Rankings for Youth Soccer Teams
I decided to draft this article in a bid to plea for a little bit of sanity in our youth soccer system. So many good coaches and clubs exist out there, each one of them working hard to implement many appropriate developmental programs for those youth players aspiring to master the art of playing soccer. US Soccer, as well as other organizations concerned with soccer in the country, have always made it clear that at the younger age groups coaches should focus more on the development and learning. At this stage, it does not really matter how many times they win or lose; the kids are just starting to learn how to play. In as long as players need to learn how to get into the soccer field, compete and try to win a game, at this age theirs should be an environment free of winning pressures. It should be a platform where risk-taking and creativity are encouraged to thrive. The style of play should flow freely, with very minimal direction from the coach. Proper ways of playing are supposed to be encouraged and motivated. Even when developing their practice sessions and managing matches for the players under their care, coaches should concentrate more on assisting these youngsters hone their skills with a goal to enabling them to gain the tools and expertise for future real competitive marches at older and senior levels, and of course also enjoy the game.
I hope we have agreed up to that point. If we have, could you please now explain to me why we have a youth ranking system for Under 11 (U11) teams? I mean, why rank 10-year-old players? What exactly is the meaning of it? And much more importantly, how is this whole system helping to promote a better youth soccer experience for these young players and enable the US develop better soccer talent?
If you have rational answers to all the above queries, answers that take into account the benefits of the system to the kids — and not their parents or coaches — then I assure you that you are much smarter than I am. And by the way, since being smart is not an exclusive club, you could be smarter! I have been trying to understand why they decided to put in place such a ranking system in the first place, what justifications they could have had, but I really cannot comprehend.
How do we rank a team either at number one or number last? Performance, right? For a team to be ranked at the top, it has to win a lot of competitions and tournaments. Then we consider it “successful”, right? Wrong! For me, what I would consider as success is HOW that team or teams are winning such competitions. Therefore, for a youth soccer team, what I would call success is the level of GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT IMPARTED IN EACH PLAYER. Now, tell me of any kind of “ranking” like that for a club or team that you know!
If a kids’ team steps on the soccer field, and uses a development-first approach, and tries to play the right way, with their focus on possessing the ball, and giving each kid on the field a chance to make an equal contribution to the game, giving all of them an opportunity to play the game and experience it in different positions, and encouraging each of them to take risks; if they win the match this way, then it is a fantastic thing; this is what should be applauded and encouraged — that is what I call success.
Contrary to this right way of doing things, teams winning most of these tournaments nowadays take a very different approach; that I would bet! Their approach is possibly nearer to the other side of the spectrum — it is far from what has been promoted by US Soccer and several other coach-education organizations and leaders as the appropriate approach for these age groups. I guess those teams rely on a few “special” players to be the ones to make the difference for them — score most goals, take all set pieces, control the game and always remain on the field to make that difference. Such a team would find it hard to participate in a contest that one of these “key” players may have to miss even for personal reasons; it is not worth the struggle if you aren’t going to win, right? Probably, the rest of the team is composed of better-than-average players who are obliged by the rules to pass the ball to these “special” players as fast as they can during play. Other players never get a chance to share the same responsibilities; never do they get a chance to play this kind of role on their “team”.
And please do not get me wrong: I am not saying that if a team wins then it shows that they are just playing to win rather than try developing players. No, winning obviously is a great thing. It could be an indication that the coach is doing a great job and is assisting each player to develop and learn. So I do not really have any problem with a team winning. My only concern is simply HOW they are winning at the younger ages. Like I mentioned earlier, development can surely take a great deal of time, but plenty of shortcuts that take very minimal time exist and youth teams can use them to win.
I am pretty sure that some great U11 soccer teams who can play a fantastic game exist out there, and continue to be prepared for play even in the future. We would consider their kind of soccer fantastic still IF as time goes when they reach to the older senior level age-groups they are still winning games. Or is this not supposed to be the kind of success that youth coaches, teams and clubs should be aiming at in the long run? Should they not be helping players to learn soccer in such a way that they can come back and be better players in the following year? Otherwise it would be quite unfortunate if a team who were considered “high level” at a certain point gradually fall behind every passing season, without being able to return to their glory of the early years in their youth careers.
If we — as a community that has embraced soccer, and also as a nation — are really serious about transforming the youth soccer system, and to motivate, encourage and promote coaches to teach this game faithfully, then this is one section of the system that we need to eliminate completely. No need whatsoever to rank clubs at younger age groups. These two things cannot really run simultaneously: promotion of a better soccer playing and developmental experience and a youth team ranking system. All this kind of system does is immediately switch the focus of players, coaches, parents as well as clubs to an aspect of soccer that does not really matter at youth level. Even if you will still step on the soccer field to compete and try to win the game, take an approach that will be concerned more on teaching the youngsters how to play soccer; never do it so that your team can move up one spot in the rankings.
Just for fun, I tried checking out the position of Barcelona’s U11 team on world rankings, but I could not get that information online — quite unfortunately. Barca either likes this to remain a secret or they really do not care about world rankings!