Why am I suggesting we take lessons from Belgium? First, because I believe we can learn lessons from just about anywhere. In this specific context, though, because I think we can learn a lot about structuring youth programs from them.
You see, back in 2000 they co-hosted the European Championships in soccer and really under-performed – at least to their minds. That triggered a complete overhaul of how they did youth development. The result is that this small country now has one of the strongest national teams in the world.
There’s an interesting article talking about what they did. I’m going to outline the main points here with my own thoughts as they relate to volleyball.
This is all about keeping the focus on the kids. It’s about what they like, what they want to do, not about what a coach wants. It’s also not about the team concept – at least not in these early developmental stages. So we should structure things with their fun in mind first and foremost.
It makes no sense for youngsters just starting in the sport to play full-sided games. Even cut down teams (the article uses 5 v 5 for soccer as an example) are problematic.
Because oftentimes it means stretches when any given player doesn’t get to do much. That’s not fun for the kid. Remember the first point above? If the kids aren’t having fun, we’re failing them.
So how do we keep the kids as active in games as possible? By cutting team sizes down to as few as possible. The article mentions 1 v 1 games, which is very doable in soccer. You can, of course, do that in volleyball too if you play 1-touch games. We’d probably want to quickly get to 2 v 2, though, so you get them using a more complete range of skills.
I wrote before about very small-sided games for youth. The point is that you don’t need to do anything like full team play until much later in player development than is commonly the case. The article suggests U14s as the point where they finally hit 11 v 11 games for soccer. That’s about where I’d go with 6 v 6 for volleyball.
No early specialization
Early specialization is a problem that I’ve seen talked about a lot in coaching circles, and beyond. Generally, the focus tends to be on burn-out, overuse injuries, and stuff like that. In the Belgian case there seems to be a more dedicated effort to expose young kids to a bunch of different sports so they can decide for themselves which they prefer. This avoids the issue of parents wanting them to focus on one particular sport of their choice rather than the child’s.
The idea here is that coaches should be way less controlling than is normally the case. Players should be given the opportunity to learn things their own way. In other words, it’s more of a guided discover approach than a “do it this way” one.
I should note that the focus point of the article in this area is on developing players with creativity. In other words, players who can find interesting and useful solutions to the problems they face rather than players who can only do as they are specifically told. This is not about letting them develop bad technical habits that could lead to injury and whatnot.
If you’ve followed this blog much at all you’ll know I’m a big advocate of making things as game-like as possible. Check out this post as one example. There’s a quote in the Belgium article that I think makes the point very well.
“In training, this is what you have to simulate – real game-based situations where they can make decisions, read the game and learn from it. This is very, very important.”
Winning doesn’t matter
In the article the author says they don’t have league tables in Belgian soccer until U14s. Why? Because coaches tend to focus too much on winning (I wrote about this related to 12s). As a result, they play the players most likely to do that. This means the less skilled ones – arguably the ones most in need of the experience of playing – sit on the bench most of the time.
Return to the initial point – that players must have fun. Sitting the bench isn’t fun. We want players playing, so we want coaches thinking in terms of everyone playing, not just the best players. Thus, take the score out of the equation.
There is a related question here as to when it makes sense for players to compete in significant competitions.
The last point of the article is that late bloomers can turn out to be some of the best in the long run. The problem is that they often get overlooked, and by extension under-developed, if they are required to play strictly at their specific age level. The NCAA actually has an article on how kids born in the first few months of the year are over-represented at the top levels of the sport because they tend to physically mature earlier than their peers, and thus are more likely to be dubbed “talented” early on.
For this reason, in Belgium they let them play a year down if that is appropriate. And of course early bloomers should be allowed to play up where they can be on a more level playing field.
Give the article a read. I think it provides some very good ideas for how we should structure youth volleyball.