For as long as there have been team sports and the need to substitute players, there has been the bench. ‘Bench Warming’ is not something you aspire to, but as kids get older and the games get more competitive, more and more kids warm the bench while the stars play. In collegiate sports, the bench warmers often work very hard as the ‘blue team’ that the stars practice against. While most would prefer not to be there, they at least have an outlet to work hard and they get to travel with the team. At the professional level, at least you’re getting paid – though often not the super star salaries everyone seems to think all professional athletes get. Yet even at the professional level, lack of playing time is still a common complaint, even for stars. Freddy Adu finally lost his patience during an interview and lashed out over his lack of playing time for DC United:
"It’s funny because I’ve been playing so well in practice," he said. "I felt so good at training, but come game time, I’m sitting on the bench. I’m just like, ‘Man, it [stinks].’ That’s the kind of thing that is out of your hands. You can’t really do anything about it. It’s out of your control. All you can control is you and what you do. It [stinks] that I’m in this situation."
Sure, Freddy is only 16 years old, but he’s a professional now and earning six figures. But his quote above could be uttered by many a child playing youth sports at the recreational level. Imagine how a 6 year old feels in the same situation. What’s that? You think a 6 year old shouldn’t be in that situation? I couldn’t agree more.
Disclaimer – I’ll admit straight away I care how my kid’s soccer teams are doing. I enjoy looking at the standings for their divisions to see how the teams are doing, what the scores were, etc. I’m not ashamed of it. Winning isn’t everything, but as a parent you’re proud when your child’s team does well. But what makes that pride even more intense, especially as a coach, is when you know the entire team contributed to the wins in the W column. But if they lose, they lose. Its not the end of the world. We’re talking about young kids playing recreational soccer. That’s what makes what we faced recently more troubling.
My daughter plays recreational soccer in a U8 Coed division. Her team has done well together with many players scoring goals or contributing to goals and they’ve had a lot of fun. We happened to be undefeated at the time we faced another team near the top of the standings. Our defense had done an amazing job allowing only 4 goals the entire season up to that point while most other teams had allowed 20 or more. But we knew we faced a tough opponent and tried to prep our kids, ALL our kids, for the challenge ahead.
By the end of the first half it was clear what the opposing coach planned to do. He had two experienced players who were old (they’ve already turned 8 ), fast, and played well together. They played the entire match except for 30-90 seconds of rest (not at a time – I mean total) and they played the entire field. I don’t mean played offense some and defense some. I mean they ran all over the field playing all positions as they had the speed to do it on the small sided field we use. The rest of their kids on the field hardly touched the ball. Our forwards were stopped if they hesitated or didn’t pass enough not by the other team’s defenders but by their stars who would rush down the field and disrupt the play. At least 4 younger kids sat on their sideline the entire game except for one or two minutes of playing time towards the end. One player never got into the game and got so upset after he asked to be put in, he stomped off the field and left with his mother during the second half.
This put our team’s coaches in a tough position. We knew that we had to counter their two stars and our 6 year olds couldn’t keep up with them. But that would mean doing the very thing they were doing and that wasn’t fair to our younger kids. So we didn’t. We played all of our kids and rotated them in frequently. We mixed up our lines and countered their two sprinters the best we could. We stressed to our kids the need to pass the ball upfield to make the stars run more and tire out. We got so angry by the middle of the second half, we put in our younger lines exclusively to give them even more experience, knowing what the outcome of the match would be. It was a telling move and did not go unnoticed by our parents. The younger kids did very well and we only lost by two points.
To say I was incensed as a league officer as well as a coach, would be an understatement. So was our other assistant coach, who also happens to be a league officer (U8 Division Coordinator). So after the match we went over to talk with the opposing coach and explain why we felt what he did had no place in recreational soccer, especially at this age level. We explained that the kids are here to learn and they don’t learn sitting on the sidelines. Winning is fun for everyone, but did any players on his team, save for the two stars, feel that they really contributed to it? We continued to explain that while we don’t mandate a minimum amount of playing time for players (which is difficult to enforce), most coaches strive to have their kids play at LEAST 15 minutes in a 50 minute match, if not more. The problem was NOT that he left his stars in the entire game. That’s not ideal and doesn’t teach good lessons at this age, BUT, he still could have gotten ALL his team some playing time. It was clear he left his younger players out because he was afraid we would score (which was amplified by the fact that when his top player left the game for the first time, we scored immediately and his star was back in after a total 30 seconds on the sidelines. He never left again.)
Let’s just say he wasn’t happy with our comments. He pointed out that he had played his younger players the previous night against a weaker team knowing full well that he would play his strongest kids the whole match against us. He alluded to us deserving it since we had run up the score on many teams (which he obviously got from our overall goal differential – remember we only allowed 4 goals TOTAL. However, our matches were decided by 6 goals or less except for one 9-0 match where SEVEN of our kids scored.) We then were told that he was right to do this because the standings DID count and it was important for his team to finish high in the standings. And of COURSE, we wouldn’t be there talking to him if we had won.
We were just floored. I know, I know – I’m not that naive to think that coaches don’t think that way. But these are 6 and 7 year olds! This is recreational soccer! The kids are here to LEARN. Does that mean during a game our coaches don’t strategize to win a match? Of course we do. We put lines in that are likely to succeed in scoring. We mix things up, try new things. But our kids PLAY – ALL of them. Our kids play significant minutes in every match and many of our kids have scored. Sure, some of our 7 year olds see more playing time than our 6 year olds during a match, but the 6 year olds see at least 15-20 minutes per match and often more. Its a challenge to rotate in all your kids in a tight match to avoid letting an opponent gain an edge, but it can be done so ALL your kids get the experience of playing in a fast paced match against good kids. Did our opponent’s younger kids get the same experience playing a weak team they held scoreless vs the experience they’d have gained facing an undefeated team? I don’t think so. Were we upset we lost? Sure! But I can assure you we’d have been over there having the SAME discussion had we won because what he did with his kids was insulting.
I can see that this has already turned into a rant and I really didn’t want it to. It just killed me to see 4 kids sitting on the sidelines for an entire match rolling a ball back and forth to each other in a bored circle. These kids come to practice, work hard – they deserve to play, and not just when it’s convenient or likely their team will roll over an opponent.
So after I had calmed down, it got me thinking about how, as a coach, you can work to ensure your kids get decent playing time while still keeping your team competitive. I’m sure there are others, these are just the ones that come to mind:
- Keep statistics! Use a scorecard. I know this sounds nuts for U8, but it matters. Use it to track the minutes played for each player. It can’t hurt to keep track of who scored and when. I freely admit that our 9-0 match got that high because we as coaches had lost track of the score and thought it was 6-0. But tracking minutes played helps you see who has been in and for how long, both for equitable playing time and preventing kids from getting exhausted.
- Be flexible with your lines. While you might put in a strong offensive line at first to score a few goals, be ready to insert some younger kids into a strong line later. Nobody says you have to sub in an entire line of your youngest players all the time and you can sub as many or as few players as you want (usually).
- D means Defense, not Dumping Ground. All too often coaches will leave stars in on offense and rotate the rest of the team in on defense. This is just wrong, doesn’t gain your kids any offensive experience against strong defenses, and likely won’t help you win matches. Opposing coaches will figure this out. This happened in the match I talked about above (with 2 stars in the entire match and 4 sitting out the whole match, the other 6 kids had to play somewhere – we play 6v6) and it was risky. Our kids showed they could easily get around the defense he had out there, but the two stars always caught up to our forwards because they didn’t pass enough. Had they passed the ball like they had practiced, it would not have been pretty. Besides, if you put in a younger offense, you can still put older kids on defense to protect against goals AND help get the ball upfield to your younger kids to attack more.
- Get familiar with your opponent. You’ll learn very quickly who the stronger players on an opposing team are. If most of them are in playing together, they SHOULD come out at some point and when they do, use that as an opportunity to take your own lines down a notch. Sometimes. Yes, any coach knows when the opposing stars take a break, it is your chance to gain advantage and sometimes that needs to be done. But otherwise, it pits your younger kids against theirs which is better for all involved. The most exciting matches I’ve been in have been when both coaches knew what the other team was doing and their lines were often evenly matched. Its so exciting to see the younger kids who may not have scored driving to get that ‘first goal’ And that usually happens when the opponent puts in their younger lines.
- Don’t get stuck in formation. Many coaches will train and play based around a set formation (in our case 3-2) I’ve been guilty of this myself in U10 where I head coach and we often play 4-1-2. I had an early 2-0 lead and didn’t switch to 3-4 or 3-1-3 and it cost me. But even in 6v6, you can get creative AND get your younger kids playing time. If you put in younger kids on offense (where they need to do some mid field work as well), put some stronger kids on defense. Protect your lead (if you have one) or, use the stronger kid if the opportunity arises. I’ve seen coaches who let the younger kids play but if an older defender or coach sees an opportunity and they decide to take it – the defender can flip to offense and either score or help the younger kids setup a score.
I’m sure there are many other ideas for helping a team stay competitive and ensuring all the kids get enough playing time so please share them in the comments. I’m no expert by any means – most of the above is learning by experience.
This problem is NOT unique to youth soccer. It happens in all types of youth sports. America is so worried about winning the next contest that we often sideline all but the stand outs. I’m not advocating some touchy feely winning doesn’t matter philosophy, just a fair balance. As kids get older, the games get more intense and stars will see more playing time. In soccer there’s a name for that. Challenge or Classic. That is competitive soccer. But if you’re a coach in a recreational league, you really need to ask yourself if winning is all that matters. I’d hope you would realize that you are a role model for you kids. They see how you act and react. You are there to TEACH them, not marginalize them. Sure – winning is great and it makes the kids feel good. But before you toss in that star for the whole game, look ahead till the end of the season. If your team finishes on top because of the efforts of one or two kids, will it be satisfying or empty? I know my daughters team won’t likely finish on top, but they’ll be near it and with one of the highest goal differentials in the league. But because I know as one of their coaches that those goals were scored or assisted by ALL of our players, not just a select few, its a much more satisfying feeling and I’m extremely proud of them. If next season they crash and burn, thats not a reason for remorse. Its a reason to teach myself more about the game so I can teach them more and make them more competitive while also having fun.
It’s About FUN People!