Last week I played
soccer fútbol indoors for the first time in a long time with a few Spanish guys after another full day, and being able to do so gave me a huge sense of childlike joy. It was great just to be able to be play. However after we wrapped up (I retired early after a pulled muscle!) I wondered how many young players today still treat their relationship with the ball as a fun and joyful one as they did in their infancy, rather than one gripped by nervousness and fear.
As players progress along the path of their development, the expectation to deliver grows along with it. Naturally better players are pushed towards becoming match winners, consistent performers that do a job for the team and are able to be relied upon on a regular basis. Of course there is no problem with this, as these are the natural requirements and expectations that come from being a quality player in first team football. The problem is that this ‘professional’ profile is felt increasingly earlier in their development and children’s progress is being hampered as they’re enjoyment gets compromised with a desire to rush children towards the results driven circus of adult soccer.
That rocky road often reaches its climax around a players’ teenage years as adult soccer becomes visible in the horizon. Retaining players in the sport as they move through their teens is difficult and cannot be pinpointed to one specific reason most of the time. A combination of external factors often convene against parents, families and coaches as they see players choose to turn their back on the game for one reason or another. Many players who drop out are perhaps able to recognize that playing was a simple pass time and a means of enjoyment rather than a professional pursuit. But there are those who at times possessed some great potential and did not harness it as best they could have because they lost that sense of fun they had in their early years.
Players coming into soccer or into any sport in their early years, are in an experimentation mode. They have a curiosity and an internal desire to find out about the sport as well as obviously being motivated to play with friends. Its’ therefore crucial that these early interactions with the sport are structured in a way that allows players to experience exactly this. There should be constant problem solving, decision making, and experimentation with the ability to mix with other peers. Having such elements present in their experiences only feeds their desire to come back and continue with the sport to further unravel its mystery and in turn deepen their love for it.
But of course this is far easier with these younger beginner players. There is usually no pressure internally or externally being felt (Unless there is an over enthusiastic parent involved!). Sessions naturally are framed within this fun, experimental, very social and dynamic environment and the word ‘win’ is almost seen as a curse word, and rightly so.
But how then can we maintain these environmental values as players progress in both age and ability and the need to win does become more important?
We keep it fun.
Regardless if you’re dealing with a first team or a junior team. Keep fun at the center of everything. Sessions should continue to be built from a frame where the players are able to play without fear, enjoy working with teammates, and decide upon ways in which to deal with match like problems through numerous opportunities to experiment. Yes the demands of the game at those first team levels means that competition increases and players’ performances are placed under more scrutiny. But if these elements have been maintained from the very beginning of their development and are consistent throughout, then the players buy into this and it becomes a part of them. They are then able to carry this same mindset out on the field at all times and aren’t phased by their external environment where results are demanded simply because they are aligned internally to understand that their relationship with the game is what defines their success. Not anyone or anything else.
Perhaps the greatest place on earth for producing such internally aligned players who visibly play with a sense of rebellion and disbandment towards their external environment can be found in South America.
In this part of the world, players are not only skillful and creative in their youth playing with flashes of their cheeky grins, they manage to flourish and make professional careers doing so, some on the greatest stage of all. Perhaps the best current day example of such players are the current forward three of the holders of the Champions League, FC Barcelona. Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi are three of the greatest players in world soccer right now but also are some of the cheekiest, expressive and joyful players you will see!
My personal favorite embodiment of this kind of player is Ronaldinho. In his peak around the early-mid 2000s, the Brazilian lit up the world stage with masterful performances in the biggest games imaginable. All the while playing in a fearless, confident and exuberant manner with a smile on his face at all times. As his career has moved through the times he has managed to maintain his love for the game and his childlike joy with every club he turned out for.
This video produced at the height of those ‘Ronnie’ years, demonstrates very nicely how that childlike joy he first experienced with soccer has been maintained into his playing style as an elite professional.
If we can be consistent with our players and keep things fun, maybe we can keep numbers in the game and hopefully see more players playing with that childlike joy as they develop.