New York Times featured an article about a soccer freestyler named Indi Cowie titled “A Soccer Phenom Puts the ‘I’ in Team.” Cowie is a 16-year-old who specializes in freestyle tricks with her feet and skips the girls’ high school soccer team to train with a boys’ club team.
Cowie describes her initial soccer playing experiences:
It hasn’t been easy to be different, especially on the soccer field. “At the beginning of one game I got the ball and beat three girls to score a goal, and my coach pulled me off the field,” Cowie remembers. “He said, ‘You should have passed.’ I said, ‘But I scored a goal, Coach.’ He sat me out for the rest of the half. At halftime he asked me, ‘Are you ready to play properly?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I did the same thing, and he took me off the field for the rest of the game.” Cowie was 10.
These are the experiences that drive children from sports. As her mother said:
“Girls’ soccer becomes toxic sometimes because there is so much jealousy,” says her mother, Judith. “Over the years Indi would wonder what was wrong with her, and there would be tears, and I’d keep telling her, ‘I know it’s been tough on you, but it’s going to get better.’ She’d say: ‘Will it, Mum? When?’ ”
Here, a coach has a child who is obviously more talented and more committed than her peers. Rather than finding ways to challenge the player or encouraging the player to move to a higher level of competition, the coach punishes her for her skills. This is a big issue in soccer circles: youth coaches and parents scream at players to pass, and few players develop the ability to take on players as they progress to more advanced levels of soccer. In several interviews with Brazilian coaches, they repeatedly say that they never yell at young players to pass and instead want players to develop this ability before trying to fit the player into a system.
In the interview, the young Indi illustrates a great understanding of talent development. She follows her passion, she practices religiously, she challenges herself with newer and tougher tricks and she is unafraid to make mistakes. These are the things that we need to emphasize in youth sports.
When a young child pursues a goal – even something scoffed at like freestyle tricks as opposed to real soccer – we should celebrate the effort and determination, much like the Cowie parents. Whether Indi achieves her goal of playing for the U.S. National Team or playing in the Olympics, the pursuit of her dream will serve her well. Simply by watching her dribble a soccer ball, I would be shocked if she was not close to a 4.0 student. The dedication and pursuit of excellence often extends between disciplines – those who pursue greatness in soccer tricks do not ignore academic success; they strive for greatness.
As coaches, rather than deadening this spirit, we need to encourage the passion in young players, the enjoyment for playing the game and the fun. Once players develop the passion, we want to encourage the practice habits and dedication to accomplishing a goal. We need to encourage players to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes rather than punishing mistakes or trying to eliminate errors. Finally, we need to add progressively more difficult challenges to extend players’ learning and keep the sport fun and interesting.