Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.


Role of Competition in Soccer Development

Sam Snow

I’ve jested with my colleagues from time-to-time that part of our job in youth soccer is to rock the boat. Don’t tip it over, but do rock it now and then. The objective of rocking that boat is to get folks attention on a particular matter. So here goes – let’s rock the boat.

The topic of competition in the development of a soccer player is one that could be a semester long course in a university, so suffice it to say that a short blog posting won’t cover all of the possible discussion points. I do hope that it stimulates conversation among you and your coaching colleagues.

Let me open the discussion with these thoughts.

Competition = 1. The act or process of competing; 2. A contest between rivals. From the Latin competere, meaning to seek together, to come together, agree or be suitable.

So from the start we need other soccer players to have a game in order to compete. Competition in the development of a soccer player is first and foremost self-competition; improving upon your best. Secondarily that competition is with others in order to once again improve upon your best.

Competition exists in all of youth soccer, in all age groups and in every level of play; often though, people think that competition only exists in outcome-based matches, leagues or tournaments. That has lead us to the unfortunate labels we’ve put on ourselves of recreational soccer and competitive soccer. There are more similarities between those two player development pathways than differences. Below is a slide from a presentation that I made at the 2014 US Youth Soccer Workshop.


The goal of showing the similarities of youth recreation soccer and youth competitive soccer was to show that they are largely the same thing. The biggest differences that I see between the two are the quality of coaching and the quality of soccer being played.

Part of the message that we deliver in the “Y” License is that all youth soccer is recreational – by definition. Until the players receive a paycheck for their soccer talents they are in fact amateur players. All amateur soccer is recreational. I tell the coaches to imagine a ball dropped between two 6-year-olds and watch them compete. Do the same thing with two 19-year-olds and the same thing will happen. That 1 vs. 1 will simply look quite different when performed by the 19-year-olds than when done by the young children. Yet both pairs of players are competing. So the conclusion is that all youth soccer is competitive. The difference is the age appropriateness of that competition. We then draw out the fact that we in youth soccer do ourselves a disservice by labeling two houses of youth soccer as ‘rec’ or ‘comp’ when in fact both exist under the same roof.

The discussion then is not whether competition has a place in the development of a soccer player for it clearly does. The debate is on when do use the score of the match as the primary measure of development. The following discussion ensued not long ago between a high school coach who is also on US Youth Soccer ODP region staff, a State Association technical director [he was looking for resources as he was battling the movement in his state association to start U8 travel teams], technical staff within U. S. Soccer and the NSCAA and two college professors who are “A” License coaches and instruct in the national coaching schools.

“I am part of a committee that is researching the role of competition in development ---I was wondering if you had any documents or studies about youth sports  say starting at age five on up –if competition can/does play a role and how much, and when  -- is competition detrimental to development, etc.?”  - High school coach

“I have attached three research articles that may aid his attempt to curb U8 Travel/Select soccer. There are some elements in these that can aid him. The summary of these documents for me is that the environment has to be sound and educational. If the environment is beneficial for long term athletic development then youth development shall prevail. I know we had this problem too here in my home state. Still do. Basically, he needs to get the clubs on board with him if he can. You can always have him call Bobby Clark from Notre Dame who told me when we were going through the same fight that "Kids spend too much time in cars today". He then said that basically children shouldn't travel one way more than the length of the game. We have so many children playing why the need to travel so far. I found that very insightful. Then ask how many of these children are still in car seats?  How many of these children still can't tie their shoes? I spent a lot of time tying shoes for our U8's. Maybe that is specific to my state? I guess the real question he should ask is:  Show me where it is better for them to put them in a travel/select environment when they are seven here in America? Maybe there is real evidence.  If there is, I haven't seen it. To be fair though, each child is different and it should be up to the clubs to make the right decision for that specific case.” – U. S. Soccer technical staff

“This is all good stuff, but I'm not sure it addresses their primary question: At what age and to what degree should children engage in competition? This of course also depends on our definition of competition. But perhaps the more accurate question is at what age can children successfully participate in organized team sport? And how does the structure influence their child's development.”  – College [Midwest] professor

Perfect point!  Sam, this is a bit to my point to from yesterday – defining competition.  Competition isn’t inherently bad as it is frequently spontaneous with kids.  For me, the real issue is how kids perceive competition and more importantly how adults and others are framing and working with kids in competitive endeavors. – College [West] professor

“At the heart of this issue, is the "level of insanity" that the parent-coaches and parents bring to the competitive games at U8. I obviously understand that measuring this in a concrete and scientific way is impossible. This being said, and with such huge numbers leaving the game by 13, I wish we could prove the relationship between specific behaviors and their effects (beyond doubt). My belief is that the move to competitive U8 games, that mirror the attitudes and behaviors shown by their U10, U12, etc... counterparts will simply mean we lose more players even younger. Will our clubs be looking at 70% leaving by 10 years old? – State Association technical director

“Be brave, if you win the fight, some other organization will endorse it and pick up the registrations. So be clear on the principle, be clear on how much stomach for the "fight" and try to educate rather than legislate to the solution.  – NSCAA technical staff

Here then is my final thought.

As has been pointed out, I believe the matter about which to educate the adults is not competition per se, but outcome based youth soccer. The fact is that ALL of our youth soccer players are recreational players and they ALL are competitive players. Until they are paid professional players, recreation and competition are one in the same. The only thing that changes is the level of play.

The issue at hand instead is putting young players into outcome (results) oriented soccer environments and when should that experience begin. The adults want soccer that is a spectacle. They want it for themselves and most care little about the players. This is why so many adults rush to having tryouts, earned playing time, won/loss records, team standings, promotion and relegation and championships at earlier and earlier ages. Some of those folks ignorantly think that earlier is better for player development. They need to be educated on the facts. Some folks want this environment early in a soccer player’s life so that they can charge the parents more money sooner in the player’s soccer timeline. They must be taught a new business model. Some adults want children to compete before they have learned how to play the game. They need continuing education.

The challenge before us, as I see it, is parent education. Youth soccer in our country is not driven by coaches or administrators, referees or even the players. Parents drive youth soccer in the USA. If we want to improve our soccer culture we must undertake massive parent education. That would be best lead by the USOC and involve every Olympic sport, not just soccer. I may not be helping your immediate needs, but I am confident that you understand that the encroachment of over-competitiveness into younger and younger age groups is a cancer in youth sports. It is one that we must collectively work to cut out. As rants go this is a short one, but I think the issue of misguided adult expectations in youth soccer is at the heart of everything we are doing.



Don Martin in Quincy, MA said: Parent-coaches and parents all want what is best for little John & Sally. They take their direction from the mentors they see around them or in many case don't see. This is why our most experienced coaches need to spend more time in the trenches with these parent-coaches so we can lead by example and educate the insanity out of time spent on the pitch each session. Competing is educational and needs to be framed properly so parents understand that the result is not what were measuring but progression by each player as they compete. How many coaches or parent-coaches learn to take the time to educate parents of this? It has to start at the top down and U6 - 8 need help.
14 May 2014 at 9:40 AM
Joe Terrell in Ansbach, AE said: I really enjoy reading this and seeing someone is thinking about this. Heading up the operations in Europe for USYS Region I, I see quite a difference between the American programs run on the military installations vs. the German run leagues. The parents are 90% of the time the worst part of youth development. Many already see a star at the age of 5 and the child is treated like that. With competition starting off in the 3 and 4 year olds they will quickly lose interest in the sport due to the pressure put on the child from the parents. All over the world it is becoming difficult to keep quality players in a team, either soccer is not the primary sport of a country or in countries where soccer is the primary sport it is now being slowly eaten up by video games, computers and smart phones. When not wearing my USYS hat I am a coach in one of the DFB NLZ in Bavaria (basically a select academy type of program). I coach the U18 but our program starts at U9. In Bavaria we have gone to a state wide program of Fair Play. This has promoted the most promising changes I have seen in the sport in the last 24 years of coaching in Europe. There is no official, there are no tables or rankings, the parents MUST stay a minimum of 30 feet from the side of the field and only in one designated area not allowing them to surround the field or behind goals, only the two coaches are on the sideline to help out if there is a major problem. Of course score is kept, but forgotten at the end of the day. This is common for the U7-U9. It has really calmed the sport down quite a bit, the kids enjoy it much more and it takes pressure off of them so they can play without worrying about what place the team is in, and if will they be promoted or relegated, etc. I certainly hope they maintain this program here in the future and that is spreads world wide in the future. You would be amazed at how many fouls do not happen without mom and dad screaming at a referee or children. It is also amazing to see how well the kids understand the rules and how fair they really do play. Perhaps this is an educational process and a program that might help keep kids a little longer in the program. As for a travel league at U8 level.... WOW, that is miserable and things like this in my opinion is what makes the sport quite unattractive in the US. It seems to me like some soccer association is just trying to find a way to milk parents for more money. No matter what age they are there is one very bad part of any youth soccer players career, the ride to and from the game. By creating a travel league and making the kids travel it turns their experience into a very bad one depending on the over motivated, mostly not properly educated on child development in soccer, parents. I spoke with my son about this. He said the worst thing in the world is riding home after games, he has played high level leagues in Germany throughout his youth, so his talent level is fairly good. Dad is a licensed coach in Germany. Long car or bus ride equals dad seeing all the small things that were wrong, son knows he did good and bad things during the game and does not need dad to tell him about it and in the end there is an argument - dad knows better and son does not want to hear it. I have given up in the U19 trying to discuss this with him, only after learning that after many years I was a major problem in his development. I should have kept my mouth shut and let the coaches take care of what was good and bad. In the end to sum it up, I think a U8 should not be placed in a travel league type of environment. This will be miserable for them and it will hurt their development. Perhaps you have a child with quite a bit of potential based on his current skill set, if he/she has parents that are screaming all the time or trying to correct him/her you are probably looking at the first candidate that will probably lose interest in the sport. Add the league type of environment and it is really programmed for disaster, imagine if you missed that winning goal and it cost your team first place. I could imagine how parents and the coach would react. They honestly forget one fact; the child knows what happened and how valuable that 100% goal was to the team to get to first place. The last thing they need is to be reminded on a long trip home. The result a good player may never develop in a sport they they loved in the beginning but adults ruined it for them.
14 May 2014 at 4:29 AM
Paul McNally in Blue Springs, , MO said: Question is not in my view when we compete on the scoreboard. Question is when do players commit to one sport year round. 40 years as a coach, HS, College, Club. Dropout rate so high at U-12 -U-14. Academies pushing for low ages, coach in me says teach love & passion for the game first. Also note coaching fees, costs etc rise a lot within Academy structure.
13 May 2014 at 7:44 PM
Brett Hoffman in Oskaloosa, IA said: Your writing strikes to the heart of what is encroaching onto our wonderful sport. This zeal for score based competition has got to be curbed at EVERY developmental level. Year after year, game after game I have seen developing players sit on the sidelines so the "better" players can win the game, only to witness benched players develop, over time, into incredible athletes in OTHER sports because they were shunned as the chubby little kid in U10 and U12. Too much emphasis placed on winning strategies, formations, and philosophies before a player has even mastered a single skill is killing our pool of talent and success for when it really matters, when a player is maturing as an athlete and competing at their potential. As a coach, I take responsibility in setting the goal for if a game is a success or not. Points on the board, even at the U14 level, rarely reflect if a team played well. Did we incorporate the skills from practice? Did we play through mistakes and keep composure? At what level did we reflect the honor of our club? These questions reflect my goals for wining, not a score on the board.
13 May 2014 at 4:19 PM
Jamie in Clackamas, OR said: I completely agree with this article. I have had my "D" license for 12 years and currently have a U13 Son who is a regional ODP player. I also coach my daughter who will be U8 and I was shocked to see an email from her club regarding "assesments" for U8 developmental soccer. This is way to much pressure to put on such a young age group and thus my wife and made the decision to keep her playing Rec. My son started developmental at the U9 age but was fortunate enough to have great coaches who understood the phylosophy and chose development and teaching the game over wins. I have a real issue trying to see a U8 player learning and enjoying the game under that pressure after all the beautiful game is meant to be fun for the kids and not about us parents yelling from the sidelines to win.
13 May 2014 at 2:26 PM

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