I got my start coaching youth soccer like many coaches – in U6 watching the kids play ‘swarm ball’ Even at that young age you see how they improve over the year and start to understand that they can pass the ball to teammates and shoot goals from farther back than 3 feet! It is very rewarding.
When my son moved to U8, I stayed with my U6 team as The Nuggets (McDonald’s was our sponsor) had been doing very well and I had a great group of kids. However, when my oldest was moving to U10, I decided to make the leap with him. Our team this fall was strong. Some of the kids had played together in U8 for a year and overall they were a talented group. We were competitive, finishing 4-3-0, but many coaches noted that they felt our team was ‘dangerous’ in that our record wasn’t indicative of our skill and that matches against us were always exciting and could go either way. In the Spring we kept most of our team intact and added a couple new players who were quick on their feet. However, no matter what I tried, it seemed like we never played as a ‘team’ and suffered because of it. We played hard but got scored on when we backed off after getting beat or when they tried to settle back in on defense instead of attacking the ball carrier. I struggled to figure out a way to motivate them to gel as a team and to stop ‘letting up’.
It sounds so silly to say one word can make a difference. But everything else I had tried didn’t seem to light a fire under the kids during each match. After giving it some thought, I settled on one: PRESSURE. For a few weeks I pressed into them the need to always pressure the other team. Never let an opponent play their game – always pressure the ball carrier. If you got beat – you’d have teammates in the wings to help cover. The key point over and over was never let the other team play the ball by themselves. I wanted one player (not 2 or 3) on the ball at all times and to pressure the keepers after shots.
I had no preconceived notions that this would suddenly work, but something clicked. After a long break due to Spring Break and then a week of rain, we faced off against the #3 team in the division in one of the first matches at our new soccer complex. They came out on fire and I continued to motivate them with that one word – PRESSURE. We played hard and fast, but fell behind 2-0 in a very fast paced match during the first half. We were awarded a penalty shot late in the first half, but were not able to get it into the net. At halftime I encouraged them not to panic and to keep the pressure on. They did and suddenly the score was tied 3-3 with 12 minutes to go. The more they passed and crossed, the harder they pressed and the more confident they got. In the end we lost that match 4-3, but my kids were energized. They had faced a team they knew to be one of the best in our division and had played toe to toe with them. You could see in their faces that they were ‘getting it’. They had crossed passes in front of the goal. They had never let up on the ball carriers and forced many mistakes and turnovers. Multiple players had shots on goal, not just one or two. We may have finished our regular season 2-5-0, but it was clear they were ready for the tournament.
Even though we are a recreational league, we play an end of season tournament for U8 and above. We spend months teaching core skills, good sportsmanship, equal playing time, fair play, etc. But there is a competitive spirit there that we are loathe to suppress, so we finish off the season with a tournament where we can take things up a notch. There is no denying that a tournament can add to the pressure for the kids, but it also helps them learn to deal with added pressure and hard losses – valuable lessons. We work with our parents and coaches to use this just like any of our other activities to teach the kids about good sportsmanship, competition, dealing with pressure, etc. The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive so we’ve continued this tradition.
So on to that ‘match to remember’ (You knew I’d get there eventually!)
With our 2-5-0 record, we finished #7 and were slated to face the #2 team. They had only allowed 7 goals the entire season and were known for their tough defense as well as shooters who could score from farther out than most teams. My team was excited but also nervous since we had not played this team during the regular season as the 7th weekend of matches and then the makeups had been rained out. You could tell they were fired up in the huddle as they screamed ‘PRESSURE’ louder and louder before running onto the field.
From the first whistle they put the pedal to the metal. They attacked over and over and despite giving up the first goal, our team was up 4-2 at halftime. The forwards stayed spread out instead of bunching up. They crossed passes into the middle and we had players waiting there for it instead of trailing the ball carrier. We threw the ball in over the opponent’s head instead of into the opposing players. We pressured the ball carrier the entire length of the field. My kids played with a level of intensity I had never seen before and even late in the second half never let up. My defenders didn’t let up when they got out maneuvered. They turned like we practiced and still disrupted the shots. My smallest defender routinely jumped in front of their strongest shooter, sometimes taking a rocket to the chest and staying on his feet. After our opponent pulled within one goal, we answered with 15 minutes to go and packed the defense to hold on to our slim lead. After 35 minutes of intense soccer our opponent again pulled within one, but our kids stayed on their toes and held off a furious series of attacks. This was one of the fastest and intense matches at the U10 level I’ve seen or been involved with. Both teams were fired up and never let up.
We held on and eliminated the #2 team 5-4. It was one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a coach. Even if we had lost, I still would have been beaming. To see the kids finally ‘get it’ and put into action what they have practiced so much throughout the year was wonderful. After a series of matches where our forwards played swarm ball and our defense left parts of the field wide open, we finally put it all together. It was one of those matches you never forget – not because you won, but because your players put it all together and played as a team.
Oh, and that team we played so well against at the end of the season that we lost to 4-3? That’s who we’ll face in the semi-finals tomorrow. Win or lose – it doesn’t matter. My kids have put the pieces together and I’ve never seen them so excited about soccer. Even after losing that regular season match 4-3, they knew they had done something special. That’s what it is all about.
Wish us luck!