deVos: Debating 'unlimited' substitutions in youth soccer

Jason deVos
9/18/2013 9:10:01 PM
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Twitter is a difficult medium upon which to have a debate. 140 characters simply isn't enough to state one's case on any subject, let alone to have a back-and-forth discussion with a number of interested parties.

Such was the case the other day, when the topic of substitutions in youth soccer games was broached.

'Unlimited' substitutions - where players are free to be substituted and to re-enter a game as often as the coach likes - is a rule that exists in many leagues across the country.

In recreational soccer, where equal playing time is a priority, this rule is completely understandable. It allows coaches to manage playing time more effectively, ensuring that young players are getting as much time on the field as possible.

Even in competitive soccer, this rule is acceptable. While some coaches abuse the rule - to rest their star players for a few minutes or to micromanage their team's tactics - most coaches use it to ensure that all of their players receive a fair amount of playing time.

The discussion gets more complicated, though, when you consider 'unlimited' substitutions in high-performance youth soccer, which begins for players aged 12 and up. 

Leagues such as the BCSPL in British Columbia; the LSEQ in Quebec; and the OPDL in Ontario (set to begin play in 2014) are high-performance leagues designed to provide the optimal learning environment for our best young players. These leagues have slight differences in their structures, but their intent is the same - to fully develop the technical, tactical, physical and mental abilities of our best young players.

The argument in favour of 'unlimited' substitutions tends to come down to this: the coach feels that the best way to 'teach' the player is to reinforce coaching points during the game, whenever a mistake or teaching moment occurs, by removing the player from the game for a detailed explanation. The ability to substitute a player at that time, in order to explain the coaching point on the sidelines, is central to this argument.

I disagree with this perspective, for a number of reasons.

First, I believe that in order to learn, players must be given the freedom to make mistakes within a game. It is part of their learning process and we, as coaches, should avoid micromanaging players on the field of play. If we don't, we become what I refer to as 'joystick coaches'; using players to fulfill our idea of how the game is supposed to unfold, almost like a human video game.

By micromanaging players, we also run the risk of destroying their natural creative instincts. Those instincts need to be nourished and encouraged, not suppressed and stymied. This is exactly what unlimited substitutions promotes, because players live in fear of making a mistake and being taken off of the field. We want to develop more creative players in Canada, not less.

Second, good coaches make mental or written notes during a half of play, in order to address those coaching points at the half-time break or during the post-game debrief. Substituting one player in order to address a coaching point with them (only to put them back into the game moments later) isolates that player and deprives his/her teammates of benefiting from that same lesson.

For example, if a player is repeatedly receiving the ball with a closed body shape (facing the ball squarely when receiving a pass, as opposed to being 'side-on' where they are able to see the ball and the space around them), isn't that a coaching point that all of the players should learn? Would it not be preferable to explain that coaching point to everyone, so that they may all benefit from that lesson? And is that not a lesson that can delivered during the half-time or post-game debrief, and then practiced in training?

Third, high-performance leagues like the BCSPL, the LSEQ and the OPDL are intended to involve our best young players - our top prospects. Some of these players will be selected for our provincial and national youth teams, will be vying for places in professional club academies, and as they get older, will be vying for soccer scholarships and professional contracts. It is vitally important, then, that we gradually develop the energy systems they use in order to play a full 90-minute game when they reach the appropriate age.

The development of the aerobic and anaerobic capacities of the players will never be maximized if coaches use unlimited substitutions to give players a 'breather' during games. It is a crutch that players use when they are tired, rather than modifying their play to adapt to the physical demands at any given point during a game. This adaptability is essential at the elite levels to which these players aspire, and if we are not going to develop that adaptability during their developmental years, it will never be fully realized.

Finally, I feel that a coach's stance on the use of substitutions in high-performance youth games is shaped by their attitude towards the games themselves.

Far too many coaches involved at this level view the outcomes of games as a reflection of their coaching ability, rather than as a tool to measure the learning needs of their players. If their team wins, they consider themselves a great coach. If their team loses, they view themselves as failures.

This attitude needs to change.

Coaches are teachers, and should view themselves as such. Their job is to teach their players the skills they need to advance to the next stage of their soccer 'careers'. Yes, results are important to the self-esteem of the developing player, but at no time should the result of a game be put ahead of the learning needs of the players involved.

A big part of the teaching process for youngsters involves players being allowed to make mistakes during games. No mistake is so great that it cannot wait until half-time or post-game for an explanation. In the worst case scenario, a player can be called over to the sideline to have the coaching point explained to them, after which they can carry on playing. This approach will only work, however, if the coach views the game as a learning experience for every player.

As Confucius once said, "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand." The time for players to 'hear' and 'see' (and 'try') is in training. The time for them to 'do' is during a game.

Jason deVos

Jason deVos

As one of Canada's most accomplished soccer players, Jason deVos spent nearly 20 years on the pitch playing competitive soccer at the highest professionallevels in Canada and around the world. After retiring from international play, deVos began his broadcasting career as a soccer analyst with the CBC and GOLTV. Most recently he provided commentary and analysis for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa for the CBC.

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