Tobin Heath is fearless with the ball at her feet.
The U.S. Women’s National Team and Portland Thorns midfielder is fueled by creativity, as she routinely pulls off dazzling displays of technical mastery few others would even attempt. She is arguably the best dribbler in women’s soccer today:
That brilliance—and that boldness—was fostered at an early age. From the moment Heath first began playing soccer at age 4, she loved the freedom and thrill of pulling off imaginative maneuvers. At age 10, Heath began playing for Tom Anderson, founder of a club program called the Players Development Academy in New Jersey. Although many youth sports coaches emphasize winning above all else, Anderson strived to create an environment where players could learn and grow without fear. From Graham Hays’ recent ESPN profile on Heath:
Anderson’s program didn’t foster a win-at-all costs mentality. Rather, his emphasis was on skill development—even through training as simple as juggling, tricks and letting young players enjoy themselves. “I think we should be rolling the ball out there and letting them play and encouraging them to do every trick they see [from] Messi, Ronaldo or any other—Neymar,” Anderson says. “Any skill they see them do, they should be trying.” It wasn’t a sin to try a move and lose the ball. It was a sin to not try the move at all.
Anderson outlined how his approach often differs from other youth soccer coaches during an interview with Jonathan Tannenwald of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It has to start early with the coaches, and trying to—typical of America, we try to corporatize everything. It’s an individual game with individual skills, and people,” Anderson says. “What I think we had to do is continue to teach and encourage the young people to dribble and be successful and look to beat people one-on-one and play one-on-one, as opposed to just running up and down the field, where there’s too much emphasis at the younger ages on winning games. It has to be on developing the player.”
When parents occasionally approached Anderson with concerns that Heath’s game was too flashy for her own good, he quickly rejected the notion. Again from ESPN:
Anderson remembers that parents would sometimes approach him after games and, in the course of conversation, wonder if Heath dribbled too much or played too fancy. It was often a passive-aggressive inquiry, a-less-than subtle suggestion that she was playing a solo game in a team setting. No matter that the moves were a way to set up the assists she wanted more than goals.
“I’d say absolutely not,” the coach recalls of those conversations. “Because the idea was that’s what they were told to do: Take the ball and figure out how to dribble by somebody and beat somebody with the dribble. She wanted to do that. She wanted to excel.
“She wanted to learn, she wanted to do better, and she wanted to try it on the field.”
An overemphasis on winning, “joysticking” coaches and parents, a suffocation of creativity—all are real problems in America’s modern youth soccer system. USWNT forward Christen Press expounded on the issue when STACK spoke with her in 2018.
“It’s really important when you’re young to enjoy it. I think in America, it’s too often that we see that the first thing you learn in sports is the stress of it and trying to please your parents on the sideline,” Press said. “So I think that having an open field and a space where you actually get to play is very important. If you look at other countries, they play on the streets more, it’s more of a free-form style, and I think that’s important for development.”
Simple drills like this one from the U.S. Women’s National Team can be a great way to enhance skill, breed creativity, and foster fun all at once.