Single-Digit Soccer: When do you split the kids?

In the single-digit years, kids have two reasons for playing soccer:

1. Getting good at it, competing and challenging themselves.

2. Being on a team with their buddies.

Some kids play for both reasons; some for just one. But at some point, they have to be split up. The kids who are playing for recreation keep playing recreationally, perhaps making a breakthrough in aptitude and interest at a later age. The other kids are herded into national training camps at age 7 to practice eight hours a day, living on a special regimen of protein-boosted smoothies … oh, no, I guess we’re not to that point. Yet.

What we actually do is this: We take the top players in each age group into “travel” soccer. In my area, that starts at U9.

But it’s creeping downward. Back in the first installment of this series, I mentioned a program that took U8 players into an Academy program in which they would practice more and play less. Here’s another club’s program: When a lot of rising U9s (and U8s looking to play up) turned out for travel tryouts, they created a program straddling the House and Travel programs. This middle “Club Academy” tier is like House league except that teams practice twice a week, and Travel players make guest appearances in their games.

So the U9s are split into three groups — Travel, Club Academy and House. A lot of U8s, some legitimate Travel prospects and some kidding themselves when they turned up at tryouts, have jumped into U9 Travel or Club Academy.

At BigSoccer or Soccer America, they might talk about these programs in terms of “development” for whatever comes next. Here on the fields, in the houses and on the birthday-party circuit, the talk is about kids asking why they can’t play with their buddies.

But that’s not to say everyone should be in House leagues until the ultraserious competitions start at U14. I’ve also heard from parents whose kids are getting bored. They need to move up to something, whether it’s jumping up an age group or moving into a more serious program.

Clubs, though, need to recognize different rates of development. When they ratchet Travel and Academy programs down so low, they may miss players who may not be emotionally ready (or physically ready) at age 8 but could develop into a phenom by age 14. Some kids just don’t catch the competitive bug that early and would rather be with their friends. Some are skilled but ill-suited for the “mob-ball” that often occurs at U7. (In fact, one major challenge I’ve had is taking the kids who ARE dominating at that age and trying to teach them skills other than bulling their way through a mob and outrunning everyone to a loose ball.)

The “in-between” programs are a good idea. For U7s and U8s, I’d probably prefer having a second, optional practice each week in which kids can work on their skills with coaches who have a bit more training than the parents. That seems to be enough to keep most kids happy unless they’re so good that the lure of U9 Travel is too much.

Splitting everyone into several tiers at age 8? Probably not such a good idea.

Updating on my teams: My U8 team has made remarkable progress. They’re spreading the field, passing and playing actual soccer. To rein in the chaos, I’ve slowly changed from being Mr. Nice Guy to something closer to Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, and it seems to be working somewhat.

At the U6 level, I’m trying to get a tiny bit of tactics through to a couple of players. It’s a little difficult because everyone yells “Get the ball!” I’m trying to point out that running toward the ball might be a bad idea if if means you’re chasing after a teammate. Or if you’re running left-to-right when your opponent is running straight toward the goal. We managed to get one player to change his tactics, so he ran toward the goal instead of the ball. The ball came bounding behind him. If he had stopped for one second, the ball would’ve caught up to him, and he would’ve had a breakaway goal. Instead, he merrily situated himself in front of the goal. (It’s also difficult because we keep getting rained out!)

So I started looking around YouTube for various ways to explain my point. What I found was a diverse bunch of approaches to the game, if not diverse approaches to parenting.

Here’s the U6 kid who notched four goals and one assist in three minutes, including perhaps 90 seconds of stoppages:

I’m not quite sure what to do when you have someone this dominant at this level. We can only hope the kid jumped up an age group the next season, even if he’s a little smaller than the others.

This was more of a problem:

When you see the “Aggressive” behavior, please let me know.

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