An Excellent Resource
for Youth Soccer

Lars B. Dahlin
Associate Professor and Consultant in Paediatric Hand Surgery; ex-coach in youth soccer




Gareth Stratton, Thomas Reilly,
A. Mark Williams & Dave Richardson
Youth Soccer:
From Science to Performance

192 pp, pb..
London: Routledge 2004

This is a new book written by four authors presently working at Liverpool John Morris University. I will already now say that this is a book that I recommend to many categories of individuals that are involved in youth soccer at all levels, not only at the basic soccer level but also in research for students and other academics.

At the end of each chapter the most important aspects of the problems discussed in the chapter are concluded in “an overview” summarizing the authors view. Each chapter is also supported by a reasonable number of references and the reader can find more references in different Internet-based libraries. One weak feature of the references are that some studies are only reported as abstract from for example the World Congress on Science in Football. We all know the problem behind the presentation of data in a single abstract.  Full papers as references would be better.

The book is built up in a very logic way, where the science of youth soccer is introduced in the first chapter including updating a large number of crucial questions and discussion points concerning this important area. Soccer is as singled out the most popular global sport with millions of participants at all levels from lower leagues up to professional premier leagues. The latter leagues require annually “production” of young players with a talent. There is also, as the authors point out, huge financial implication since it is important for the teams to “spot a future star”. Such “spotting” puts a high demand on coaches, parents and other people involved in youth soccer development programs so that the individual player is treated as an unique individual and that the biological mechanisms giving a variability in growth and maturation will not lead to exclusion of different players.

It is obvious that there is no consensus on what type of procedures or techniques that will be able to identify a talent in a specific sport early.  Therefore it is important for all types of managers and coaches involved in development and training of youth soccer players – irrespective of gender – to be aware of the variability of growth and maturation. The authors start with an extensive chapter describing the growth of the physiological systems and this chapter contains several fundamental figures with facts that are important for the reader. The figures are in some aspects simplified and they are easy to understand. However, some figures in the book could have been even more simplified and modified. If for example the standard error of the mean is included in the figure it should be written out clearly in the figure caption, maybe also including the actual p-value. The authors also emphasize the difference between girls and boys concerning growth and maturation as well as the fact that growth velocity curves can be very variable between different individuals. Stratton et al also clearly point out the difference in maturation and they refer to studies in which it is clear that coaches usually favour players who are more advanced in morphological growth. That such a process of selection exists is supported by Tomas Peterson’s research in Malmö on the selection mechanisms in Swedish soccer players. There are several references in the chapter to different studies stressing how easy it is to misclassify the player based on his/her age. I certainly support the statement of the authors that an “understanding of important aspects of growth, development and maturation is particularly important as a youngsters soccer performance may depend heavily on gender, biological age and stage”.

The next chapter describes the problems concerning environmental factors in soccer. The authors go through different factors, which may, for the normal coach, be not a problem met every day. The factors that are considered in the chapter are heat and cold, altitude, air pollution and travel across multiple time zones!

Injury prevention is also an important aspect of youth soccer because of the chances that the youngster may take in order to perform as professional players – hence the risk for injuries and overuse injuries. In this chapter two frequent overuse injuries are related and there is also a page about joint injuries. This part of the book seems to be somewhat short and could have been a bit longer, describing more conditions in greater detail. Simple anatomical pictures could also have been included. However, on the positive side,  conditions such as “exercise induced asthma” is included since it is a condition commonly encountered nowadays. The chapter is important since educating and supervising the coaches and players is crucial to prevent different types of injuries. Even in this chapters there are references with an overview of injuries in the young athlete.

Girls nowadays are more and more involved in different types of sports and that is of course also true for soccer. Therefore I’m pleased to find that the authors have included a separate chapter covering “the young female soccer player” from different angles. They stress the risk of changes in menstrual cycle and that the cycle could be disturbed or completely absent by strenuous training. In this chapter they also write about normal menstrual cycle and changes in the mood during the various phases of the cycle, including the profile of mood states in an informative table. It is also important to point out that there may be a risk that women are more vulnerable to error reflected in the incidence of injuries. Women soccer player also seem to be more vulnerable to serious knee joint injuries than male players, which is true also for indoor soccer (Lindenfeld et al., 1994). In different types of sports there is a discussion about, what the present authors refer to as “the female athlete triad – amenorrhoea, disordered eating and bone mineral loss. Disordered eating with the extreme conditions like anorexia and bulimia may affect as many as 1-4 per cent of young women. It is important that the coaches, parents and others involved in teams with young girls are aware of this risk.

As a follow-up to the chapter abouit growth, development and maturation on biological characteristics of a young soccer player, chapter six discusses developing fitness in the young soccer player. The authors highlight the development of cardio-respiratory and anaerobic fitness, speed, strength and power. They also stress that the major aim of training for soccer should be to improve performance in game related tasks. Furthermore, players should not be expected to specialise in early years of sports participation – they need a broad education. Young players should participate in a range of activities that promote sound movement fundamentals, and only later specialisation should be introduced. This problem is encountered very early, not only in youth soccer, but also in other team sports like handball, ice hockey etc. In this chapter the long-term athlete development model is also introduced, with guidelines for training programs in relation to age. The authors stress that basic training should involve a range of sports, which is an important insight for both coaches and parents. However, there is a risk that some parts of this chapter could be difficult to understand for readers without medical education.

A common problem in many countries in the Western world is the type and characteristics of food that young people eat. Therefore, the authors have included a chapter concerning nutrition for young soccer players and stressing the need for healthy eating, including the important calcium for the growing body and adequate sources of iron for young females.

It has been calculated that a player recruited by the premier league academies in England at an age of 16 typically starts playing soccer at the age of six, and over these ten years they are devoted to an average of 15 hours per week, 700 hours annually, practice activities related to soccer. Practise is therefore an important factor to acquire soccer skill. However, motivation is an extremely important factor for the individual to be successful player. The chapter “Acquiring soccer skills: effective practise and instruction” contains a large bulk of knowledge that will be more suitable for the professional coach. However, it’s an extremely important chapter, together with the next chapter describing “Perceptual and cognitive expertise: developing game intelligence”. In these chapters as well there are a large number of references. Naturally, many of the studies and examples are coming from the premier league academies and local schools in England. The authors also discuss if acquisition of game intelligence skills could be facilitated through practise and instruction and if there is a time window for acquisition of such skills. The authors have included some questions as headlines, which may make the reader more curious of what the subsequent paragraphs contain.

The competence of a soccer coach may be very variable. The step as an assistant coach during training session characterise the first stage, and during the final fifth stage the coach is a complete master of soccer training based on scientific data. The authors stress that there is a requirement of coaches of junior soccer to be almost an expert in child development, education psychology and parental guidance to be able to deliver a holistic soccer education for the young players. The authors also include two fundamental principles of the psychology of child development through Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Eriksson’s theory of psychosocial development (the correct references could have been included!). In this chapter there’s a paragraph about “differentiation”, again stressing that tasks should be varied to allow for different abilities and stages of development, and that such a variety is a central principle for a coach. “Youngsters need to be included as opposed to excluded because of their stage of soccer development”! This chapter should be read (and understood!) by a large number of coaches active in different sports in Sweden and all over the world!

In one of the last chapters, the “social-psychological considerations of league youth player development” is probably written for the professional coach. However, in the chapter the concepts of talent identification and development are presented. Therefore, the chapter is of pivotal importance for all types of youth soccer coaches. The process of talent identification is very complex and dynamic in nature, further stressed by the fact that individuals are generally identified within the context of team performance. The authors write about talent identification systems used by different teams in Europe (e.g. Ajax), and indeed, talent identification is very complex. The discussion is elevated to a high and extremely interesting level discussing personality, socialisation and a large number of significant “others”. It is important that young players should be provided with a milieu to develop their technical skills in a non-pressurised environment thus promoting fun! In the chapter they finally emphasize that young players overall development and general well being should be the concern of all those involved in player development. Pursuit of excellence should not occur at the expense of the individual child’s physical and emotional health, growth and development. The youth development program should be balanced including an appropriate familial, educational, welfare and socio-cultural environment.

In the final chapter the role of the soccer academy is discussed. The authors state that introduction of academies and development of youth programs suggest that the clubs nowadays take more responsibility for development not only of the player’s soccer but also his/her personal development. Such academies may have a more holistic view of the young player today but it is still too early to judge their success.

If clubs and especially the coaches and all other individuals involved in youth soccer adapt the principles outlined in Youth Soccer: From Science to Performance, the team would not only have technically gifted, but also physically and emotionally equipped well rounded home grown players. I certainly recommend the book, and if in doubt, just start reading the introduction and you’ll probably find it hard to put the book down.


Reference

Lindenfeld TN, Schmitt DJ, Hendy MP, Mangine RE, Noyes FR. (1994). Incidence of injury in indoor soccer. Am J Sports Med 22:364-371.


Also by Lars B. Dahlin (in Swedish).

www.idrottsforum.org  |  Editor Kjell E. Eriksson  |  Publisher Aage Radmann