My oldest son had a lot of natural talent. He was born an athlete, he was able to hit and throw a baseball at 18 months, he was kicking and dribbling around the same time and could dribble a basketball not too long after. He is talented. Although he was and is talented, I found myself frustrated all of the time because although I had played soccer my entire life and I was a lover of the game I did not understand player development. I certainly did not understand development at the youngest ages and levels of the game.
I know there are a lot of soccer parents like me who love this game and just want their kids to love it too.To save those parents some of the same frustration and to help explain player development at the youngest ages we spoke with Coach Dave Merrick of Sporting Columbus. Coach Dave is a former D1 player (Marshall University) and educator for the past 25 years. He has a masters in curriculum and instruction along with his NSCAA National Diploma.
Soccer should be fun
I don’t care who you are, what age you are, who you follow or where you play; soccer should be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. Whenever I coach or referee the youngest age groups I always try to make it about the fun. I hate when I see the social media posts of a poor little boy or girl that wouldn’t go out onto the field for their first time because they didn’t like the shoes. If that’s the case, let them wear the shoes they want!
Coach Dave shared with us that “At U5 the most basic developmental milestones should be that the player is always asking or wanting to know when their next soccer training is because they have so much fun being out there.”
99.9% (a made up number to get my point across) of players who show up under age 5 are not going to be good at anything but being a kid, and kids are really good at having fun. Kids can also feel when something is not fun for their parents and they will automatically push back on those things or avoid doing them again.
In our recent post about Grassroots Soccer Coach Kevin Donovan shared that the foundation to producing lifelong players is by creating the right playing environment. For players under 5, the priority should always be on fun because the only objective for this age group is to create the right environment for players to fall in love with playing.
Creating a love for the ball
When my oldest son was in his first year of SAY soccer I remember the frustration. He was 6 years old and played U8 and although one of the smallest was a standout on the field. He would play from goal line to goal line and I would scream at him to watch his positioning, pass the ball, shoot! I was frustrated with the volunteer coach for not teaching the team to play in their positions. I was frustrated with the kids for not taking the game as seriously as my son. I was frustrated with my son for not listening to every order I barked at him and I was frustrated with my husband who calmly stood there not saying a single word but nervously looking around while passively asking me to calm down.
In hindsight, I wish I knew then what I know now. As Coach Dave shared with us, “Player development at the younger ages is all about creating a love between the ball and the player. Individual ball mastery is the focus.” While it's okay to teach your younger players about the intricacies of the game, just having the ball at their feet and getting them to move toward the ball should be the goal.
Pedagogy and Learning Environment for players U5-U9
As an educator and a professional committed to curriculum we wanted to know what Coach Dave felt was the necessary learning environment for U5-U9 Players. “The learning environment for a U5-U9 player should be one that is fun, energized and fosters a sense of belonging and opportunities for players to be creative on the ball.” Building confidence is important at this age. “Players should be empowered to take chances and become comfortable taking on players…” Coach Dave added “and really embrace the ball and me mentality”
While the concept or theory of “just have fun” can seem cliche, it really is important for our grassroots organizations and youth clubs to put it into practice. Coach Dave shared that at Sporting Columbus “our pedagogy at the U5-U9 age group is to create a fun dynamic environment where players feel part of a community and can get 100’s of touches during training and have fun while doing so”
There is one resource I recommend for all parents, it's the grassroots introductory module in the US Soccer Learning Center. I recommend EVERY soccer parent take this short and FREE course. It will help you understand the game, if you have never played before. If you are a lifelong lover of this beautiful game it will help you to understand the player development and coaching objectives a little bit more.