Improving Youth Soccer

I have looked back on the growth of the game in the United States and see we have made great progress. More players are playing the game, the level of youth soccer has improved tremendously, the Women’s and Men’s National team is playing at a higher level, and soccer is entering the main stream of our culture.

Looking forward, I see four areas that youth coaches need to take to continue the games growth.  US Soccer needs more and better game changers, we need to create a culture of possession in youth soccer, move to proactive coaching with seasonal plans, and teach tactics the appropriate way through the use of visual signs to our youth players.

Developing the Game Changer Attitude The first is predictable to students of the international game. We need more creative soccer players. This is a huge challenge.  We need to understand that each youth soccer player has their own soccer characteristics.  These characteristics come from their personality, body make up, athletic ability, and perceived team role.  Soccer coaches need to develop these soccer personalities differently.  The player who has a safety first personality will not be a creative player, but they can learn to protect the ball by shielding and dribble to open up angles for a pass.  The player who is fast and likes open space needs to learn how to run with the ball and change directions explosively.  They also will need to learn how to beat players into space.  The player who likes to be in a crowd, challenges the conventional way of getting things done, and likes the ball at their feet can develop into a creative soccer player.  All of these personalities and others can be game changers if they are guided to play within their soccer personality with a “no fear of failure approach”.

Players will enjoy their soccer experience more if they are set free to use their imagination, creativity, and problem solving abilities in the game. These players are not robots and coaches can’t expect to control every move the player make. Remote control coaching needs to end. Challenge yourself to allow players to be free to take chances, free to make mistakes, free to be special, and free to be game changers.

In 1998, US Soccer started project 2010. Project 2010’s goal was to ensure the US Men’s national team could become a legitimate threat to win the 2010 world cup. At the time president of US Soccer, Alan Rothenberg, stated “Somewhere out there we’ve got a 9 year old Ronaldo, and we got to find him.” I know the 7, 8, and 9 year old players with the ability to develop into players that could change the game with one unpredictable possession were there in 1998. What happened to these players? They more than likely were trained to share the ball, become team players, play safe, and win games. In doing this, we made the next Ronaldo the next role player. What are we going to do with the next Messi?

Read the section on Improvisation intently. Attempt to facilitate creative play. Follow the suggestions and come up with your own ideas on how you can inspire players to become game changers. But also notice that in all the activities in the technical and tactical sections, allow for players to make decisions. When coaching the wall pass, allow the player with the ball to use the supporting player as a decoy and dribble the opponent. When introducing speed of play, do not discourage dribbling. Always allow players to express themselves.

As a rule a player should:

  • Shoot if possible
  • If not possible, dribble or run with the ball to gain territory
  • If not possible, pass the ball
  • If not possible, dribble for possession(shield the ball)

Creating a Culture of Possession Most youth teams have players that kick the ball up the field with no other intention than to gain territory. When a long kick is completed, it usually is applauded with loud cheers from the sideline, even when the kick goes out of bounds or directly to the opponent.

When I was watching my daughter play a 7th grade basketball game, I witnessed a girl on her team rebound the ball and throw the ball the length of the court. Her team had no players on this side of the court. The ball bounced out of bounds to dismay of everyone playing and observing. Loud crows came from the parent’s side showing their frustration. As I witnessed the play and the reaction, I turned to the parents and stated, “If this was a soccer game, you would be cheering”.

Basketball has a culture of possession. Youth soccer in America does not. I recommend the following team rules to change this culture.

  • Do not allow your goal keeper to punt the ball. The punt is conceding possession by giving a free ball to the field. The punt is inevitably a ball that each team has a chance to win. In fact, the opponent has a better chance, since they are more than likely numbers up in the area the ball is punted to. Have your keeper roll or throw the ball to team mates.
  • Take all free kicks short. As an alternative to taking a long kick down the field or across the field, make a short pass as quickly as possible. The long kick does not yield possession, the majority of the time. A short pass does.
  • Do not allow your players to kick the ball out of play intentionally. By kicking the ball out of play, your team is conceding possession and your player loses an opportunity to learn how to get out of trouble. Players that kick the ball out of play at an early age will develop this habit as they have never learned how to deal with trouble.
  • Demand your players look to throw the ball into the middle of the field first. When this is not going to yield possession they should look to throw the ball back for possession. If both of these options are not productive, the player can then look to throw the ball down the sideline. Taking this action will yield more possession off of throw ins.

I know these team rules will make it more difficult to win games at an early age, but it will develop better players who value possession. It will also force the opponent to defend the entire field and yield wins at a later stage in the player’s soccer experience.

 

Be a proactive coach, not a reactive coach Every school system has a curriculum. Teachers know the schedule of the curriculum and do not make changes to their yearly teaching plan. Teacher may vary the methods and lesson plans they use to reach the students, but they do not move away from the subject matter in the curriculum. This allows the student to be prepared for the next grade level.

Coaches need to have a curriculum and create a seasonal play on how and when this subject matter will be presented to the players. Reactive coaches jump around from topic to topic in an effort to react to problems in the last game. Reactive coaches are chasing short term outcomes at the expense of long term development. This manual provides coaches with the curriculum that can be used to develop a seasonal plan for developing players for the next soccer year.

Do not be afraid to teach tactics The importance of players developing good technique can’t be overstated. Technically competent players will always have a huge advantage in soccer. Players at all levels need to work on becoming more technically proficient. Technical competence allows players to be able to make decisions. Decisions in youth soccer equal tactics.

Combine technical teaching with decisions so we are developing players for the demands of the game.   Both the technical and tactical section in this manual uses lesson plans that progress from simple to complex. Small group activities are used that combine the two components. Technical lesson plans progress to allow for tactics. When teaching a technical topic, make sure the players are aware of the visual sign players should look for to help them make the decision on using the technique. Provide the players with the when, where, and why a technique is used. Likewise, the tactical lesson plans are presented to allow for plenty or repetition of soccer techniques. Here are some examples of visual signs your players should be able to read:

  • Space in front of player with the ball = Run with the ball
  • Space behind the opponent = Opportunity to take player on
  • Opponent with the ball has their head down = Close space quickly as the attacker will not see you.
  • Player with the ball has their head up = Support in advance of the ball
  • Player on your team is shielding = needs support quickly
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