Youth Soccer

Youth Soccer: We’re Doing it Wrong, Part 6

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 onetwothree, four, and five of the series.

Wasted potential

“He couldn’t run. He was a little one. Had asthma. No strength or power. No athleticism. No endurance.”

That’s how coaches at Manchester United described one of their most successful players of all time, Paul Scholes, as a youngster. Had Scholes been born into a family here in the US, what do you think his future in soccer would have looked like? Would he have made the cut for his local club’s tryouts? Would he have received equal playing time? Would he have been given a chance to develop like everyone else? Would he have had fun playing here?

Lucky for him, he lived in England where the sporting culture was different and coaches didn’t prioritize winning today over developing longterm potential.

His story is no different from that of many other elite soccer players around the world. Children develop physically and psychologically at different rates that often have no bearing on final ability. There have been countless studies trying to uncover the key formula in identifying talent, and the conclusion is that you simply can’t predict which players will become a success 10 or 15 years into the future (ahem..Freddy Adu). Therefore, we should be careful about how we treat all of our young soccer players in the US, not just those that have advanced quicker than their peers.

Relative age effect

As I alluded to at the start of this series, the reason why the majority of birthdays for Canadian-born hockey players are skewed towards the first few months of the year is due to the relative age effect. The theory, as outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, is due to the age group cutoff being January 1. Those born earlier in the year are older, bigger, faster, more coordinated, and more experienced than their late-year counterparts. As a result, they receive more minutes of playing time, more attention from coaches, and more positive feedback on their performance, which increases their enjoyment of the sport and willingness to continue to train and participate.

Soccer is not immune to this relative age effect. It is prevalent throughout the world and the United States. The only difference being that traditionally the soccer year cuts off on August 1. In fact, research into the ODP program shows that it is prevalent at the regional, state, and national levels. Bad news for young American soccer players born in July!

Size matters

Here’s a little list of players: Pele, Maradona, Messi, George Best, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Philip Lahm, Sergio Aguero, Frank Ribery, Wesley Sneijder, Juan Mata, Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Eden Hazard. Can you guess what they have in common? Besides being some of the best players in the world, they are all 5’8″ and under — less than the 25th percentile for men’s height.

Even in the US, where you might argue our soccer culture is different than the rest of the world, several of the best ever to don the stars and stripes fit this bill as well: DeMarcus Beasley, Cobi Jones, and, of course, Landon Donovan.  Need another local example? Listed at just 5’7″ (debatable) is the Union’s most influential player, Vincent Nogueira.

Small players are forced at a young age to develop their technical skill to be successful. They must become more creative and often develop vision and awareness at a faster pace. Yet these attributes are overlooked too often in youth soccer.

Maddeningly in the US, we continue to see smaller players neglected in favor of their larger counterparts. Even when shorter players possess superior skills, they are still chosen less often. The tallest players are placed at striker and center back and are more likely to be given the lion’s share of playing minutes.

As any of you who’ve grown up playing soccer can probably attest to, we’ve all seen players that were “gifted” in elementary and middle school fade away as they became older. Many selected for their physical attributes at a young age struggle when they become older as their lack of technical abilities is exposed.

When there is a clear, important place for smaller players in the game, why do we continue to do this in youth soccer? The reason is probably simple: Some youth coaches are more interested in winning now.

The pitfalls of tryouts

I am an advocate for giving every child the opportunity to play soccer. Yet many clubs, with limited resources, simply can’t take every child that wants to play for them. Subsequently, they are compelled to enlist every parent’s nightmare: The tryout. And it’s not just the parents that fear tryouts. Most children view them as an unpleasant and tense experience.

Tryouts are problematic for several reasons. This is especially true when clubs use them to identify which children can increase their chances of winning now rather than focusing on potential to develop.

The single biggest factor that many traditional coaches use in tryouts is how one child compares to another. This creates an environment in which the children focus on comparison rather than their own development. As a result, skilled players become complacent while weaker players become less enthusiastic.

Coaches naturally will choose children that benefit from the relative age effect, are bigger, or who have had more opportunities to play. Tryouts that typically include “cuts” will send the clear message to many children that they are simply not good enough, that soccer is not for them. This is a significant factor which contributes to the large dropout rates we see as young players begin to approach their teenage years.

So what then is the answer?

Ideally, we would have enough resources to allow every interested and committed child to learn soccer from skilled coaches. Obviously a pipe-dream, perhaps, but not one worth ignoring. Instead, other qualities should be assessed by knowledgeable coaches.

In my own son’s fortunate experience, we received an email that specifically stated the children would be assessed more on their level of enthusiasm than their current abilities. This is where tryouts can have value. They should be used to align players with the best fit for their learning, rather than solely on increasing a team’s chances of winning without any consolation offered to those who are cut.

When clubs pass out “Your child has been identified” business cards with an effort to recruit the best players away from their local clubs, they are emphasizing winning over development. Rather than developing their own players, such clubs are happy to cast them aside in favor of shortcuts to success. The best clubs, in my humble opinion, are the ones which boast more about their retention and ability to improve players rather than how many tournaments they won with elementary school children.

Trying to identify talent and potential by comparing children to their counterparts at young ages is one of the biggest mistakes we’re making with youth soccer. The relative age effect, size differences, and differing rates of development create imbalances that are not predictive of long term success.

With so many children dropping out of soccer, you have to wonder how many Paul Scholes we’ve missed out there.


  1. I think this one has struck closest to home. Its not just the kids that get agita over the tryout season. Having to tell your child that he didn’t make the cut is brutal – especially when he was the last person on the team to be contacted.

    I wish coaches would talk to each kid at the end of the fall season and give them skills to work on before tryouts. This could be another evaluation tool – did the player improve in those areas?

    Thanks again for this series!

  2. Scott, I have absolutely loved this series. In some cases, it allowed me to feel smug about some things I do (especially compared to some other coaches in our organization). In other cases, it caused me to take another look at some of the things I do – and don’t do. In a few, it caused me to hang my head in shame… I think all of that, right there, is enough to tell me this series has been absolutely fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to put it all together, and thanks to the great staff at PSP for running it!
    “Yet many clubs, with limited resources, simply can’t take every child that wants to play for them. Subsequently, they are compelled to enlist every parent’s nightmare: The tryout. And it’s not just the parents that fear tryouts. Most children view them as an unpleasant and tense experience.
    Tryouts are problematic for several reasons. This is especially true when clubs use them to identify which children can increase their chances of winning now rather than focusing on potential to develop.”
    My son was absolutely terrified to try out for his school team this year. To the point where he decided not to go. And I think that’s a damn shame. Would he make it? I dunno – and now, we’ll never know. My son has some skill, but other kids in his school definitely have more. My son does have speed, though. A lot of it. For example, he just set the school record for the 50 yard dash. As a 7th grader. (The school is 7-8 grade.) He’s also not afraid of going into a challenge for a 50-50 ball, plays good “zone” defense (struggles a bit 1v1 still). Whether he would make the team or not would really depend on the coach; if the coach was willing to take a kid with some skill who has a lot of desire, ambition, and speed to burn then yeah – he’d be in hands down. If the coach is just taking the “best” – comparing one kid to another, as you say – then he probably wouldn’t.
    Sadly, because he was so anxious about the stigma of being cut, we’ll never know.
    Also, reading this reminds me why I love that our organization accepts anybody who signs up. Some of my favorite kids that I’ve coached over the years were the “worst” as far as pure talent goes. Yet it seems to me that a lot of those kids are the most enthusiastic, and the ones that always have a huge smile on their face. And when things click at just the right moment and something breaks their way – a deflection for a goal, for example – it’s pure magic. The smile can light up the darkest night.

    • And incidentally, my son was born in late March. So that all fits very neatly into the narrative. Until recently, he was shorter than other kids; he’s finally hitting a growth spurt, and is now taller than his older sister. So of course, I have to wonder how things could’ve been different if he were born in August. Or if he had coaches who knew a little bit of what they were doing, instead of me and other Dads who volunteered because there was nobody else…

    • I have had tons of kids with ‘issues’ come through my program. From physical to social/emotional I’ve seen a lot of different kids.
      I have some kids with physical issues in my program, one in particular had a birth issue with his legs. I have never asked exactly what happened but his top running speed is about my fast walk speed… actually, it is slower than my fast walk speed. Athleticism is not his strongest suit.
      The kid has been with me for two years now, through spring, and fall sessions. The first year I had him was his first time playing an organized sport. There have been more than a few times that I have thought about what a great person this kid is already. I know that he wore braces at one point for his lower legs. (Now he plays goalie, and defense, and some midfield, he never asks to play offense so I do not force him.)
      If that kid had to go to a tryout, he wouldn’t be in the game. Outside of intramural, there is no place for him in competitive soccer right now. (Who knows, maybe someday in the future his legs will get stronger, and stronger, I know I want him to grow stronger, and he’ll go on to higher levels in the game… no one can see the future.)
      There are tons of stories like that out there. I could go on and on about other kids.
      At the same time, I have a group of kids who have real skill and challenge everyone on the field every week. The best part is having those more skilled players rooting for those other kids who aren’t as skilled during our game sessions, which are amazingly competitive seeing as there are not set teams, or standings, or statistics for our age grouping.
      As a youth soccer coach winning a game is one of the last things on my list of importance. I donate my time, energy, experience, and knowledge in the hope that one or two of the kids will stay in the game and do the same someday themselves.
      The awkward kids that stay in the game because we have fun each week are just as important to me as the kids who have developed physically early.
      Oh, my daughter is getting her F-class coaching lisence this spring, she’s been coaching intramural with me since she was 12 years old when her brother was in the U8 rec league. Her travel career might be over but she will coach and play pick up.

      • I agree it’s fantastic when your more skilled players are pulling for the others. This past season, my most skilled player had a bit of a reputation for being both a hot head and a bit selfish. I told him from day one I expect him to hold his tongue when talking to his teammates, the ref, or the other players. In private, he can say whatever he wants to me – good or bad – about me or somebody he’s having an issue with. While there were a few setbacks through the year (including benching him a few times, as much as I hate doing that), by the end of the year this kid was passing up his own shots to try and set up others; he was volunteering to play the holding midfield role when both of our regular players for that spot weren’t going to make the game. When another kid on the team scored his first goal of the year in the last game, I’m not sure who was more excited – the kid who scored, the kid’s parents, or this “problem” kid.
        I’ve had autistic kids. I’ve had kids with severe asthma. I’ve had kids who lack confidence so badly they can’t look you in the eye and are paralyzed by the decision-making process. Every mistake, he’d hang his head in shame and mumble that he wasn’t any good. After two years, he was making the all-star team. Even more important to me, his mom told me his grades soared in school and he became more outgoing and relaxed around others. And really, all I did was treat him how I would expect my own kids to be treated – with respect.
        To me, these sorts of stories – the “problem” kid who becomes a great teammate, the shy kid whose grades soar, the autistic kid who gives you a hug at the end of the year because he had so much fun – these are the reasons I go back year after year after year. Despite the hassle; despite the fact it’s difficult for me to do some days because of work; despite the fact that I have some health issues that make it difficult. I take great pride in the fact that despite the fact that our league doesn’t allow parents to request a coach, a dozen or so request me every year anyway.
        Kudos to you, Steve. And your daughter as well!

  3. I have two kids with birthday’s in May and June. Both are on the ‘young’ side of their age grouping. My oldest, the girl, just retired because of injuries. Super long story about adults being selfish and her team has to play up, two years worth.
    The game that ended her career, she hurt her back in the first half of the game, and I noticed her trying to play throuh pain from the parents sideline. At halftime I went over to see about her and at the sight of her tears (first time I had ever seen her cry on a soccer field) I told her she was done.
    The coaches didn’t even notice. See, there were so many other injuries that the team didn’t have enough players for substitutions. They never asked about her being injured and were shocked when I told them she was done and we were leaving during the game.
    Tons of adults out there willing to destory your child for their benefit.
    My son is a June baby and as far as I am concerned will never play travel soccer under its current format. His future in soccer is not as important as his future in life. He is actually a real good goalie but most goalies in Travel soccer are beat up from my experience. I do not want his career to go the same way my daughters career went.
    Instead, I am telling all my kids at intramural ages 9-13 to stay in intramural. Our club is trying to expand offerings for kids to keep playing without having ‘travel soccer’. I would love to keep those late developers in the game and save parents tons of money by just promoting school ball again.
    I know that makes me an outlier but I am fine with that situation.
    Anyone who has watched ‘Friday Night Tykes’ about football knows how my daughter’s soccer career went. I see more parents and kids who think that abusing children ages 8-13 will toughen them up than I care to see. That show exemplifies everything that is wrong about the game, but I will digress.
    Bottom line, there are still a lot of parents who think that kids need to ‘work’ at a game. That kids should be ‘broken down’ and abused, both physically, and mentally. What an adult concept, making a game work for a group of kids, and then abusing kids verbally to ‘toughen up’ if they are injured because the goal is to win a championship at age XX.
    It just makes no sense to me, none. It never will either.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter. I can’t ever imagine doing that to one of the kids entrusted to me. I’d sooner forfeit…

      • After the game, when my daughter’s career was ended, the coach sent out an email praising the kids that stayed and played through injury because they didn’t have enough kids for substitutions.
        No mention of concern fo the injured player who left the game crying and barely able to walk.

      • Whenever any of my kids* get hurt, even something basic like a twisted ankle, I call the parents a few days later to check on the kid and make sure everything is OK. Every parent seems surprised that I took 5 minutes from my day to call and ask how their son or daughter is doing. I’m always surprised that they’re surprised. Maybe, with stories like this, I shouldn’t be.
        * Parents laugh at me. Once I coach your kid, he or she is forever “my kid.” Parents have, of course, offered me the opportunity to take them full time. I think they’re kidding, most of the time.

  4. Lower Merion Soccer Club just issued an email about travel tryouts and and had this to say:


    Every year, parents ask if players have a chance to move up to higher levels of our travel team program at tryouts. The answer is “DEFINITELY YES.” We have players moving up to higher levels all the time. As an example, I currently coach our boys Under 14A team. One of my players, Alex Kades, has had an interesting journey in the Travel Team Program. At Under 9, he was not selected for a team and played intramural. At Under 10, he made the D team. At Under 11, he moved up to the C team. At Under 12, he moved up to the B team. At Under 13, you guessed it, he made the A team. This year, he has developed into one of the top players on our team which is one of the top teams in the nation. Players who work hard and dedicate themselves to improving often find that their efforts will be rewarded. Over the years, we have had many other players make significant improvement and move up to higher level teams.

  5. Fan of Scott's Series says:

    I always find it amusing that local soccer clubs call themselves ‘the best’ at anything. Self promotion is nothing more than self promotion. If a club is really doing well they won’t have to ‘toot’ their own horn.
    Advertising is just that, advertising, it takes a specific thing and promotes it.
    You won’t see clubs sending out an email that tells you that 40, or 50, or 60, or 70 percent of the kids will leave the program by the time they are 13 if they start at ages 5, 6, or 7. Which is what is actually happening. The stories of those other kids is not on the website, or in emails, from local soccer clubs.

    • alicat215 says:

      look at the national academy and club rankings…………..that is all you need to know. The rest is noise to make people feel good about themselves!

  6. Thank you very sincerely for this series. I have shared it with a number of people, stimulating some very healthy discussion. As a father, player and coach, your posts have really made me think, patting myself on the back and cursing myself almost simultaneously. Brilliant.

    +1 to John ling’s post.

  7. I agree with most of the comments, however, as someone in England at the same time as Scholes developed, it wasn’t as simple as saying they stuck by him.
    Up until U14 we didn’t have Academies (then called Centres of Excellence) and all players played for a junior club. He happened to be at a club in the Oldham area of Greater Manchester, and in his junior team were also the Nevilles and Nicky Butt.
    They went en masse to Utd and you could say the rest is history. But still not that simple, how true I don’t know, but I have heard that if it wasn’t for one man-Eric Harrison- sticking his neck out, Scholes would not have made it. And that may have been his problem, because then he may have been judged on by physical stats etc alone.
    In England, the lower down the leagues you go, size matters, and then certainly players born in the ‘early’ calendar year for soccer have the same advantages as kids on travel teams here.
    I have been fortunate on my trips ‘home’ to visit through a friend a few Academy games in England. It’s not all that. The standard is higher than here obviously, but, the kids look the same. There aren’t too many smaller kids playing.
    It’s just a sad fact of the game. For all the list of top players mentioned, what is that in terms of percentage of players in the top leagues? 0.5 % maybe under 5 foot 8?
    So, as much as I agree with the sentiments of the article, it is over simplifying the size issue.
    Our sport here has a great chance, one I fear we have missed, and that is to be a skill based game, travel teams and parents have killed that, by win at all costs attitudes, not just to matches,mount even to recruitment of players to make sure others can’t.

    • alicat215 says:

      spot on………….I find it funny that here in the states…..we think you don’t have to be athletic to play this game………to our own demise. Could that be the reason whenever our MNT lines up against anyone….we look like kids against men?

  8. Your comments are well taken and I think they also speak to something that is often understated when evaluating players. Technical quality matters in seperating the merely gifted player from the prodigy player… but it is often THAT one other quality that sets the player apart. You need one other quality: blistering speed, fortitude, leadership, strength, standing vertical jump whatever, something that sets you apart as a player. And once you then have that one other quality, often times it comes down to luck. That small amount of favor at the right time that marries preperation with opportinity.

    • alicat215 says:

      true, I use to tell my players its a lot like Friday Night Lights……why one player makes it… doesn’t…one stays healthy… doesn’t? Hard work….and yes, luck.

  9. alicat215 says:

    Another interesting read. My argument would be that I was one of those 5’7 ballers 20 years ago……and played D1 college ball. Your right that the smaller you are…….you need to be ahead of the curve technically and you need to see things develop faster than others…..for survival! Pace is what separates the men from the boys: pace of movement and pace of thought. But what bothers me about the article and the US mindset is…………just because a player is 5’7 or 5’8, doesn’t mean the player isn’t athletic! I have seen 5’7 and 5’8 players dunk a basketball, sprint 4.2-4.3 40’s, and have ridiculous verticle ability. You can’t teach pace…………and it comes from ballers that are 5’7 and 6’3! The best players I knew growing up were the short, stocky dudes…….can’t knock them off the ball…..they just ricochet off you….and then run circles around the tree toppers!

    • alicat215 says:

      the best header of the ball I ever played with was an all-american in college who was 5’8………….and routinely beat 6’4 and 6’5 guys on anything in the air! Athleticism and timing!

      • The Black Hand says:

        Ball control, ball control, ball control…that is what levels the pitch between the vertically challenged and those that experience a higher cranial-altitude. If there is a little guy that is good on the ball…forgetaboutit. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Maradonna, etc…all share that one gift.

      • alicat215 says:

        of course amazing technical ability……but every single guy you mentioned there also has crazy pace. I always laughed at people not thinking Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta aren’t athletes…….give me a break.

  10. Stekicar says:

    The main question is: how much players, in one’s team, advance/improve in skills during the soccer season? Under improve I consider to stop making same mistakes all over again and again. With my kids’ teams I have seen a lots of kids that needed improvement in kicking, passing, receiving the ball, give-n-go, etc. I will not even mention movement on the field during the game. In my son’s U15 A team , still there are kids who kick ball with their toes and do not know how to use chest to control the ball. And these kids are in the A team. I had to teach my kids all these things when I saw they had a lack of it since they were U7. So my kids now know to kick the ball with either feet, using head, shoulder, even a chest. Also, I taught them how to control the ball and all other things they were lacking. The worst part is that they were supposed to learn all these things from the coach, not me. I had to pay and teach them as well?!? Coaches MUST work more with kids to improve their skills and correct mistakes they make. Kids must learn what they have to do and what is their role for every position they play. And kids should play every position during games/season.
    The worst thing is when coaches starts talking about how it is not important to win but to improve kids’ skills, and yet I do not see any of it happening. Kids still make same mistakes as at the beginning of the season, lacking skills they need as at the beginning of the season etc.
    As for the Messi and other well known players. One common thing for all of them is that they were poor. And they had to work hard to succeed. Our kids are well fed, dreesed and full of toys. So to play soccer for them is only to have fun and for some parents to have expensive childcare, and nothing else. Not to blame kids, parents are the biggest culprit.

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