When you coach youth soccer for a few years, you quickly discover that ‘youth soccer’ is a very generic term. From little 4 year olds playing swarm ball to extremely physical and intense matches between kids about to graduate high school – you see all sorts of soccer as kids grow up.

I’ve coached from U6 up through U12 and seen matches at just about every youth level. It’s been fun to watch how the game changes, especially in unexpected ways. You go from U6 to U8 and see less swarm ball and a bit more passing and positioning. Move to U10 and things get even more ‘soccer like’, though you can still have swarms and kids running all over the field. But once the kids approach middle school, things tend to get more serious, at least outside of Rec.

With girls the change is pretty drastic from what I’ve seen.

Last year as my girl’s team wound down their U11 season at a tournament, I was walking with a couple of our players back to the team tent and we walked by a match. The girls were BIG and they were playing 8v8. One of the girls said “Coach – why are those teenagers playing 8v8? Aren’t they like U13 or U14?” I laughed and told her that those weren’t teenagers – those were U12 players and that’s what she could expect to face next year. Yes, her eyes got wide.

It’s amazing how girls shoot up in height between U11 and U12. I had seen it before on other U12 teams our league had – but when your own team goes through it, it can be striking.

From what I’ve seen, that growth spurt for girls at U12 also translates into a MUCH more physical style of soccer. That’s not to say players don’t run into each other, get tripped, etc. at younger ages – they certainly do. But at U12, the girls seem to realize they can use their size to their advantage – and do so. Soccer is a contact sport, remember?

Well, The Lunachicks are a U12 team now and just got their season underway. We recently played a match that was VERY physical. The girls noticed it, as did the parents. Fouls were harder, aches from elbows stronger. Afterward, given the comments from both my parents and the players, I drafted an email to them that I figured I’d share with you all.

In short – U12 is when girls competitive soccer changes a bit. Here are some excerpts:

I know many of you weren’t at the match yesterday, so I wanted to give a coach’s perspective on what happened as I’m sure you’ve all heard breathless accounts of it from your daughters by now. In short – the girls got a major wake up call. This isn’t little kid’s soccer any more. U12 is the age when girl’s competitive soccer “grows up”. The players get a LOT bigger, the girls are all in middle school, and, in short, growing up. What that translates to on the soccer field is a much more intense experience. The opponents are not only getting bigger and faster, some are a bit meaner as well. I probably should have done a bit better job preparing the girls for their first ‘rough’ match – but in the end they handled it brilliantly.

Many people who haven’t seen a lot of competitive soccer at this age assume that boys play like boys and girls play like girls. That somehow the girls game will be more refined or reserved as they get older. Actually, in many of the matches I’ve seen, the girls matches at this age can be MORE physical than the boys matches.

What I’m leading up to in all this is that the girls discovered yesterday that competitive soccer at this age is a *physical* game and soccer IS a contact sport.

There will be matches where the teams both play with refined skill and machine like precision. There will be others that are, in short, brawls, where every free ball is a battle of arms, shoulders, trips, and the occasional elbow or shove. It’s the referee’s job to keep a lid on things and as coach I do my best to encourage a referee to do this. But there will be times on the sidelines where your blood will start to bubble a little and I ask as your coach that you try and contain it – because once the sideline demeanor of one team in a rough match gets angry, even in tone, it’s a steep slippery slope down to a bad experience all around as each group of parents starts to taunt each other. Rest assured I will not allow an out of control match to put the girls in danger – I will do what is necessary to protect the girls.

Yesterday was NOT that bad. Not even close. It was a rough hard fought match with a few clear fouls by the other team, including one that should have earned a player a yellow card. We had our own fouls too. But I have seen U12 Girls matches that got much rougher. So my point in sending this is not to scare you, but instead to give you a heads up that yesterday was but a preview of what MIGHT happen in the year ahead and to say how proud I am of the Lunachicks and how they handled themselves.

All around I think the girls did very well. Despite a shaky start, they buckled down and *earned* that win. But it also gave me a chance to share with you some insights on what is in store this year. It will be a very exciting year and the girls are clearly up for the challenges ahead. But it can also be a bit jarring to see girls who only a few years ago had ribbons in their hair and were playing swarm ball on a tiny field now drenched in sweat going in hard for a ball and coming up with grass in their teeth 🙂

I tried not to freak them out too bad, but also wanted to prepare my parents for what might be in store.