Spacing, the Final Frontier
A paradigm shift away from conventional youth soccer principles has been needed for a long time because the core fundamental challenge of playing great soccer is not the mastery of skill or physical fitness, but the awareness and adjustment of ones spacing.
Scrimmage is the key. A player cannot learn the art of spacing if they don't play soccer often enough. Because it's frequency, which allows them to become "aware" of what's around them. You can not adjust your spacing if you're unaware of how much space there is. 4v4 small-sided scrimmages is a mechanism needed to encourage players to apply their own solutions.
Today, young players are only ever exposed to scrimmaging for a limited time at their weekly, formal adult-controlled soccer practices where coaches feel they should focus on just skill and fitness, or pre-designed tactics where thinking is prohibited and following instructions is the new sport ethic. Today, youth coaches specialize in training kids to execute, not to think. And there are consequences.
"It turns out that many children are like a toolbox, they have the skills and physical tools to do the job, but they just don't know how to build a goal." -Coach Eryck Avila
That's why the order of things matters. In countries that are the serial winners of the World Cup, young kids get to scrimmage a lot, and often just in the streets, but that is the perfect space, the perfect frontier. Their skill development skyrockets, but not before their tactical awareness does first–order matters. Free from adult intervention, children first play soccer, and then begin to seek out solutions in the form of skills as the game keeps presenting options to the child over and over. That's the way it's done in nature so that's how we should be doing it at the club training level, in this order:
It's not hard to help players improve their skills or physical fitness; what's really hard to teach is Soccer IQ. Skills itself is not hard, application of skill is hard.
Soccer IQ is best developed in 4v4 small-sided scrimmages, where kids learn to think. Thinking is hard to quantify and is intangible just as the game itself is fluid, especially compared to other sports which could be characterized by excessive time-outs, whistles, stoppages of play, huddles and even playbooks written by special teams coaches.
Soccer is improvisational. It requires constant adjustment. A child's brain needs to be like a NASA super computer, calculating multiple random factors instantly. And so the core thought that all great players need to develop, centers around how to adjust their spacing to exploit time and space, not just for themselves but for their teammates. It's only then that physical skills and physical fitness are meant to enhance the child's awareness and decision making.
Today, parents and coaches want to skip the intangible for concrete things they can see and measure such as improved skills or fitness, but they are skipping the "natural" order of things–they are skipping the core challenge–Spacing is that final frontier and scrimmaging is your spaceship, it's the mechanism to get your kids to the next level of performance. If we are to dominate at the international level, the Avila Paradigm is the start. Scrimmaging is key. We already have the greatest athletes in the world and they do possess world class soccer skills, the problem is we have outgrown the coaching and need a new model that trusts in the natural genius of our youth.