HPL and Lessons from Japan
- Created: Tuesday, 19 July 2011 00:00
For those who had the pleasure of watching Japan compete and ultimately win the 2011 Women's World Cup, you must have been struck by a few things that stand in stark contrast to the youth game here in North America (particularly on the girl's side). For one, the Japanese players were small, very small, especially compared to the US national team. Secondly, the Japanese players could really play soccer. In other words, they had the technical and tactical ability to pass the ball. Why is that so different? Because we don't seem to understand, let alone value, those soccer attributes in this country. We value brawn and work ethic over skill and intelligence. We value the gladiatorial attributes of athletes that are all too evident in the game of hockey or American football. But soccer is a much different game than the ones embedded in our culture. It's referred to as the "Beautiful Game" for a reason. It's a game that supposed to be played with skill, patience, and artistry. It's not a hockey game. It's more like a chess match where one team possesses the ball and probes around the opposition trying to find a way through. Sadly, we don't play the game that way in North American, particularly at the youth level. We select the biggest, fastest, and strongest athletes for our so-called "elite" teams and then instruct them to smash the ball forward. We then look to our strength and athleticism to win the ball back deep in the opposition's end. It's a game that almost exclusively scores goals by preying on the mistakes of the opposition. It's the antitheses of the "Beautiful Game", the ugly form of "dumping the puck in."
So what's wrong with this form of soccer? Well, aside from its aesthetic abomination, the biggest casualty from this approach is development. Players simply don't acquire the technical and tactical skills when playing the game that way. The modern game is about continually getting on the ball and distributing it around the pitch, looking for an opportune moment to penetrate through the opposition. To possess the ball is to possess the skills required to play the modern game: secure first-touch, speed of play, vision, patience in possession - just to name a few. So few youth teams even attempt to play that way in this country. We're too hung up on trying to win soccer games at the youth level, too focused on eliminating all forms of mistakes and subsequently killing the creativity of players who try to take risks. When is the last time you saw a youth team play out of the back through the midfield with a series of short 1 and 2-touch passes?
Canada's performance at the Women's World Cup was a clear indicator that our bankrupt approach to the game has to change. Despite being groomed by Morace to play a different style of soccer, the Canadian National Women's team reverted to the default of smashing the ball forward. No one can blame these players for how they responded. They are a reflection of our youth system. This approach used to work on the women's side of the game because so few countries were playing women's soccer and fewer still were grooming their female players to play the modern game. Japan's victory last weekend is an indication that those days are coming to an end. On the men's side, the modern game has been entrenched for well over a decade and continues to be refined by teams like Barcelona and Arsenal. In other words, there are fewer excuses for our young boys to be playing any other way.
So how do we fix this problem? For one, we need to acknowledge that a problem exists. Without that first step, there's little hope for advancement. I'm not sure we're even at that point yet. When watching youth soccer games in this country and seeing coaches and parents on the sideline applaud big kicks down the field as they urge on their U8 sons and daughters to win at all cost, I'm more than a little dismayed.
That being said, the implementation of HPL, the new "High Performance" youth league in BC is, at minimum, an acknowledgment on the part of BC Soccer that a problem exists. This is a reassuring first step. However, now that a problem has been identified, we have to ensure we're applying the correct remedy. Is HPL that remedy?
To begin with, one clear deficiency in our youth system is the quality of instruction our young players are receiving. HPL, it seems, tried to address that issue by mandating a large fee increase to play in this "elite" league. In some cases, fees jumped by as much as 5 fold. The logic, presumably, was to raise enough money to pay for "professional" coaching. The failure in that logic was firstly in the assumption that enough professional coaches existed to fill that need. Secondly, was the assumption that the fees were enough to draw out the ones who did exist. As it turned out, many of the coaches selected were the same ones who coached previously in the system. Furthermore, few, if any of the seasoned coaches stepped forward to participate in this league.
So now players find themselves paying upwards of $2500 to play "elite" soccer in the Lower Mainland and yet little has changed in terms of the level of their instruction. The benefit, it could be argued, is that these players are now training 3 times a week instead of 2 times a week as was previously the case with many metro teams. However, a coach, whom I greatly respect, once told me that the term "practice makes perfect" is a misleading expression since practicing the wrong things most assuredly will not make you "perfect." Along that point, some HPL clubs have announced that the third weekly training session will be exclusively dedicated to fitness. That's right - fitness. Is that really where we should be directing our energy? Clearly our deficiency in the game is technical and tactical. Having one third of training time dedicated to fitness is the same old bankrupt approach that looks to athleticism to solve our soccer problems.
To make matters worse, some HPL coaches have discouraged and, in some cases, forbidden players from participating in additional training programs such as TSS and Roman Tulis. For well over a decade, these programs have allowed dedicated players to get additional technical instruction. But now HPL emerges, increases fees 5 fold, makes little changes in terms of coaching instruction, and reduces the number of technical sessions available to these players.
It's a common view that everytime government or a large bureaucracy steps in to solve a problem, the problem gets worse. I remember when a provincial government decided to install breathalizer tests in bars in order for patrons to test their blood alcohol level before driving. It didn't take long for new drinking games to emerge whereby patrons drank copious amounts of alcohol and then tried to beat the high score on the breathalizer. In other words, the problem was made worse. Is that what we're doing here with HPL? Imagine how we will develop young soccer players when our youth system identifies top players at U13, charges them $2500, fails to provide the top coaches, only provides 2 technical training sessions a week, and prevents them from getting anything more than that. But not to worry, they'll be able to run really fast - just like all those teams tried to do against Japan.