U.S. Youth Soccer Under COVID

We are all facing uncertain times that we need to react to and be proactive about in order to ensure that young kids who just started playing soccer do not miss out on developing the natural love for the game that is acquired through playing. We need to ensure that teenagers who are already involved in the game keep growing, learning, and developing themselves physically, technically, and mentally. And lastly, players who are preparing to play professionally or in the collegiate level need to be able to reach the peak of their development now, this year, this season, so they do not miss out on contracts, scholarships, and opportunities that they would have received in what we previously defined as our normal environment. We are now facing a new normal, but more importantly to us, a new normal for soccer. 

This new normal will include no games at all, for some, and less games, for most. We have already read about leagues, conferences, collegiate programs, and clubs shutting down. This coming season players will not get the level of competition that every kid in the past has been able to rely on for their development as players, and as a platform to project their skills to scouts of better clubs, recruiters from colleges, and parents who simply want to watch their kids play.

Technical Development

Facing a season with less or no competitive games opens up an opportunity for technical development. Coaches, parents, and the players themselves can take a deep breath, and for once not focus on winning the next game, climbing positions in the conference table, or lifting the tournament’s trophy. Players and coaches together can use this time to work on the basic skills of soccer that they usually do not have the time to work on. Some parts of the country will not allow group training or full-contact sessions, which could have a negative impact on youth development, but could also be an opportunity to get as many touches on the ball as one possibly can, and improve one’s, so important, relationship with the ball. 

  • Designing exercises to encourage players to use their non-dominant foot and develop its technical ability without the pressure of making a mistake in a game. Pinpointing to players the importance of using both feet to receive the ball and release, and learning when to do so, depending on the situation and positioning on the field.
  • Working on players’ speed of play. Receiving and releasing the ball fast, yet accurately, and with a purpose. A fantastic yet underrated way to improve speed and accuracy of play is working on players’ first touch quality. A slick and purposefully directed first touch will increase the likelihood of a successful second one.
  • Making up for every time players were in a match or a training environment in which they were calling for the ball, desperate to get it and be involved, but their teammate either lost the ball or decided to head the opposite direction. Small-group and contactless sessions will be an opportunity to make up for all the times that players did not get enough of the ball, and now they have an opportunity to get more touches than ever before.

The points above can all be tackled and taken advantage of by creating unopposed, contactless passing exercises and patterns, with or without teammates. 

  • Eventually, to improve and develop, players will need to perform when it matters – a match environment. But without matches, the only way to develop would be to utilize training sessions for small-sided games (5v5, 6v6, 7v7), which will increase the intensity level of the session and force players to think fast, while demanding a high level of technical execution.
  • Depending on the age, full-width (9v9, 10v10, 11v11) intersquad matches will be the closest thing to a real match environment. It will familiarize players with what they are preparing for – to be able to perform in a soccer match. Full-width fields will give players extra time on the ball and a chance to work on and execute tactical instructions indoctrinated by their respective clubs or academies. 

While not spending time (and money) on travelling, sitting on the substitute bench, or being restricted to a certain number of competitive games, there is a real opportunity for players to develop their own technical skills but also combine it with a high emphasis on bringing those skills to match-like situations in training sessions. Players could make the most out of this new normal and potentially accelerate their development. 

Physical Preparation and Development

For the first time in modern history players from all levels were forced to take a “break,” longer than they have ever had to take. Whether it was a Premier League superstar or a U15 academy player, they had no choice but to be locked up and isolated from the sport that their body was used to enduring and enjoying. Whether they liked it or not, players spent the last few months acclimatizing to small, confided environments, locked indoors, and probably sitting on a couch more often than not. Once they are back on the field, their bodies will not be used to sprinting, running for prolonged periods, landing on one foot after being nudged in the air by a defender, smashing a ball into the net – playing normal soccer on a daily basis. They have to prepare for the return-to-play in a responsible way and have an objective understanding of where their bodies stand physically, otherwise they will be risking their health, development, and future. 

  • Workload management (ACWR): making sure players return at the pace that suits their bodies, their individual level of fitness, and adjust their sessions as the weeks go by, accordingly.
  • Monitoring the number of sprints, high-intensity speed changes (Accelerations/Decelerations) each player performs in comparison to what they have been used to.
  • Monitoring daily/weekly/monthly total distances covered, high-intensity running distances, sprint-running distances to make sure players do not overreach their body’s current capabilities.
  • When players return to full-fitness or at the least, close to the intensity levels they were used to enduring, it will be time to start setting gradual goals. Rather than only focusing on safety and injury prevention, players will reach the point in which they will need to challenge themselves and set physical objectives: daily, weekly, monthly. This process will allow players to build the fitness their bodies require in order to push themselves and become the athletes that they aspire to be, and need to be, in order to make it to the pinnacle of soccer. 

Not only have players taken a prolonged “break” from soccer, but they will also start playing at an intensity level that they are not used to, due to ignorance, excitement, and desperation to simply play the game. In order to prevent injuries and endangering themselves, players will need to be monitored individually, responsibly, and slowly re-accustom their bodies to be playing soccer at the intensity that they have always been used to and aspire to perform at. 

Individual Highlight Clips

The reduction or the lack of competitive games, tournaments, and showcases throughout the upcoming season will result in less opportunities for college recruiters and professional scouts to watch players perform. More than ever, they will be relying on video clips to determine the ability, potential, and suitability of players for their respective teams and programs. 

  • It will be crucial to re-create match-like activities in training sessions and be able to record these and have material to present to recruiters and scouts, and also use the clips as a tool for personal development.
  • The best athletes, performers, and artists are the ones that evaluate their work. Examine it closely, with or without the help of their coach or teacher. Having the ability to evaluate their own tactical positioning, defensive mistakes, lack of awareness, and more, will allow them to improve their own game.
  • Coaches and recruiters do not have the time to sit down and watch full 90-minute games or full-training sessions. Having the ability to edit and tag videos will be crucial to grab the attention of the recruiters and scouts. Filtering videos to emphasize players’ positive attributes could increase their chances of getting noticed and recruited to the clubs and programs they aspire to belong to.

Coaches and technical staff members know the type of players they are looking for to fill in certain roster spots. Filming games or training sessions is important, but not enough. These videos need to be clipped and served to the recruiters and scouts in a fashion that will appeal to what they are looking for. For example: A college coach searching for a dynamic outside-back who is fast and has the ability to cross the ball into the opposition’s box throughout the entire game, will want to see these attributes emphasized and expressed in the video he or she receives from the player. The coach will not be satisfied or have the patience/time to evaluate full-length videos for each outside-back candidate that he or she is examining.

In times of change, we, as people, must choose to react or we risk staying behind. Soccer players and athletes who desire to improve their game and develop themselves to become players at the highest level in their school, community, youth league, national league, or the highest level in the world, must all choose to react, be proactive and not let a situation that is out of their control define who they will become, as people, and as soccer players. The world stops for no one.