This month, the US Soccer Federation launched a revamp of it’s soccer coaching license structure. Gone now are both the USSF F and E licenses, they are being replaced by eight “Grassroots Courses”, four online and four in-person. These licenses are based around the four game models played at youth level, 4v4, 7v7, 9v9 and 11v11. A combination of these courses will need to be completed in order to take the new USSF D license.

The move away from the more streamlined pathway of simply following the alphabet from F to A has some merit to it. Initially, it does create some confusion and might leave new coaches unsure as to where to begin their coaching education. However, it is pretty straightforward if you know what level you’ll be coaching. For a coach focused only on younger players up to U10, it would make sense to focus their education on the 4v4 and 7v7 models.

This is where one small issue does arise though. In order to take the D license you must complete two in-person and one online course and one of them must be the 11v11 in-person course. It’s entirely possible for a coach to not coach 11v11 teams and yet still want to advance their education by completing the D license, making them take the 11v11 course then doesn’t make much sense. If a coach really wants to focus on, say, 7v7 and 9v9, then they should be able to take all three of their courses in those game models.

From US Soccer:

“The new Grassroots Licensing Courses, which replace the F and E License Courses, offer an a-la-carte approach meant to empower coaches with education that is relevant to their specific coaching needs.”

Empowers the coaches, to a point, they have to take the 11v11 course before moving to the D license. Still, it does allow for a bit more focus than the previous F and E license arrangement. Incremental progress is still progress.

By introducing the term “grassroots” coaching US Soccer has added yet another topic for coaches to debate, something we have plenty of already, in determining what is a grassroots coach? Going by the US Soccer literature it would be easy enough to interpret this to mean recreation and town travel level, of which most coaches are volunteers. This is where players are introduced to the game and begin their soccer journey. Having a grassroots course for 11v11 then is recognition that the soccer journey can begin at any age, not everyone is introduced to the game before age twelve.

It’s conceivable that the term grassroots could also extend to school soccer at both the middle and high school level. At school level the coaches are now paid, yes, they are not though always soccer specific coaches. Middle school teams can struggle to find coaches and high schools can struggle to fill coaching positions at the sub-varsity level as well. This can lead to teachers who are willing to take the team but might not be well versed in soccer. For the school coach, the grassroots term might apply to them as well.

Beyond that, the Club level would not be considered by most to be grassroots coaching. The commitment level is higher, players may be passed on for team selection due to their ability and, of course, large sums of money are now involved. The expectation from players and parents at Club level because they are asked to make a more significant commitment of their time and money means the level of coaching needs to be higher than that of the novice coach.

Does this mean then that grassroots coaches and Club coaches should approach the same sport in different ways? It seems that is what US Soccer is saying with their enactment of the play-practice-play model for Grassroots courses and the D license. This is an underestimation of the grassroots coach.

The play-practice-play model is exactly what it sounds like. Training starts with games of 3v3/4v4 to small goals for thirty minutes, then one training exercise for thirty minutes(that can scale up or down in complexity), then a larger sided game with goalkeepers for thirty minutes.

The first thing to stand out is the simple to complex model is gone and unopposed/indirectly opposed/isolated technical training is also, gone. The idea, as presented by US Soccer coaching educators, is that technical training should be done during playing. They are advocating that technical development can and should take place alongside the development of game intelligence.

This brings US Soccer into the ongoing debate, which is little more than coaches lambasting each other on Twitter at this point, about isolated training vs game realistic training. It is a pointless debate, the argument is framed around the idea that it must be one way or it must be the other. In a country steeped in ever increasing levels of divisiveness, this is sadly no surprise. The answer between two extremes almost always lies somewhere in the middle.

Playing even sided games for two-thirds of training has many drawbacks. For the players, it doesn’t allow for them to explore different types of technique with enough repetition. Fifteen minutes of ball mastery with every player dribbling their ball in an area allows for each player to explore how to control the ball, keep their head up, change direction, speed up and slow down. That is applicable to playing soccer. Dribbling through cones, not applicable to playing soccer. Both involve every player with a ball, getting lots of touches. One brings thought into what they are doing, one does not.

Should then we throw out ball mastery in training because some coaches will use cones and some coaches will use other humans to facilitate learning how to manipulate a ball? No. They both fall under the same category of training, yes, but only one of them will help players play soccer. Instead then of eliminating these technically focused portions of training, why not just educate coaches to eliminate poor exercises?

Part of the answer is some grassroots coaches are resistant to being shown better methods. Most though, are not, most novice coaches are thrilled to be shown new ideas and have their poor methods(which they just adopted from someone else anyways) both replaced and educated on why they are poor. Very few people volunteer to do something and then set out to do it poorly. And those that do would be less likely to take US Soccer coaching courses anyways.

One habit many novice coaches have is constantly telling their players what to do on the ball in games, dribble!, pass!, shoot shoot!!!!. US Soccer advocates that the player on the ball should be not be coached, they should be allowed to make their own decisions. This is a massive problem at youth level in this country. Coaches bordering on lunacy, yelling directions to their players for forty-nine and half minutes of a fifty minute game trying to control every action a player takes. And then the parents join in.

Adults do a wonderful job of ruining the playing experience for children. It is no wonder they love video games. When a child plays a video game it is, for many, the one place they can completely escape being directed by adults. They can do whatever they want in the parameters of the video game and if their character dies, the character comes back and they get to try again. Without someone yelling “jump!!”, “shoot!!!”, “pick that up” from fifteen yards away.

Utopia for the child, for once, they are in control of what happens. This should be extended to sport. Like in the video game, when the character dies, the game is not over. And over time the child learns how to be successful in the game, all on their own. They are capable of the same when playing soccer, if the adults will let them. If they lose the ball, or concede a goal, the game is not over. And the game does eventually end, yes, but they get another game a week later, and another and another and another. Much like the video game, a mistake is not the end of the child’s experience, why do adults act like it is? And they will learn as well from their mistakes and successes, if they are truly allowed to own their decisions.

What US Soccer has inadvertently done then is actually encourage more of this type of interference during games from adults. If technical development is now to be done during play, as no other time is allowed for it, novice coaches will be empowered to give technical guidance during play. This will crush both the players decision making opportunities and their enjoyment of playing. The game is for the players, if we take this away from them more and more, they will look for other ways to use their time.

What US Soccer really needs to do is educate novice coaches and parents better in understanding what should go into a training session and what should not. The play-practice-play model is a good idea to use for some training sessions, but not all. It would be a great change of pace, a great session in poor weather where learning might be less ideal or when attendance at a session is unexpectedly low. The real key for most sessions is to develop player’s technique and decision making and then allow them to play with less restrictions as a training session moves along.

Technical training is automatically associated with being boring and not allowing for decision making. That is not the case, poorly designed and executed technical training is boring and doesn’t allow for decision making. The ability to see that distinction needs to be a part of coaching education, not simply punting technical training from the session.

If US players were developing their technique outside of training, then it would be a different situation. By and large though, they are not. For many players the only time spent with a soccer ball is in the team environment. It is necessary then to spend time teaching them how to juggle, dribble, pass and shoot, while encouraging them to do this on their own time. And some will, more will if they coach shows the importance of technique by spending time on it in training. Players will want to come and show the coach they’ve reached a new personal best for juggling if they know the coach values this ability.

US players need to play more in pick-up type games where they are completely free from coaching instruction and able to play how they want and experiment. Clubs can and should facilitate pick-up sessions for their players year round to allow them to play for the sake of playing, and not be bothered by adults while doing it. This cannot take place in team training under US Soccer’s play-practice-play model. It says ‘play’ in the name, twice, but it’s not really free play, it’s conditioned play, players need more opportunities for free play in addition to the training to learn. US Soccer seems to think we can do both at the same time. We can’t.

Below is a quote from Ferhat Cicek, a coach in Paris, France, from the excellent documentary, Concrete Football, a look at street soccer in France. It highlights the major component of soccer development not present in the US:

“We let them enjoy and be free with street soccer. But we explain to them with the team(in the Club), that their own talent must all be for the team. Street soccer means freedom, and we don’t want to take that away from them.”

The idea that we need to offer more freedom to players is one that everyone needs to embrace if we are to see our level of soccer rise in the US, from the grassroots level and up.

US Soccer has come up with something that has merit on the surface and should be utilized alongside different types of training sessions on occasion. It doesn’t, though, address better education of what training is for and what it should look like to novice coaches, it doesn’t address the lack of education among parents of players and it does not address the lack of freedom US soccer players have when playing.

One thought on “Analyzing US Soccer’s Play-Practice-Play Methodology

  1. great overview of Play-Practice-Play. I tried using this method exclusively for a month and we really lost focus on skills. Passing for u10 reverted back to toe balls for many because they were not getting enough passing reps. Creating better “game like” skill exercises seems to be the right balance, but not always easy to do.

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