By John Reddan
23rd, 2007. The day after Thanksgiving. While others had visions of hitting the stores early to wait in line and battle for the latest and the greatest the retailers had to offer, 56er soccer players had something else in mind. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., they dropped in to "just play" on the two indoor fields at Breakaway Sports Center. In the morning, the fields were full of U11 to U14 players while high school kids filled out the afternoon. Some of the day's key elements:
- Players made their own teams
- No referees; kids called their own fouls
- Substitutes were self-determined
See the theme? Who was in charge? The players. And what did we get as a result? Cooperation and a lot of fun. Older players were encouraging the younger players and showing their stuff while some of our 11s and 12s had plenty of tricks up their sleeves. It was a great opportunity for players to see and play with kids from other teams and age groups. More than once a player would point at someone after they saw a good move and say, "Which team does he/she play for? That was awesome."
We talk a lot about developing players and giving them the kind of environment that will help facilitate individual development. One of the key environments missing these days tends to be the neighborhood playground for "street soccer," where players just show up, put things together on their own, and have a game. Due to various circumstances and developments over time, we've lost a place where younger players learn the nuances of the game from their older peers and older players learn how to organize and inadvertently teach by way of example, entirely by their own initiative.
In addition to this lament for free play, another hot topic these days is the prospect of burn-out: when our young athletes lose their inner drive to continue to participate in a particular sport. The reason often given for this or feared is that kids play too much and therefore the sport grows dull and the excitement is lost. I would contend that the burn-out phase isn't reached from too much soccer but not enough free play soccer, where players are allowed to do their thing without any interference from adults. That's the overkill that organized sport can bring.
Coaching Director John Reddan
During the 56er Fun Day after Thanksgiving, we had players who stayed through their entire time slot -- four hours for some of them! The last hour, from 2:30-3:30 p.m., was left open for anyone who wanted to play, and we had some of the younger kids from the first session come back for more. Are they getting too much soccer? Are they about to experience burn-out? Not likely, but there is always that potential for us as coaches, parents, and administrators to overdo it, to handle every last portion of the activity so that the players are barely involved in the process, rarely asked to think or act for themselves. The beauty of soccer is that there are no time-outs, no scripted plays to run; players must create and solve problems on their own, and collectively, during the run of play. Where does that ability come from?
Our job as coaches is to instruct on technique and tactics, give feedback, suggestions, and a few solid dos and don'ts that will generally guide the players toward improvement. Trying to impart that knowledge over two or three practices a week at ninety minutes apiece over a three-month period is only going to go so far. If we try to add more it can understandably increase the stress on already time-taxed families with multiple kids involved in multiple activities. Where does the free play fit in? Considering the common restraints of time, geography, and the real concern of letting the kids just go off on their own, the reality is we have to organize it. Like our day at Breakaway, it has to be our version of street soccer. It can be done. As a club, as an age group, as a team, as a neighborhood, as a group of friends. Provide the kids the time, the place, and the supervision for safety. Then we adults should bring a book, walk the dog, take a nap, sit and watch … and let ‘em play.