One of the greatest impediments of youth development in sports is the pressure placed on young players, by coaches and parents. One of the greatest pieces of advice that I can pass on to young players is enjoy the game (it is a game) and focus on improving your skills. Nothing else matters.
Look at all sports at the highest levels and you will see that the top performers progressed at different rates of development and took very different pathways to reach the top. For example, Barcelona’s front three Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez all took very different paths.
Neymar developed within the Santos academy in Brazil and only moved to Europe when he was aged 20. Suarez moved to Holland and signed with Groningen in the Netherlands (aged 19) after leaving his native Uruguay and Messi moved with his family (aged 13) from Argentina to Barcelona. All three players had very diverse upbringings and soccer experiences along the way. There is not one pathway that can made you a world class player.
There is pressure placed on families to place young players in certain programs at certain ages. In Ontario for example the provinces governing body, the Ontario Soccer Association, is mandating that young players must play in the OPDL (Ontario Player Development League) to quality for the Ontario Provincial team!
I often think of the story told by Daniel Coyle www.thetalentcode.com about the reigning Olympic and world champion in slalom skiing. Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history, at 18 years and 345 days. From age 9, US national team coaches were begging her parents to let her join the national team program. Instead, she stayed at home, lived a normal family life and focused every day on improving her skills.
Kirk Dwyer, Shiffrin’s coach and headmaster described her approach to becoming a world class athlete:
“She truly believed that the focus should be on the process of getting better and not race results. Everyone on the world cup team says they want to race like they practice, but how many do? Mikaela can because she’s not thinking about trying to win. She’s thinking about getting better”
Daniel Coyle likened Shiffrin’s approach to mastering skills, outside a traditional big program, to that of Tiger Woods and Serena and Venus Williams. He felt that all these top athletes shared these common experiences during their development:
• Athlete ownership of the skill-development process – freedom to try things and experiment. They stayed at home and worked with their parents, rather than National team coaches
• More adaptability – did not follow the traditional pathways of buying into being “lumped” with the masses – you must have reached level X by age Y!
• Fewer demotivating experiences – by not competing on the so-called big stages early on, less pressure was placed on results and more focus on skills improvements
• Embracing normality – Doing chores, homework and being a regular kid built emotional skills, resilience and confidence at a natural pace. This helped them all deal better with challenges in life and sport later
My advice for younger players? Focus on daily improvements and don’t let others pressure you into thinking that you must be at a certain level at a certain age, or join a certain program to progress to higher levels of play. It simply is not true!