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Youth Training – USA v Germany

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Despite the fact that on any given weekend Americans drive through the suburbs and see lush green fields spattered with kids playing soccer, the popularity the sport has with America’s youth remains stubbornly slow to translate to American adults.

As most soccer fans know, this is not the situation for other countries. Soccer there is known as football, and it is played as religiously as Little League is in America. So as the world begins to play their World Cup qualifying games, while we can hopefully expect to see in 2010 a strong American team, it will still probably lag behind countries like Germany, in part because America has not caught up to their counterparts and the gaps begin with America’s youth.

In this two-part series, I take an in-depth look at the present and future of American soccer at its youth levels, and in part one, I take an example from German club Hamburg SV and compare some of their youth training methods with those in American youth soccer.

Breaking Down the Differences

Hamburg SV youth academy director Markus Hirte, when asked about how Germany differs from other clubs, stated that his club plays “a little smoother, and a little more coordinated. In Germany, teams have a lot of discipline and technique which makes up our power in soccer.”

No one will dispute that Germany’s professional squads are more coordinated and more technically gifted when compared to America’s professional players, but the heart of the question still remains why.

For Hamburg SV, the youth training can begin when the players are 8 or 9 years old, when they are scouted and invited to try out. A lot of the players are scouted from around Germany but are not necessarily local, so once scouted and invited to train and play, they stay at a boarding house. Hamburg SV has an entire staff that is employed at this home away from home — a cook, a house mom, and tutors.

If, after the time expires, Hamburg doesn’t feel that the player fits with their squad but has talent to sustain him to another club, they will try to find other clubs for the player to go to. “In Hamburg, we educate the players for our team, our professional team, but not all of them can reach that level. Some of them go to other clubs at a smaller level. Our target — our goal — is to always train players from youth allotment into the professional team,” says Hirte.

Approximately 120 players make up the Hamburg SV youth program, and the teams are separated by age (Under 19, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, and 12). This is one of the first differences of German youth training compared to American training. Hamburg separates their youth players into teams based on age, and doesn’t necessarily adhere to the A and B squads that American sports are so fond of. Hirte says, “Good individual players, good skills, but you always need a team. A good player is nothing without the team, but the individual player is the base for good football at the high level.”

Jim Dower, coach for the Wilmette Wings and co-founder and executive director of Urban Initiatives, believes that the A vs. B team mentality is a detriment.

“From my understanding, in England there is no A or B or C team until you’re U-12, whereas in the U.S., with 8 or 9-year-olds, you’re told ‘you’re the best so you play with the best, you’re the worst so you play with the worst.

This has a huge difference in terms of developing skills. A huge flaw in the American soccer system is the A or B team mentality. If there is a bad player, and they only play with bad players, they aren’t as challenged.

If you take a bunch of 10 year old boys on a C team they lack some focus, direction, and putting twelve of them together means they won’t be as strong than if they were mixed up with other kids who are exceptions.

I think you can often see a 9 year old who isn’t as great at 9, but by the time they are 11 or 12, they have grown into their body. If you don’t place them in a situation to be pushed as much as they could, and treat them with the same level of attention as you give really good players, you aren’t giving them the right opportunities.”

In developing skills and technique, Tom Dunmore of Pitch Invasion, thinks that part of the problem may be America’s style of play.

“There has for too long been an over-emphasis on athleticism and organization rather than flair and ingenuity in coaching kids.

Few too Americans learn playing on the streets, which is of course critical to develop the technique necessary to adapt to any circumstance.

But, this is as much a cultural as a technical problem, though one has many exceptions to the rule, especially with the growing Hispanic influence.”

With the multiple layers of culture in America, it may be hard to pin down a style to train American youth players in. “Americans play a style often referred to as athletic, but is a bit of all the world’s styles, just as our culture is. The melting pot is the cliché thrown around in regards to both our nation and our soccer. This means untechnical to a lot of people, but that’s not necessarily so,” says Adam Spangler of the blog This Is American Soccer.

Skill training is the biggest demarcation between America and German youth development. Hirte stresses that each player must possess good skills and good technique, that the players must be able to play very fast and have good strength, one on one. Hamburg institutes a battery of tests for each player when they begin playing and will revisit those skills to gauge improvement, and to see what players need to work on individually. There is a 5 meter sprint, a coordination test, a speed test, a head—ball handling test. These tests are done every year, in part to determine if the players are getting better or not. It also gives the coaching staff a base for each player.

Hirte says, “If the guy is slow but good technically, he’s no good if he’s too slow.”

“The most important things are skills and technique, technique is the base of all. To control the ball in every situation, that’s the most important thing, at a high speed that is the focus of our training, our coaching.

The second thing is good discipline and tactics. Technique is the most important thing, because you can learn tactics all over, so in youth teams, technique is most important. As the player gets older, tactics will get better.”

Part Two: How can we help American youth training?

Comments (3)

  1. I am always hearing how the big problem is that americans don’t play football in the streets. I live in Honduras where almost every boy plays in the streets. They do learn some skills but most of those center on flashy plays that seldom are used in real football. Every 8 year old on my street can do a bicycle kick or grab the ball with both feet and toss it back to front. What they cannot do is pass the ball. They do not like to pass – ever. Also they do not learn to see the field strategically. They have very limited ideas about how to play as a team. They all love being the star. This is why they are much more excited if they, or a player on their national team, dribbles past two players and is then stopped because he hits a dead end, than if they pass twice and then score. That is the partial source of the Mexican idea that the US beats them but the Mexicans play better.
    When we lived in the US my children played youth soccer. One thing that I have thought might contribute to problems the american team has is that there was, at that level, an emphasis that winning or scoring was not important. They were not allowed to keep score at the games, the league kept no track of who won or lost, and there was no champion. The kids always knew. But the misguided adults felt that it was important that they not emphasize winning or scoring. I do not know how widespread this is but I do know that the us team has trouble with winning and scoring.

  2. Nice article Cherie..

    I’ve played my entire youth soccer career in the United States.. So i know first-hand how misguided it is..

    the most frustrating thing about US soccer, is i actually believe we have the players to be a force on the world game…however we don’t have the proper training from the day we are taught the game here.. the emphasis seems to be on conditioning and strategy instead of cultivating individual skill, creativity, and understanding of the game… to a 6,7, 8 year old kid these are skills that will form the blueprint of his game as an adult…and going hand-in-hand with this lack of training, is the lack of effective scouting of talent.. … also finally their is too much emphasis on ‘prototype’ looking players and also how much you have in your pockets…

    the proper training and scouting points have been made so i’ll start with the prototype issue… its like they judge talent here in the US for soccer, the same way the scout talent for american football… size and speed and the physical attributes usually get first priority… but what about, what can you actually do on the pitch?… ive played with tons of talented players during my youth soccer days who could out dribble and weave through any defense in front of them, or who could deliver a ball on your head from 60 yards with their eyes closed only for them to be looked over by a hs coach or club coach or whoever, because they werent big/strong guys… or even worse they were told NOT to be show-boats and forced to play a bland direct style of play… the way i see it is, you can have 500 onyewu’s on youre squad, but i’ll take the squad with 1 messi any day…

    furthermore, the system is completely ass-backwards…some of the best players in this country, never get to see the light of the day on a US youth team or an ODP team or even a major club team… why?… socio-economic factors… from my own personal experience in youth soccer here in america, my family was never able financially to put me on the best club teams due to the tremendous amount of money it takes to play year around and travel and what not… that being said, i was never good enough anyway to make a US youth team but I have friends and know of plenty of kids i grew up with who did have the talent… but they were struggling just like we were and never played on good club teams because their families couldn’t afford it… which when u think about it, it is the exact opposite of how it works in the rest of the world..the most talented players always seem to come from the humble backgrounds instead of the more privileged backgrounds..

    Also alot of youth soccer coaches and administrators are very stubborn and ignorant to how the game works in the rest of the world.. they don’t see the errors and faults of the their bland style of football..

  3. I agree with all the previous comments. I grew up in the 70′s playing soccer in the US long before it became popular. We all learned the skills we needed from a young man who had spent some time in Germany, I am talking about individual skills; passing, trapping, shooting. The idea of the game and how it was played was not derived from some foreigner telling us how the game must be played. It came from the basic notion that the idea of the game was to put the ball in the back of the net. We are Americans. We are known for our ability to adapt and innovate. Why not allow our American ingenuity guide us as how to teach and play the game. Soccer is not that much different then any other American sport. Do we not have passing in other sports (football)? How about moving without the ball (basketball)? Team tactics that include breaking down a defense to isolate a shooter(basketball, hockey)? Why are we so concerned on what style we play? I think the problem with the US Nats. is that we are so confused on which style we play that all our natural ability is negated. We cease to be a US national team and we become whatever foreign style that is the flavor of the month. Let the kids play soccer.