Not to liquefy a dead horse, assuming you have read this same sort of thing at Shannon's or Chris's place, but I'm thinking about the difference between children in sports being driven to win and children in sports being treated as children.
I hadn't planned to write about this aside from a largish stack of comments combined between their blogs, but as I sit here now watching soccer, it's on my mind again. The game is Chelsea versus Liverpool, part of the UEFA cup, so it features some of the very top teams in the world. These are men who have devoted a great portion of their lives to the game, and they would not be here themselves if they weren't some of the best and most skilled players in the world.
I'd love to see the Americas drawing the world's greatest, or at least our share, but that's another post for another day. We won't go into my Americas (North, Central and South) versus Europe debate just now.
Any U8 soccer team can have a big enough kid that powers through the other kids and whangs the ball into the net. I've coached kids that were like that, and I very easily could have had the entire team feed this child the ball, and I could have had a number of undefeated seasons if I were willing to play this way.
My own son has some amount of skill, and if he were currently more interested in soccer, and if he worked more at home on his skills, I have no doubt he could be a top player in our local AYSO region. That isn't what he wants right now. While he loves soccer, he also loves meeting new friends and playing with them, be it soccer or tag or even just a couple dashes around the playground. Sometimes he'd rather hold an interesting leaf and twirl it in his fingers.
Watching top level soccer however points at skills that are necessary to be good at the game, skills that must be learned young, before the drive to win becomes to strong. If I rely on my ringer, I will win games, but at what expense?
Skills needed are vast, and many children need years of play time to start to see the variety of situations that arise in the game.
-passing-soccer is often primarily a game of passing. A good team is always aware of each other in terms of distance and angles. Many teams seem to play the game and pass in constantly moving triangles. A great run at the goal often involves exact passes, not to a player but to where that player and the ball will meet. Children don't often think to pass and are too young to keep their heads up and look for the pass or to put themselves in position in relation to the ball holder in order to be open for a pass in a useful place on the field.
-aggressiveness-a problem I've often faced is wanting my teams to be the right kind of aggressive. I don't want to teach meanness or cheating. I want my kids to learn to face the opponent, to be able to approach someone and not be afraid to be hurt or embarassed. This is also apparent in goalkeeping at the age. A goalkeeper has to be able to throw themselves into danger, to leap at the ball, to pounce at a moments notice into a frightening situation. Young kids fear being kicked or run into or over. They don't naturally want to go toe to toe with each other to attempt to win the ball. Youth and childhood is the time to learn that most little hurts of soccer are just that, little hurts you forget a moment later, though at the same time, they need to know that their safety is more important than anything else. They need to know that if they are hurt they will be cared for.
-ball handling-soccer is also a game of touches on the ball. Whether that touch is a pass or a fast dribble, kids need to learn some things that seem completely unnatural at first. To kick the ball with the side of the foot may be the single most difficult thing to teach kids, but it is completely neccesary for ball control. Toe kicks not only hurt your toes, but they provide no real control on passes and shots. Passing and shooting doesn't just mean side of foot kicks either. There may be a time when a quick jab with the outside of the foot is the right response, while many times the need is to get the whole of the foot under the ball. Does the situation call for a blazing shot or a wide arc over the heads of most of the other players or maybe a chip up into the air to a teammate's head?
-dribbling-dribbling falls under ball handling, but it is more about personal control. Dribbling involves so many more ways to touch the ball, tricks that look fun when watching but are again necessary to be a successful player. You have to be able to make hard fast runs, head up, confident in your ability to keep the ball at your feet, confident that no other player will be able to tackle the ball away. Dribbling involves all parts of the foot through a range of moves to keep possession and to place yourself and the ball in the best position to benefit your team.
-selflessness-soccer is a sport based on playing where you belong. Some kids are natural shooters. Their dribbling skills are beautiful to watch and they know how to take the shot and when to take the shot. The perfect shot often falls within a momentary window when the lane to the goal is gone often before it's noticed. Often enough that shot opens up for a teammate and selflessness comes in seeing that and being willing for the teammate to get credit for the goal. At the same time, some players belong in the box as the keeper. Some kids live for denying the other team goals. Some kids belong in the back, possibly never to score in their entire soccer career, but a good defense has won plenty of games especially in a sport like soccer where goals are often notoriously difficult to come by. Selflessness is the key to being a good midfielder. The players in the middle are the workhorses of soccer, often keeping up a constant run, end to end, jumping back and forth between defense and offense.
These skills are not learned sitting out while the strong players win games. These skills are learned at a young age by kids who are given fair treatment and equal chances. These skills are bit learned by winning games as children, but they are learned over time when a child's love for a game is nurtured. These skills are learned by kids who have coaches that give their best and strive to get the same from their children. We have to accept that, when our kids are young, maybe picking a flower is the best thing they can think of to do no matter how much we might wish they would have seen the ball that just zipped past them.