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Deliberate Practice

Soccer for Four-Year-Olds

Yesterday I had the privilege of watching my grandson play in his first soccer game. He is four years old.

What a wonderful day, full of moments to remember.

One of the goalies was facing away from the field, content to play with the mesh of the net. When the game started, no one moved to the ball; the players didn’t know they were allowed to stray from their assigned spots. During the game, players would sit, or lie on their back, feet in the air.

And so while watching, in addition to enjoying all the fun, I wondered a couple of things.

First, which of these players will become good at soccer? It is impossible to tell. Though some players did better than others on this first day, it is important to remember that, in the words of my friend Dr. Carl McGown, “initial ability and final ability are not closely related.”

Some of those players will develop intense interest in the sport, receive strong support from home, play the game a lot, and become highly skilled. Others will treat the game more casually, playing only because their friends do it or because their parents urge them to. These players will develop less skill.

Others will become distracted or discouraged, seeing their failures as an innate lack of ability, and proceed accordingly. Still others will find other interests.

Today, one day after their first game, no one knows which players will do what. A lot will depend on their coaches, and whether the practices and games are fun. Players who have fun are more likely to return and stay. They will acquire skill more deeply, and retain it more than those who don’t have fun. This is so basic that it should scarcely need mentioning, yet many coaches do not fully appreciate this.

Here’s the second thing that I wonder: Are the coaches training the players in the best possible way? Since I know nothing of teaching four-year-olds, I don’t know the answer.

But there are two powerful principles at work.

We want the players touching a ball as often as possible, because kicking a ball is fun and we want the kids to have fun. With a team of seven or eight players, we want at least three balls out there, so the players can kick it back and forth or in triangles, or just plain kick it.

Practices and game warmup should be as much like a game as possible. This means the players should not only be kicking and chasing balls, but they should also be doing it in the right direction (toward the goal?).

The whole thing makes me wish I were back in college, embarking on a career. Because here is what I would do. I would find one of these events, opening day of four-year-old soccer, and gather data on each player, and follow them for 10 years. As a high school coach with strong interest in player development, I find the age particularly intriguing, because it marks the beginning of 10 years before the player arrives in high school. Those are the 10 years that experts say are vital to acquiring a high level of skill.

Perhaps there is already a study of four-year-old soccer players out there. Perhaps you are in a position to undertake one, or know someone who can. I would love to know the results.


One comment for “Soccer for Four-Year-Olds”

  1. Great stuff Coach
    I have worked with young kids of that age and you are right about not knowing for sure who will eventually succeed at the high school level and above

    I have seen a few “can’t miss” types miss because fore various reasons: burnout, poor attitudes, reading the press clippings. too much hype, etc.

    The more I have seen I agree with you its about keeping it fun and helping kids love the game no matter what their sport is

    Posted by kevin reilly | September 27, 2009, 4:08 pm

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