For Coaches, For Parents, Science

The Potential Benefits of Early Specialisation in Soccer – An Argentinian Youth Development Model – Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #47: 7/16/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this week’s edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss what I learned in my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  There, professional youth academy players – some as young as 12 years of age – are already training 5 days per week.  In spite of the fact that one of the main tenets of Long Term Athlete Development model is a recommendation to avoid this type of “early specialisation” in youth soccer, in Argentina the players seem to be thriving in this environment.  They are not burning out, they are not experiencing over-use injuries, and their on-field performance is second to none in the world of soccer.  Here, I suggest that the higher standard of coach education in Argentina may be one of the reasons why early specialisation works so well there, and discuss what we as Canadians may be able to learn and apply from the Argentinian model.

I hope you like the video and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments!

Advertisements
For Coaches, For Parents, Science

The Potential Benefits of Early Specialisation in Soccer – An Argentinian Youth Development Model

In late June of 2017, I visited my friend, colleague and mentor, Rafael Carbajal, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is in the final process of completing his Argentinian “A” License and validating his other “A” coaching licenses from Canada, the United States and UEFA.

During the trip I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to observe youth academy training sessions by Huracan FC, a professional club in the Argentinian First Division and the club regarded as the best player developer in the country.

While watching an Under-13 (2005) training session, it was not hard for me to see why the club has garnered this reputation.

The players were skillful, intelligent, crafty, coordinated and fit.  They were able to connect passes in small spaces with two or even one touch, in a manner in which few Canadian teams of any age category would be able to keep up with.

As I watched them train I could not help but think to myself that whatever type of training these boys were doing – including the amount of time they spent training each day and week, and the specific training mythologies used in their training sessions – it was clearly working.

20170628_151119

When I spoke with Coach Carbajal and some of the other coaches and instructors from the “A” License course, I learned and interesting – albeit not surprising – fact about Huracan and other Argentinian professional youth academies: even at the younger Under-13 age categories, teams train 5 days per week.

What this means is that aspiring Argentinian soccer players, as young as 12 years of age, have a practice every day, Monday-to-Friday, plus a game on Saturday or Sunday, every week of the year.

Interestingly, the time commitment required of Argentinian professional youth academies ensures that Argentinian boys who want to become professional soccer players must commit to or “specialise” in soccer at a very young age.  They really have no choice or option to participate in any other sports, as their training and game schedule simply does not allow time for any sport other than soccer.

In Canada, this type of early specialisation in soccer or other sports is discouraged.  The Canadian Soccer Association has for the past 10 years followed the “Long Term Athlete Development” or “LTAD” model, one of the tenets of which is a recommendation that athletes to not exclusively play one sport (in this case, soccer) until the age of 16.

Proponents of LTAD typically argue that late specialisation leads to less over-use injuries, less burn-out or drop-out from sports, and better overall athletic development, as compared to early specialisation.  The professional coaches and fitness coaches I spoke with in Argentina, however, all believed that these objectives could be achieved in combination with early specialisation in soccer.

Their rationale was that, provided youth coaches and fitness coaches are trained and educated in evidence-based best practices for working with young, growing and developing soccer players, these coaches should be able to put together a curriculum and training program that allows for early specialisation in soccer without experiencing some of the proposed negative effects.

The basic level youth coaching licences in Argentina, a minimum requirement for all coaches working with young players in professional Argentinian academies, comprises a 2-year, 1400-hour course with written and practical examinations.  Principal among the scientific subjects included in the course, in which coaches must prove and demonstrate their competence, are:

  • Physiology (to understand the loading placed on players during training and games, and allow for a well-rounded physical training program)
  • Motor learning (to develop and implement training sessions that maximise players’ ability to learn to execute simple and complex soccer skills)
  • Sport psychology (to discern how the physical and psychological demands of training and games are affecting players’ minds, and how to help them reach their full mental potential); and
  • Periodisation of training (to allow for the development of a comprehensive annual training plan, with the right amount of intensity and volume of training throughout the year)

Of course, if the aforementioned potential negative effects can be avoided, young soccer players do stand to benefit greatly from some of the advantages of early specialisation in soccer – most importantly, better technical skill development and a better understanding of the tactical side of the game.

Whether or not you agree with LTAD and the late specialisation it recommends, there can be no disputing the fact that in Argentina, young soccer players are developing the required technical skills and tactical understanding of the game to perform and succeed at the highest level.   Thus, it may be possible that the Argentinian model of early specialisation in soccer, combined with knowledgeable, educated and experienced youth soccer coaches and fitness coaches, warrants consideration in Canada as well.

Ultimately, the best way of assessing the effectiveness of any type of soccer training program – physical, technical, tactical or psychological – is to watch how the players actually play the game.  In this case, the evidence in support of the effectiveness of the Argentinian model of youth development is overwhelming.  It is possible that, with the right combination of enthusiastic and passionate players with well-educated coaches and fitness coaches, early specialisation in soccer may not be such a bad thing after all.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

For Parents, Science

A 40 Year-Old Solution to a Long-Term Athlete Development Problem?

Last week, I had the pleasure to meet and speak with John Vanderkolk, who is something of a pioneer in Canadian Soccer.  The former Governor and co-founder of the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame and member of the Heritage Committee of the Ontario Soccer Association has worked for over 40 years in the sport as a manager, reporter, marketer and ambassador in a variety of roles, including with the Robbie International Soccer Tournament, the Toronto Blizzard of the North American Soccer League, the North York Rockets of the Canadian Soccer League, and our Canadian National Teams programs.

Almost 40 years ago, he also used some astute observations to spearhead tremendous growth and development of the game in North America.

In the 1970’s, our nation was captivated ice hockey’s 1972 Summit Series, an 8-game tournament between the Canadian and Soviet National Hockey Teams, generally regarded as the two best teams in the world.

While our Canadian team eventually prevailed in the Series, Vanderkolk, an immigrant from the Netherlands, could not help but notice certain aspects about the way his fellow Europeans, the Soviets, moved and coordinated their bodies on the ice, aspects he was convinced could only have come from one source – a history and background playing soccer.

Having been involved in media and public relations here in Canada, he got in contact with his colleagues at the Toronto Star, Rex MacLeod and Jim Kernaghan, each of whom wrote separate articles in 1979 that included interviews with Vanderkolk, espousing a similar message – that young athletes, regardless of what sport they want to specialize in or what level they intend to reach, would all benefit from participation in soccer.

In an interview conducted by Kernaghan and published in the Toronto Star on February 11th, 1979, Vanderkolk is quoted as saying:

“Soccer is the ideal game for youngsters to gain conditioning in.  I don’t care what happens to the professionals, but they could really benefit from the game.”

And later, in another interview – this time with McLeod, Vanderkolk elaborated:

“We should push our kids into soccer.  It is great for the legs.   It develops coordination, agility, ball control, and it’s a way to sharpen the skills you need for hockey.  You pass, you score, you have 2 two-on-ones, you stop, start, accelerate, fake – just like hockey.”

Amazingly, now – almost 40 years since those articles were published, Vanderkolk remains just as adamant about the benefits of playing soccer on overall athletic development.  He told me:

“When you first learn to walk, at the age of 1 or 1 ½ years, you cannot hold a hockey stick, baseball bat, or even catch or shoot a basketball.  But, you can kick a soccer ball.  It is the first sport that develops foot-eye coordination, which I believe translates directly into hand-eye coordination as those motor skills become available to kids in later years.  Ultimately, the agility, footwork, and even the decision-making skills you pick up from playing soccer will make you a better athlete in any sport you go on to play later.”

Both then and now, he lists dozens of elite athletes from a wide range of sports, including hockey, basketball, tennis, skiing etc. all of whom had a background playing soccer as youth athletes prior to specialising in their other sports later in life.

Amazingly, the repercussions of his observations about the important role that soccer can play in the development of elite hockey players in Canada – a country that is and has always been crazy about hockey – is that they were the catalyst for parents of thousands of young Canadian athletes to get their children to participate in soccer, which led to unprecedented growth of the sport across the country in the 1970’s and 1980’s, growth that still continues to this day.

As a fitness coach and sports scientist who has spent the last 15 years of my life working with youth soccer players at every level, from house league to the elite youth National Teams and professional academy players, it was very refreshing to meet John and hear him tell his story, and especially to hear what he had to say about the role soccer can play in the development of athletic skills in young children.

Interestingly, Canadian soccer has adopted the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model, one of the tenets of which is that young children should participate in a variety of different sports – not specialising in any one sport until the age of 14-16 – in order to facilitate the development of well-rounded athletic skills.  A relatively newer addition to the LTAD model that I was exposed to and trained in was the development of Sport for Life’s Physical Literacy and Movement Preparation program (for which I became a certified instructor in the spring of 2016), which includes progressions of many different types of movements, including several which fall into the category of those which are performed regularly in soccer (including accelerations, plyometrics, cutting/turning, and multi-directional movements).

If – as per the guidelines of LTAD – we want our young children to participate in sports that develop a wide variety of athletic skills, and also – as per the new Sport for Life programming guidelines – we want to teach and develop athletic skills to young children and athletes to help them perform better and prevent injury in the long run, then it may be possible that John Vanderkolk came up with a strategy that solves both of these problems almost 40 years ago – just play soccer!

I, for one, would not be opposed to this strategy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this article.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started!