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Developing a Better Player? Do we have the wrong recipe?

There has been a lot of talk lately on how we can develop a better player and a better athlete in Canada. Many will argue that you develop better athletes by having them involved in multiple sports. Secondly, athletes that specialize in a sport early have a far greater risk of failure and a greater risk of injury. Although these statements are valid I think we need to clarify what the experts deem as specializing and secondly what is the desired outcome for the athlete/player.

So what is the recipe for success to develop a soccer player or an athlete in general? If we knew it would be easy, right?

I have now been in Catalonia for almost 20 months and the sport's scene and culture of sport is really different from North America. There are no "recreational programs" similar to the ones in North America. If you want to participate in a sport, more than likely you need to select your sport that you will devote your time to. There is soccer, basketball, handball, futsal, roller hockey, tennis and many more that you can choose from. They all start at the end of August/early September and finish around the end of the school year with a break in July and August. All games are played on the weekend and most will train 3x/week in their respective sport. I know a few that play soccer and tennis competitively. This really is not the norm and most parents pick the sport as early as 8. So are these kids being "forced" to specialize early? They have to pick a sport at 8 and now won't have those other opportunities to engage in other organized activities to develop other skills through the cross training of sports or do we not fully understand what it takes to develop a soccer player, basketball player or whatever sport the player is involved in? Do we have it all wrong in how we do things and the way our culture has become with respect to organized sport?

Having 4 boys has allowed me to see a spectrum of ages with them being in different schools and different teams here in Catalonia . I have been able to see kids aged 4-19. In general, I believe children here are on average more "athletic" than their North American counterparts and most play only 1 sport competitively. One would say, how can that be? It goes against everything we have read, everything that we have been told. What have I been doing for the last 4 years with Johnny, a parent might say? Mondays he has soccer at 6pm and swimming at 745pm. Tuesday he has piano at 345pm, basketball at 515pm and soccer at 715pm. Wednesday he has school basketball after school, then straight to rep basketball and then agility training at 730pm with a strength and agility specialist. On Thursday he has school basketball, soccer and piano again. On Friday, his basketball tournament begins and ends Sunday if they make the finals but he also has a soccer game on Sunday at 6pm. Is anyone tired yet? I am!! Does this sound familiar to you? Do you hear parents reciting these schedules weekly? When does a child have time to eat supper and do homework and have some fun? Not in our busy schedules, that's for sure. Are we really creating better "athletes" this way? Not really, but the reality is not that they play only one sport but what they do in their free time, mainly unstructured play.

I have heard many and I was one of them when I lived back in Canada asking what has become of our cultural landscape. The lack of free play, play dates where parents schedule days for their kids to play with each other. I once watched two neighbours schedule a play date with their daughters 4 months later because they were so busy, really? I guess thats another story. What about parents who follow their kids waiting for something to happen and just short of bubble wrapping their child. I was told many times at different venues that I was a bad parent because I didn't follow my child on a play structure and even at an indoor play land. I said sorry the play land is for the kids, go relax and have a coffee lol. She didn't take too kindly to that.

What has happened to the summer days where your parents would say come home for lunch, then again for supper and then again when the street lights came on. Back then many mothers didn't work , playing safely was not really an issue or many didn't think about what could happen to their child. We of course live in different world now but how did we get to where we are today?

Perhaps nobody has really thought about the side effects of the helicopter parent, the lack of free play, the lack of play even at schools today. I remember a parent showing me an email from a school and it read that recess at school had to become a "walk and talk recess" and no balls were allowed anymore at school because of the fear of injuries. Remove the ball right, that will make things much easier. So any bit of physical activity on the break is now gone because they can only walk and talk. Perhaps the parents or school can suggest a subject on what to talk about on their walk and talk recess as well. What about being able to sort things out as kids and amongst their peers? Are kids able to make decisions like we used to do? I don't need to get into the obesity rates in North America and that we now have to teach kids how to run, jump, hop, climb and whatever else you did as a kid every single day. We have to teach physical literacy, shouldn't that be a given? Not anymore, with tablets, smart phones, game consoles, helicopter parenting, safety and many other factors we now have to teach this. So when we are talking about developing an athlete, we are starting at a negative because kids are not coordinated, lack balance, and lack the basic physical skills to play a sport. Instead of working on these physical skills to improve them, we have to start at the very beginning and I would even say before the beginning point.

When I look at kids here, they are ahead in terms of physical literacy compared to your average North American child. The reason is quite simple, they are allowed to play just like we used to do when we were kids. There are safe places and kid friendlies areas all over the place. Many kids scooter around even at 3 and work on their balance. Most at 3-4 years of age have bicycles with no pedals so they just walk around with their bike and again working on their balance and often ride a bike with no training wheels not too far later. Almost all kids will carry a ball of some sort. They will play in the square in the city centre with anyone who is there while the parent grabs a coffee or the child will play with the parent. It's an everyday occurrence and nobody complains about it, just a given. As they get older, kids are on skateboards, bikes, go hiking, play tennis, basketball and whatever else they come up with. Again, there are usually no parents and just kids being kids. These activities are the basis of kids getting their ABCs in physical literacy(agility, coordination and balance) and of course can be improved in training.

As mentioned earlier kids here play one sport competitively. A typical week, kids go to school 8-230pm straight or 830-500 with lunch from 1-3pm. A child would train Monday, Wednesday and Friday for example from 545-715pm and then go home or stick around and play some soccer tennis, rondo or just general play of whatever they can think of. They would play a game on the weekend, one week the game is at home and the next it is away. My boys have the 8-5pm school schedule, first hour of lunch is always a rondo, 5-8 kids every school day, Monday to Friday. Then depending on their training schedule another 30-45mins after school playing a rondo. Guess what, they never say when are going to play the real game coach? That is 7 to almost 9 hours per week of rondos with friends just for fun, with no coaches or parents around!! Rondo is religion here!!

If we mention after training and on the weekend, that number can get to 15-18 hours per week of extra "training" on their own every week on top of their 4.5 hours of structured training at their club. Kids get creative here with what they do in their spare time and as I mentioned it usually includes a ball. Kids are in charge of what they want to do and normally with no parents around.

Do we have the wrong recipe in developing an athlete in North America? I won't even get into the general level of coaching, the lack of culture in the game and the political mess the game is in. I have touched upon these topics in the past in previous articles and can be accessed in the above links but our players start behind the eight ball right from the get go. In our quest to make them more well rounded and "physically literate", we over schedule these kids. There is a huge drop out rate for kids leaving sports because of coaching, or too much pressure. Could another component be that these kids have never had any time to breathe and have fun, that they say enough is enough? Perhaps they haven't had any real time with any sport to fall in love with that sport because they have always been over scheduled and not a lot of time devoted to one activity? I am sure for some this is part of the reason and they didn't have the necessary skills to play the sport at a decent level and in turn did not enjoy it.

As I mentioned there are no organized rec leagues here. "Rec leagues" are organized by kids with other kids at a pre determined time or it just happens organically. They generally have fun, play for a few hours and go home. With basically the same model for all sports in Spain is there some merit to playing one sport competitively and doing many activities on the side with friends for fun. This is contrary to many beliefs but think this is what needs to happen if a child loves a sport and wants to try and progress. There is no need to play competitive everything. When I look at Spain's success in sport, they have been very successful in soccer, basketball, handball, water polo, tennis, cycling and many other sports. Of course there is a lot of government support for sport here with respect to facilities etc and other factors but if we look at physically literacy and competency in the sport they are succeeding. Do we really need recreational leagues in their current format? In order for the game to get better in North America we need to improve the overall level of all players. For the most part I believe players would get better playing regularly on their own and with friends than playing in a conventional recreational league. Free play is non existent and recreational leagues are culturally needed for kids to play for fun but when you played "for fun" as a kid how many times did your team have the same uniforms, a referee, a game time and parents, grandparents and friends shouting for you to go to the ball, score a goal or even ask why you did that? Probably never other than a friend saying, why didn't you pass to me there? Personally I think recreational leagues should be scrapped and a new structure created. It's easy for me to say but many of the club's revenue comes from recreational leagues but in terms of what is best for developing players most programs fall really short. So if they fall short of what we need why do we continue to sign our kids up for these programs? Maybe we don't know what we are supposed to get out of them or we need to do what everyone else is doing. I am not sure why but I know of some good development programs out there that are fun and working on developing the player but in general we are paying for our kids to "have fun" and many kids are not.

Now many will say this is great and would love for it to happen in Canada and what is done in other countries can't be replicated because we are not Spain or Catalonia as many will say here. We have so many cultural factors that limit free play, parents that need educating and much more. I realize that you can't grow these things organically because of where things have gotten but there needs to be a cultural swing. Many have offered drop in soccer or street soccer at their club. Offering a safe environment where kids can just play with kids of different ages. Coaches are doing some cross sport training in their sessions, whether they play basketball or have a football and play a game for a warm-up. There are a lot of great ideas coming out from coaches to improve physical literacy. But if we want to develop players the whole sporting community must do better and it has to start with the parents.

Parents need to let their kids develop by being kids and having fun. The over scheduling of their kids must stop. Children need a balanced childhood from their extra curricular activities, to school/homework to family time and for kids to just be kids. We are severely lacking in physical literacy of children. We have less kids that are coordinated and athletic from over scheduling them with all these activities and no free time. This means allowing your kids to jump, run, ride bikes, play with friends, skateboard and be outside. This starts from when kids learn to walk, take them to the park, let them have fun each and every day. Get the kids to knock on a few doors and see how many will go to the park with them. This may not be successful at first but over time parents have to help change the culture. A better athlete will be one who has been allowed this time to develop naturally as a child. Perhaps if parents are educated into this being the first important step they will make it happen.

Select a sport that you think your child enjoys and get them playing, probably at around 6. This may be one sport or a couple when young but there has to be balance. Going from one session to another session every night is counter productive. Secondly, the amount of organized training should be less than a children playing on their own or with a parent. Whether it is the same sport or different activities, players need to have the time away from the structured training. I also do not recommend taking kids aged 3-5 to a traditional house-league(clubs may not like this and depends on the child) but at this age a parent and a ball is really all you need. Have your child get comfortable on their own, dribbling, kicking and just having fun. There are not many countries other than Canada and the U.S. that have organized activities before 6 and its a product of the environment but is not needed. Your child will not "get behind". What is important is the child getting comfortable with that ball and the child getting the ABCs of physical literacy, agility, balance and coordination. The ABCs don't just come from soccer but also from kids just playing and having fun. This is easily done with a few friends or simply taking them to a park to play on those play structures. They can jump, climb, run and whatever else they can think of. Imagination is key for the child and let them be that, a child!!

This next part may be controversial for some and it really depends on what you want out of the sport. If you want your child to progress to a decent level I would suggest engaging in only one competitive development sport at around 8, but you really have to be careful with this. This means playing 2-3 times/week and that's it and having "fun" on other days. I am a firm believer that children need balance in their lives. I have heard of parents saying their kids are on the ice 25 times in a month. I personally think that is too much for the child and is counter productive. It also supports all the articles out there that say players are more robotic, less athletic, learning formations and strategies when its the wrong development stage for them to do this. In contrast many years ago players were not on the ice every day of the year and playing winter hockey, spring hockey, summer hockey, power skating, dry land and whatever else is out there. They were involved in street hockey, soccer, baseball and other activities. I have been told street hockey has been banned in many places but once again we are making it harder for kids just to play. One of my suggestions is to have children play school sports to experience different activities. My kids played soccer only outside of school when in Canada but were part of the school basketball team, track, flag football, went skiing and many other things. This was good for them and provided an outlet to experience different sports and not take up too much time in the evening for soccer on the nights they had it and free nights where they could just relax. It also did not cost any money or if it did was very minimal. They also had a school that allowed them to play basketball, soccer, football and other activities at recess. As I have said a few times, the key word is balance and will depend on the child. You have to listen to what they say and go with it but a childhood goes by quickly and you don't want your child to only have memories of the back seat of the van. Going from one activity to another, eating their meals there, doing their homework there and finally falling asleep in the back seat on the way home because they are exhausted in your quest to make them well-rounded.

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