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Successful Youth Soccer Player Development

Wayne Harrison on Successful Player Development


     Wayne Harrison, Co-Founder Soccer Awareness Elite Academy, shares his thoughts on the Power of Positive Reinforcement.  A former pro soccer player at Blackpool F.C. in the English Championship league as well as the Academy Director,  Harrison was also the Youth Director Al Ain Football Club in the UAE. An author of more than 12 books on soccer coaching, he now coaches youth soccer, writes and presents at coaching symposiums worldwide. Harrison holds a UEFA ‘A’ License and the NSCAA Premier Diploma, as well as a bachelor’s degree in applied physiology and sports psychology. He is the Director of Coaching for Total Futbol Academy

Whilst we can develop all levels of players ourselves, it is always a big advantage to get the best raw material you can at as young an age as possible as the players are a blank canvass to work upon.

    I like to start training players when they are young. Six years old is a good time but always with the intention from the very beginning to develop these youngsters to THINK and LOOK for themselves. It is so important to encourage them to make decisions on their own and not to be afraid to make mistakes.

In other words we are not creating robots but rather developing self-thinking and creative players who are allowed and “coached” to use their own imagination.

    That to me is the most important part of developing youth soccer players. It is the starting point of all true development and hence why we need expert coaches at these ages.


What is THINK and LOOK?

THINK is easy; players think for themselves.

LOOK is also simple to apply and teach, it is teaching the players through a specifically designed training curriculum to learn to assess all their potential options; and thus make the best decisions BEFORE they receive the ball.

That way they have a great advantage over opponents; as they are seeing the game in ADVANCE of the ball; not AFTER receiving it when time is much more limited.

Our goal is two-fold in my opinion, to develop INDIVIDUAL players and to develop TEAM players.

Team Spirited Players:

Team-oriented players are a must as each player has a role within the team to satisfy, within that team framework we need to also allow each individual player to express themselves as freely as possible.

We call our training Soccer Awareness Training as that is what it is, it is developing an awareness of what to do with the ball before receiving it which in turn presents many options for the player on the ball, you could also call it Peripheral Vision if you like.

We have a continuum of development we work from which includes; as all club do, Technical, Tactical, psychological and Physical. But we like to divide it up further with the SKILL FACTOR we call it so 5 areas of development not the traditional four.


Technical is HOW to do it; Tactical is the resulting action; in between is the “when; where and why” to do it, that is SKILL, the decision making factor, and this is potentially THE most important aspect of the game a player needs to learn.

I believe in focusing on training that creates specific situations to bring out the self-determining decision making process. How? By adding CONDITIONS to THEMES to bring out SPECIFIC ACTIONS.

And it is all done in STAGES of LEARNING.

So you could say, successful player development to me is creating a self-thinking independent player who plays within a team framework able to make the correct decisions on the field without the aid of the coach.

Further, we focus on a process that involves developing the MIND of the player which ties in with player decision making and self determination.

We identify the “Thinking Process” and what is actually happening in the player’s head and we use this to identify strengths and weaknesses of the player and how we can help the player improve them to the best of their ability.

It is a very exciting process to follow and it ultimately supplies the LINK between MIND and BODY.

Continuum of Development; what is it?

Here we identify certain traits that happen with an individual player BEFORE they get the ball and AFTER they have received the ball and BEYOND them moving the ball on with a pass, dribble, run, cross; or shot….

This is how it works:

  1. Look/Observe

  2. Body Position / Foot

  3. Communication

  4. Skill Factor / the when, where and why of the next decision.

  5. The Technique / the 1<sup>st</sup> touch and beyond.

  6. Mobility / Movement OFF the ball (90% of the game).

  7. Transition (possession changes, involves mind and body) 

     The continuum has many aspects to it but I will try to describe it simply: Look at the list above and realize that #1 to #4 happen mentally BEFORE the player receives the ball (or should). #5 is when they have the ball; #6 and #7 are when the ball has been moved on.

So tied in there we have the 5 factors of development, Technical, Tactical, Skill, Psychological and Physical but further broken down to a thinking process vital in the development of the player.

This should all be done without the pressure being put upon young players of the winning factor. Let’s face it every young player wants to win, we as coaches and educators need to relax them to be able to play their natural game and not be obsessed / pressured into winning the game.

Correct development teaching the players to play the RIGHT WAY will eventually lead to the winning factor.

What is the RIGHT WAY?

Today we focus on possessing the ball, but possessing it with a PURPOSE and an END Product; not for the sake of.

We want EVERY player in EVERY position on the field comfortable on the ball. This is the technical aspect that is our main focus at the beginning stages of development.

Connected to this, we need players to understand the tactical aspects of the game, this is the MOVEMENT and POSITIONING OFF the ball. We develop the MIND through specific practices to develop the SKILL Factor thinking and decision making which is the psychological are of development and ultimately we develop the Physical part (the easiest) of the game so they can run for 90 minutes.

So every area is covered with SPECIFC developmental training to create the best player we can. We have professional process in place to do this, nothing is left to chance.

Is there anything else in this Player Developmental Process?

Possibly / Probably THE most important part of all this work not paid attention to yet is the player him or herself. They MUST have the INTRINSIC DESIRE to succeed, to want to put the extra hours in training; to learn by their mistakes and improve through them and not be disheartened by them.

Where does this all lead?

To develop National youth team players, to service the need for the National teams to improve and beat their peers in the professional soccer world and ultimately for them to play for the senior National team. That is a dream for many players.

This is successful player development, bringing each player to their full potential in the game and at the same time teaching them great lessons in life for outside the game.



We all want to win, we are all judged on winning, winning is very important for breeding confidence and gaining success, player / team development in the LONG term must go hand in hand with winning.

FUN is vital, relaxation when they play is vital, making mistakes and being encouraged to learn from them is vital; great communication between player and coach is vital, the creation of self thinking players is vital, intrinsic motivation is vital, all components we must include to give the best service to every player we can.

Soccer Awareness Elite Academy (SAES) is new a soccer development program, helping develop soccer awareness and intelligence in the USA. It is a non-competitive program that works along side of today’s best youth soccer clubs, providing additional training.

This elite academy is focused on developing how a soccer elite player thinks – the MIND of the player – and is based on proven scientific principles of development.

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