Wins Don't Develop Players - An OTP Series

Soccer Kids by terren in VirginiaTen years ago when our league was new and I had just started coaching, I remember trying to teach 6 year olds about positions. We played 8v8 if memory serves. Picture sixteen 5 and 6 year olds swarming all over a large field and coaches trying to get them to understand who is on offense and who is on defense. The crazy things we soccer coaches do when we’re inexperienced and clueless.

Now that I’m coaching U8’s again and have a little more experience, I’m trying to avoid some of the mistakes I made back then as well as avoid some of the issues I had with younger (U10-U12) travel players coming out of Rec, such as:

  • Defenders who would start and stay at the top of the penalty area
  • Defenders who would NOT cross midfield no matter what
  • Defenders who would not make attacking runs
  • Players who would not pass backwards
  • Strikers who always seemed to be playing defense
  • Swarm ball
  • Players who would need to be within a few feet of goal before shooting

Now granted, this is U8 (our league plays 6v6 for U8 and it’s a single year division. No U7s), so you can’t coach a lot of higher level concepts and tactics to them. However, you absolutely can start to encourage some things and avoid building a foundation of bad habits for that first year they play with keepers (often U9/U10 in the United States, which this advice is still valid for). In order to do that, I selected a few core basic concepts that give them the freedom to be creative and avoid building bad habits they have to break later:

  • We only have three ‘positions’: Defense, Center, Wing. We play a basic 2-3 formation. The idea is to avoid ‘locking’ them into a certain position and encouraging them to get creative and move. The flip side is with too much freedom, you’ll just have swarm ball. So each position has a few very basic ‘rules’ they are supposed to follow. The key rule I’ve reinforced since U5? “How many players chase the ball???” ONE!
  • Center: This is the easiest position. I simply tell them the center can go anywhere they want and do anything they want. Offense, defense, etc. They are expected to score AND steal the ball defensively. They run a LOT. Kids LOVE this position!
  • Defense: I don’t tell the players left or right. I just say ‘defender’. They ask me what side they should play on and I tell them I don’t care. After a couple matches, they figure it out and play side by side, but mentally are not as locked into an area and are more comfortable moving laterally to support. I make a special point of telling them to ignore the midfield line. Kids this age view many of the lines on a soccer field as ‘X marks the spot’ like the top of the area for defenders or as a boundary like defenders who will NOT cross midfield. It took me a couple years to get my young travel defenders comfortable crossing that line because they’d been told for years in Rec to stay at the top of the area or never cross midfield. Their one and only rule is “Don’t go past the last opponent without the ball”. Now this is probably the trickiest concept for them, but they do eventually get it. But teaching it is going to cost you goals and wins. We had a few early matches where we *dominated* possession – the other team hardly touched the ball. But our defenders would get caught up in the game, end up in front of the three forwards, and the other team would intercept and score a few times. Nothing drives a lesson home like giving up lots of goals. But you’ll have to make sure your parents get WHY you are doing it or they’ll think you’re the worst coach to ever hold a stop watch. I was worried the kids would not get this, but after a season they finally did and the payoff has been huge in the Spring. As they got comfortable with it, I’d start to talk to the defenders about the ball being the ‘key’ that lets them do anything. If they have the ball, they can go anywhere (i.e. attack the goal) while the other defender hangs back. Once they get rid of it or lose it, the rules apply again (i.e. get back behind the opponents as quickly as you can). Seeing U8 defenders dribble upfield and penetrate for a shot or corner flag pass has been fun.
  • Wings: My wings are probably the hardest position for kids to visualize, but gradually they figure it out. First, I don’t even try to tell them left or right. When my U14 players were still holding their hands up with thumb and index finger extended to see which one made the ‘L’ for left, clearly the U8s weren’t going to consistently get it. I simply tell my two wings one is ‘by the parents’, the other ‘by me’. This is the one position I do set boundaries on. I try to get them to visualize a rectangle made by the goal, the kickoff mark, and the sideline. They are told NOT to cross midfield into the defensive side. This seems to fly in the face of what I do with my defenders, but I found that while my younger travel defenders wouldn’t cross midfield, the strikers always would. Too often we’d have EVERYone playing defense in U11/U12 and nobody to pass to. So getting strikers into the mindset of staying in the offensive end of the field seems worth it. Plus once offside factors into the equation, they’ll need to spend time near midfield anyway against a pressure defense. The hardest part for them to remember is not going from one side to the other where the ball is. I frequently remind them to ‘get back on your side and call for the ball’. Getting them to stay above midfield is a little easier since there is a nice thick line there to remind them, but it still takes time to keep them from running to the ball near their own goal. This is also one of the harder things for parents to get comfortable with. We would play some teams that were pure swarm ball. All five opponents would be going after the ball with just our two defenders and hopefully the center to stop them. Parents seeing two of our players standing at midfield twiddling their thumbs while we got scored on is hard to handle. I reminded my parents often why I was doing this and to give it time. Now my defenders have confidence to possess the ball under heavy pressure and when they look up what do they see? *Targets* U8 is where passing is slowly introduced and by having the wings stay up there, often by themselves, it starts to encourage players to pass to them. Slowly opposing coaches would tell some of their players to stay near our wings and that took care of swarm ball. One key to making this work? Spending a lot of time on 1v1 in practice and stripping the ball from attackers. The other technique they need is separating the ball from an attacker on the run – but early on they are often too far forward and have to run back to catch an attacker so they get a LOT of practice doing this in early matches.

That’s the bulk of our ‘tactical’ strategy in U8. I absolutely will give players off the ball feedback to try and make light bulbs go off for slightly more advanced tactics. But the foundation is pretty basic and easy for this age to grasp. One last ‘boundary’ I do use is the opponents penalty area. I tell my players when they get near that outer box they should be shooting or getting ready to shoot.

One of the key parts of this style of player development is to expose ALL your players to ALL positions. We use a simple substitution rotation. All the offensive players (Center and two Wings) sub out. The current keeper and defenders move up to offense. Then three players sub in as the two defenders and keeper. I use two pinnies so the keepers don’t have to exchange one to speed the substitution process. I usually sub every 8 minutes so players get moved around a fair amount. Yes, subbing in everyone at keeper means we give up some goals and lose vs teams that have one or two players who play keeper a lot. That’s OK. I want my players to know what it’s like facing a shot so they become better shooters.

The most important part of developing players like this? Maintaining parent expectations and helping players deal with ‘losing’. Trust me. You *WILL* lose, especially in the Fall. The final whistle will blow, it’ll seem like you had the ball a lot, but still lost. So here are some points to make to your parents:

  • We are absolutely going to lose some matches because of things the players are encouraged to do – sometimes by a LOT. Player development is a long term investment that will require some short term losses. Don’t focus on the score or who won, instead consider some of the following:
  • Which team possessed the ball more? Players who have the ball are developing more confidence with the ball and we absolutely want that.
  • Never encourage a player to kick the ball or pass. At this age, we would rather have a team full of ball hogs able to possess the ball under pressure. Over time players will be encouraged to look for options when multiple opponents collapse around them, but they’re told to never give up the ball unless they know they can pass it TO a teammate. This is especially true on defense. Possession, not panic.
  • We will often have situations where we are playing 2v5 or 3v5. That’s OK! We want our defenders to discover what to do in lopsided situations. As they get older, this will give them MUCH more confidence with the ball and give them time to choose the ‘best’ option.
  • Watch what the players do with the ball. If they make a nice change of direction, pull off a basic soccer move, or steal the ball – cheer like you would if they scored. We want to encourage them when they do good things on the field.

After every match or two, try to take some time to reinforce these points with the parents win or lose. Keep them focused on the gradual improvements the players are making.

You also need to keep the players focused on the positive. For us it has been possession. Win or lose we almost always own the ball. So I remind the players that the more we possess the ball, the more chances we have to score. Sure an opponent may have gotten a few lucky breakaways, but we always had the ball and that’s a win. Over time encourage them to focus on time of possession more than goals.

Will all this work? Only time will tell. I’ve finally started to see things ‘clicking’ with both of my U8 teams in recent matches, so I think it is working, but the true test will be how these players continue to develop in U10 and beyond. My biggest fear is if they end up with another coach that discourages their freewheeling creativity and style of play. But for now it’s been great to see our players dominate possession of the ball and gain confidence to do fun things with it.

Wins Don't Develop Players - An On The Pitch Series

  1. U6-U8 Soccer Player Development – Round Two
  2. Confidence Can’t Be Coached – It’s Learned (and Earned!)
  3. Developing Young Players Without Positions (or Wins)