Development first, winning second. How some youth coaches stunt player growth

There are many ways a coach can give themselves a better chance of winning youth football matches, and in my opinion many of those are short-term wins at the expense of long-term player development. In this blog post, I have recognised some of the traits of youth coaches and tried to explain what I believe are the pros and cons of each.

Essentially, I believe we should be encouraging kids to get as many touches of the ball as possible, and supporting them when they make mistakes. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning, and how we respond to those mistakes as a coach will be a huge factor in deciding what type of players we produce. If you want cautious, predictable players than tell them their every move and criticise errors. We need to be giving the kids of today the best chance of developing the skills that they will need when they are older, when winning will become more important.

I don’t believe that winning at the younger age groups is the most important indicator of success. Playing well, developing skills, and staying in love with the game are far more important. Competitive football in this country doesn’t start until the U12 age group, but you wouldn’t know that by watching the coaches and parents of some kids much younger than that at the weekend. It’s a cultural issue, and I believe it is holding us back as a nation.

One of the key reasons for the introduction of playing the 5v5, 7v7 and 9v9 football format in the lead up to the full 11v11 game is to give each player more touches of the ball. The main reason for implementing a retreat line (Requires the opposing players to retreat into their own half when your goalkeeper has a goal-kick) is to encourage playing out from the back. Yet direct play and long goal-kicks still endure because they are ways to win in the short-term. However, if players lump it long to be safe, we are not creating players with the skills they will require in their future. We are, however unwittingly, damaging the long-term development of the players in our care.

I think we should care less about winning at the early age groups, and more about development. When we get to U12 and league tables are introduced, maybe then be in a position to compete. Get into that position based on the years of development-first work you have done with your players up until that point though. Just an opinion of course, and I respect anyone who has a differing opinion.

Here are a few of the coaching traits/ beliefs I have experienced on my travels:

1. Play it direct “don’t mess about with it at the back!

The short-term benefit of not getting tackled when you are a defender, in the defending third, is probably fairly self explanatory.

This teaching of ‘get rid of it’ harks back to the bad old days of English football, when a ‘ball-playing defender’ was an oxymoron. The game has changed, moved on, and defenders have to be comfortable in possession to succeed in todays game. How will players ever develop that comfort on the ball if they are instructed not to practice that skill by coaches screaming ‘get rid’?

2. Don’t dribble or run with the ball if you can safely pass instead. “Pass, pass, PASS!”

The obsession with asking kids to always pass is widespread. Maybe it’s because young kids are naturally greedy, and coaches feel that in order for the group to play as a team the players needs to having passing drummed into them? I can understand that.

Maybe its because if your young players pass as soon as they receive possession they have less chance of being caught in possession? Think of that and then think of the most creative, exciting players in the world today. It’s likely that at least one of Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Neymar or Aguero came to mind and what they all have in abundance is the ability to beat a player.

That ability, like all others, is developed through practice and an over-emphasis by coaches on passing robs today’s young players of the chance to express themselves and practice beating a player. I have heard that at Chelsea, they teach and encourage young players to always ‘take him on’ believing that passing and team-play can be added later, when winning actually matters, but at this young age they are developing skills.

If coach is constantly shouting for his players to pass as soon as they get it, they are robbing the young players in their care of the chance to practice decision making, that is, when should they pass and when should they travel with the ball?

3. Pick bigger, older, more developed boys in your team over younger, smaller boys.

The older boys in the younger age group are often at a massive advantage because, for example, a player being exactly 7 years old (84 months) could be playing against a boy who is nearly 8 (95 months), and so the older boy has been alive for 12% more time! He is 12% more developed, had 12% more time to practice and grow. The relative age affect as it’s called, causes many coaches to pick the older boys early, and those older boys as a result get more training, and so they get better still. The younger player doesn’t get picked, gets less training opportunities, and so the chasm between the 7 year old and the boy who is 7 years and 11 months grows. How many potential players are lost to this bias every year?

You also see teams that elect to give the biggest kid, with the hardest shot, a place up front every week and encourage him/her to shoot and take all the free-kicks within range. While this child is developing their shooting skills nicely, what happens to the other kids who don’t get that opportunity to practice and develop as a result? How are they supposed to develop those skills? Again, it’s the winning versus development mindset at work.

Also, in an age that has seen Lionel Messi dazzle a generation of football lovers, it seems abundantly obvious that spending more time developing smaller players could pay dividends. That said, maybe we’ll never learn because Pele and Maradona were short yet this ‘bigger. faster, stronger’ mentality still blights youth football because it gives teams a winning advantage.

I could go on, but the point is this. We should be developing players to have the skills, attributes and decision-making skills to compete when they are older, much older, when it matters, not now.

Mourinho said In England you teach your kids how to win. In Spain and Portugal they teach their kids how to play. What a fantastic observation on how other nations develop creative, dangerous players and how England keep churning out robots. Much has changed in this country, and the FA have broadly recognised many of the issues raised in this post. Thousands of coaches are progressive, development-minded and doing the best they can for the future of the players in their care, but there is still so much to be done.

We have to see a massive change in our culture if we want to start producing English players who can dazzle on the world stage. The last truly creative, unpredictable midfielder we produced was Gazza, and most kids today can’t use him as a role model because they won’t even know his name!

31 thoughts on “Development first, winning second. How some youth coaches stunt player growth”

  1. Just finished my first under 8 season and totally agree, thank you! My mindset completely changed after doing my level 1 badge halfway through the season. I shut my mouth during games, unless I was encouraging, no instructions. In training I got one of my ‘forwards’ to drop into the middle, where there was a huge hole, before goal kicks; no more long balls and, as a bi-product, triangles and 1-2s down the wing (completely accidental). Real battle is with the parents though and that’s tough, they pay and who are we to have an opinion? Thank you and I’ll keep checking in!

    1. Richard, do you find that others criticise your quietness during games? I have had that, as I also believe that training session is the time to teach and we should observe how that teaching is taken into the game.

      1. I think many uninformed people see a silent coach and think there are not doing their job because they are not barking orders. Pre game and half time is when coach. Only specific positional instructions and encouragement during the game.

    2. I believe that playing out from the back is the way forward how can you learn without making mistakes in life?
      Footall is played on the floor,
      Most of the time.

  2. Although you are right it is about developing players. There is this image of ranting and raving adults in almost every blog, chat and it is over the top. Most people are fine and a lot of what is said from the touchline is never heard.

    Teams don’t play out the back because in most cases the coach has never learnt how. Kids are ultimately being coached by accountants, decorators, drivers, not qualified experienced coaches.
    Level 1 coaches are shown a few basic games that have no resemblance to a game style, so it’s no wonder teams don’t play out of the back.
    A myth is kids self teach through play. To some extent this is true, especially individuality. But great teams have great coaches. Not seen or heard of a team that is self taught only through playing without coaching.
    It’s the lack.of proper coaching courses, the lack.of quality coaching, lack of playing, poor winter pitches and bad diet that have the biggest affect on the standard of play.

    1. Thanks for your comments, David. The imagine of ranting parents may well be over the top, but it still happens a fair bit every weekend. The volume of ranting differs, but constant instructions from parents (not in my team I am proud to say) is a mainstay of youth football.

  3. Some great points raised and questioned.
    still a large number of coaches think winning is foremost rather than developing players.
    the greatest challenge for me is developing players rather than winning leagues.
    I am returning to youth coaching for the first time in 4 seasons and no doubt I will come across the get rid of it coaches. ..

  4. I have just left a team as coach as the defenders were constantly told get it forward quickly or hit it long. Defenders that can’t pass a ball or bring it out of defence is a blight on the English game. Yet I also agree that the coaching courses in this country leave a lot to be desired and I know the cost of a level 2 course is around £395 this is a lot of money for the average joe to fork out for something he/she does out of a love for this beautiful game. The F.A. Needs to look at the amount of coaches in England compared to places like Germany, Holland and Spain.

  5. Great article and can even recognise myself in some points! Not the ranting but telling my 6 year old not to take chances at the back. Since reading this its changed my view completely. Doing my level 1 this summer to help out his team as I’m already hearing long clearances or hoofs into touch getting applauded.
    thanks again for a great read

    1. Hi Graham,

      Thanks for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Level 1 is definitely the first step, and I would recommend the Youth Awards after that. Good luck! Cheers, Mike

  6. I agree with most of what you’re written. Personally I think that players can be taught technique, creative skills, passing and the basics of gameplay at a young age. Personally I wouldn’t tell a player to ‘take him on’ or to ‘pass, pass, pass’. Let the player make the decision. My most common shout from the sidelines is probably ‘get your head up’. If the player decides to dribble, having seen the available options, then that’s fine.

    Dribbling for the sake of dribbling is as bad as passing for the sake of passing though.

  7. I agree with most of your comments with regards to playing football, the age thing in what time if the year your born is massive and needs to be corrected to give the summer kids some leeway, but is this thing of young players keeping the ball and not passing the best way I think not, it creates players that have no final positive outcome with the ball, I think we need also to look at effective players is example cocolan for arsenal this year has transformed them just does the hard work and the simple stuff best with no credit.

  8. I am not sure I totally agree with your point 2. Don’t dribble or run with the ball if you can safely pass instead. “Pass, pass, PASS!” I manage an U11 side and I believe that yes take a player on if that player has the ability, but they must always consider the pass if a team mate is in an excellent position and is calling for the ball. I have wingers beating one player and then try and beat another one when a square or through ball would be the better option. This is where the English game is going wrong a lot of players think they are Messi, when the simple option is to pass it. The Spanish game is about passing and possession where as the English game is about power and direct play get to the corner flag and cross it – I am afraid I prefer the Spanish model.

    It’s about getting the balance right when to take a player on and when to pass it and ensuring young players are not too greedy. It’s a team game and can be very frustrating for young players when there team mates never pass the ball.

    1. Oliver, I don’t agree with it either! I was highlighting the attitudes I see on my travels … I tell my players they must make the decision, and we should all trust and support that decision. 🙂

  9. I don’t think clubs at grass roots set up systems and styles of play that teaches children where or how they can fit in and develop and manage their own game with their own decisions, grow into positions and learn a love for the game, support for coaches that doesn’t cost an arm or a leg from the FA or the big clubs is essential to give our volunteer coach dads and clubs the ability to learn this and build teams in our local communities with playing philosophies from toddlers to veterans alike, I saw this work in a number of Dutch cities.

  10. Mike,
    Thank you for the post. It’s nice to hear youth coaches in England are having similar issues to American youth coaches.
    Davo, I will have to respectfully disagree with you about your assertion…dribbling for the sake of dribbling is as bad as passing for the sake of passing…here’s my logic; everywhere across the globe you’ll find world class players who are not only capable but excellent at passing the ball. Finding that incredibly creative deceptive goal scoring wizard is much more difficult. What’s more interesting, in my opinion, is that almost across the board every single great creative goal scoring wizard is just as efficient at passing as each of the other role players making up a team, however those role players aren’t able to morph into a creative goal scorer if perhaps that specific player is injured or ejected, etc.
    Dribbling for the sake of dribbling has a significantly greater long term return on a players development than passing for the sake of passing. That “selfish” player becomes extremely confident on the ball, develops better field vision sooner due to their comfort on the ball, typically develops a better first touch on the ball because they are so familiar with it, is typically more aggressive and gets the ball back more than the typical role player because he/she wants the ball AND MOST IMPORTANTLY…is typically more willing and significantly more capable of taking on and beating their defender in goal scoring opportunities.
    At the Highest levels of soccer in the world I contend the game and the players all follow the law, they all play the right way, the game whether English or Spanish or German has a set of core laws that each of these great players follow; it’s my contention the majority of goals are scored due to mistakes players make and individually brilliant players breaking the known set of laws everyone plays within to momentarily suspend and cause the defense to break their own set of laws.
    All high level players can pass the ball…yet not all high level players can beat their defender and do the one most important thing necessary for TEAM success…score goals!

    Dribbling in youth soccer and the benefits for long term development FAR OUTWEIGH the benefits of passing for the sake of passing.

    All the best!

  11. I agree with much of this blog! I have always been involved with Elite football as a coach since I was 16. How ever, this season I have stepped into grassroots football and set up a Girls Only football section at the club I work for.
    It has been a real eye opener for myself, with age groups at 13’s, 14’s and 16’s every team we have played want to do one thing . . . WIN! Opposing coaches will literally scream and shout things such as ‘How did we give that goal away?!’ and ‘What are you doing in defence?!’ Asking questions of players they don’t have the answers to because they are not actually getting coached.

    Point Number 2 certainly made me think and to a certain extent I do agree with what is being said. How ever, I believe it boils down to the decision making of players. Yes there are times to pass, pass, PASS the ball but also there are times to Dribble. How ever, knowing when to pass and when to dribble is the real challenge.

    I feel that coaches should focus on the player’s development and the development of the team as a whole and the winning will come but it will come by promoting the correct principles of coaching.

  12. For the junior and youth game to improve we need investment / assistance from the the top. From the FA. At present, and I agree with Dave Wiliiams, we have Parents from a variety of professions stepping up and volunteering to coach their son’s team at the weekend. Some take the Level 1 to achieve and satisfy the minimum requirement for Compliance for the various chartered status. They volunteer. They probably in most cases do not have the passion or ambition or funds to take further coaching qualifications. Their agenda? To help run and manage a team that’s short of volunteers. But for those who want to better coaches? It’s a fantastic game and we have some great people involved at grassroots level. Depends on your agenda. I’m chairman of a junior football club and manage a youth team in s decent standard. My objective? To teach the 5 – 8 year olds to be better players and more importantly to enjoy the game. Catch them early. Get them interested. Keep them wanting to learn and have fun. Teach them good habits even at the expense of winning. Help them be the best they can and be better footballers at 16 onwards. At 16 – 18 my job is to continue their development and help them be the best they can. Another difficult age with lots of pressures of exams and becoming adults. I’d love to have taken my level 2. Cost? Big issue. How many other coaches will say the same. It’s not a coaching business but we’d like to learn and become better teachers / coaches. We need coaches who will buy into the belief of development first. Ball mastery, technique, awareness, individual skill etc. Take out out the fear of failure. Take away the coaches who shout instructions about who and where to pass. Let the kids make their decisions. Create sessions which help with decision making. 1 v 1 or 2 v 2.

    We need to help fund coaches who have the potential to be the best they can. Take a small layer of funding from the Pro game with all the Sky money. Invest it in coaches with potential

  13. It appears we are dealing with the “adult-ification” of youth sports all over the world – not just in the U.S. Let’s keep the discussion going – and the change we seek will appear when we – as parents and youth coaches – allow the emphasis to be placed on development and having fun and when our organizing bodies start mandating coaching education for all levels of youth soccer.

    P.S. Relative age affect – is an issue for girls too!

  14. Coaching with the younger age group for me is about creating the right environment for the children to learn in. It’s not tactics it’s not passing it’s not dribbling.
    It’s got to be fun otherwise why would they want to play, the chances of finding the next messi within your team are lets face it quite slim, so keep your coaching to a minimum and let them play and learn. One of the things that I find coaches tend not to do is watch/observe their players so how do you know what each individual needs.
    Take a step back let them play, let them have fun.

  15. Ohhhhh my this has hit article has certainly hit home. This is something I have been battling with. As a parent, it is often difficult to approach a “coach” who ALWAYS wants to win no matter what. A “coach” who ONLY believes in the philosophy of winning and not play-to-learn.

    My son plays for the A-team in his U8 league. I find that he mentally battles with touches/dribbling and decision-making when he has the ball, as behind the scenes there is the screaaaaming coach on the sidelines. “Passsss the ball”, “Be QUICK with your feet”, “Whaaaat were you thinking”, “Noooo you are too slooww”…and so forth. This has gotten to him and it has somewhat affected his confidence on the ball. Post matches, I then have do damage-control by trying to lift his broken spirits. I won’t even start with his team-mates who in my opinion are selfish players. There is often no game plan. If there are players at the back, they just have to kick to clear the ball.

    I then ask for your advise. Should I ask that he be chosen for the B-team (a relatively “weaker” side) instead, where he can comfortably practice/learn his touches/dribbling? I feel that this is what he needs to do to build-up his confidence on the ball. Usually during league games the “coach” appoints an assistant to oversee the B-team, while he concentrates on his A-team. So there is no demoralizing chants in the background.

    Please advise?

    1. Hi Lerato,

      Thanks for your comments. I believe that shouting out while the ball is rolling short-circuits a players ability to make decisions, so I don’t do it, but I know a lot of coaches that do.

      I also believe that shouting criticism is counter-productive, as the child will likely lose confidence and be less likely to play well as a result.

      If you want to develop players who are creative, and make good decisions, then you have to give them the confidence to make decisions in my opinion. Players do not learn long-term from a shouted instruction shouted such as correcting a players position. They will possibly move in the short-term in response to that shout from the coach, but the core understanding of where to be and why can only be taught outside of the chaos of a match situation, when the player has time and space to think about the challenge, and then have opportunities to repeat the learning focus until a degree of automation occurs.

      I cant advise you on your sons situation, I can only give you my opinions n coaching, but here are a few of my other blog posts that might help you with your decision:

      No coaching while the ball is in play: https://coachingyouthfootball.org/2016/02/08/no-coaching-from-parents-during-matches-helps-develop-creative-footballers-discuss/

      Match-day management from the coach:
      https://coachingyouthfootball.org/2016/01/04/part-5-from-parent-to-coach-match-day-management/

  16. I’m currently studying for a degree in football coaching and development (yes they exist), as well as being a level 2 coach with the first 2 youth modules. I coach for a league 2 club and coach my sons U12 team. I can agree with everything that is said above and will share that my U12 team have just been relegated from their league. A lot of the parents have been over vocal about how we should be winning games. Our biggest loss has been 4-1, with most other results being 1-0 losses or 1-1 draws, BUT our football has been superb all season. I’m quiet except for encouragement during matches and certain parents have taken this as being “clueless” or not caring. Educating the parents is the hard part. I’m interested to hear others opinions on the following scenario though. My son has just played in a tournament for a professional C.O.E youth team. I have coached him in various positions and he likes to play left or right midfield or up front. I’m all for trying kids in different positions, so for him to be played CM and CB I thought would do him well. However, not once during the 6 games was he played in his preferred positions. This upset him and although I tried to explain the philosophy to him, he was still understandably upset and his confidence was damaged. I felt that whilst in principle the idea of players trying different positions should be encouraged, that to adhere to the four corner model and hit the psychological corner, young players still need to feel valued in the positions that they feel comfortable in and that this should be managed carefully so that it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on their psychological progress. What’s everyone’s thoughts?

  17. Really interesting read. Last season we trialled a new system with our u10s which we adopted from Englabd Netball. The system badicLly meant that are various points during the game each player would rotate around the formation. This meant that each player experienced playing in different positions as well as spending 5 minutes on the side to reflect on performance before having to influence the game in their next position. We went unbeaten throughout the season and received lots of positive comments from opposition coaches regarding the setup.

  18. An interesting read, for sure. In my opinion, the difference between successful coaching and unsuccessful coaching is a matter of more than philosophy. Much of it comes down to execution, and the environment that the kids are in. I’m coaching at under 10 level this season – 9v9 on half a pitch – and completely agree with points one and three. Our assigned goalkeeper, who keeps probably 3/5 halves to use some imprecise maths, struggles with his goal kicks. For 16 weeks now, the focus has been on structuring our defence to be in a better position to receive a short pass in every situation. The push-back rule isn’t strictly enforced at our club, so often its a critical development. I urge my group to play out of defence, provided they’re trying to get the ball towards our end of the pitch. There’s a huge amount of emphasis on making sure that their control in close is as good as it can be, because playing out from defence and playing around in defence are different concepts. I like to coach a cohesive unit, with a defence playing with their back to goal. Mistakes aren’t punished: mistakes are discussed, suggested and constructively corrected. I also do my best to avoid bias when it comes to positioning. Over the course of a game, players will generally play two positions. One half where they like to play and where they look likely to stay in older years, and the other in a position that will better highlight their own deficiencies to themselves and myself – be it dribbling, passing, their vision, their awareness, their agility. Our little strikers play centre back, and our big centre backs get a chance on the wings, and etc.

    The area that I disagree with you on is passing. Its nothing more than a matter of opinion that Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez etc. are the most exciting players to watch in the world. I think it does a great disservice to football fans, coaches and players who see Iniesta, Xavi, Pirlo, Xabi Alonso, Modric etc. as the proponents of the beautiful game. Not every passing game is as systemic as Tiki Taka, nor as expressive as Pass and Move. In my opinion, it fundamentally comes down to Discipline and Expression – and whether those two terms are mutually exclusive. You’re correct in saying that watching kids become too afraid to do anything but pass is problematic, but as is watching someone who fancies themselves an ace dribbler fail to raise their eyes and have a look around. Football is a team game, made all the more memorable by brilliant individuals. My directive to my kids is that they need to take a second to raise their head before deciding what to do with the ball, and they know they’ll not get into trouble if they lose it. I say it over and over. ‘Raise your head and have a look.’ If they think the best course of action is to dribble, then go on and try it out. If they see a player in a better position, pass the ball. In turn, every player without the ball needs to do their best to find a spot where they’re available for a pass. Promoting the team aspect of football promotes in turn discipline, stamina and intelligence. As I’ve learned with a few kids this season, however, you also need to appreciate that dribbling comes naturally – and its important not to stifle that whilst still trying to get them into better habits. 40 minutes in an hour of my sessions are dedicated to ball control and simulated decision making. I see that as the best base on which to build any footballer: be comfortable on the ball, however close the opponent, and have the ability to make split second decisions by constantly honing that skill. Kids have to realise that they have the ability to influence a game of football whether on the ball or not, and that every touch, every run and every shot has consequences. That lesson needs to be learned from experience, rather than a loud coach, but will be invaluable.

    Again, an interesting read. We’re always developing as coaches, and its always great to hear points of view from other passionate people. Greetings from Melbourne!

  19. This mentality doesn’t just exist in early football it exists in many early years sport coaching….I’d rather lose narrowly in a good ‘ding dong’ game than smash opponents.

  20. Relative Age Effect. The main reason why (“helped” by being a physically slow developer as well) I played so little sport at school, and so little sport afterwards, despite being involved with sport in any other way possible throughout my life (match official, coach, tournament organizer, writer, administrator – the lot). I was born near the end of August.

    As you say, not only did everything your describe kill my self-confidence, it also meant that I pretty much never saw a ball of any sort why playing sport at school, so simply did not develop the skills. I thought I was rubbish, as I was told I was. It becomes a vicious circle in which you are last to be picked – if I ever was picked at all – pretty much never passed to, fall behind even more, and so on. And children develop so fast that once you slip behind a bit catching up in skills when you catch up physically is all but impossible.

    Then there was that one magical afternoon when – for some reason – I have the chance to play with boys in the year below – boys who were, in practice, at the same stage of physical development as me. Suddenly from being useless and never being passed to, never seeing a ball in any sport, I was scoring points! It was amazing.

    It lasted just one afternoon but I can remember it all 40 years later – a sort of glimpse of what might have been if only I had been born just a few days later.

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