Single-Digit Soccer: Do small-sided games backfire?

Start with a nearly unanimous point in today’s youth soccer: We don’t take 6-year-olds who’ve never played soccer and fling them out onto a 110-by-70 field playing 11-on-11 games. We start them with small-sided games where they can get used to touching the ball often, and we worry about teaching them the tactics of being a withdrawn forward or holding midfielder a few years later.

The idea is perfectly sound. But like many sound ideas, can it be taken too far?

In U6 soccer, you can hope the kids eventually pick up a few basic ideas. I’ve seen coaches try to assign positions in pregame warmups and huddles, and it all collapses into chaos as soon as the ball is kicked. The English family on my team tells me kids in England learn positions around age 5 or 6, but that may require a more ingrained soccer culture than we have here. The 3-on-3 games are fine, and if you yell “Pass!” enough for kids to grasp the concept, great. Our practices are all about getting comfortable with the ball at your feet.

But by U8 soccer, the mob that forms around the ball is getting rather intense. You still have a handful of kids who are more physically imposing than the others, and they can run all over and dominate play.

The result: The kids who are getting the most touches on the ball are the ones who might be better at rugby than soccer. Players who have terrific skills on the ball but aren’t likely to emerge from a ruck with the ball won’t get to show those skills in games.

Some regional variations may be at fault here. The U.S. Soccer curriculum calls U6 through U8 the “initial” stage and tells us not to bother with tactics. But by U8, we’re supposed to have moved up from 4-on-4 games to 7-on-7. My club, though, usually plays 4-on-4. Because we had so many people sign up this year, they let us move to 5-on-5.

We’re still not playing with goalkeepers at this age, which makes sense on some levels but confuses the kids who think someone needs to be standing right in front of the goal, no matter how many times we yell “No goalkeepers!” at them.

This week, I’m going to try to break up the rugby-style ruck a little bit. We already have players who veer back toward defense. With five players, I should be able to convince two of them to drop back and get a concept of “left” and “right” rather than “goalkeeper” and “everybody else.” And I’m going to do some 2-on-1 drills to get them to understand the benefits of passing.

But I can’t help wondering if we’re just failing to give our kids enough credit at this age. At the rec-level YMCA program I described last time, we had positions in 2nd grade (I was a mediocre goalkeeper, though not as bad as I was in the parents league last Friday). Surely if we told kids we were all playing positions, they’d get the concept. Wouldn’t they?

In 4-on-4, positions are little more difficult to assign. When I’ve played pickup with that many players, we may drift into “left” and “right,” but we have to overlap quite a bit to cover the field. I might make some progress in 5-on-5. Perhaps 7-on-7, I could put my mini-Messi out on the wing and let him beat a few defenders before slicing into the middle. And then maybe he’ll be confident if he goes into a tryout for U9 travel next year.

Because we want the most skillful players, not just the big, fast dudes who can physically overwhelm people. Right? Isn’t that what small-sided games are all about?

Single-Digit Soccer: Can youth soccer be an afterschool program?

Like many kids who grew up in Athens, Ga., I’m a child of the Athens YMCA. A couple of days a week, we’d pile over to the Y to practice whichever sport was in season — football in the fall, basketball in the winter, then short soccer and softball seasons. Game days were usually Friday or Saturday.

The Y has modernized a bit with the times, giving families a few more choices. You can play soccer in the fall as well as the spring, and they have taekwondo and other programs as well.

The best part — between the Y and the schools, kids can take buses from school.

We have afterschool programs in my area as well. At my school, they can take buses to karate, taekwondo and a private school. At school itself, they have chess, science, cooking, dance and all sorts of things.

Notice anything missing? There’s no soccer.

Instead, parents pick up their kids from these afterschool programs, toss some food down their throats and drive them to soccer practice, sometimes at the schools from which they departed a couple of hours earlier.

And then the parents sigh with resignation when they realize their kids are graduating from the “one practice, one Saturday game” weekly schedule to something more serious.

The net result: They gripe that it’s overkill to have two soccer practices a week. Meanwhile, their kids are in karate five days a week, and they think nothing of it because the dojo picks them up. The parents don’t even see it. And they’re happy to pay for it because their kids have afterschool care.

Those soccer practices, meanwhile, are being run by volunteer parents who may have gone through some U.S. Soccer training program to teach fun drills — excuse me, games — but are poorly equipped to deal with 15 kids who aren’t behaving.

Why aren’t soccer and other youth sports taught in afterschool programs? Why is a volunteer parent a better coach than a part-time PE teacher who might pick up a few extra bucks? And is there a goldmine waiting to be claimed by the first people who set up the soccer equivalents of afterschool karate and taekwondo programs?

Single-Digit Soccer: OK, let’s back up a bit …

It looked so good in my head.

In my U8 team’s first scrimmage, they showed some aptitude for spreading the ball around, avoiding the “mob chasing a ball” mentality of U6s and U7s. I really thought we could build on it and make it a habit with a modified scrimmage that would encourage passing and using the width of the field.

So I put cones down to divide the field into thirds — lengthwise, like lane markers in a pool. We would play a 4-on-4 scrimmage in which, on each team, two players could be in the middle third and one could be in each outside lane.

The protests were immediate:

What are we trying to do? (Play soccer. Really.)

What can I do here on the wing? (Receive passes, then pass back.)

I don’t WANNA be on the wing! (We’re rotating – you’ll get your turn in the middle shortly.)

I don’t wanna wear a yellow penny! (OK, that’s an issue.)

I’d rather be doing math homework! (Oh, because you’re so good at following directions?)

(No, I didn’t actually say that.)

After about two minutes, I gave up on it and decided to use the lane markers for a simple passing drill. Form three lines, one in the middle and one along each line of cones. Each player has to touch the ball before scoring.

So while I struggled to get players into lines, the first group — the wise guys of this team — all ran to the middle of the field and literally touched the ball. Then one guy dribbled down and shot.

I finally got a group that would at least give it a try. A couple of players passed the ball back and forth, and it wound up on the feet of one player who stopped, slightly puzzled. “OK! Good job so far! Now pass it back to the middle.”

So he picked up the ball and started to cock his arm back like Tom Brady.

“No, no … with your feet.”

I gave them a water break, all the while lamenting that I hadn’t been committing this practice to video so I could email it to Claudio Reyna with a whole lot of profanity. (That would’ve been unfair — I can’t expect a youth soccer curriculum to account for kids who don’t know the word “pass” in a soccer context.)

I had already decided to yank the “angle of support” drill off the agenda for the evening. In the time it would’ve taken me to explain that one, two kids would’ve kicked half the team’s balls across the field, two more would’ve started a biology experiment with a couple of crickets they wound on the field, and the others wouldn’t be able to hear me.

First game is Saturday. Then I’ll have two days to figure out how to hold their attention and perhaps even teach a little soccer at the next practice.

Single-Digit Soccer: Sharks, minnows and reasonable goals

I’ve been writing about soccer on a steady basis for 12 years and irregularly before that. I’m deeply immersed in the issues of the sport in the USA from the national team through the pro leagues down to the youth level.

Now I’ve got another perspective on the game. I have been an assistant coach for two years at the U6 and U7 level. This fall, I’ll be an assistant on a U6 team and the head coach on a U8 team.

Single-Digit Soccer will be a regular SportsMyriad feature in which I talk about some of the issues I have encountered and will encounter. I’ll talk about striking a balance between those who consider soccer at the U5-U9 level a critical development period and those who consider it a glorified play date. It’s the balance of teaching one-touch skills to kids who can’t tie their shoes.

The issues and debates over youth soccer in the teen years are fairly well-documented. Club vs. school.* Club vs. ODP. Perhaps letting kids take a break from overly complicated drills to shoot the ball at those odd objects with netting at either end of the field.

Continue reading Single-Digit Soccer: Sharks, minnows and reasonable goals