Single-Digit Soccer: The challenge of finding a properly challenging level

The book Coaching Outside the Box: Changing the Mindset in Youth Soccer has a chapter with best-case and worst-case scenarios for moving up and facing a tougher level of competition.

The best case is a nice tale of a U11 boy named Liam, technically proficient but small in stature, who is invited to play up one age group for one or two games by a caring coach who lays out the pros and cons, then makes it his decision.

The worst case is a depressing story of a U9 girl named Sally, who is on a low-level travel team but interested in doing more. So she tries out for a local “premier” team that accepts her but shoves her on defense so she can run down opposing forwards despite lacking the technique to play at that level. The coach “reassures” the parents by telling them the team needs her speed. But the coach yells at her for making mistakes, and she’s miserable, realizing (even if her parents don’t) that she’s just not ready to play here.

Finding the right level is one of the biggest challenges in youth soccer, and it’s worst in the prime development years between U8 and U12. By U13 or so, most players have settled into a team that plays a particular level — an actual elite league, a pseudo-elite league, or the local multidivision travel league that sorts out the competition. Even rec leagues have ways of sorting things out.

It’s rather strange that we as a soccer community don’t make more of an effort to make games more even at this age. Granted, the vagaries of U9 soccer make matchmaking difficult — a single player with a big shot or a precocious goalkeeper can make a big difference in the score, which may or may not reflect the balance of play. But too many leagues spend an entire season letting one team dominate or one team get crushed, then schedule things exactly the same way the next season.

A lot of these leagues view promotion and relegation as an evil concept. If teams are worried about being relegated, the consensus says, they’ll play for the result rather than development. Fair enough. Some “club-centric” “elite” leagues don’t have promotion/relegation at any age group.

So what do you do when you get a lot of 9-0 games? You may not care about the result. But is anyone developing? Is the team with 0 learning anything or simply too overwhelmed to use whatever skills they’ve been picking up in practice? Is the team with 9 getting anything other than a mild sweat?

A couple of things that can help:

  1. Clubs should be on the same page, more or less, when it comes to how they’re approaching the competition. That wasn’t the case in a U8 competition I saw in which some teams were tossed together out of an open-enrollment training program while others were selected by tryout from a large talent pool.
  2. Without having formal promotion/relegation, leagues should take note of how teams are playing and adjust from the fall season to the spring season. If a couple of teams are losing badly or winning a series of blowout, schedule those teams against each other the next season.
  3. If some clubs in your league are tiering their teams (A, B, C, etc.) and others aren’t, don’t just hand the non-tiered teams a schedule full of other clubs’ A teams. Mix it up.

Bottom line: Be aware. If you have an opportunity to avoid a whole season of blowouts, do it.

The game needs to be fun. Blowouts aren’t fun.


Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

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