Dummying Down Our Youth Footballers

by Todd Beane TOVO Academy Barcelona

This may not sit well with coaches, but it may be time to be honest as educators.  How many of us are “dummying down” our trainings and then complaining about the lack of intelligent players?

Answer: Too many of us.

“My players do not understand football well enough to play that way,” a coach replied during a preseason training we offered in California. “We will be vulnerable in matches.” This U12 coach was stunned when I agreed. He was even more stunned when I told him that he just made my argument for me.

“Exactly,” I replied. “Your players do not understand football well enough,” I continued, “so who is going to change that reality?”

“Making mistakes and correcting for them builds bridges to advance learning.”— Brown, Roediger, McDaniel

I went on to explain that if we lower our expectations we are dooming our players to mediocrity. What self-respecting coach would do that? All of us really. We do it week in and week out, year in and year out to avoid the short-term discomfort and potential weekend loss that reflects poorly on us as coaches. But what about the consequences of our cautiousness on our players?

If we seek intelligent, competent, and creative players at the age of seventeen, wouldn’t we want to do everything in our power to start developing that player today?

 “…every time you learn something new, you change the brain… we become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve and create.” — Brown, Roediger, McDaniel

Let’s stop dummying down expectations and then expecting football wizards to emerge. It does not happen that way. Imagine watching a grade school teacher sticking with simple addition because multiplication is a bit too difficult for the students and errors may occur. Imagine that the teacher says he prefers guaranteed success, as it would reflect poorly on him if the children were to struggle with new concepts. Seems absurd when we put it this way, no?


Solution. Crank it up a notch. Introduce sophisticated concepts at young ages. At TOVO, we call this “conceptual layering” and we ask that the players train with joy, with energy and even with a fair amount of initial failure. Coupled with positive encouragement, you would be amazed at what high expectations can accomplish with our young players. They are challenged. They are inspired. They are treated with the confidence that they can learn. And interestingly enough, they do!

Please do not build systems of play that are the safest, least vulnerable and least demanding intellectually. That may serve us, but it does not serve our youth. Let them play in a way that requires constant thought. They may not master what we ask on day one, but will do so in the near future.

As my conversation continued with the U12 coach, I ended with one final comment, “Having your center back be more vulnerable today will make him a smarter and more alert footballer tomorrow.”

He was baffled by the apparent contradiction and I was thirsty for his response and the conversation to come.

“We must challenge our children to think for themselves. Let them struggle a bit in a supportive environment until they amaze us. Let’s give them the opportunity to be remarkable.” — Todd Beane


Todd Beane  Founder & CEO
Todd graduated from Dartmouth College in 1986 with a B.A. in English Literature. Upon graduation, he was awarded a Rotary Scholarship to attend the University of Sussex in England. Todd concluded his formal studies at Stanford University where he earned a M.A. in Education and a Secondary Teaching Credential. As an athlete, Todd played NCAA Division I soccer at Dartmouth College before playing professional soccer in the USISL. As a coach, he was awarded a US Soccer Federation “A” License, coaching both collegiately and professionally. He has served on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University as Director of the Native Vision Program and later as Director of the Cloud Forest School in Costa Rica.


About Erik Imler

A Retired Professional Player, NCAA Champion (1989,1991,1992), and 1992 U.S. Olympic Team (Barcelona, Spain)who is dis-satisfied with the status quo of youth soccer development in the United States and motivated to create a youth program that addresses the most prominent technical deficiencies in many youth players - passing & receiving.

  • Yes I agree with the article.
    I ask you your thoughts as a father on my child who is 5 and starting out. My thought process is to start on level 1 and recognise his progression then he can move to level 2 and so on. You can’t go from level 1 to level 5 and skip those levels in between. The foundation needs to be set at that age. Soon you find your son without him even knowing standing like a footballer (foot on top of the ball). Then you see him walk past a ball for example in the yard and he knocks it to you with the outside of his foot very natural like. He doesn’t know his doing this because it’s all becoming a natural part of his growth. I’m observing small changes now in his technique even at 5. He obviously has a very long hard road ahead with plenty to learn. I don’t even know how he compares but these days kids are getting better younger. There is 14 yr old Korean golfers on the pro circuit for example. I don’t want my kid to miss those steps because he will miss the opportunity to find his own style and technique. I see coaching clinics around with a child who is ready to move up but has not been identified by the coach because they are being overseen by an 18yr old who is just doing a job. All of a sudden this kids ability is being stalled. The foundation needs to be set early in my opinion and kids need to be lent on just enough to keep them progressing.
    Lastly, if your watching your child and observe him/her doing a skill or drill wrong then I would rather the coach be a little harsh on him rather than let him go.
    Just an opinion.

  • I’ve had this discussion with far too many supposed high level coaches. “My kids can’t play out of the back b/c they don’t have the technique”…at age 12. It blows my mind when I hear things like this and it tells me more about the coaches than the players. We need more and better educators in the game.

  • Great article and thank you for sharing.

    Performance/results versus development/process culture; all too prevalent in youth sports in general and with most of our soccer organizations.

    “Cranking” up our expecations of players likely requires additional steps regarding parental expecations as well. I think they go hand in hand.

    This is part of our “job” as coaches (even though it isn’t often stated in the job description! lol

    Again, thanks for sharing…keep up the great work, much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *