The Need For An Optimal Youth Football Development Model

The game of football is one of the greatest gifts to humankind and is played by millions all over the world. Football in it’s current form has been with us for around 150 years now, but the evolution of player development, in most countries, has not kept pace with, the game itself, or many other aspects of life. A new player-centred model for development is necessary to achieve optimal results for all young children who play the game – that will enable them to reach their full potential.

The game of football has moved on, at least in some quarters, to a very high playing level, where game intelligence, allied to superior technique has seen The Beautiful Game reach it’s Zenith. The football of FC Barcelona (and indeed the Spanish National team) has brought unrivalled success as well as entertaining millions with style, creativity, excitement and beauty. Any new model of value must strive to achieve not only such great sporting goals, but the lifestyle values espoused by this  inspirational club. Even the Japanese ladies national team has proven that The Beautiful Game can win out against the biggest, strongest and toughest players in the world.

Football is a late specialization sport meaning that players cannot be just manufactured or cloned from the very first day. Firstly, they must be allowed time to develop the fundamental ABCs of agility, balance and coordination, then be exposed to a progressive programme of age-appropriate learning and then in their mid-teens be prepared for competition. A good model respects the natural order of childhood development, taking the time to help them reach their full potential and to complete each logical stage of development in turn.

The game of football, especially when played constructively is a very complex game for both the coach and the players. There are many decisions to be made, and many complex actions to be performed. The 11-a-side game that adults play is far too complex and difficult for young players, physically, mentally, technically, tactically and psychologically.

While football coaching has gone through many fashions especially the physical and technical emphases, today, game intelligence –  a proper understanding of the workings of the game, where players use perception, understanding and decision-making before finally executing the chosen action – is the key factor in both player performance and team efficiency, i.e. Success!

The great Istvan Balyi is often quoted for his 10,000 hour rule – the time required for a talent to be fully developed – but just as important, if not more so, is the quality of the content, or curriculum in any such development programme, and critically, that the young talent remains motivated to complete such an epic task.


Horst Wein developed his Youth Football Development Model over 25 years ago, the first ever, age-appropriate, programme for training  young footballers. Since then it has been refined, expanded and updated to include the most valuable current trends in coaching. The model takes into account all the critical considerations mentioned above and includes its own unique features and associated advantages.

 Goals of the model:

In order to put any plan into place it is important to determine where you want to go.The Football Development Model is designed to achieve the following long-term goals:

  1. To develop each boy or girl to their full potential.
  2. To develop complete, all-round football players.
  3. To develop players who can play football with their head as well as their feet.
  4. To develop better human beings.
  5. To give the kids a game for life
  6. To further the cause of The Beautiful Game – constructive, creative, exciting football

As well as these long-term goals, coaches need clearer direction on what exactly to expect for each age-group. There is an over-emphasis on technique and physical conditioning in the game today, especially for young players, and creativity and game intelligence is often neglected or even frowned upon. This model is also based on the precept that good football starts in head before finishing with the feet.

A blueprint for success

In order to reach these goals, a map, or blueprint is provided:

a)      Style

The style of the coaching in the model is player-centred and includes a guided discovery teaching method versus the old traditional style of “yell and tell.” Players are included in the learning process and are helped to think for themselves.

b)      Substance

The Football Development Model is based around a progressive curriculum of simplified small-sided games in training rather than drills. A holistic game-centred approach ensures the integration of technical, physical and tactical elements that is proven to be much more effective than the old analytical method.

The Game is the Teacher!

c)       Structure

The model recommends age-appropriate game formats for competitions:


5v5 for 10 years

7v7 for 11-12 years

8v8 for 13 years

11-a-side for 14+ years

Advantages of the Horst Wein Youth Football Development Model

Age-appropriate games and training are matched to the children’s needs

Firstly, we must recognize that children are not adults and that the 11-a-side game is a complex, adult-oriented game for grown men and women, who have reached physical, mental and emotional maturity. On top of that children grow through different phases of development, physically, mentally and emotionally.

A comprehensive curriculum leaves nothing to chance

The model provides all the elements for the development of players, much like a school curriculum which becomes progressively more complex and intense. We would not ask a junior infant to sit his Leaving Certificate examination, he would not be prepared in any way, mentally or emotionally. Neither does the model place excessive demands on young players, but provides them with all the tools necessary to advance in the game.

 A step by step process guarantees competence and success

The game is a complex game and it is vital that the foundational building blocks are in place and that progression is made in a logical, step-by-step manner. This helps the coaches to grow progressively in their competence, just as the players do.

Player’s need to feel competent to retain their interest in anything and especially so in sport, which is  optional for many of them. A model which proceeds in a step-by-step manner allows the children the time to achieve a good level of competence in their technique and tactical awareness for their particular age-group and the coach will only move them on when they are ready to be challenged further, without being overstretched.

A holistic approach develops the whole player

The Horst Wein model includes the technical, tactical, physical and psychological/emotional elements of player development in an integrated manner so that skills are acquired in the context of the game, and the game itself is played in the context of a fully-rounded life.

 Fun and enjoyment guarantee involvement and retention

Any model which ignores the inherent enjoyment of playing games over the felt requirement to perfect technique and physical conditioning will be counterproductive. Children must firstly, fall in love with the game in the Fundamental stage, but even in professional football, players need to be enjoying the game to sustain consistent performance. All over the world young people in their millions are been lost to sport in their early teens due to the pressures imposed on them by adults, rather than enjoying sport for itself.

Time allowed for natural development helps them reach their full potential

Most kids these days, even as young as 7 years of age are forced into “performing” each weekend as if it were the Champions League Final. For some reason adults have seen fit to force young players into game formats that they are not ready for. Children as young as 11 years of age play the 11-a-side game and the 7-a-side game is applied to the 7 year olds. A prepubescent 11 year old boy, on average, weighs about 6 stone and is about 4ft 10inches tall. The goal posts in the full game are 8ft tall and 24ft wide, the pitch is about 100 by 80 yards…something is amiss here! It takes time for kids to reach their full potential, after which many will just continue with a very healthy leisure pasttime for life, while some may go on to play at the highest levels, as fully-rounded,  complete footballers, with great game intelligence, technical ability and creativity, but also as completely rounded and generous human beings.

The Football Development Model recognizes the time that nature decrees for the development of these young footballers.

 “Nature decrees that children should be children before they become adults. If we try to alter this natural order, they will reach adulthood prematurely but with neither substance nor strength.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Horst Wein recommends Small-Sided Games for Grassroots Football

Horst Wein Coach of CoachesHorst Wein, who has mentored more than 11,000 soccer coaches in 55 different countries around the world, believes that small sided games are the most essential element in developing youth soccer players. This comes from a man who knows a thing or two about this vital topic – his book “Developing Youth Football Players” is the official textbook of the Spanish Football Federation, and has also been adopted by the Football Federation of Australia, having sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.

 Small-sided games in Training

Coaches should focus more on games rather than drills in training.  Isolating particular techniques and concentrating on them using repetitive drills and exercises is known as the “analytical method” and often poses difficulties when the players come to apply what they have been working on in the real game scenario. The “global method” of training involves creating more game-like scenarios in training that can be more seamlessly integrated into the actual game itself. This is done through creating simplified games, which are scaled-down versions of the real game, but that can focus on particular themes necessary in the real game.

The concept of using games rather than drills and exercises has been studied for many years all around the world. Teaching Games for Understanding  (TGfU) has been applied to many different sports and been found to be very effective. In Australia, it is also known as “Game Sense” and “Play practice.”

There are many benefits to this games-oriented method in soccer:

  1. Most importantly, players  prefer to play games than to do drills (especially the younger ones).
  2. The games can be modified through different variables to concentrate more on specific elements that need to be addressed; The size of the playing area, the number of players, duration of the game, technical rules etc, means that in the hands of a skilful coach, games may be used to achieve all the requirements of playing the real game.
  3. Small-sided games require smaller pitches and can be suited to any number of players.
  4. Small sided games provide a much more intense physical workout than larger games.
  5. Small-sided games allow the coach to develop the players Game Intelligence, as they may focus on the true dynamics of the game of soccer e.g. the 2v1 situation.

 Small sided games in competition

This means that the competitions that young people play should be tailored to the specific requirements of their age group.

“The competition you play should be like your shoes,  it should fit you perfectly! “

Benefits of small sided games in competition (and training)

  • More touches of the ball
  • Simpler decisions to make
  • Better game-related fitness, short duration of high-intensity vs laps
  • More time with coach per player
  • Easier to coach especially for parent coaches
  • More opportunities to solve game problems
  • More attacking opportunities (dribbling, shooting, passing )
  • More defending opportunities
  • More shooting and more goals  = more fun!
  • No hiding place, players don’t get lost in these games
  • More opportunities for the full range of skills
  • Encourages better shape and awareness of team-mates
  • Encourages faster play, fast transition from defence to attack
  • Easier for young players to have success – which means enjoyment and retention for these players.


Manchester United conducted a pilot scheme in 2005 which compared 4-a-side soccer to 8-a-side soccer, the results were very telling:




 Small-sided Games Around the World

All around the world today the value of small-sided games has begun to be recognized and many federations have introduced them successfully into youth development programmes. The Dutch system focuses mainly on 4v4 and later 7v7 games before players are introduced to the 11-a-side game.

All across continental Europe there are variations of either 4v4 or 5v5 for the first game that young kids play. In the British Isles, Wales has been leading the way with small sided games being introduced there in 1996. The FA in England are determined to introduce the following structures by 2013: 5v5 (7-8 years), 7v7 (9-10 years), 9v9 (11-12 years), 11v11 (13+ years)

Small sided games in the USThis map shows the penetration of small-sided games across the USA in 2009. Red areas have implemented small sided games, and blue areas have partially implemented them. In general USYS (United States Youth Soccer) recommends 3v3 for under 6 years and a progression to 4v4 or 5v5, 6v6 or 7v7, 8v8 etc.


Small-sided Games in the Horst Wein Model

In the Horst Wein Youth Football Development Model, the recommended progressive small-sided game structure is:

Horst Wein Youth Football Development Model

3v3 for 7-9 years                         5v5 for 10 years                           7v7 for 11-12 years                       8v8 for 13 years                              11-a-side for 14+ years



Along with these competition games, each age group has its own complete programme of small-sided, simplified games for training, which emphasize game intelligence and a deeper understanding of the tactical situations of the game of football. The training games can be used for preparing the players for their appropriate competition or as corrective measures for issues identified during play.

The emphasis is always on games for learning rather than drills and running.

 The Game is the teacher


Many claim that the revolutionary game of Mini-Football (3v3 on four wide goals) is a revival of street football.






While many advocate the benefits of 4v4, which is undoubtedly far more beneficial than 8v8 (or 7v7), Horst’s own Mini-Football game which is 3v3 on 4 wide goals has the following advantages over 4v4:

Mini Football versus 4v4



How can we return the FUN to The Beautiful Game

The first phase of developing soccer players is called the FUNdamental stage, with the emphasis on FUN. This applies to children from 6-9 years of age. It is the critical formative period when these young kids can develop a lifelong love for the game, as Rinus Michels, the great Dutch coach and creator of “Total Football” in the 1970’s says:

‘For all these recreational players, the youngest youth group lays the basis for a unique atmosphere, which will always remain with them, no matter what direction they choose. The same goes for me with my unforgettable memories of street soccer.’

But the question for us today, as we observe these young children of the tender 7-9 years of age is, “where is the FUN?”

Having to play in formats that are way too complex for them, having parents shouting at them and the coach barking instructions, and on top of that having at least a  50% chance of losing the game that seems to mean so much to the adults around them, does not sound much like a fun environment…

In study after study around the world, the main reasons why young children take part in the game can be roughly summarized as follows:

  1. Have fun
  2. Learn new skills
  3. Enjoy full participation
  4. Keep fit and healthy
  5. Excitement
  6. Being part of a team
  7. Scoring goals

Even 7-side football is too complex for this young age group. There is less participation for some of the smaller kids, and less chance that they will score a goal! All around the world the movement is towards 4-a-side small-sided games for this age group.  From the learning point of view, we would recommend an even more effective game known as Mini-Football which has 3-a-side teams playing with two goals at each end. In this format, young players participate far more, score more goals, get more touches on the ball, achieve more success and ultimately are given that all-too-precious opportunity to fall in love with the game.

On top of that, because the result of the weekend game has taken on such importance, the coach usually puts the kids through the traditional menu of drills and running exercises deemed necessary for winning, instead of letting them get on with playing the game during training as well.

Soccer is a late specialization sport, a fact recognized by every soccer authority around the world, which means that it takes time for players to develop and that there are specific phases (building blocks) that they must complete before progressing to the next.

The other phases of the development model describe a gradual, progressive pathway, but if young players do not achieve – what we believe to be the most important goal of the very first FUNdamental phase – i.e. have fun and fall in love with the game, it is unlikely that the other phases will be as effective and more likely that these kids will drop out before they have completed the whole process.

 Dermot Dalton and Horst Wein

The Beautiful Game

How young players suffer in a “Win at all costs” soccer culture

Many young players are forced to play competitive league football at a very young age all around the country, even before they have hardly learned to kick a ball. On top of that, the games themselves are far too complex for the age-groups concerned which creates more mistakes and, even more shouting from the sidelines.

With the pressure on to win from coaches and parents, only the biggest, strongest (and indeed mentally tough) kids will survive. The easiest way to win a game is to play “Big Boys Football.” Give the ball to the biggest most athletic player on the team, as the other players look on and watch him win the match. Or hoof the ball up the pitch as far from your goal as possible and force the opposition into a mistake.

This game of “kick and rush “ is not just prevalent in Irish youth football, (although we would like to acknowledge the many brave coaches who try to stem the tide) but also can still be witnessed in the premier league on any given weekend.

Unfortunately, though, at the development age this approach causes one major problem –  many kids get left behind, and indeed will drop out of the game forever as teenagers. The kids can get left out, either through very little participation on the pitch (as they watch the bigger “stars” run the show)  or indeed spending too much time on the sidelines, or else they are given very little attention during training, not to mention the criticism they will often incur for their “ineptitude”  or just simple mistakes. The kids that mostly fall into this category include:

Shy kids and quiet kids – those kids that buckle under the pressure and shouting first.

Smaller kids – some kids are genetically smaller than their peers (usually they are not much good for winning headers and kicking the ball up the pitch or shooting from distance with oversized balls).

Late-developers – All players do not mature at the same rate and there can be years in the difference between two kids of the same chronological age.

Late-born kids – a high percentage of the kids that fail to advance to the highest level for their age are those kids that are born later in the “playing year,” i.e. if the cut-off for a given age group is the 1st of January, then those kids that are born in early January  are almost a year older than kids born in late December of the same year. Because they are usually bigger, kids born in the first quarter of the year often get the greatest playing time and associated advantages and indeed this persists right through to the professional game.

The result is that many drop out of the game without ever giving it – or it giving them – a fair chance.

It also begs the question, how many smaller, or late-developing  talented players are lost to the game every year because of the pressure to win rather than develop young players. Indeed, one could ask the question, “How would messrs. Xavi, Iniesta or even Messi have fared if they had the misfortune to be born into such a culture?”. In Barcelona, they quite likely will not play 11-a-side until 12 years of age nor play competitive league soccer until even later than that.

Dermot Dalton, The Beautiful Game

10 Critical Conditions To Develop Creative Potential In Young Footballers

1.      Delay Playing 11-A-Side For As Long As Possible

The great Brazilian World Cup Winner Juninho, did not play 11-a-side until he was 13 years of age and the same is true of many great players around the world today. The game must be tailored to suit the young players, not the other way around.

Games like Mini Football (3v3 with 4 goals), 5-a-side, 7-a-side and 8-a-side should be used before kids play 11 aside at 14 years of age, ideally.

 2.      More Games And Less Analytical Exercises (Drills)

The “global method” of coaching using simplified games is far more productive than drills.

 3.      Let The Kids Play

Playing uninterrupted games exposes the kids to the unpredictable nature of football, which is essential for both fun and learning and especially creativity.

 4.      Play In All Positions And In Reduced Spaces

Young players up to 13 years of age should play in a variety of positions in order to stimulate their creativity. Smaller, simplified games give them frequent exposure to the different roles within the game: attacking, defending, possession etc.

 5.      You Must Enjoy The Game To Be Creative

Players must experience variety and not rigidity in their games, this leads to fun and enjoyment which awakens their creative instincts. Rigidity only inhibits creativity!

 6.      Let The Players Create Games And Rules

While the many variations of mini-soccer help to broaden their learning experiences, from time to time, the coach should allow the kids a time to play freely and make up their own rules. This freedom helps to encourage responsibility, initiative and improvisation, risk-taking and even leadership, traits that will serve them well into the future.

 7.      Dare To Take Risks And To Improvise

Younger players should be allowed to express their natural experimentation without having to fit into the rigid adult way of playing, even if this means not playing the right pass when it is on, or not playing safe to ensure the win. There will be plenty of time for such rigidity later in life…

 8.      Train The Right Side Of The Brain

The left side of the brain is for logical thinking, learning by rote (memorizing) and typically answering closed questions (with fixed answers), the coach should create situations to stimulate the right side of the brain,  where open, flexible answers or multiple solutions are required to stimulate creativity in his players.  There is more than one way to skin a cat!

 9.      Creative Coaches = Creative Players

Creating a more informal environment without fear of punishment for their “mistakes” (not conforming to the norms of the coach)  allows players  to experiment and try new moves that occur to them spontaneously – much like the “street football” that we all hark back to. Creative play or creative answers should be recognized and encouraged. The global method of playing games is preferred to drills which offer only closed experiences.

 10.  The Environment As An Enemy Of Creativity

Our kids live in a very strict, closed learning environment where adults incessantly demand that they conform to the norms and the answers that are already pre-determined for them. Learning by rote is the predominant mode in schools.

 In football they are also dominated by the strict instructions of coaches who demand total control during training.

On match day when winning the game is at stake this anxiety is even more heightened.

This environment inhibits creativity as the players fear chastisement from their coaches and also other adults present and often their team-mates.

As coaches we need to address this by creating less-formal learning environments during training and on match days for our young players – to create a haven  where they can safely express their innate creativity.


Horst Wein


Age-oriented competitions are a must for developing young footballers

“Well-structured games adapted perfectly to the physical and mental capacity of the child should become the master in Irish football and not the coaches.”

 A step-by-step, logical and progressive approach to learning, both for players and their coaches, is one of the keys ingredients for success in any sport. While this approach is taken for granted in most other sports, unfortunately  this is not the case when it comes to soccer training in Ireland and indeed in many other countires.

The games young players play should fit them perfectly like a glove. But for decades now kids have been forced, prematurely,  into playing the full adult game of 11 a side soccer. The result being that they acquire many wrong habits which prevent them reaching their full potential as they go on.

Playing Mini Football ( 3v3 with 4 goals, two at each end) has been proven to be the ideal competition for  8 and 9 years old players and a critical building block to prepare them for more complex games from the age of 10, ideally 5v5 games or Futsal or Indoor Football which is played all over Brasil.

Between 11 and 12,  7v7 Football across the width of the official field is recommended by  FIFA. For players 13 years of age  8v8 Football  between the penalty areas of full-size pitch is an ideal bridge to prepare them for the full official game at 14 years of age.

This optimal learning model which fosters a deep  understanding of the game, necessary for good performances is often denied to young players in the traditional approach.

When players take part in competitions especially designed for their age (Mini Football 3v 3, 5v5, 7v7 and 8v8 Football), it fosters a continuum of personal, progressive success and a constant building up of their self-esteem.

Naturally, when players execute more successful actions, they enjoy the game more. Every two years the difficulty and complexity of the competition is increased in perfect harmony with the growing physical and intellectual capacities of the players.

Enjoyment and confidence in their capabilities become the driving force for the players’ motivation and further progress.

The correct use of these modern competition structures will only help to reinforce success, whereas the traditional way of subjecting children to the difficulty and complexity of the full game only reinforces failure. Just as success reinforces success, so, also does failure reinforce failure.

Presently, most children struggle to meet the demands of a competition geared toward adults. However, with the game tailored to a child’s development and gradual progress to more complex activities, the youngsters can experience much more success and, most importantly, they enjoy the game.

 Horst Wein