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How much time should young players spend with the ball?

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger may, over the past few years, have come under considerable criticism for first team results. But most observers of the game agree that since arriving at the North London club in 1996, he has “Gunners” as a world leader in youth development. Out of the last 100 players that have made their debut for the first team, 49 have progressed through the Arsenal Academy.

Rather than spend $60 million dollars a year on player’s like Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City, the club has increasingly developed its own players. The advantage of this model is that the players have a greater loyalty and affiliation to the club and tend to stay longer. In addition, they can be schooled from a very early age top play “The Arsenal Way.”

Not all the Arsenal youth players have or will graduate to the first team but they will have a great chance at becoming professional players, at some level. From 1v1 Soccer FC’s perspective, the Arsenal model confirms our belief that for players to become successful in the game, they must be practicing more and more with the ball. Steve Bould (former Arsenal defensive star as a player, current assistant manager and former youth team coach) believes that young English players are still behind young European players in terms of weekly training time.

“It’s hard because I look at Spain, France or Holland and the kids are training four, five or six times per week at young ages,” says Bould. “At 15 we get ours three times a week (which includes a game) at the very most.” Looking at another development model in Brazil youngsters also play constantly with the ball, easily 12-15 hours a week, but in a more unstructured environment like pickup games in the street or on the beach.

However, it is important to remember that while these players may not have “coaches” in the same we understand the term, there is always an older sibling, parent, relative or friend to pass along lessons of technique and the fundamentals of team play.

The Elite Performance Plan for English clubs, released in 2011, does significantly increase the training contact time that Category 1 clubs now have with young players. Training hours for U9 to U11 players has increased from 4 hours per week to 8, and for U12-U16 players this has been increased from 12hrs per week to 16. Wolves FC, for example, now take their young players out of school one day each week to expand their training.

Consider now the averages for young players in Canada or the US, who may only train once or twice a week, at a low tempo, without a significant technical component while being taught by volunteer coaching staff who have not had the opportunity to spend time learning the game and what is best in terms of youth development. The bottom line is that even when the players do train they may not be spending time on the correct activities.

Arsenal’s Bould also highlights another important characteristic that must be combined with greater touches on the ball — character! For players to play at a higher level, they must learn how to overcome adversity and develop skills to overcome “problems” both on and off the field. Daniel Coyle also highlighted this as an important aspect of a child’s development in his book The Talent Code. The struggle to master a new skill or to work out how to receive more touches in small-sided games against older or more experienced players is a very important part of development.

No player will be able to instantly juggle the ball 300 times in succession without constant practice. It is the young players that keep practicing and have the belief in themselves that they can achieve a higher level of play — despite any obstacles or setbacks — who will ultimately be successful. That player may not necessarily be the best player today, they may have been told by a coach that they are too small or not aggressive enough. If they keep working on their technical ability and have the determination and passion for the game to be successful, then these types of players will be our best players in future years.

Young Brazilian players are spending 12-15 hours a week working on their ball skills and the young European players are training five or six times each week. Consequently, Canada must adopt the same philosophy towards technical development if we wish to be truly successful in soccer in competition with these nations.

I am frequently asked when Canada will have a successful national men’s team. My answer is always the same — 2030. After all, that is when the majority of our 1v1 Soccer FC players will have hit the ideal ages of between 25 and 30!

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December 21, 2015
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