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How do Young Players Learn

I always enjoy conversations with parents and listening to what they think about the development of their sons in the sport of soccer. I often find that they have a fixed idea about what, when, why and how things should happen in the development of their children's sporting carrier. Furthermore, when asked where these ideas come from, at best the answer is ; well I heard it here or there, I have read it in articles relevant to sport, therefore; it could be said that their ideas are a collage of bits and pieces of often times erroneous information gathered from non-sport experts writing in the local or national papers and magazines.

After my conversation this weekend with a few of the moms, I started thinking and immediately immersed myself in the bibliography and my own experiences as to how young soccer players learn and why this is so. I hope that this will clarify most of the misconceptions I have heard at poolside in beautiful Cobleskill NY.

Mastering soccer is a difficult and complex task. What I am proposing here is the ONLY way to learn the game and is directed towards adults, professional or semi-professional players.

From the time they start until they reach a high level of performance, each player will have gone through (or should have gone through) various phases carrying out very different work in each. This long road requires the patient work of EXPERT coaches. They are consciously and constantly modifying the training methods and procedures. This fine tuning is necessary in order to speed up the learning process. Do not confuse good progress with going too quickly without taking into account the possible repercussions.

Unfortunately, when these training sessions are put into practice, I often find that the same content and training methods are being used by the professionals, amateurs, and youth teams. It seems reasonable to suggest that there should be some sort of training progression and continuity starting with beginners and going right through to when skills have been perfected. However; a great majority of the people seem to ignore the idea.

As youngsters grow and develop physically, their understanding and knowledge of the game also increases. A thorough and methodical program of repeated technical exercises, games and small-sided games is the best preparation. This constant and consistent training gradually produces "complete" and "well-grounded" soccer players.

However; what normally happens is that beginners immediately start playing games using the whole field, goals and regulation sized ball. If this does not happen, than they play small sided soccer on small fields 5 v 5, 4v4 etc., which is also a waste of time. This game is played in such a small playing area that the ball spends more time off the field than on it. Moreover; it is difficult to do much with the type of balls used and the best tactic is to use the classic "boot it" up field. The youngsters who stand out, "the good players", are picked to play in all competitions with a team built around them whenever possible in order to try and win matches. Unfortunately, these youngsters ultimately suffer as they fail to adapt to the two very different ways of playing these games.

On the one hand, youngsters love playing the game. They are motivated and impressed by the quality of the stars and want to emulate them. Unfortunately, even the highest level has its ugly side. Every player should have the opportunity to develop creativity and artistry in his play but the tremendous pressure and the obsession with winning does not allow this to happen. They are not even encouraged to try and produce quality technical moves that potentially could lead to lots of goals. Players only produce monotonous, ordinary, uninspired moves lacking in any creativity or vision because they are more interested in the result.

Even more serious is the psychological and educational damage this mentality instills in these players. There are some players who because of the pressure to win are unable to control their temperament. Instead of concentrating on the game they criticize the referee too much and they are unable to distinguish between playing hard and fast or dirty and violently. They are continually criticize their teammates without stopping to think that perhaps they are also guilty of making mistakes from time to time. They also react to the crowd and if what they hear is not to their liking than they often respond by making gestures and/or comments.

Youngsters are like sponges, eagerly absorbing all they see and hear around them. It is no surprise that they copy both the good and the bad behavior of top players. As professional soccer and soccer at grass roots level is very different, it seems only obvious that the style and objective of the training routines should also differ significantly. Youngsters should follow a well organized and well structured program that is right for their particular age group and ability in order not to hinder their development and progression.

Youngsters and adolescents have a natural physiological predisposition to be able to carry out aerobic and non-lactic anaerobic work. By contrast, lactic anaerobic work has a negative effect on their natural development. This is why they prefer playing games that involve a short but intense effort followed by a long active rest period. This type of activity involves non-lactic anaerobic effort and should last somewhere between seven and eight minutes. However, they are not so keen on the long, intense and very tyring types of activities.

During the first few years of learning, youngsters should carry out a variety of intensive and brief exercise routines that in the past formed the basis for all the physical learning. These exercises should go hand in hand with other longer but less intensive sessions. The potential lactic anaerobic ability is not fully developed as youngsters grow. They should avoid games and activities that involve a quick burst of energy as their reserves are more lactic.

Sports scientists have reached the following conclusions:

  1. The maximum aerobic potential is reached at 17 and then reduces progressively thereafter.

  2. The maximum oxygen production in relation to body weight is reached at the age of 16.

  3. The maximum non-lactic anaerobic potential is reached around the age of 15-16.

  4. The maximum potential for lactic anaerobic potential is reached from the age of 20 onward.

As fatigue is the principal enemy during learning, this type of intense activity is also inappropriate for youngsters as the elimination of lactic acid is achieved more slowly than with adults. Youngsters should take more time to recover and need longer breaks between activities.

Cardio-circulation and breathing functions are very important factors when doing any physical exercise but there is a big difference when doing any physical exercise but there is a big difference when comparing youngsters and adults. In youngsters this is not yet very efficient. The heart responds to every muscular effort by greatly increasing the heartbeat in order to be able to pump more blood around the body to meet the demand. This increased blood circulation provides the muscles with more oxygen and glycogen. Hollman says the following: "During a moderately paced two km. run a youngster will reach an average pulse rate of 137, whereas on average an adult will stay constant at 106. This is because the effort needed is much greater in youngsters because the size of the heart is much smaller than that of an adult. When heavy demands are placed on the heart the circulation and heartbeat has to increase as it takes time to fully establish the correct oxygen levels in the muscles after the effort." (This is one of the biological dangers I speak of when HS coaches run the youngsters to their deaths)


Although this should be very evident and respected by all, it seldom is. The majority of High School Coaches and many unskilled, unlicensed volunteer coaches are the main culprits in ignoring these differences and constantly placing the youngsters under their care in grave danger.

As there is a big build-up of lactic acid during a match the majority of soccer players should not perform high intensity speed and stamina work during training.

Only professional players should carry out this type of training activity and even then only once a week. However; youngsters should never carry out this type of training as it has a great effect on enzyme functions. This training causes the loss of vitamin B, C, E, plus the loss of minerals such as potassium, calcium and magnesium and it puts too much strain on the central nervous systems.

The main aim of the sport of soccer is to develop and not to destroy. The growing process burns up a lot of energy in youngsters and hey need plenty of rest. (This is another reason why the generalist approach is counter productive to players as they play the other sports during off days and never get the rest necessary for their recovery.) But moderate physical activity also helps to encourage this development and growth, outweighing the risk related to exercise.

On the other hand, if the physical activity is too demanding the benefits are lost and this can put the body under too much strain ad impede the natural growing process. Studies in the USA have shown that youngsters are put under too much strain when lifting weights and this can produce too much arterial pressure which in turn can cause serious damage.

The frequency of training should also be different for youngsters and adults. A professional trains taking into account the demands of the game, including the physical and mental effort. The amount of training will remain at similar levels during the off season and the period of competition. To make up for this continued effort, and to achieve adequate recovery, the training sessions must incorporate frequent but short breaks. If the breaks are too long then the impact of the physical and technical training will be greatly reduced. Of course the longer the break, the more chance of relaxing too much and the danger of muscle stiffness and the longer it will take the body to get back to optimum working levels. For this reason, breaks should never last more than three days during the season as when this happens there is a marked drop in the players fitness level. During the off season it is a good idea to have a well-deserved rest and relax but to continue light physical training. This total rest should last approximately eight days. The vacations should last a month as players need this amount of time to totally unwind and recover mentally.

Youngsters should always follow a training program that takes into account their biological and psychological requirements to avoid any negative effect on their natural development. This is another aspect that is overlooked by all the zealous winning at all cost mentality coaches. As far as the physical side of training is concerned (bearing that it is always linked to the psychological side), for best results and to overcome the negative aspects of excessive fatigue, youngsters should follow an alternating program of exercise. They should rest every other day and should perform a variety of sessions of ever increasing intensity and others with light and fun activities. This is why we have practice every other day and two days rest after games. No other "cross training" is needed!

Regarding the psychological side of training, youngsters have a different physical resistance to stress than adults. They also have inconsistent powers of concentrations and they are not always able to maintain motivation levels over long periods. For these reasons some youngsters do not find training very appealing; their state of mind is very changeable, although this is usually dominated by irritability, and they lose appetite and find it difficult to sleep. These and other factors are all symptoms that they are not adapting well to the training program. (It is becoming very redundant to mention which coaches do this and respect it and which do not).

To avoid this from happening (apart from hoping for slightly more maturity), it is important for the youngsters to be happy with the atmosphere during training. This will help give him a positive attitude and will allow him/her to produce better results. If the youngster trains close to home, has a good relationship with other trainees and coaching staff, if the weather conditions during the sessions are favorable and he has the help and support from family and friends, then there is a greater possibility that he will be happy and motivated.

A youngster with potential in other sports such as basketball, swimming or tennis knows that if he is to have any chance of reaching the top then he must train at least four hours a day. However; where soccer is concerned, youngsters and their families tend to think they can achieve success immediately without having to put in any hard work.

In most cases, children do not make the best use of the summer months which is the best time to practice their game. The weather is good, the days are long, and they have tremendous amount of free time but they often choose to give soccer a rest in order to take up other activities during this time.

It is very common in the US and now even Europe, that youngsters aged 14 or 15 only train for one and a half hours twice a week. Whatever their potential or aspiration, under these conditions they WILL NEVER make it in the game.

Unfortunately, others train too much, as far as the quantity and duration is concerned. Usually the ones deemed talented enough, with good potential are normally worked too hard. They follow training programs that I feel are excessive and potentially damaging, as youngsters are not designed to carry out intensive activity over long periods. For this reason, the intensity and length of the training should be reduced and more breaks should be incorporated to allow full and total recuperation. Frequently players are required to play 70-80 games a season and this has a tremendously damaging affect both physically and psychologically and also on their soccer.

Studies have shown that playing a game takes a lot out of youngsters and so they need a longer rest period between matches than adults. These are the recovery periods the different parts of the body need in order to get back to normal after a match: Heart-1 hour, muscles-12 hours, glands-24 hours, liver - 36 hours, and the brain-48 to 72 hours.

Perhaps this is the answer to the classic question as to; Why do 15-17 year olds' full of potential leave the game by the ages of 20? Or if they make it in the game an become professionals then why do they run out of mental and physical reserves when they approach the age of 30?

As far as soccer itself is concerned, playing so many matches, combined with the games and practices of "those other sports" means that there is little time to practice and perfect skills. As only light training can be carried out 48 hours before or after a match if they play 80 matches during a ten month period it is obvious that there are not many days left to practice and perfect the game.

It is important for youngsters to play matches in order to pit their skills against others and improve their knowledge and experience of the game. However, playing too many matches has a negative effect sooner or later. During a game a player may see a lot or little of the ball depending on his performance and ability of the opposition. Either way it will always be a lot less than he would be able to achieve during a well-planned training session. For example, during a game a striker may have 2-7 shots on goal, wheres during training session he may be required to practice 35,70 or even more times if the coach thinks it is appropriate. This is also true for heading, dribbling, passing and other skills.

Of course, the training session also allow players to practice and work on the team tactics and moves. This is the only way to work towards perfection and get an understanding, not during games. What future would an orchestra have if it only preformed concerts without ever practicing?

Students of sport have researched this subject in depth and are convinced that a well balanced emotional state helps the psyche send out the right signals, which are essential for a magnificent performance. On the other hand, negative thoughts such as frustration, fear, anger, or worry normally cause more possibility of muscular injury, lack of concentration and numerous errors.

These can all be addressed by motivation, which can be seen as a real energizing force that is responsible for making the most of the body's resources when up against vigorous and intense activities. This state is also perceived as a continuous feature from dreams at one extreme to panic attacks at the other.

According to Landers, there is a strong link between motivation and performance.As we progress from sleepiness to a state of alertness performance improves. But once the motivation goes beyond the state of alertness into a state of over-excitement there is a progressive decline in performance. This phenomenon is very evident in many of our players during our games. Simple tasks that are almost performed automatically during practice, with and without pressure and counter pressure, become cumbersome and almost impossible to perform during the game.

It was always thought that the emotional state was a mere reflection of how a player was performing. Over the years people believed that performance had a direct link on how the player was thinking and feeling.

Although these points of view seem to have nothing in common, to a certain extent, they could both be right. It is reasonable to suggest that positive thinking helps produce a better performance and a good performance produces confidence and positive thinking.

However; there is no doubt that a certain psychological profile is linked to brilliant performance. Although it is true that each player will differ physically, technically and psychologically, in nearly every case, the psychological characteristics are these:



  • Great self-confidence


  • Great powers of concentration


  • Great self-control (highly charged but not overly so)


  • Positive concern about the sport (imagination and thinking)


  • The ability to make difficult decisions.


Acquiring these qualities is not easy, and most athletes have to be shown the proper techniques. But fortunately sports psychologists have made these techniques available to athletes, although they take some time to learn.


However; Loher maintains that these qualities come easily to the truly great player. They have been learning to increase or maintain this state so that they are able to spend time practicing and perfecting physically, technically and psychologically.


In summary, motivation for athletes (or anybody) is a necessary as wheels on a car; it gives us energy, strenght and direction, Hare are a few thought on the subject:



  2. According to research, most people say that their best performances have been when they had nothing on their mind. They were so immersed in the action that not a single conscious thought was going through their mind.


However; the sport-psychologists suggest that athletes have irrelevant and disturbing thoughts during practical training (practice), during matches, and even afterwards and that this thinking affects their self-confidence and performance. For this reason it is important for the coaches to help show the players how to have more control over their thoughts. Let's make it clear, it is not the fact that they are thinking that impacts on their performance, but it is the negative thoughts we need to banish from their minds. If the soccer player followes this advise and mental training it would not only help his game but would also have a positive influence on his personal life. The question is not "Should he think?" The questions are: What should he think? When should he think? and How should he think?

2. It is a good idea to use the relaxation technique with self praising thougths from the CD. The majority of negative thoughts arise when we are under stress, and suffering from lack of motivation. Under these circumstances the player should banish these thoughts and take a deep breath. As he begins to relax he should breathe out slowly and replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. A player can only banish bad thoughts and negative thoughts by talking to himself and forbidding through self-conversation these thougths to enter his mind.

Having negative thoughts is perfectly normal but the people who succeed are those who can defeat and deal with them. They stop them from spreading and replace them with positive thoughts. The most important thing is to not let them enter the mind and take hold and get the better of you.

3. Earlier in our mental training sessions (winter) I mentioned how to achieve total or localized relaxation (CD) We were trying to rid the muscles of the tension that has such a great impact on performance. This relaxation also serves to calm the mind and the rest of the body. To achieve the right motivation before games and during practices I try to use relaxation techniques to get players to believe in their own ability and their own qualities and to lessen or eliminate the undesirable negative thoughts and feelings they might have.

4. The researchers have discovered that effective shouts of encouragement can have a significant impact on performance. They are very useful when trying to keep performance levels high or when seeking extra effort. Some players find it difficult to "get going" in training or in a game. Others find it difficult to change pace or keep up the effort. This type of encouragement is often all that is needed: "That's the one", "Just keep going", "Good job". It has also been proven that when a runner says with confidence: " Fast!" or "Lets go!" then he goes faster.

The best type of encouraging words are those that come spontaneously. These words help players recapture the sensation of a previous experience that was better or successful. "I'm as strong as an ox", "I'm the best", "We're going to win" are examples of these words of positive encouragement.

  1. When things are going wrong a player begins to realize that his mind has been conditioned to failure by self-doubt and negativity from others. The body was just doing what was expected of it. It only acted according to how the mind was thinking. If before a competition, a swimmer thinks: "I never do well in this pool"or players conclude: "This team always beats us (exactly what happened prior to the E. Fishkill game), then usually this is exactly what happens.

  2. Perhaps this negative thinking is more common in soccer on a collective basis. At the start of the a game the teams line up with the same goals. But once a team scores a goal they take the initiative and become dominant with the other team adrift. The goals keep coming until halftime, with the opposition now looking a shadow of its former self. The break, the advise and words of encouragement from the coach and the team's own reflection usually leads to a better contest in the second half with the teams more evenly matched. I am convinced that if there was no break, even if the game had gone on for another 20 hours, then the winning team would have become more and more dominant.

  3. A problem that can seriously affect a player is when he wants to always perform brilliantly, bordering on perfection. As nobody is perfect the frustrations he is bound to face will affect his self-esteem and eventually this could lead to him being scared of failure itself. Furthermore; because he puts himself under so much pressure, his enjoyment and his performance will suffer. He is only interested in trying to reach perfection.

  4. Another psychological problem that accompanies this attitude is that these people are never far away from catastrophe. If they do not achieve perfection then they see it as a disaster and feel humiliated in front of their family, friends, and supporters. These pessimists always expect the worst and this in the end makes things worse!

  5. Both the perfectionist and the pessimist can overcome their problems by taking stock of their current circumstances and by setting more realistic and achievable targets. It is important to calculate carefully the chances of success or failure and any possible repercussions if these targets are not met.

  6. I have also stated many times that it is important for the players to concentrate in the here and now and focus on the match he is currently playing. It is impossible to predict the future and what has gone before is now in the past, so it is essential for him to ONLY concentrate on the PRESENT. If players worried about things that happened in a previous match - "If only I had scored that goal!" or if they are looking ahead - "If we win the next match we'll be top of the table!" - then they will be unable to focus on the task at hand.

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