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?
“Hands!”

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.

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