We all have a certain amount of natural ability in doing different activities in life. In soccer we have very young kids who can strike the ball or take other kids on very well without any given instruction; that can be identified as their natural quality. We typically make a very naive assumption that a talented player is naturally going to get better and better, as they get older. When I first got into coaching I had the same assumption more or less: A talented player equals a bright future. I gradually realized this is not the case. So I am here to tell you that actually most young natural and talented players are NOT going to become superstars down the line!
Let me explain, throughout my coaching career I have seen many talented individuals who do great and enjoy playing soccer in their very early stages (7 to 12 years old) but after that, they gradually lose their confidence, get really disappointed, and stop moving forward; despite their own (and usually their parents’) high expectations of themselves. Some continue a bit further until they are 17 or 18 but eventually they have the same experience of frustration and disappointment. Having said that, there are always a few who continue their development and advance.
- What are the main differences between those players who continue to advance and those who don’t?
- What can help players sustain their progress?
Between the age of 8 to 12 when players are playing smaller versions of the real game of soccer (7v7 and 9v9), access to quality skill development resources and environments are crucial. After that, regardless of their natural talent, footballers are going to face one of the most challenging periods of their development journey. That’s when they need to start playing the actual game of soccer in the 11 versus 11 format. Considering numerous and rapid physical, psychological, and emotional changes early teenagers go through in puberty, on the pitch, they also need to get used to performing on a significantly bigger field, with more number of teammates and opponents while facing similar if not higher internal and external expectations.
In my experience most young players, their parents, and sometimes even coaches are not fully aware of the mentioned process which usually happens between the ages of 12 to 14; hence, they don’t take it into consideration when making their key decisions. Other than quality educational environments including professional and knowledgeable coach/es, you can not underestimate the role of thoughtful parents or guardians in creating a healthy and supportive personal environment for a player’s growth.
When I look back and compare my early stages of development as a youngster (the late 1990s and early 2000) to this day, I see significant differences. Back then, having a long term development plan for players was not as important as it is today and almost all the young players were much more limited to their natural abilities. In today’s football it is much harder to imagine a player being able to get a decent competitive adulthood opportunity (to play in college, professional or even semi-professional) without having a proper all-around skill development plan starting from early teenage years (if not earlier). This plan should address short term, middle term, and long term priorities for the player in terms of skill development.
We can not overlook the importance of a young player’s personality and natural qualities. Those are equally important when it comes to long term skill development. For example a resilient personality helps an individual to better deal with different challenges along the way, while natural talent provides them with more options and opportunities.
So, the key difference makers for a young soccer player in short are:
- Sufficient football education opportunities (access to competent coaches and organized competitions)
- Healthy, thoughtful and supportive personal environment (family members and friends)
- Purposeful skill development plans (short, middle, and long term plans)
- Natural technical and physical qualities
None of the above is enough by itself; ideally we need a balanced combination of all of the factors which guarantees young players’ sustainable development.
Want to know more about the youth soccer development process? Check out What Makes A Technical Footballer? (Soccer Technical Development Process For Young Players)