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Developmentally Appropriate

Authors: Sam Snow - US Youth Soccer

One aspect of the National Youth License and the U6/U8 Youth Module and the U10/U12 Youth Module courses we emphasize, since it impacts all age groups, is the idea of training and game-day appropriateness for an age group.  So, here's the definition of developmentally appropriate.
 
How does the term developmentally appropriate relate to youth soccer?

Developmentally appropriate refers to the type of training and match environment children are put into and the coaching methods used. Young players, 19-years-old and younger, must be exposed to a proper environment in order to develop. Further, that environment must be suitable for the age and the level of play. The environment for a 12-year-old premier team player and a recreation-plus player will be different because the level of expectation of the player and coach will be different. Expectations will be based on the level of play. Additionally, the environment of training for a 12-year-old will be different than that of a six-year-old, since again the expectations will be different.

For example, youth academy rules for the Premiership clubs in England, boys between ages 9 and 12 must live within one hour traveling distance of the club; between 13 and 16, it's one and a half hours. Different age groups equals different expectations and what is then appropriate.

"They play small-sided games - we let them play.  The coach doesn't keep stopping them, I don't want to hear the coach's voice all the time. It's all about enjoyment at that age, we want them to come back," says Tony Carr, the director of the youth academy at West Ham United in London. He asks, "I have a question - Do we perhaps put too much emphasis on competition and winning too young? But I don't have an answer." (1)

Indeed the emotional impact coaches have upon children must also be developmentally appropriate. Too much pressure to win matches, tournaments and trophies too soon will cause undue distress, then burn out and then drop out. This is the number one reason players quit soccer by age 13!

The coach and parents must also consider their social and cognitive rates of development. From Jean Piaget (note below)  we have learned that this development goes through set stages. ALL players go through the stages. No stage is skipped and each player goes through those stages at different rates.

Technique is at the top of the list of the components of soccer to teach to children. Learning how to do things with the ball is great fun. Playing with the "toy" is the driving force behind participation for most youngsters. Work on ball skills must also be developmentally appropriate to the age group.

"Developmental acquisition of sophisticated movement abilities is a complex phenomenon that begins during the prenatal period and continues through adulthood. …Motor skills are refined from early, gross actions to highly coordinated and complex movements. This developmental trend of simple to complex and gross to fine is the basis of all motor development theory. Sequential acquisition of motor abilities can best be understood utilizing a "stage" model. …Motor development can be divided into two main periods: the preskill and skill refinement phases. …Behavioral characteristics from one level are utilized to build more advanced skills later in the continuum. It is important to note that a deficit in one stage of the developmental process will tend to influence acquisition of more complex skills." (2)

The stages are: preskill phase, reflexive stage, sensory integration stage, fundamental movement pattern development, skill development phase, skill refinement stage, skill performance stage and skill deterioration phase (time to start coaching).

To conclude, "Most young children are not ready for competition organized by adults. They need opportunities and activities in which they can develop and improve basic skills, but not external pressure to perform beyond their developmental abilities. When children do begin to play forms of adult games, modifications will be necessary. …the soccer field does not have to be regulation size and it is not necessary to play with the same size ball the pros use. Nothing is "holy" about the games big people play, but the games should not be modified to the degree that skill is not a requirement. Placing too many people on a team or making too few or too many rules can spoil the game for almost everyone. …Sports offerings should be based on children's needs and level of development. Activities that lead the participant to a higher level of action are the best from a developmental standpoint." (3)

1) Paul Gardner, Youth Soccer London-style, Soccer America, May 1, 2000, p. 7.
2) Russell Pate, et al., Scientific Foundations of Coaching, New York, CBS College Publishing, 1984, pp. 184-190.
3) Billie Jones, et al., Guide To Effective Coaching, second edition, Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1989, p. 68
 
Piaget, Jean (1896-1980), Swiss psychologist, best known for his pioneering work on the development of intelligence in children. Born in Neuchâtel, Piaget studied and carried out research first in Zürich, Switzerland, and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he began his studies on the development of cognitive abilities. Piaget wrote extensively on child development.

In his work, Piaget identified four stages of a child's mental growth. The sensorimotor stage lasts up to age 2; a child's gaining motor control and learning about physical objects marks it. In the preoperational stage, from ages 2 to 7, a child is preoccupied with verbal skills. In the concrete operational stage, from ages 7 to 12, a child begins to deal with abstract concepts. Finally, in the formal operational stage, ages 12 to 15, a child begins to reason logically and systematically. 
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