organized weekly, but I wanted to play everyday but I couldn’t. Soccer, we had a game on Saturday, and a practice midweek. In the practice, we might not scrimmage.
    I’d like to see more infrastructure but I don’t know if that’s key as much as getting more kids playing for longer-
    The way academies are right now, they have only a small chance of actually training our next national teamers- it’s pay to play, and getting into one is based on a tryout that some will hear of, others will not.
    Brazil and Germany are consistently the best national teams and its really easy to see that they have the largest soccer playing population in the world.
    We actually have more people but we have better loved sports. Consider though, that kids who play basketball and football get to play countless games where even when they don’t win they participated in a good play. No parents are there.
    More soccer pickup for the younguns.

    • And, as the article says, treat the games like pickup. The spectacle.

    • I’m surprised by that Ken, I know that kids grew up street playing in Bridesburg, Kenso, and Fishtown……thought that was always cool about those neighborhoods growing up….still do. I thought Olney was kind of the same……….they always had a few really good ballers coming out of there when I was growing up.

  6. The so-called research referenced to in this article is very suspect. As the president of a soccer club, I can unequivocally state that parents are not a monolith. There are well-balanced, over-the-top, hardly-interested and all colors of the spectrum in between. For recreational soccer, everyone plays equally and there are fewer problems. For competitive soccer, at the ages of U11 and older, playing time is not equal. While we first strive for enjoyment, effort and sportsmanship, competitive soccer is geared for individual development, team development and winning. Consistently losing to one’s closest rivals usually results in players migrating to those rivals. In other words, parents – some, not all – are the driving force towards winning. If a club consistently loses its best players because their teams lose games, the club will eventually fold or become irrelevant. In the USA, players can more easily move between clubs. Hockey is different. USA Hockey imposes geographic monopolies, forcing players to play with a club based on their address. The only way to switch clubs is to move.

    • I also run a soccer club. I encounter many of the same difficulties you do, but the point of this series is to change the culture. When I communicate well with our parents about objectives, philosophy and intent, they are much less antsy to chase a winning team. The U10 team I’m coaching just came off a difficult season as far as W-L, but the kids and the parents can all see the growth and the learning. We are picking up another very talented kid because we’re finding parents who are seeking that sort of environment for their child. We have kids who are currently a little undersized because the win-driven clubs are packed with big kids/August birthdays. Club by club, we need to grow more comfortable with a long-term approach that is built on good communication and clear goals.

    • Matt and Brendan. Thank you both for your input. As I stated in the first part of the series, I am new to the youth soccer world as a parent, but as a pediatrician do have decent knowledge of the research. I’m not sure what you consider suspect, Matt. I don’t disagree that there are a large variety of parent attitudes, and absolutely agree with Brendan, that one of my purposes for writing this series is to try to get parents more informed so that clubs don’t feel this constant pressure to win at young ages. Again…I ask you this important question Matt:
      Is your club focused on what it can do for the young player, or what the young player can do for your club?
      Please stay engaged in the series. I really do appreciate the viewpoint of of you guys that run clubs, because as I said, I am definitely not experienced in that arena.

      • Here is an example of suspect research. Dean Whitehouse is quoted. Fine, he has his opinion and he also has some of the best players in all of England. To extrapolate his one quote and state, “This is how elite coaches approach games.” is misleading. Other coaches were not quoted. These was no research cited that indicates elite coaches approach games in this manner.

        Another area of suspect research is when it is stated that “winning” does not come up in the top 10 when kids state what they like about soccer. I would really like to see how this research was conducted. We all know about push-polling and contrived questions. I ask a similar question at every team meeting we have, “Why do you play soccer?” The number 1 answer is “fun”. Winning is probably second or third. Then I get responses like ‘improve’ or ‘get better’ or ‘learn sporstmanship’. Winning not making it in the top 10 is suspect.

        My pre-game talks consist of (1) announcing a starting line-up, (2) emphasizing things we’ve gone over in practice, (3) identifying strengths of the other team, (4) noting field conditions and (5) motivation. Motivation usually consists of imploring the kids to work their hardest, communicate, push through adversity and play smart. I may even tell them they have the talent to beat any team placed on the field against them. In the end, our opponents are not our enemies, just our opponents with whom we will shake hands with after the game.

        I once asked a passionate English-born DOC if he cared about “results” with the teams he coached. He said he was looking for development, improvement and style of play. Winning was secondary. I asked him about England and the World Cup; if they showed improvement and the correct style of play. He said he didn’t care if the ball went off their bum after they tripped over their shoe laces … just so they won!

      • I like Johan Cruyff’s philosophy regarding winning versus development. He is quoted, I believe, saying the other team should be thought of as a puzzle or riddle to be solved more than an opponent to be beaten.

      • I see your point, but I can quote you and endless stream of other elite coaches and academies across Europe and assure you they approach development the same as Dean Whitehouse. I can also give you a list of a dozen or more research papers on the subject that are evidence-based and peer-reviewed. You can even see the same advice from our own elite US coaches in Sam Snow and Claudio Reyna. Very similar philosophy.

      • In case you missed the link above – there are plenty more studies like this:

  7. Those who think the Academies is the solution should better check on the kids currently enrolled in the Academies. I hear most do not enjoy soccer anymore and see it more as a job. I also have an issue with the Academies making so much noise recently of all the kids they got into D1 Colleges. Big deal: that happened before when Academies were not yet in existence. The original point of the Academies was to make a better US National team, that meant to get more kids into pro teams straight from the Academies; w.r.t. this the Academies still have a long way to go. It is also interesting to note that one Maryland College that was composed of mainly non-Academy players made it recently into the NCAA Quarter-Finals and upset quite a few ‘academy’ College teams along the way.
    My sons have their rooms stacked with medals and trophies and were in (non-Academy) teams that were nationally ranked and were very competitive. This had not ‘burned’ them out and they always enjoyed playing pickup games without coaches when they had a chance. They made friends for life (going to tournaments and spending so much time with team mates at practice, etc.) and they now play in College and have obtained grants to reduce the college cost. So all is not bad with competitive teams!!!

    • I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all is bad with competitive teams. Simply that you must have a balance, and that the development of the player long-term should trump the need for immediate results. Also, I believe a lot of “development academies” in the US are still focused on winning first which is why those kids aren’t enjoying it.

    • It is the parents like Guido who you hear from when trying to change the culture. The parents you rarely hear from are the kids who quit the game because it is set up for adults mainly.
      Having watched kids quit at very young ages because it wasn’t fun is one of the reasons that I’ve been on the change the culture bandwagon.
      We get it, some kids benefit under the current system, but a lot more quit because the system is failing them. Every article on here about those other kids who quit is met with you saying that it was great for your kids.
      We get it, really we do, some kids benefit, good for you kids, really, good for them.
      Problem is, a lot of kids play one year and leave because they went to a program that promotes winning as the goal of youth sports and they rarely kick a ball because they are not big, or fast, or aggressive at age 7, or 8. We lose a lot of future talent because of that situation.

      • The problem is that a lot of parents let the kids quit when kids have no clue. These days my kids thank me that I forced them to do certain things such as stick with what they started (soccer, violin, swimming, etc.).
        Let me tell you another thing: I grew up partially in Holland and wish my parents had ‘forced’ me to play soccer. Instead I played Badminton (which I ‘thought’ I enjoyed at the time) and played some street soccer now and then. But I only started to play serious soccer in HS after I came here at 15. Then played (a bit) at Penn but have played in soccer matches all over the world (I was even the only white player on a team in Nigeria!).
        So instead of defending the kids that quit write more about the parents who let them quit. These days I hear young adults tell me more and more “I wish my parents had forced my to do this or that whilst I grew up”.

      • We will just go ahead and disagree about how forceful parents should be about certain things in life.
        I’ve been watching kids quit intramural soccer for years. I have dealt with the aggressive parents. I have had conversations about how to placate parents with the parents.
        There are problems with youth sports and it is because the adults make it so that parents have to force their kids to play. Something just sounds utterly silly about your logic to me.
        I would rather make it so that kids want to show up instead of making it so that they are forced to show up.
        So we can forever disagree.

      • In a sense it is good that Guido’s point of view is out there.
        It is the number one point of view that I have been fighting against for years. It is also mentioned above by the guys helping run soccer clubs.
        Parents want standings, wins, and losses. They are paying the bill, so the soccer clubs feel responsible to do what the parents want, even if it is not in the best interests of most of the kids.
        What this really boils down to for me is that the people who benefit from this current system will say it is great. The people who walk away do not say anything. Their kid just stops playing.
        I would email parents and ask them, why is your child not playing. The overwhelming response is that it was not fun. The system set up was not fun for their child.
        There should be a system that works for more kids without forcing them to play. But Guido’s opinion is the #1 opposition opinion of many soccer clubs, and those who are running soccer clubs.

      • I am not saying all is well. I realize change is needed (especially in the DA’s). My main point is that things are not too bad for those who stuck with the current ‘status quo’ (that is forever changing anyway). There is actually too much change and as parent you are continuously asking yourself: “is this program / club the right one to send my kid to?” I mean 5 years ago we did not even have a Continental FC nor the Union DA/school. Now that we have these will this be the status quo for the next 10 years? I doubt it.

      • Completely agree with your points about too much change.

      • Said it better than I could have Steve.

      • The problem with this series is that it is too idealistic. Sure you want this to be like you describe, Spugger and Steve, but things will take years to change. Clubs and tournaments just make too much money right now, and unless they are threatened nothing will change. Also the DA’s were initially justified with the concepts like you described: fun at practice, only 1 game a day during tournaments, equal playing time for all, and no pressure to win. Well, even all that fell on flat ears. What I describe is what we have to deal with now and is much practical. Practical ideas is what parents with small kids need: not some idealistic ideas!

      • I’ve been working on change for years.
        If it isn’t hard, it isn’t worth doing.
        But NOT discussing it, and NOT pointing out the errors of the last 20 years is not going to help either.
        Don’t worry Guido, there are a million people just like you that I’ve been fighting against for the last 10 years.
        I will not stop, and I will affect the change I want to see by my hard work. In fact, I have started to the change process because the kids I get to volenteer working with get a different deal than at other clubs.
        Even if it takes another 10 years for me to see some lasting results from my work, I will not stop doing the WORK to be a part of change.
        Now, go watch your kids play D3 college and let those of us out there fighting just keep fighting our fight, talking about it, and doing things we believe in doing.

  8. Soccer Parent says:

    Thanks for this series. Our 12 year old daughter has been playing soccer since she was 5. She loves the sport. However she recently became part of a premier soccer team that values only the win. We, as her parents, feel as though we were purposely misled by the coach when he was recruiting our daughter regarding his philosophy to continue to develop players, philosophy of learning and family atmosphere. We’ve seen first hand how her current coach is having a negative impact on our daughter. Our daughter has now left the field in tears 3 times, usually holding it till she’s in the car so her teammates don’t see. We are running into preferential play time, daddyball and host of other grievances, most recently her coach added a new child to the roster after season was already underway. This child had been kicked out of their club because her parent assaulted their coach during game. We happened to be on field when this occurred. Kids were crying, parents were yelling and my kid witnessed all this. Now they are on our team. We have had talks with our daughter about unethical behaviors and sportsmanship; respect has a high priority in our life both on and off the field, however as parents, we are acutely aware that we are exposing her to behaviors/people who are acting completely opposite and she is witnessing all this from her own team/coach. Our concern for our daughter is that she is now losing the spark and passsion she has had for the game. We don’t want her to quit mid season, but this is testing our limits. We’ve tried talking about our concerns to coach but he essentially blew us off. My husband and I have had long talks about our role as parents and how we can best support our daughter’s growth, development but most importantly her self-esteem… currently feeling at a loss…

    And this is how we found your series. Thank you so much for putting this valuable information into words. I agree, at this age development/learning needs to be priority.

    Both, my husband and I, did not grow up as soccer players, so we are constantly questioning ourselves and thinking, “maybe it is only about the win.” But ultimately it has to be a combination with learning taking priority over the win and on this one we are going to trust our gut. We’ve led our life with values of integrity – not sure why these shouldn’t translate to the soccer field ? . Again thank you.

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