Invasion games such as soccer are played to be won, that's the point. So why is it that so many coaches are arguing the case for player development instead? Why don't training sessions revolve around winning? Shouldn't we work on our set-pieces and corners so we can score more goals and win? 

It all boils down to winning versus player development. Is your coach setting out to help the team win or are they focused on developing well rounded players? Or is it possible to do both?

The argument I hear the most is that if players are developed well, that they will, in time, begin to find success and start winning. While in principle that sounds correct, is it really the case? The problem is that people buy into this to varying degrees. This becomes further complicated by the fact that, to test this theory out, a coach has to apply this methodology and approach for years on end (if not close to a decade) to see if it works or not. The coach truly has to play the long game. 

At the highest level, how many coaches are afforded that much time? Similarly, at the youth level, how many coaches are able to stick around long enough to implement it. In theory, focusing on player development ahead of short term results, will result in developing better players and, eventually, lead to winning.

Start With The Building Blocks

 
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The reason for building from one block to the next is to set each and every player up for success as they develop as players. Coaches can put on a fantastic session regarding group tactics and switching the point of attack, but if the player doesn’t have the technique and developed skill to play a lofted  pass accurately, then the ball is lost each time it is tried.

  • As a result, it is important to have a well rounded player that is co-ordinated and well developed in terms of their motor skills.
  • This, in turn, will help players to develop their techniques whilst dribbling, taking players on 1 v. 1, passing and receiving the ball as well as finishing and putting it in the back of the net! 
  • Players who develop this competency and mastery in terms of technique can then start to look at individual tactics (effectively, their decision making) and choose when, where and why to perform a certain move/pass/shot versus another. The very best players are the ones who are well developed in terms of motor movements, technique mastery and decision making.
  • Only once you have these well rounded individuals (co-ordinated/technical/decisive) can you being to look at group tactics and how to combine with each other. This requires not only ability on the ball but also decisions without the ball. Players who understand to separate, from their opposition and teammates for example, will often find themselves in space to receive the ball.
  • Lastly, as players understand how to combine in small numbers, this can then be put in to the context of the game at large and team tactics can be applied.

 

Effective Player Development Will Lead To Winning

Player development means playing the long game, and it can certainly feel like that at times. Don’t be discouraged though. Players learn, mature and grow at different rates but as long as they focus on the process and training, the results will come as they become better within each building block and progress up the pyramid.

In the short term it may be that the team with the biggest goalkeeper concedes less goals and the team with the fastest striker scores more goals as they kick the ball long and chase after it in order to score their next goal. However, it’s the teams full of players that are co-ordinated, technical and make good decision’s that end up being most successful. 

The aim should be to help develop entire squads of these players rather than just one or two players that are effective in certain positions. Some teams will cheat the system and go on to recruit players to fill in for the deficiencies caused by their short term approaches – forcing out the players that were left behind in their development. Although it take’s time AND patience – it’s the Player Development Approach that ends up producing more players that understand the game and how to play it effectively.

 

What Can Parents Do To Help?

Player development starts at home. The very best players are the ones that leave training and practice in abundance in their own time. The best players aren’t made at training, they’re made in the hours of dedication they put into it themselves. The coaches will continually tweak, teach and demonstrate so that players are able to practice the correct technique, or make good decisions. Ultimately though, it’s up to players to put in the work. No one can do it for them! Encourage players to practice what they worked on at training that week in their own time.

Focus on the process. Do your players have a growth mindset? (The best players know that they can become better. They have learning as a goal in sessions. They appreciate that it takes time and effort in order to do so.) Are they asking the right questions at practice? (What am I missing? I made a mistake, how can I tweak it for next time?) Help the players mindset by focusing your questions on what they learned and how they can ask the right questions to further their learning.

 
 

Player development and winning don’t always start right away and there is no straight path to success. You may get there and then face setbacks. Be patient, trust the process and encourage players by praising their efforts more than anything else. It is their application and effort that will continue to drive their development and improvement!

 

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully this helps to outline the player development philosophy and coaching process as coaches continually strive to develop, mentor and teach the beautiful game. The more coaches, parents and clubs that apply themselves to player development, the more players we'll have to push through to Academies and the Elite level. As the number of these complete players increases at the grassroots level, the more chance we'll have of seeing someone truly special arrive on the world stage...

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