Archive | September, 2011

Where do We Start?

30 Sep

One of the challenges that coaches in all sports face is how to take an absolute beginner in a sport and turn them into a player capable of operating autonomously on the field, and in concert with teammates.

All sports in the United States face this challenge today. While sports are on television more than ever now, for young children sports are less often their first choice of what to watch on television. Digital Video Recorders allow replay of kids’ shows at any time, and movies in the form of downloads and discs often a huge library of entertainment options. But I think soccer coaches face a greater challenge because the sport is far less visible to children and their families in the United States.

What Makes Soccer Different?

Outside of the top level Men’s and Women’s World Cups, Soccer rarely appears on network (“Over the Air”) television. In the past few years, the UEFA Champions League Final and most recently Manchester United versus Chelsea have appeared on network television. Most soccer is on cable (pay) channels like ESPN (one English Premier League match per week and 1-2 Major League Soccer matches a week), Fox Soccer (lightly distributed on cable and satellite systems) or Fox Sports affiliates (often replays at odd times).

The major influence on whether kids watch sports is whether their parents watch sports. With MLS matches appearing mostly in the evenings on Television (8 PM or later start) and English Premier League mostly early Saturday mornings, these are not primary sports watching periods. Soccer viewership among adults is low – even the highly anticipated Women’s World Cup final this year only drew 13.5 Million viewers. While this is higher than many sporting events – a recent Oregon-LSU College Football game drew 7 Million on the same network – it’s a one time event versus a weekly exposure.

On the field, players are expected to operate without set plays in a game that is fluid both on offense and defense.  Players have roles that may or may not mean that they play the entire length or width of the field.  There are both technical skills and the player is required to be thoughtful of his actions and control impulse.

So where then, as a coach, do we start?

The Foundation

I’ve started each season I’ve coached by asking several leading questions of the team.

How do you win at soccer?
“By scoring goals.”

How do you score a goal?

“By kicking the ball in the net.”

How many?
It takes a minute.  “More than the other team.”

So what do you do if you have the ball?
“Take it to the goal and kick it in.”

What do you do when the other team has the ball?
“Keep them from scoring.”
“Take away the ball.”

What parts of your body can you not use?

What can you use?
“Feet, head, knees, chest.”

So we’ve established the basic premise of the sport – score more goals than the other team using everything except your hands and arms.

Without this foundation, we can’t proceed.

The Next Steps

U5 and U6
Our U5 and U6 teams play 3v3 on a 30 yard long pitch. There is no tactical element – I encourage all of the players to engage with the ball and dribble anytime the ball comes to their feet.

Of course, the downside is that the initial phase of play is reduced to 1v1v1v1v1v1 rather than team play. This doesn’t last for long – the players at least start to realize taking the ball off your teammate is counterproductive.

That leads to the next question I ask before my young teams scrimmage – What do we do when a teammate has the ball?

“Get out of the way.”

The group eventually separates a bit – one player will pressure the ball (sometimes two) but there’s usually a kid hanging back and waiting for the ball to pop out or for his chance to take on the ball carrier. It’s like a natural, untaught version of pressure and coverage.  It regularly breaks down, but many times a player will get in front of the ball or the player with the ball.

Likewise, this player finds a position to take up on offense – out of the direct line to goal but close to the play where he might field a loose ball.

Outside of encouraging players to engage with the ball – I don’t try to take tactical discussion any further.

U7 and U8
U7 and U8 represent several added challenges in our club’s format.  We add the use of a goalkeeper, and an added field player for a 5v5 game.  Field size also nearly doubles in size, and we have the introduction of corner kicks, goal kicks and throw-ins.   (Our U5-U6 age groups use a coach rolled in “new ball” when play needs to restart.)

In terms of coaching tasks, technical instruction is needed on all of these new responsibilities as well as beginning to break down the roles on the field.

Without the knowledge of watching the game, everything must be taught.  Instruction on defending 1v1 is given – instructing the player to get in front of the player with the ball, reduce the space between themselves and the player with the ball, and stay with them and attempt to take possession of the ball.

If some of my coaching friends from the UK are trying to reduce the implication of passing at a young age – I’m totally avoiding it in our scrimmaging and tactical instruction.  The kids don’t have a foundation of where they are trying to send a cross to, or the idea of a through ball or the other early pass types.

1v1 on offense is another area that requires instruction.  Turning and shielding moves must be taught step by step.  Most commonly the kids with the ball try to outrun their defenders rather than use deception to avoid them.

The Fine Points

For the coach, it’s a matter of selecting the points of instruction carefully for maximum value.  For example, I’ve avoided discussing any offensive or defensive strategies for corner kicks or free kicks (our age group has indirect free kicks for all fouls) because they are not common, and the time is better spent on more basic tasks.

How would you instruct a team with a clean sheet in terms of knowledge in the game?  It’s a great opportunity to eliminate bad habits but can make the job more difficult as players move on.

Match Week 3.5: U8 Session Thoughts

29 Sep

This week we have no match – but we will have practice on Friday night.  I plan to address what I see as this week’s #1 topic: 1v1 Defending and Offense.

Last Saturday, our biggest weakness was failing to engage with the ball 1v1.  There was not ownership of the ball when we were on offense with many players either giving the ball away easily or choosing to give the ball away.  On Defense, we gave the other team adequate time, space, and opportunity to take a bevy of shots on goal without challenge.

So this week – we will work on 1v1.


I’ll put one of our U8 players in as goalkeeper and I’ll play the part of offense.  Working unopposed, I’ll show how a player can shoot and score with relatively low effort.

I’ll bring in one of our better defenders to play defense on me – asking him to stay close to me.  We’ll play a few examples – sometimes I’ll use a turn to give myself space to shoot and sometimes concede the ball.

1v1 Free-For-All

One of my most effective tools last season with U5’s was a 1v1 free-for-fall.  I would build a rectangle, with a single goal and pair off players.  I would send a ball out to each pair, and they would play until someone scored a goal.  Following a goal, I would restart the pair by sending the ball out into the field.

It mirrors how I remember playing 1v1 Basketball in Elementary School on the playground.  Given more balls than hoops, you learned to play in the same space as another game but to keep your head up for traffic.

Advantages of this format:

  • A lot of touches on the ball.
  • Head up to watch for traffic.
  • The need to practice turns rather than just driving straight for the goal.
  • The need to defend closely on the ball.
  • Pursuing loose balls to win.

1v1 Lightning Round

We played this in our optional team practice a couple of weeks ago.  It’s 1v1 on a field with two goals.  The ball is played into the middle, players need to scrap for it and take possession.  If the ball is played out of bounds, game stops and players switch out.

Advantages of this format:

  • Center court format with teammates watching.  Kids hopefully ratchet up their competitive level.
  • Chance to critique.  I’ll ask the kids for feedback on what they saw.

3v3 Finish

Depending on available time, finish with 3v3.  I’ll be looking for engagement on ball, but also some of last week’s topic of defending structure will be employed by the boys as well.

I’m hoping to be able to come up with about a dozen mixed age kids Sunday for 3v3 play in our neighborhood.

Growing Your Own (Fruits and Vegetables)

29 Sep

Before I even heard of the Paleo diet – I had already started to grow fruits and vegetables at home.

We’re fortunate to live on about 2/3 of an acre of land in the Atlanta suburbs. Atlanta is fortunate (or at times cursed) to have a warm weather season that lasts from April to October. It means a really great growing season (and sometimes it’s even longer).

Home Grown Peaches

Home Grown Peaches

Not long after we moved in, we planted a blueberry bush. Then we planted a second one, and then we added a raspberry bush.

Then we started dabbling in a few herbs and a tomato plant or two.

Then came the strawberries. And then the fruit trees – two peach trees, a plum, two varieties of apples, and pears.

This spring we added two boxed gardens with a multitude of tomato plants (probably six or so) along with yellow squash, zucchini, some herbs, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes.

This year was out best yield yet. Our peaches have been plagued by bugs and fungus but we were able to increase our yield to probably close to fifteen pounds of peaches. Tomatoes suffered cracking at times due to uneven watering. Zucchini and squash was our lowest maintenance crop with the best yield for the work put in. Raspberries totaled more than a gallon and blue berries probably totaled three quarts.

So this fall, with Paleo in full effect for me, I’ve planted a fall vegetable garden. I built a new eight foot by sixteen foot raised bed and planted chard, broccoli, and cauliflower plants. From seeds, I’ve planted Arugula, Bibb, Kale, Mustard greens, Beets, Spinach and Bok Choy. I’m hoping for good results if we can hold the deer and squirrels off.  It’s a good feeling growing more of what you eat and getting really great produce as the result.

Crossing the Touchline

28 Sep

Sunday marked the start of my second full season of playing soccer as an Adult.  I started up for the Forsyth Fusion’s Adult league back in the Winter season of 2010, and have been playing ever since.

Sunday was a warm afternoon – a full sun and temperatures in the 80’s.  It made play more challenging for sure, but it was well worth the sweat.  I took up my normal position in the back, but had several opportunities to get shots on frame.  My game continues to improve in a lot of dimensions – but still has so much room to improve.  Until it does, I continue to rely to some degree on athleticism and persistence to try and bridge the gaps.

My definitions of athleticism and my goals have changed a lot since starting to play soccer.  I started playing soccer as a fairly typical “Gym fit” person.  I was in the gym 2-4 days a week at lunch, doing the usual set of exercises mostly on free weights.  There were lots of isolation exercises that were in my set – bicep curls, shoulder work, and so on.  I’d occasionally get on a cardio machine too.

The first month that I played soccer, I was debilitated the next day – quadriceps and hip flexors that were so sore and tight that it was hard to walk.

Gradually, I started to shift gym work more in the direction of “Functional” fitness and strength that I thought I could use on the field.  In came more squats, lunges, deadlifts, pull ups, Burpees, Medicine Ball work, and anything else I thought I could do in the gym.  The result is being a lot stronger, a lot leaner and really having purpose for getting to the gym (versus the old days of just going to get away from my desk).  I’ve really come to understand why having purpose to workouts, beyond just being fit or strong is a greater motivator!

Back to Sunday’s game – we ended up winning by forfeit after our opponent failed to have a critical number of players show up for the game.  Our team ended up joining another team that was short of players for their game, so we still got our game time in anyway.  I’ve come to realize the process, not the outcome is what’s critical to my happiness and satisfaction.  Did I get my minutes, touches and an opportunity to contribute?  That’s what’s important when you get to age 34.

Is Sports Something You Do, Or Something You Go To?

27 Sep

Are your kids sports something they do, or just something they go to?

If you removed the time appointment status of practice and games, would they still pick up the ball and play, or would it never enter into anyone’s mind in your family?

I would wager among most Recreation soccer kids, Sports is something they go to. Remove the forced status of the game or practice, and the ball doesn’t make it out of the corner of the garage. The kids don’t choose to pick up the ball at home or on the playground at school.

I’ll admit that in our house, Tae Kwon Do is something our kids go to. Outside of classes, I don’t see them regularly practicing forms or kicks. I’m not sure how to change that – since neither my wife nor I ever participated in a martial art.

So do your kids play sports, or go to sports? And how do you convert from one to the other?

3v3 – The Best Learning Platform for Soccer?

27 Sep

This fall, just like last spring, my two sons split an age group divide.

On the young side, Evan is playing in our club’s U6 age group.  U6 plays 3v3 games on a field that’s about 30-40 yards long.  The rules set is loose – no need to do correct kick off, coaches act as referee/facilitators to matches, and the sidelines are loosely defined.  The focus is on keeping games moving, and keeping kids involved in play of the game for the full game time.

Fast forward to U7 and U8 – and the one year of age brings two more players (including a Goalkeeper) to each team for a 5v5 match on a field that’s about 30 yards longer and wider as well.  Goals get larger also (but still well under the size of 7v7 or 11v11 goals).  The rule set becomes more stringent, with throw-ins, goal kicks, and corner kicks entering the game.   While the club still keeps no standings, there definitely is an urgency to start winning matches and being competitive.

The problem is, that new players continue to enter the sport after the U6 age group – and thus come into the team environment without either foot skills (dribbling and 1v1 defending) at all developed and without a good “game sense” (knowing which direction the ball is moving or who is in possession).  Add in players who come to the age with bad habits developed (kick first, think second) and there’s a mounting list of items that you are trying to teach, all at the same time.

So would some, or most of these players be better served in playing a modified 3v3 (or 4v4 no keeper) rule set instead of playing 5v5?

In Favor of 3v3

There are many aspects of the bigger game that could be effectively taught to U7’s and U8’s using 3v3.

  • Shape.  The basic shape employed in soccer is the triangle.  With three players, it simplifies the players moving in concert with each other.
  • Defending.  A basic principle of defense is Pressure, Coverage and Balance.  The first defender pressures the ball, the second defender provided coverage in case of the ball penetrating the first defender, and the third defender provides balance against switching the point of attack.
  • Full field offense and defense.  No player left behind in the other end of the field – everyone needs to play a role in all aspects of the game.
  • Elimination of keepers.  I don’t have anything against the position per se, but it is another set of skills that are in many ways in discord with the more basic soccer skills that we are trying to teach players.  It also might help eliminate the instinct players have to run and cover the goal instead of attacking the ball.
  • Hone 1v1 ball skills.  Honestly, my U8’s need a lot of work with on ball skills and not coughing up the ball when challenged.  More touches, more responsibility for offense – I would hope everyone takes ownership.
  • It’s a fast game that gets players involved.  I imagine a lot of games would end up being played at high speed and actually be exciting.  Lots of scoring, lots of 1v1 challenging.
In Favor of a Larger Game
  • The Players need to move at some point to a bigger game.  I’m not sure how valid an argument this is – it’s fundamentally the same argument that some have used in England regarding playing young kids at 11v11.
  • Some kids are ready for the bigger game.  I totally agree – there are kids ready for a bigger game, due to their own combination of development and physical characteristics.  Maybe the age group needs more tiers of play.  But are there aspects, outside of long passing and shooting that can’t be worked on in 3v3?
The Verdict
I’d like to see 3v3 incorporated as a more formal part of U7 and U8 play.  While I used 3v3 (or as close to that as I can with my team of 7) in practice, playing 15 minutes of it versus 48 minutes a week of 5v5 isn’t helping their development as much as flipping those proportions.  It could take the form of community based pickup or play dates, playing in someone’s front yard – but we need more of it enacted from the club level.  Without it, I don’t see a chance of bringing new players up to a similar skill level as the players who started at U5 in either of the dimensions I defined.

Match Week 2: U6 and U8 Match Report

25 Sep

Saturday’s weather was great.  Clear skies and cool temperatures in the morning giving way to warm and sunny by the early afternoon.

U8 Match

Just like Friday night, we had six of our seven players.

Pre-match, I started the boys off on some 2v1 and then 2v2 play as players arrive.  I had both “teams” play to the same goal.  Some of the kids complained that they didn’t like that – because it didn’t give them a chance to recover if they lost the ball.  I still saw kids reluctant to engage on defense on a 1v1 basis and instead hang back more.

Before match start we reviewed the roles and positioning.  The kids seemed to understand our objectives, and we did our team cheer and took the field.

Our team played great during the first quarter.  They did what was asked of them – stayed fairly composed on defense, engaged with the other team and were able to keep the other team out of the box for most of the quarter.  The other team scored a goal on a shot that went over our goalkeeper’s head, so there was nothing we could do about that goal.

Near the end of the first quarter, Aidan was able to get the ball forward and beat their defenders and the goal keeper and score an equalizer.  The quarter ended 1-1 and the kids came off the field.

The Second quarter and the rest of the game, we couldn’t match the performance of the fist half.  Our Center back took a ball to the nose and had to come off.  I switched another player to the position and he got beat several times because he got too far forward when he didn’t have the ball.  (I want my center defenders to dribble the ball out versus having him just blasting the ball away).

More than anything – we didn’t engage in 1v1 defending and the other team had lots of chances to blast shots on goal.  The opponent had time and space to set up a shot, and our players ran to the goal to cover the goal.  Shot after shot went through because you can’t defend standing near the net.

We did almost score a few more goals in the second half – Aidan got free to the left of the goal and almost put one past the keeper but it was stopped.

U6 Match

I wonder why we can’t have kids play 3v3 for longer in soccer as the competition outlet.  I’m not sure whether it’s the format, or that the skills differential is lower, but kids seem to pick up the sport so much faster at 3v3 than in the older age group.  (There will be a post coming on this topic this week.)

Our new scorer from last week continued on that path this week with a few more goals, and two other kids really started to engage on defense.

Evan continued his dominant play and worked on a couple of his cut moves pre-game.  He’s doing the club’s skills enrichment program and I’m really encouraging him to continue to experiment with these skills during the game.

The kids seemed to enjoy playing again this week and everyone went away happy.