During Day Camp last summer, I found myself in numerous interesting conversations with coaches and parents regarding player development at the younger ages.
On the last day of camp, with the thoughts from those conversations fresh in my mind, I decided to express my philosophy on the subject in a short note that I then distributed to the parents at the end of camp. I'm posting the letter below in its original form:
Thank you so much for choosing to participate in our camp this week. My sincere hope is that your daughter has had a positive experience, her skills have improved and that, ultimately, she comes away from the week feeling good about herself on and off the field.
This session, we've focused our attention on each camper getting as many touches on the ball as possible each and every day. Through the age of 12, technical development is the absolute most important element that will affect their future success as soccer players.
In the morning and afternoon games, we've played small-sided matches (ensuring that everyone has opportunities to touch the ball). In general, we've asked all players to attack when their team has the ball and all players to defend when their team loses possession. As such, we're encouraging them to be soccer players rather than simply center forwards, right defenders, goalkeepers, outside midfielders, etc.
In addition, skill development and taking chances have been prioritized over results. Our philosophy is committed to developing players involved in the game and who, over time, are able to solve challenging situations on the field.
For example, let's look at a situation where a defender has the ball near the sideline in the defending third of the field and is under tight pressure from the opposition. At a young age, if the emphasis is on results, the safest option is to kick the ball out of bounds and reorganize (giving away possession in the process). With the emphasis on development, we ask that same player to keep possession and try to find a way out of pressure.
In this second, more risky option, it's likely that player might initially turn the ball over to the other team more often than not, potentially resulting in a goal for the other team. However, by challenging them and encouraging the freedom to take risks, we're assuring the player's technical and decision-making abilities continue to grow over time.
If results are the main priority at this age, the player who only plays safe and kicks it out every time will still be doing the same thing years later. The more developed player will have the option to play safe but also have much more advanced options to choose from as well. I hope this gives you something to think about as your child continues to play the game of soccer.
Thank you so much for investing in our program this week and especially for entrusting us with your child's development each day. If I can ever be of assistance in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me.
All the best!
Paul Harbin is the director of harbinsoccer.com and creator of PaulHarbin.com. Following the 2010 season, Harbin retired from the college ranks where he coached at the NCAA Division I level (UAB and Mercer University) for 22 years; 18 as a Head Coach. Across his career, Harbin's teams have been known nationally for their skill, talent, and success on the field. As importantly, they've also been known for their many successes off the field, in the classroom and throughout their community. He has been directing successful residential, team and day camps for over 20 years and continues to do so today. As with his teams, the main goal of camp is to help develop confident and responsible young people in an environment that that is both challenging and enjoyable.