This is not the say that the kids are coddled: the New York Times Magazine article that looks at Ajax– the Dutch soccer school that turns out well-paid, world-class players– paints an awfully unsentimental picture of the school:
the demands placed on children are not minimized. “One of the things we say is we are never satisfied,” Endt said. “That is both good and bad. It can be difficult to be in a situation where whatever you do, you are told you should do better.”… The pressure to emerge from the academy as one of its top products — and to produce them — is immense. “It is always a very tense atmosphere here, for everyone,” Versloot said. “You have to just get used to it.”
It also has more on the differences between the American approach to sports and the rest of the world:
Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players, ones with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat. In a way, it is a reversal of type. Americans tend to think of Europeans as collectivists and themselves as individualists. But in sports, it is the opposite. The Europeans build up the assets of individual players. Americans underdevelop the individual, although most of the volunteers who coach at the youngest level would not be cognizant of that.
The American approach is the more democratic view of sport. The aspirations of each member of the team are equally valid. Elsewhere, there is more comfort with singling out players for attention and individualized instruction, even at the expense of the group. David Endt, a former Ajax player and a longtime executive of the club, told me, “Here, we would rather polish one or two jewels than win games at the youth levels.”
Americans place a higher value on competition than on practice, so the balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world. It’s not unusual for a teenager in the U.S. to play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training and little energy for it in the infrequent moments it occurs. A result is that the development of our best players is stunted. They tend to be fast and passionate but underskilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere….
The U.S. diverges all the way to the last stages of a player’s development. In other places around the world, the late teenage years are a kind of finishing school, a period when elite players grow into their bodies, sharpen their technical ability and gain a more sophisticated understanding of game tactics. At the same time, they are engaged in a fierce competition to rise through the ranks of their clubs and reach the first team (the equivalent of being promoted from a minor-league baseball team to the big-league club).
An elite American player of that age is still likely to be playing in college, which the rest of the soccer-playing world finds bizarre…. No other nation has as comprehensive a college-sports system as exists here, and none assume that an elite athlete will seek (or benefit from) higher education. “You have a major problem in the ages of 17 to 21,” Huw Jennings, now the director of the youth academy at Fulham, in the English Premier League, told me when I visited him in London. “The N.C.A.A. system is the fault line. I understand that it is good for a person’s development to go to university, but it’s not the way the world develops players.”
This fall I’m going to be a soccer ref. I played plenty of soccer in high school, and intramural soccer in college, but being a ref is a new thing. So this piece about the relative merits of training versus competition in kids’ sports interested me:
You’d think a place that’s called a “cutting-edge European talent factory” and that produces some of today’s elite soccer players would be a real soccer sweatshop—but you’d be wrong. At 12, Ajax kids train only three times a week and play only once on the weekend…. The Dutch want to protect their young players; we Americans want to play ours. If they’re having fun, if they’re winning, if they’re improving, we say, why not let them play more? Especially if they’re winning. We like to watch kids win.
But increasingly, the leagues that control the kinds of sports that are competitive at an international level, like hockey and soccer, are realizing that what’s fun for the watching parent is not what creates top-level players, and that’s creating a schism between the top and bottom levels of sport. Those young Dutch players spend practice time drilling, not competing.
So why does this approach work?
Because they’re learning as individuals, not as a team, they don’t even necessarily win games. Any reward the kids feel from play comes from their own, and their coaches’, sense of their improvement—not from the scoreboard. It’s a different way of considering sport.
It turns out that “kids find drilling and learning fun.” Just as important for the long term, researchers have generated “a battery of statistics showing that a few years of more drills, more scrimmaging, and more learning resulted in improved play, fewer injuries and less burnout.”
So why don’t we do it? Blame the parents….
“As soon as a kid [in the U.S.] starts playing, he’s got referrees on the field and parents watching in lawn chairs,” says John Hackworth, a youth-development coordinator for Major League Soccer. “As he gets older, the game count just keeps increasing. It’s counterproductive to learning and the No. 1 worst thing we do.” But community-based youth soccer leagues, as Sokolove noted, are slow to change. The whole point of practicing, to the American mind, is to get out there and play the game.