Volume 20, Number 32 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 21 - 27, 2007

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The new game plan focuses on skills and creativity

By Judith Stiles

A fundamental change is occurring in how soccer is being taught to American children, and in this revolution’s forefront is an innovative program at the Downtown United Soccer Club. Right here, in our own backyard at Pier 40, children as young as 3 years old are running onto the field and falling in love with the game, knowing squat about rules, positions, strategy or standings.

Under the tutelage of director of coaching Gustavo Palomino and coach Paul Jeffries of Manchester, England, DUSC’s Little Stars Academy introduces “the world’s most beautiful game through a program designed to stimulate a child’s motor skills and imagination,” note the coaches on the Web site

With an undersized soccer ball, the children play games such as Kick the Pumpkin, Red Light Green Light: Where Should We Go Now? Space Rockets Travel to the Moon and King of the Box, as they learn fundamental soccer skills without consciously realizing it. For example, in King of the Box, players dribble a ball inside a 20-foot-by-20-foot space, battling to guard their own ball, while attempting to kick out everyone else’s balls, in order to eliminate opponents and be the last king standing. Little do they realize that each one of them is organically learning to dribble in tight spaces, while also learning about ball control, changing direction, attacking, looking up while dribbling and protecting the ball, all important game skills. They do this while having fun, instead of standing in lines for robotic drills, which is the way soccer is taught in many programs across the country. 

Nine years ago at Downtown United, when children played soccer on recreational or travel teams, they were immediately assigned a position on the field as goalie, midfielder, defender or forward. Most players have been stuck in the same position for years, where defenders often stand in the back like trees, and they never dare to dribble up past the midfield. Ever since they were age 7, young New York City club soccer players have been on teams where the main goal has been winning games, rather than developing creativity and ball skills.

According to Palomino and Jeffries, this emphasis is the primary reason why the U.S. had a less-than-stellar performance at the last World Cup. Players who have grown up in the American system have played for years with the fear of losing games, and it is has stifled the kind of improvisation that is seen in other countries.

“When children are afraid of disappointing coaches and parents if they lose a game, this leads to a predictable kind of play, where players become afraid to take chances and experiment on the field,” says Jeffries.

The Little Stars Program for ages 3 to 5 and DUSC’S new Academy Program for 6-to-9-year-olds are quietly changing the way American youth play soccer. In the Academy Program, the emphasis is on small-sided games, with three or sometimes four players on a side and no goalies, where the coaching philosophy encourages experimentation and taking risks.

“In Peru, where I played soccer, the whole country speaks soccer,” says Palomino. “It is a culture where kids are given their first soccer ball at birth and kids grow up playing all the time, without much adult supervision.” He also points out that soccer is relatively new to the U.S. and does not have the same cultural support found in other countries. The U.S. Soccer Federation and coaches across the country are still trying to sort out what is the best way to coach the game.

“A coach is mistaken,” Jeffries says, “if he thinks the development process can be accelerated if young children have rigorous fitness training or if they are taught advanced skills at very young ages.” He emphasizes that too much of this intensity and information too soon will alienate kids from the game.

While continuing to hold practices that are fun, DUSC coaches begin to introduce the fundamental techniques of soccer as players get older, such as different ways of dribbling, receiving, passing and shooting. The coaches continue to de-emphasize the importance of winning every game, which often puts them at odds with parents who place a premium on beating other teams.

Parents’ rabid need to win is usually born out of their own personal unfulfilled need to succeed as an athlete, which is often expressed through irrepressible shouting and yelling from the sidelines. Both Palomino and Jeffries agree that over-coaching and overzealous parents have become a chronic problem, which is usually a recipe for disaster. However, to solve this problem, DUSC has established stricter guidelines for parental conduct that are spelled out at the beginning of each season.

As New York City soccer rolls out of the fall season into the winter games at Pier 40, the word on the street about DUSC coaches is that they have introduced a decidedly new flavor to teaching the game, with a little salt from England, courtesy of Jeffries, and a little Palomino pepper imported from Peru — just enough to spice up the Big Apple’s melting pot.

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