How we form our travel teams at PSU
We will continue to form three new teams each year—a U8 Boys’ team, a U9 Boys’ team, and a U9 Girls’ team. In each birth year category we create a U8 Boys’ team, followed by a second distinct team a year later, at the U9 age group. By staggering the formation of the teams in this way, we are able to create two even teams at each age group on the Boys’ side. On the Girls’ side we will form one team in each age group. Though there are enough kids trying out to form a 3rd and 4th team in many age groups, we prefer to be selective and only field a maximum of two teams.
Fielding two even teams allows the teams to have a distribution of types of players (aggressive and quick-thinking, attackers and defenders, leaders and followers), which helps each player find a role that plays to their strengths. As long as players demonstrate a love of the game, display good behavior, and attend practice, and are developing, they will retain their spot in the team from year to year. Two even teams also allows for a healthy competition between the teams that raises and pushes forward both groups.
Similarly, we aim to keep the same coach with each of these teams until they reach U12. This allows the team to gel from year to year and for the relationships to build over time. After a year a coach has only just started to really understand the motivation and capabilities of each player. Also, the coach knows exactly what they have covered over the past year, as well as the trajectory of each player. This allows for more fine-tuned coaching.
This is different from most clubs, which typically field an “A” team and a “B”” team at all ages. We have found that at the younger ages stratifying the teams by ability has drastic consequences that negatively impact the long-term development of the player—defined by the level they reach by eighteen years old.
At a young age being placed on the “B” team can destroy a kid’s confidence, and place him or her on a team in which there is not enough talent or leadership to move the team in the right direction. And as soon as a player emerges who has the potential to lift those around them, they are removed from the team! And being placed on the “A’ team can have an even more detrimental effect on young kids and their parents. Having attained this status, kids can develop an ego around their ability while parents often believe that their kid is on their way to becoming a star! This praise often causes them to become failure avoidant, which is one of the greatest killers of athletic development. There is a large body of research on the detrimental effect that praising ability (versus effort) has on kids. For further reading I recommend checking out the research of Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist out of Stanford. An article summarizing her findings can be found at this link.
Another key concept in developmental psychology is “scaffolding,” working on a task with someone a few steps ahead on the developmental pathway. Kids learn the most from peers one to three years older as they can imagine themselves at this age and work towards being like (or not like) kids just a bit older. In a similar way, playing in a team with players a bit ahead in their soccer development helps model the skills each kid can work towards.
So what about the strongest players? Are they stagnating for the betterment of the other players? Not so! They learn the leadership and empathy skills that they will need to rise through all of the levels of the game. Unless they are Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, at some point they are going to be playing with players better than them, and need to learn how to adjust once they are in this role. And since these players are typically also given opportunities to play with the group one year older, they are also placed in positions to be challenged while maintaining their confidence.
Those with the experience of working with players all along the development continuum know that those players who show promise early on are no lock to become the stars of tomorrow. The PSU coaches and I often share our stories of watching one of our peers rise in late middle school and high school to star in college and make it to the pros. These are the players who had developed the right mindset, habits, teamwork and discipline required to make the leap during the critical 13-18 year old years.