Why We Confuse Our Young Athletes




Young Athletes Correct Coaching


Soccer is no different than any other sport at the youth level – and I am not inferring that anyone suggested otherwise – but every youth coach of every sport, seems to think that the technical nuances of their sport are some how more intricate or specialized than the skills of other sports… and that is not the case.


And you can replace ‘Soccer’ with ‘Baseball’, ‘Basketball’ or any other sport in the above paragraph.


Goal Confusion for young athletes can be summed up in one sentence –


Coaches and Trainers must learn how and when to apply certain teaching techniques and when to let kids ‘learn’ things for themselves – and that is especially true when we design drills in which we tell our players that the success of a drill is based on the outcome rather than the form.

If you have been a subscriber for any length of time, you know exactly how I feel about teaching skill – it is imperative and an ability that frankly, many Coaches and Trainers lack (when in consideration of pedagogical science and individual player temperament).


Having said that, by not letting young kids and young athletes simply ‘have at it’ on their own once in a while or at certain phases of development, we risk limiting free nervous system adaptability at large – and this has been a prevalent problem in North American sports for years.


We over-teach our youngsters and do not allow them free exploration (which is at the crux of sport development) but then marvel at how much more ‘naturally skilled’ international athletes often tend to be.


In Canada, very often the best hockey players are not in organized competition at a very young age or under the technical instruction of a coach, they are playing on the pond or local outdoor rink with their friends or family and doing little more than guided discovery.


The same is true of Latin American baseball players and Brazilian soccer players.


If you are not familiar with Guided Discovery, it can be best summarized as the pinnacle of outcome-based coaching.


It is when an adult (coach, big sister or Dad) simply presents a youngster with an idea.


“Here Johnny, I’m going to set out some cones. I want you to take this soccer ball and use your feet to bring it with you around and through these cones – when you get through them all, see if you can kick it into the net and aim for the lower right corner of the net”.


Now… let the kid (or kids) have at it. Offer encouragement and positive feedback, but let them learn the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s of making that drill work’


At a certain point, if quality-coaching instruction is not entered into the equation, the potential of that young athlete to excel in the sport in question will certainly diminish.


However, sport exploration and guided discovery should be the essence of youth sport participation (especially during the young pre-adolescent ages).


And herein may be the confusion.


You have read many of my articles that discuss the fact that Coaches and Trainers never TEACH kids and young athletes how to perform certain drills or exercises, but then get upset if the youngsters aren’t performing the drill properly.


And of course… that is 100% true.


The Goal Confusion article however, was in reference to YOUNG kids.


We have started having organized and lesson-oriented league play (in a variety of sports) at the age of 4 and 5.


At this age, the entire premise of sport exploration should be based on guided discovery and nothing more – while the nervous system is at the height of its adaptability, kids should be encouraged to explore on their own, and under the ‘rules’ of outcome-based activities only.


As the child reaches the age of 9 – 10 (although this can change based on the kid in question), now more formalized instruction can be added to the equation.


The problem I was stating in the article is that many Coaches and Trainers will tell there young athletes that the purpose of the drill is to ‘kick the ball into the bottom right corner of the net’, but than proceed to correct every technical problem they see – that amounts to goal confusion for the child.


And if this type of coaching occurs at the truly young ages (as outlined above), it can be disastrous from an optimal learning perspective.


I hope that this has helped in some way.



’Till next time,


16 Responses

  1. david shaw says:

    Well said. I have coached soccer for many years and am just now figuring this out. I still find myself over doing it because my competitive side comes out but I have learned less is more from other coaches in club soccer that learned and played in Europe. So it has been alot of fun seeing the kids respond to learning something on there own.
    Thanks Dave

  2. George Zarytsky says:


    I think i can give you an analogy that can explain kind of what you are talking about. I took a series of Golf lessons from a very good teacher last summer. His lesson consisted of him getting me to have proper positioning of my hands and body at every swing. Not once was the focus on where the ball was going after I hit the shot. He kept telling me that the ball will take care of itself. In other words the outcome will become better once the form is there. As my form, body and hand position improved so did the flight of my ball. My focus was no longer on the ball, my focus was on feeling what my body was doing during the swing. I have remembered his cues in my own head and repeat them often on the golf course. This allows me to correct my deficiencies because I can feel what is wrong. Is this kind of what you are talking about. The form will dictate the outcome. As you know we have talked in the past and I believe that the outcome of winning is put way before proper form and function and when these young kids reach high school and above they don’t know the basics. They almost always get beat by a technically sound team.

  3. rick says:

    I have to say Brian, that I agree partly with this article but also disagree with parts of it. Self discovery as it relates to a child playing sports is perhaps the best way for pre-adolescent children to learn and remember, but I believe that coaches need to evaluate the individual in front of them. Some children have the ability to take instruction very early on and excel in their athletic endeavors without sacrificing creativity. Continuing your analogy to Canadian hockey, one only has to look at Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby and their development profiles at a pre-adolescent age. They were instructed technically very early on in their careers by fathers that had previously played hockey at a high level. One can say that these two are an exception and are extraordinary talents that only come along once in a generation, but I would say that there are a lot of other equally talented children that did not get the benefit of a very involved parent or coach early on. I’ve seen my share of coaches over the years, some horrible and some too good to be true. The better coaches are the ones that understand what the child in front of them is capable of and what they are not. I guess what I’m trying to say is that technical coaching for one pre-adolescent child might be very beneficial for them while technical coaching for another might be counter productive. It all goes back to what you said about being able to evaluate the child or children you have in front of you. I don’t think that children can be put in to the same group based upon their age.

  4. Dan Stewart says:

    Great point Brian! I think one of the reasons why most of the “Form Based” coaches tend to over coach in any particular drill is ego. They want to show the athlete or parents or even other coaches how much they know. As a result, the kid is trying to process everything the coach is saying and end up with a case of information overload. A lot of times the drill the athlete is being asked to do is beyond their skill level to begin with. Proper care needs to be taken with respect to the fundamentals of athletic movement in developing athletes, regardless of sport, before they are asked and expected to do the more advanced skills. All of which requires patience.

  5. Ryan Rizor says:

    Think about wrestling – one of the most technical sports that require tremendous strength & conditioning. You have to find balance between practicing moves and ‘live’ wrestling. Some sport coaches have wrestlers wrestle ‘live’ the majority of practice. This is can be cause for guided discovery, but also enforce bad habits. Sports coaches that understand their athlete’s stage of development understand the balance. Funny how these coaches are the most successful and well respected.

  6. Bill says:

    Great read Brian. Could not agree with you more. Too much organized play at a very young age and not enough free play. Let the kids play and develop on their own. Less emphasis on the score or winning.

  7. Reggie Graham - Teal says:

    This is one of the very precise reasons that I believe IYCA has, is, and will remain a step above the rest.

    In my very humble opinion, (and I value it very much), we go and learn a skill or certification and forget to allow for a universal application.

    “Each” player is going to adapt to what they see, the way they saw it, and then apply it.

    What is the end result, was it what we asked for only, a little bit or whole lot more, or was it completely off the chain, ie, nothing like what we asked or something that we didn’t even think would work.

    Thank you for your input Brian.

  8. Professor David Moody says:

    As an elementary physical education pedagogist and a former volleyball coach at all levels, I just finished a dribbling lesson for PE majors using “guided discovery” or problem solving as an instructional approach. I was delighted that this method of instruction is finding its way into the field of coaching as well!

    Today, we marvel over the creative athlete because they are so rare. You are so correct in the assertion that we have, in effect, coached the creativity out of kids because of our “force fed” ego driven approach. Rare is the youth coach who employs carefully planned questions to assist their athletes in discovering knowledge for themselves.

    Superior teachers and coaches share common ground in their ability to prioritize the cognitive (thinking) prior to enlisting the psychomotor response.

  9. Tom Sadowski says:

    Noone has mentioned the “Curse of the Thousand Techniques”. I learned 1,000 martial arts drills and techniques and when it was time to spar I stood paralyzed staring at my opponent. Sparring will show what movements come naturally which can then be reverse engineered and practiced as drills. I let my personal training clients go free form with a .5kg. medicine ball and the agility ladder to see what comes naturally to them. I get ideas for drills from them. “Maximize strengths and manage weaknesses”.

  10. Francisco Alvarez says:

    Me están continuamente mandando mensajes en inglés. Si quieren que los entiendan deben mandarmelos en español que es mi idioma.

  11. Scott Hallahan says:

    I’m just finishing my YFS level 1 certification and love the segment that discusses this. Brian yelling “noooooo… not like that” just cracks me up. Anyway, I think that our society has put these prodigies up on pedestals and now overbearing parents and coaches think their kids need to do be masters by age 6-10 or they’ll be hopeless. Think about the Tiger Woods commercials of when he was 4 years old and how much play and emphasis that got. If companies did commercials about all the 11-12 year olds with messed up elbows from throwing curveballs improperly, maybe our methods would be re-thought.
    I’m very excited about what I’ve learned so far from the IYCA, and can’t wait to see how many people I can help with this knowledge.

  12. If there is to be long term development, the first priority is to keep the child in the sport. What better way to do this than making them feel special each time they train and giving them ways to enjoy themselves.

    I’m a soccer coach who agonises about teaching technical aspect of the game to young players. I know that there are optimum times in their life to teach them technical skills but because this is different for each child it become a programming challenge for large groups.

    What’s engaging for one child can be boring for the child who’s not ready to learn it. For the child that’s engaged concentration is good, for the one that isn’t the concentration is poor and you’ve lost them for that moment.

    I am a big believer in the IYCA style philosophy however i think there is a long way to go before wider views change. The early specialisation ethic of sport is endemic and puts pressure not only on children but coaches and organisations alike.

  13. Keith says:

    Hi Brian,
    Playing devil’s advocate for a moment I would like to refer to Daniel Coyle’s article you attached to your blog recently wherein the coaching methods used to produce those superstar tennis players through the Spartak tennis club in Moscow involved a methodical repetitive approach to training the fundamental skills in the young (ages 4 to 7) athletes. As noted in Craig’s article these kids didn’t enter competition until they had three years of instruction. No “let them have at it” here yet 5 of the top 10 female players in THE WORLD right now came from this club and there’s more on the way. The science of myelination, explained in the article as how the brain responds to such repetitive training seems to be at odds with your note that “while the nervous system is at the height of it’s adaptability, kids should be encouraged to explore on their own, and under the ‘rules’ of outcome based activities only.” I know people sign their kids up to “play” sports and expect them to do so. I also know that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. When I coach older kids I find that much of the time is spent trying to correct poor technique and bad habits. The proper techniques weren’t performed enough in their younger years but they probably had fun “playing” the game.
    Thanks, keep the articles coming.

  14. Brian Grasso says:

    Great feedback all!

    Everything has context. At the Moscow Tennis School we are talking about world-class Coaches imparting world-class instruction.

    That is substantially different than volunteer Mom’s and Dad’s (bless there efforts) who don’t truly have any clue as to proper technique.

    Additionally, Kwame and I have talked endlessly about the CNS ‘blueprinting’ that happens when children are left to there own devices. The body always looks for the most economical way of producing motion unless otherwise impeded. Over-coaching is often one of those obstacles.

    I love all of your comments! Thank you!


  15. Damian Gallagher says:

    I am a rugby coach and I have found that unless kids have a disability (although I played against an excellent one armed player) they will advance even to elite standards in skill progression given: family support to play the sport; encouragement of peers (it’s a sport kids want to do); adequate coaching (not bad coaching); and time.
    The time factor is evidenced by the relative age concept. In all age grade activity the “better” players tend to have been born in the early part of the year. So they are maybe 11 months older than the youngest player. Their early success makes them spend more time on their chosen sport and the coaches incorrect identification of maturation as some form of genetically inherited talent means those children get the coaches best attention so creating a reinforcing development.
    When a retired club player has a son showing promise we tell the father “He must take after his mother” !!!
    In our coaching we differentiate between technique and skill. Technique can be taught very quickly but skill (exercising technique under pressure)takes a lifetime – the more you play the more skilful you get. We teach skill by playing small sided games and modifying the rules to develop a particular skill.

  16. Lisa Torres says:

    I am a referee, I have a Am. C, D, and E coaching certificate. I began my own rec based soccer league and in total have been coaching soccer to kids since I was a Junior in High School. I completely agree with building the kids according to their abilities and would love if there were more soccer “free-play” times. I see our kids going out to the baseball diamonds or grabbing a football and playing a mini-game, but very seldomly do I see kids playing a pick-up game of soccer in the back-yard. I have had parents literally yell at me because they think their kids are super-heroes and that I should give them more playing time. My comment to them, “They all deserve their time to learn on the field.” At the recreational level of play, the parents really do not know much about the game. Their kids are learning the game too. I teach/coach/help the kids, that’s what I set out to do. I teach soccer skills to those that want to learn how to do them and I teach the game of soccer to those who question why I do what I do. I teach what the referees do and why they make the calls they do. I believe that knowledge is the key; however, I do believe that we’ve forgotten that our kids are not robots. Thanks for the commentary.

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