What Even Is "Long-Term Athletic Development" In Soccer?

“Street soccer,” my colleague, a well-respected soccer sport scientist and former player, threw his head back and cackled. “That’s the answer they gave. Street soccer!”

I furrowed my brows and smirked. “What?” I grabbed the phone from him.

Sure enough, in a recent presentation on youth and long-term development in German soccer, the German Football Federation’s Oliver Bierhoff proclaimed that training of youth soccer players should focus on fun and enjoyment.

This will boost their creativity and freedom on the pitch, he said. Additionally, he hammered home the idea that German soccer needed no big overhaul, no true reform. Just tweaks.

Therefore, as my colleague had emphatically announced, the solution to develop more creative players was street soccer.

I might be biased - having worked in and around soccer, baseball, and football associations as a coach and scientist for many years, I love to find quick and efficient solutions to long-standing and/or serious problems.

However, this one didn’t strike me as particularly efficient.

When we compare international systems in the west, we see tactically excellent Spaniards with an absolute knack for making just the right move. We see German technicians who are always vicious on set-pieces, penalties, and corners. And we see Americans (the women, at least), and Brits, who are excellent athletes. If you don’t score before the 70’, you’re getting outrun and eaten alive.

Working in Germany with German players, after years in the US system, I’ve been shocked at the differences in performance training methodologies.

Americans have such a high focus on athleticism; speed and strength are the game. We used technology to measure and improve that. However, the technical and tactical edges were often lacking, even sometimes the psychological aspect. We just didn’t deal with it, because we could “always pull it together at the end”.

Germans have a wildly unstandardized approach to athletic training and strength & conditioning, with some clubs (in my personal experience) going so far as to saying the methods shouldn’t be tested (i.e. we shouldn’t do performance testing or use technology to monitor/track) because “we don’t need to know if it works - it does”… until it doesn’t.

Yet, German soccer is also responsible for producing some of the most interesting research and technology of all time.

In these two specific cases, I feel that a combination is the best of both worlds in terms of Long-Term Athletic Development.

Germans, focus on performance training for a decade. Start athletes at 15 with managed and progressive strength & conditioning protocols that supplement their sport and position and you will be shocked at their strength and speed by 21.

Bonus points: S&C is also a great and proven form of injury prevention!

Americans, sharpen your technical and tactical swords. Hire some internationals to help you do this, as most countries are born onto the ball and know this stuff like their palms - they won’t steal all your ideas. Include mental preparation in everything, and not just “mental toughness”. Nobody wants an athlete who can’t feel.

In my experience, when all four buckets (physical, technical, tactical, and mental) are filled sufficiently, the athlete is allowed to be more creative, more free, and less stressed on the pitch.

They’re not worried about their physical condition.

They don’t care about the expectations - they can handle it.

They are comfortable with the ball at their feet and fast enough to drive through and around their opponents without burning out.

And they don’t need their coach to instruct them via play-by-play beforehand.

I love street soccer. I think it’s great.

And we need deliberate practice and deliberate play. This is still a vital part of training any sport!

But when we truly want to build a play for Long-Term Athletic Development in soccer, what we need is to develop strong, fast, mentally free, technically and tactically sharp, and resilient athletes who can play until their mid-30’s (theoretically).

That’s a long-term mindset with actionable, effective solutions to real problems.

Invest in the people. Build better and resilient athletes.

I think you’ll find what you’re looking for, whatever federation you belong to.

Oh, and add in some street soccer (just for kicks)!

That said, I highly recommend this article on Performance Training by my colleague Erica Suter. It would be a disservice to you not to read it!!