Parents are always looking for that secret or “new” invention that will help their child reach the highest level. What parents should understand is that the answer is right in front of them. There is no secret to player development, but you as a parent can make a significant impact on your child’s youth soccer development.
As a parent, the first task is to introduce your child to soccer, in a fun atmosphere so that the child can start enjoying it. This can happen as early as between the ages of 2-5 years of age. Do NOT try to make your child play soccer, you can always encourage them, but don’t make them.
Once you have introduced your child to Soccer, and they enjoy kicking the ball, start introducing some dribbling skills on your own. You do NOT need a special trainer or special system for this. All you need to do is watch a short clip on YouTube and watch how easy it is to kick a ball with the inside of your foot. That skill alone will be used about 60 percent of the time the ball is touched. You don’t need special training to learn how to do this.
If your child is still enjoying kicking the ball around and playing with friends and family, AND they are over the age of 5 or 6, it’s time to get them into a recreational team. The team or league does not need to be extremely structured or with licensed coaches, just a parent or coach to SUPERVISE, no need to start coaching right now. Let the kids use “free play” and “guided discovery” to figure out things on their own. If you don’t want to help or volunteer to supervise, you may have to pay in order to have your child join, but it should be a small fee. You should also continue working on “playing” at home. Simple skills are appropriate at this age, passing, receiving, and dribbling are the most important. Continue working on these skills and let your child play at home, at the park, or anywhere else you have room.. You must be very careful not to try to put them into any type of competitive leagues or teams, there is no need and the benefits are few, if any.
At around 8-10 years of age, start introducing your child to YouTube clips of soccer players around the world. Kids don’t just learn by doing, they also learn by imitating others. It’s imperative that your child connects emotionally to the sport; this will help him/her enjoy the game longer and get a desire to improve to be a better player. I can’t overstate the importance of the drive and determination some kids develop. If they are emotionally vested in a team or player, they will want to watch and see how that player is performing. This will start the wheels of creativity in their own minds.
Expose them to the players, teams, leagues, or coaches that you like. Let your son/daughter make the decision on who or what to follow. This will create the emotional connection that is required for them to set goals on their own. Always encourage your child to continue practicing and improving and offer to help. Don’t make them train or practice at an early age, but give them the option by asking them if they want to play in the backyard or, if they are young enough 2-6 years old, inside the home.
Continue with this philosophy until you see that your child has an actual interest in playing soccer, competition, and improving. AYSO or other recreational programs are great for young kids. Do NOT invest hundreds of dollars on a club unless you know your son or daughter is actually interested in playing. Winning at the club level is even more emphasized, so your child needs to be mentally prepared for additional pressure.
If your child is doing well in the recreational program at the age of 8 – 11, and they show an actual interest in playing, watching, winning, and/or improving as a player, it’s time to have them join an academy or Soccer Club. It is not necessary to get them into a large club where you are paying thousands of dollars just so they can play 7 v 7. Every club will claim that they have “the best coaches”, just go to any soccer club website and you will see what I mean. The practices should consist of a lot of one on one with the ball. A lot of small sided games like 1v1, 2v2, 3v3. The coach should not be asking any player to specialize in any position, even the goalie. The coach should always be positive with the kids, even when they make mistakes. The score shouldn’t matter, the goal scorer shouldn’t matter, the only thing that matters is that your child continues to improve, has fun, and has the desire to get better.
At this age, the kids are starting to dribble on their own; they get confident with the ball and want to take players 1 v 1. They also begin passing and have an increased perception of space, width and depth. Their personality is starting to show and the kind of player they will be starts to emerge. This stage is important because it’s when the child will identify the desire and motivation to continue playing and getting better. They are now starting to get a hunger for competing and winning.
At around 11, 12, and 13 years old, the child starts growing and hits puberty. Do NOT get over excited because your child grows 10 inches in a year. This does not mean that they are ready to play a year above their age. It just means that they hit an early growth spurt. Do NOT confuse this with talent. Understand that your child’s advantage will only last for a few years or months until the rest of the kids catch up to their growth development. This also goes the other way, just because your child is a late bloomer, does not mean that he/she will be inferior. Stay focused and let them continue playing soccer because your child loves to play, enjoys being on the field, loves competing, and is motivated to improve. Winning games and scoring goals at this age does not mean that it will translate to High School or College; it means that your child is on a team that scores a lot of goals. What you must assess is the child’s ball control, vision on the field, confidence, and ability to take defenders 1 v 1.
At the age of 13, 14, and sometimes 15 years old, you should have a good idea of how motivated and interested your child is about soccer. If they are to take the next step to playing in College or Professional, they will need specialized training from a professional coach. See my other post on How to Develop a Serious Soccer Player.