A strategy for youth soccer player development

The article below makes interesting reading.

It suggests that the problems facing junior soccer player development in Australia are the result of “a poor football philosophy inherited from England, which values fast play over good”.

In the article, Craig details a simple eight point strategy for improving the quality of youth soccer coaching.

For example, point 5 of the strategy is that we should…..”discourage young keepers in kicking the ball long unless there is no other option (and even here one can almost always be manufactured) and at all times have the keeper roll the ball to a team-mate so the team can begin to play immediately from the back”.

A little further on in the article, Craig suggests that “at youth levels, the only suitable training sessions should be completely with the ball, with every player….learning the game principally by playing in small games of 2 v 2, 3 v 3, 4 v 4, 5 v 5 and overload practices such as 4 v 2, 4 v 3, 5 v 2.”

This is excellent, easy to follow advice that if implemented in a consistent and wholehearted way would improve player development immeasurably.

There is also a link to a video that, in the words of a contributor to the footy4kids forums is “brilliant…..and so, so true!!! Every youth coach from u6 to u14 should be required to view this.”

Enough said!

Possess the ball – a new philosophy by Craig Foster

One of the challenges facing this country, and particularly the FFA in their quest to make improvements in the long term to Australian football, is to develop a culture of football, which is almost the complete opposite to where we are at this point in time.

A culture, which values the ball over the athlete, skill over strength, and football intelligence over graft and effort.

We will need to develop intuitive players who are adaptable during a game by instinct not input, and the natural precursor to this of course is first to develop intelligent coaches.

As Johan Cruyff once said, how can the student be better than the teacher?

So, to produce outstanding players we need excellent coaches who have an understanding at the highest technical level.

This is indeed a long-term project requiring tremendous improvement in our licences and methodology, but in the meantime one area that can be addressed is to continue to advance the understanding of the football community, particularly at the grass roots level, of what represents ‘good football’, and of the importance of a philosophy of play based on possessing the ball.

Yet when we talk about a culture of the game and particularly a philosophy of play, all those reading this with a good understanding of the game will know that all around us are signs that at present our national philosophy is deficient.

For instance, visit any junior club around the country and you will see more running than playing, and most players being encouraged to play the ball forward as soon as possible, regardless of the quality of the pass or any evaluation of the option chosen.

In other words, there is a predominance of lumping the ball forward for big, quick and usually strong kids to chase, to the detriment of players who prefer to hold the ball and build up play in a slower and more intelligent manner.

This is a by product of a poor football philosophy inherited from England, which values fast play over good, and which manifests itself in poor youth coaching.

But this is a short sighted strategy which is anti player development since, whilst this may win games for now, this style of play produces technically deficient players who will be learning nothing about how to play the game which is precisely, and only, what junior football is for!

And not only is it boring for the players, enforces results over fun and enjoyment and therefore arguably produces a larger drop out rate of youngsters in the early teens, it is in fact also ineffective once the players mature and their physical strengths converge as adults.

Every junior club in the country should be teaching their coaches to appreciate that until the very late teens, the total focus must be on producing players who understand and can play the game, that is to say they can control and manipulate the ball with great skill, maintain possession both individually and collectively, intelligently construct an attack and respond well in defence, and that teaching these principles of play fundamentally must take total precedence over results.

And we will only be starting to improve when every youth coach is judged on the quality of players he produces, not on the amount of trophies he wins.

We must all recognise that effort and running alone don’t win football matches, technique, skill, and intelligent players do. That is why Brazil and Italy have nine World Cups between them, Germany three and Argentina two. Because their football cultures, and their philosophy of play, are based on these characteristics.

If you want absolute confirmation of the need for change, this year take a look at the Under 14 or 15 National championships where tour best juniors come together, and you will see that I am right.

These championships are shockingly low on teams that are both technically (that is the individuals are capable), and tactically (the team works together, demonstrates good cohesion, and can solve problems collectively), competent at keeping the football for long periods.

Or, better still, take a look at our national teams.

Both the Joeys and Young Socceroos who failed at even the earliest Asian pre-qualifying stage could not keep the ball, clearly neither could the 17 girls. In fact the only team that played with any reasonable tactical skill was the Under 20 Young Matildas, as yet our only youth age team to qualify though Asia, who were intensely trained to do so and proved, as did the Socceroos, that when our teams are well coached they are capable of adaptation.

This inability to play to a high level is a factor of both culture and philosophy.

And it remains a fundamental problem even at the highest senior levels of our game.

In the last few weeks you might have noticed Sydney FC struggle for long periods to keep the ball against pressure, likewise Adelaide United against the Vietnamese, and the best sign of what our poor philosophy of football and no insistence on playing from defence at junior levels produces, is to see Australia struggle to play under defensive pressure against China in the second half of the recent international.

So, enough of where we are, let’s explore some key elements of a good philosophy of football.

Here is a start for any youth coaches and parents interested to know where they now stand, and in what direction they should be heading:

1. To play the ball on the ground at all times, which requires both supporting play and good technique;

2. To play short passes, which requires players to support each other in attack and defence, and is harder to defend and anticipate;

3. To play only longer balls in response to a movement by a team-mate not in the hope of one – to move and ask for the ball after which the pass is delivered;

4. To play longer passes, and particularly those in the air, predominantly only when there is no closer option and always into the feet of an attacker, never just into space for them to chase;

5. To discourage young keepers in kicking the ball long unless there is no other option (and even here one can almost always be manufactured) and at all times have the keeper roll the ball to a team-mate so the team can begin to play immediately from the back;

6. If, at any time, a youngster has no option to find a team-mate, they should be encouraged always to keep the ball. This may mean shielding it, keeping it moving to wait for a pass, or to dribble forward to attack an opponent. At no time should they be told to kick it away regardless of the position they play or where they are on the field, and if the child loses the ball they should be encouraged to try again;

7. To encourage players to express themselves through their football and recognise that everyone is not the same, and shouldn’t play so. Some play fast, others slow, some play simple, others read situations and find more complex solutions, and some have enough skill to individually dominate a game, while others can only dream of doing so, but all should be allowed to find their own game not forced to conform to a uniform way of playing;

8. And, to SLOW DOWN, or more specifically, vary the speed of play during a game, which requires a team to hold the ball. After working to recover possession, every young team should break forward only if they have an advantage in attack, otherwise they should slow the play down and possess the ball, back and across the field, resting and starting to position themselves in attack to take advantage of overloads in numbers, or weaknesses in defence. Youth coaches need to understand that the object of football is to keep the ball and to score goals through breaking down a defence with passing and skill, not by booting the ball forward hoping for a defensive mistake.

And of course a change in philosophy has ramifications for youth training.

It means that at youth levels, the only suitable training sessions should be completely with the ball, with every player touching the ball between 500 and 1000 times, refining technique and 1 v 1 skills, learning the game principally by playing in small games of 2 v 2, 3 v 3, 4 v 4, 5 v 5 and overload practices such as 4 v 2, 4 v 3, 5 v 2.

In this way good coaches can coach the key moments when in possession, the opponent in possession or the changeover, build awareness in the players to aid understanding and decision making, and allow the players to develop a fee for the game that comes only from thousands of hours playing it.

But at the same time the uneducated coach – such as the voluntary parent supervisor – can, by playing these games, give the players a structure, which aids their learning process without having to coach specific points of play.

All fairly straightforward, but a long, long way from where the bulk of our young teams are at right now.

So, how do you know where your club or coach stands from a philosophical point of view? One of the best ways is by their instructions to the players.

If the coach encourages players to slow down and relax on the ball, to take their time, to possess the ball, to support each other, to play together, to take opponents on, to take up positions at angles to each other, to circulate the ball quickly around the team, to play one and two touch football, to create triangles and diamonds in their play, to pass backwards when no forward option is rational, to use the goalkeeper to maintain possession, to read game situations and play away from pressure not into it, and to recognise and create numerical overloads, they are on the right track.

If you hear a coach telling players to ‘get rid of it’, ‘clear their lines’, ‘get it in the box’, ‘get stuck in’, ‘don’t play at the back’, ‘don’t take risks’, telling a keeper to kick the ball long or players to ‘hit the channels’, run a million miles.

Your child is in danger of becoming a boring and uninventive player, and is most unlikely either truly to discover the joy of playing the ball, or to even excel in the game against other players who have spent a decade or more possessing the ball.

And as to the physical aspect and all those coaches who want to make their young players run instead of learning to manipulate the ball and the game itself, yes, at the elite level players are very strong and often gifted physically like Thierry Henry and Kaka, but just like these two the best are footballers before athletes, and value technique over physique, because they recognise that runners don’t make it to the top any more in football.

And don’t forget that Australia has always been physically strong, but we only started to improve when Guus Hiddink finally told the players to keep the ball, to play out from the back (or in his words, ‘to start the attack from defence’), to use space more intelligently through better positional awareness, to stop hitting the ball forward in hope or desperation, to understand how to utilise the team’s spare man to keep possession, to support the ball possessor in attack, and to be patient and play in all directions in the build up phase until in a position to strike at the opponent.

These are the principles, which underline the correct philosophy of football, and the very ones every junior club and coach should be required to teach.

Kids, football and failure

In 2006, when the Three Lions failed at the World Cup again and England was once more gripped by the inevitable heart-searching, analysis and post mortems, did anyone remember the words Sir Bobby Charlton spoke after the 1966 triumph: “The World Cup wasn’t won on the playing fields of England. It was won on the streets.”

It was street football that created those World Cup icons – kids with their backsides hanging out of their shorts, kicking a bald tennis ball about with their mates for hours on end, learning how to play and how to love it.

Speaking as a youth football coach for twelve years, unless we can revive street football, or something very like it, I believe we can kiss goodbye to world supremacy in the beautiful game, because football’s not beautiful for our kids any more: it’s ugly.

In a world where children can no longer play outside without supervision, parents and coaches have taken over, and the competitive drive adults bring to the game means that youngsters no longer have time to fall in love with football, to play for fun and thus to truly develop their skills.

The late, great Alex Stock, manager of QPR & Fulham got it spot on when he said about the modern youth game:

Everywhere I go there are coaches. Schoolmasters telling young boys not to do this and that and generally scaring the life out of the poor little devils. Junior clubs playing with sweepers and one and half men up front, no wingers, four across the middle. They are frightened to death of losing, even at their tender age, and it makes me cry.

Those street-bred footballers Bobby Charlton spoke about had fewer distractions than modern children. They weren’t kept holed up indoors by parents terrified by traffic and the possibility of predatory ‘strangers’. Kids in those days not only played football but climbed trees, rode their bikes, built dens and explored their neighbourhood. The self-confidence, social competence and risk-taking skills these experiences bred made them better able to enjoy their play.

In street football, every child in the neighbourhood was involved. You might have the embarrassment of being the last to be picked but at least you played, and if the game was too one-sided and lost its fun, ‘Billy the dribbling wizard’ swapped with ‘two left feet Larry’ to make it even. Children also learnt to play in different positions. You might be in goal one day and playing as a striker the next. One thing for certain was that you got a complete football education.

You also played against older kids, and if you couldn’t match them physically, you had to use new technical skills and insight in order to compete. Children learnt from each other.

Today’s children learn from the grown-ups. Without the freedom of the streets, their early experiences of football are organised, supervised and coached. They have no real say in what happens, and they don’t have time to develop and learn. Today’s children learn from the grown-ups. Without the freedom of the streets, their early experiences of football are organised, supervised and coached. They have no real say in what happens, and they don’t have time to develop and learn. Just as there isn’t time any more for families to make a proper meal and sit around the dining table together, there’s no time for coaches to waste developing children at football.

Development is long term and takes years of patience, but in today’s ‘win at all costs’ society coaches need success now, so they pick the biggest kids and get a giant to whack the ball up field as hard as possible to an even bigger giant who wallops the ball in the back of the net. 10-0, we are the business and the other team is c**p!

Watching the youngest age groups play today is like watching a Premier League for tots. Seven-year-olds with David Beckham haircuts and the latest Adidas boots pull on their ‘Dudley Tyre Care’ sponsored shirts and raintops sponsored by ‘Boothroyd, Cripps and Pottinger, Family Solicitors’. They totter up and down the pitch in front of a full house of mums, dads, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, second cousins and all.

This enthusiastic gathering can become very rowdy and explodes into sheer ecstasy when their team scores, but rarely applauds either goals or skilful football from the opposition. What do the children learn from all this? Not that football’s a beautiful game, that’s for sure. They learn you’re a hero if you win and go home with the Man of the Match trophy and a Mars bar, your dad telling you how one day you’ll play for England. But if you lose you’re a villain – and it’s a frosty car ride home with your dad analysing every mistake.

I once watched an under 9s game where one team had the coach and assistant coach standing by each goalpost continually barking orders to the keeper. Meanwhile, a parent on each touchline ran up and down shouting other instructions. When they won a corner at the other end their coach hollered “Wait” and trundled the entire length of the field for a minute’s discussion, cupped hand in the ear of the poor flustered corner-taker who knocked his corner kick straight out.

I once watched an under 9s game where one team had the coach and assistant coach standing by each goalpost continually barking orders to the keeper. Meanwhile, a parent on each touchline ran up and down shouting other instructions. When they won a corner at the other end their coach hollered “Wait” and trundled the entire length of the field for a minute’s discussion, cupped hand in the ear of the poor flustered corner-taker who knocked his corner kick straight out.

The next game I saw was an under 8s. The team came out for a 30 minute warm-up which would have exhausted a crack team of US Navy Seals, involving running around the pitch, shuttle runs, sit ups and press ups with not a ball in sight. The substitutes weren’t used as, according to the coach, the game was too close, and the kids were all kept in the changing room for 30 minutes after the game for a debrief. (The coaches had their initials sewn onto the front of their tracksuits. One was WR and the other ST. Use your imagination as to the missing letters.)

There’s also a growing problem with violence among parental supporters. Last season I attended a league meeting where an official from the Wiltshire FA warned clubs about the disintegration of standards. The previous season 15 youth games across the county had to be abandoned because of problems on the touchline. In one summer tournament we attended, a referee got his arm broken in the scrum. The FA have been doing their best by issuing codes of conducts and courses for clubs, but it’s very difficult to change a culture with bits of paper.

If we want to breed winning footballers again, we need to give the game back to the children. In 21st century, traffic-infested Britain, street football may be a thing of the past, but at least we could try to provide something equivalent in a safe, fun environment at children’s clubs.

It’s all a matter of backing off as coaches and letting the children play. In small-sided games, such as 4v4, the game can be the teacher and different types of goals and features can put emphasis on different skills and insight. To the children it is still just a game and most importantly fun. They need to learn to solve their own football problems on the pitch, to work it out for themselves before we give them the solution.

Parents, coaches and kids need to work together. Grassroots clubs should have pre-season meetings with the parents and children to discuss rules and agreements so that everyone understands what their contribution is. In the club I coach at we’ve had fantastic results using this philosophy.

We’ve found that by putting the children first and making it their game, they’ve not only had great fun and developed better as people, but they’ve also developed a passion for football. What surprised us most was we also saw almost instant results on the pitch. The kids expressed themselves, had no fear of failure (no one shouts at them) and they played with imagination and skill.

We’ve also seen improvement in the less naturally gifted children who would have been thrown on the scrap heap years ago by many ruthless coaches. It’s as if the kids are back on the street again, everyone playing with smiles on their faces, watched by beaming parents and coaches.

Maybe, if this message can spread, we could rear a generation of footballers who play with creativity and without fear, who solve their own problems on the pitch, and who enjoy the game. Footballers who play to win, instead of losing through fear.

Paul Cooper

A bloody, murthering practice…

An account of football in Victorian times, written in 1891 by P.H. DITCHFIELD, M.A.

Victorian football

“…the great game for Shrove Tuesday was our time-honoured football, which has survived so many of the ancient pastimes of our land, and may be considered the oldest of all our English national sports. The play might not be quite so scientific as that played by our modern athletes, but, from the descriptions that have come down to us, it was no less vigorous. “After dinner” (says an old writer) “all the youths go into the fields to play at the ball. The ancient and worthy men of the city come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men, and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agility.”

There are some exciting descriptions of old football matches; and we read of some very fierce contests at Derby, which was renowned for the game. In the seventeenth century it was played in the streets of London, much to the annoyance of the inhabitants, who had to protect their windows with hurdles and bushes. At Bromfield, in Cumberland, the annual contest on Shrove Tuesday was keenly fought. Sides having been chosen, the football was thrown down in the churchyard, and the house of the captain of each side was the goal. Sometimes the distance was two or three miles, and each step was keenly disputed. He was a proud man at Bromfield who succeeded in reaching the goal with the ball, which he received as his guerdon. How the villagers used to talk over the exploits of the day, and recount their triumphs of former years with quite as much satisfaction as their ancestors enjoyed in relating their feats in the border wars!

Victorian football

The Scots were famous formerly, as they now are, for prowess in the game, and the account of the Shrove Tuesday match between the married and single men at Scone, in Perthshire, reads very like a description of a modern Rugby contest. At Inverness the women also played, the married against the unmarried, when the former were always victorious. King James I., who was a great patron of sports, did not approve of his son Henry being a football player. He wrote that a young man ought to have a “moderate practice of running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch, or tennis, bowls, archery, pall-mall, and riding; and in foul or stormy weather, cards and backgammon, dice, chess, and billiards,” but football was too rough a game for his Majesty, and “meeter for laming than making able.” Stubbs also speaks of it as a “bloody and murthering practice, rather than a fellowly sport or pastime.” From the descriptions of the old games, it seems to have been very painful work for the shins, and there were no rules to prevent hacking and tripping in those days.

Football has never been the spoilt child of English pastimes, but has lived on in spite of royal proclamations and the protests of peace-loving citizens who objected to the noise, rough play, and other vagaries of the early votaries of the game. Edward II. and succeeding monarchs regarded it as a “useless and idle sport,” which interfered with the practice of archery, and therefore ought to be shunned by all loyal subjects. The violence displayed at the matches is evident from the records which have come down to us, and from the opinions of several writers who condemn it severely. Free fights, broken limbs, and deaths often resulted from old football encounters; and when the games took place in the streets, lines of broken windows marked the progress of the players. “A bloody and murdering practice,” “a devilish pastime,” involving “beastly fury and extreme violence,” the breaking of necks, arms, legs and backs—these were some of the descriptions of the football of olden times.

The Puritans set their faces against it, and the sport languished for a long period as a general pastime. In some places it was still practised with unwonted vigour, but it was not until the second half of the present century that any revival took place. But football players have quickly made up for lost time; few villages do not possess their club, and our young men are ready to “Try it out at football by the shins,” with quite as much readiness as the players in the good old days, although the play is generally less violent, and more scientific.”

Attack the play of 5 and 6 year olds or….

By Mike Parsons, former Director of Coaching Education for the National Soccer Coaches Association reproduced by kind permission of the Abbotsford Soccer Association

It’s good to know that some things never change in life – like the play of 5 & 6 year olds on the soccer field.

We can all agonize over how to discover the special training techniques that will enable them to score more goals – certainly those who have been in the game for a long time must know the secrets! Or we can stay up late at night and draw diagram after diagram that reveals in precise detail where every player should be in relation to the ball – that will solve the bunching up problem and it will look like real soccer! Or one might infiltrate the marketing department at Mickey D’s to figure out why the Happy Meal is more important than the score! However, to Mom and Dad (especially Dad – he’s a winning machine!), the game of soccer at 5 & 6 years old remains a game – with the thrill of winning taking a back seat the excitement of merely chasing the ball!

Anyone… and I mean anyone… can look at a situation and tell you the problems. Instead of that approach, I’m going to make some suggestions for possible solutions to some of the common problems coaching the very young in “chase-the-ball-no-matter-where-it-goes-until-I-need-a-break-and-then do-it-again-‘til-the-game-ends” (that’s what soccer for 5 & 6’s should be called). Here we go;

Bunching Up Around the Ball. God forbid that all of the kids chase the ball – that would mean that every child would be having FUN!! You see, that is what every player at this age likes about the game – they can run anywhere they like – no adult is going to tell them to walk – and they love the challenge of touching the ball all by themselves! We tend to forget that there is very little organization in the mind of a 5-6 year old and that sharing is not on the top of the list of their favourite things to do. (Do they share their favourite toys with their brothers and sisters???) Remember … It’s my ball !!!!!! Soooooo…..let them chase the ball!! They will spread out as they learn to play with their teammates.

Scoring Goals … is an accident most of the time at this age. Let’s be honest-that clump of grass has more to do with the direction that the ball travels than the one who kicks it (at this age shooting and passing are merely “kicking”). However, scoring goals should be the only thing on their mind at this age. Remember this…we can all focus on one thing at a time – focus the young on scoring goals – that’s the object of the game!

He/She is a Ball Hog…. Which brings us to the question – Are Ball Hogs good or bad? As a parent the answer is (like it or not) bad if the neighbour’s son/daughter won’t give the ball to our little cherub – good if the ball is always with our “talented little child prodigy”. Wrong!!! This age is the beginning of individuality – flair for those who really want to exaggerate. Encourage them to dribble the ball and try to beat other players – my best friend boldly told his son at six years old…“ don’t pass the ball until you are eleven – and don’t worry about the coach when he screams at you to pass. His son can’t dribble!”. In fact, all training sessions at this age should be based around each child and a ball. Acceptance of failure (it’s OK not to succeed at first …try again) and the encouragement to try again will help the learning process.

Practice Sessions…the longer the better! What a great way to turn play into work! Ever try to play golf every day on your vacation – double rounds if possible? It gets old fast. So why do we keep 5-6 year olds at the practice field for an hour or more during training? Mom got some more shopping to do? Or is Dad feeling a win coming on after 90 minutes of practice? More is not better at this or any age. Train them for the same amount of time that the game will take on Saturday. Thirty to forty minutes will be long enough to wind them up …then give them back to their parents to calm them down. The excitement of the soccer experience will then remain fresh.

WINNING … it’s why we are here… Wow, I hope we all have had childhood experiences that were fun and not necessarily based on winning. Everything in life is based on winning… Do we really want to emphasize the down side of competition – losing – to 5-6 year olds? They are not concerned (except for that Happy Meal) what the end of the game brings – so why should we? Remember that youth sports were started so that kids could have fun. So, bring a chair and your favourite beverage to the next game and save some room for a Happy Meal of your own afterwards!
Work on the Fundamentals in Practice… While other sports work on fundamentals (and soccer’s numbers keep getting larger) we have found that the most important things to teach at this age are motor skill development – the ability to control my body – and an appreciation for the fun aspects of the game – me and the ball – look at what we can do! We tend to forget that soccer is not a hand-eye coordination activity like all other sports in the U.S. In addition the kids are presented with an incredible challenge to make their bodies do what they want them to (kind of like Dad playing in the over forty league in any sport – he gets it going, you better get out of his way cuz’ no one knows if he’ll be able to stop). As a result, the objective becomes one of making my body and the ball work together as one.

Goals and Objectives for the age group…Are they necessary? Can a teacher instruct a group of students if he/she doesn’t know where to start – to end – or what they should be able to accomplish at a particular age? Obviously, the answer is no. Therefore, it is necessary for all clubs and programs to develop a list of goals and objectives for each age group. Has your club or league given you – the coach – your goals and objectives for the season?

So – Sit Back – Relax – and Have as Much Fun as They Do!!!!!

They’re all bunched up!

youth soccer - young children

youth soccer - young children

That’s what I hear at every U-8 youth soccer coaching course I teach. My reply is always the same: “That’s OK!”

Then I get the puzzled looks from nearly every coach or coach-to-be.

The kids know what they’re doing, it’s the parents and the new coaches who are confused.

Adults see the bunch of players as unorganized — not as a team. That’s the first problem. Because, at this point, it’s really not a team.

The players at this age don’t understand what being a “team” means. At their age, they are selfish in their game. Me, my ball, my game. Most kids can’t even remember the name of their team or their coach. They won’t even practice with any one else’s ball! How can you expect them to understand or embrace teamwork or fixed positions?

The ball is their magnet, so let them try to get it. In doing so, they’re actually building good instincts that they’ll use in the game when they are older and “team” actually begins to mean something.

For example, many good coaches struggle to “re-teach” 14 to 17 year olds the working concept of zonal defending and zonal pressure defense. Two concepts that they knew instinctively when they were 5. What happened? It was drilled out of them by a youth coach who kept telling them to spread out.

When they’re 5-plus years old, they already have a natural instinct for this kind of defending. They’re already figured out that five of us versus one of them means that we’ll probably get the ball.

To parents, this is a mess on the field. They want the kids to spread out — so that the one player with any skill can have the space to dribble around every one else like cones. Not a very good defense.

A good coach will definitely have to adjust these players’ instincts as they get older, but surprisingly not much. The game itself makes them smarter as they continue to play more and more.

Another reason why “bunching up” is OK for young players: the kid in the center of that bunch is learning early on how to play in tight spaces and not to be afraid of traffic or contact — invaluable skills that will be second-nature to him by the time he’s older and able to play in fixed positions.

So, as hard as it is for parents to believe, young players learn how to solve problems and be creative while bunched up. These skills actually help them with their game when they’re older and that game is more structured.

As a coach, I’ll want on my older team the youth player who consistently came out of the pack with the ball. He might be my striker because he’s not afraid of crowds in the box, or of being marked by two players. He’s been getting through the traffic and scoring in those situations since he was 5. Playing in “the bunch” has made him tough, technical and smart.

My advice to new youth coaches and to parents is to stop worrying about the kids being bunched up. At U-8, just let them play.

You’re role at this point is to teach them some basic ball touches, point them in the right direction and let them go!

Let the game teach them for now. Let them teach themselves. And most of all, let them enjoy the game. Seems simple? It is. But that’s OK, too. That’s the beauty of soccer.

25 key messages for young soccer players

  1. Always play fairly, according to the spirit and letter of the rules.
  2. Stay calm under difficult conditions. It’s easy to maintain composure when things go right; when they don’t real athletes step forward and stand up to the test.
  3. Support and encourage your teammates at all times. All of us make mistakes at times and they are not done on purpose. Encourage your teammates to be the best they can be.
  4. Play as hard as you can in practice and in games. Never be beaten because of lack of effort. Even opponents who are bigger or more skilled than you can be beaten if you out-hustle them.
  5. Show respect to your coaches, referees, and your opponents; win or lose.
  6. A good soccer player must have conditioning, skills and tactical knowledge. A player must work on all three to be the best they can be.
  7. When your team has the football, everyone is an attacker; when your opponent has the ball everyone is a defender.
  1. No matter what position you are in, you are first a soccer player and you will have to be able to receive, shoot, pass, dribble, head, make space, etc., regardless of your position.
  2. Do not just “kick” the ball unless it is in a dangerous position in front of your goal. Instead take a ” picture ” of the situation before you get the ball. In this way you can perceive the situation, determine the best solution, and act accordingly when the ball arrives. Develop Field Vision. Always send the ball to someplace or someone.
  3. Always maintain your position. Don’t run following the movement of the ball. Know where you are on the field in relation to where the other players and positions are on the field.
  4. Don’t run forward when your team has the ball unless you are willing to run back when the other team has the ball.
  5. If you lose the ball, you should be the first person to defend. Giving immediate chase is the first rule of defence.
  6. When changing from attack to defence, sprint to get between your opponent and the goal you are defending.
  7. When defending close to your goal, the player closest to the ball should attack the ball. The other defenders should “mark” other opponents who could receive and shoot the ball. In “marking up” your opponent, you should position yourself between the ball and your opponent and prevent them from receiving the ball. A common error on defence is to have too many defenders move to the ball  leaving opponents open to receive a pass and score an unopposed goal.
  8. On the defensive side of the field, always move the ball toward the touchlines and away from the middle of the field. On the offensive side of the field move the ball toward the centre, where your teammates can take a good shot on goal. This is “centering” the ball.
  9. Good ball handlers pass the ball before they get into trouble not after they are in trouble.
  10. Make no small strikes on the ball. Whether clearing, passing or shooting MOVE the ball. Proper technique on striking the ball will enable even small players to effectively move the ball a good distance.
  11. Take your shot! Don’t hesitate  to fire a shot if you feel an opportunity. Shoot into the back of the net. Shoot where the keeper isn’t.
  12. Don’t limit yourself to shots taken only near the goal line. Good opportunities for goals are hard shots taken further out from the goal. Keep your head down, strike and follow through the ball for the goal.
  13. Most players are right-footed. At this level, when playing defence against an opponent with the ball especially watch and attack against the right foot.
  14. When playing offence with possession of the ball, anticipate your defender attacking your right foot. Use your left foot. It is imperative that you develop your passing, dribbling, and shooting skills with both your left and right foot.
  15. Always be aware of protecting possession of the ball. Resist  “kicking” the ball directly into the shin guards of the defender in front of you. Passing or dribbling the ball laterally or even backwards can be a better choice if it maintains possession of the ball.
  16. When on offence always “support” your teammate with the ball. Supporting your teammate means being in a position where they can pass the ball to you. Stay far enough away so the pass effectively neutralizes the defender. Stay close enough so they can make a good pass. If you are too far to make a good pass to your teammate, then you are too far for your teammate to make a good pass to you, and you are not supporting.
  17. Win, lose or tie; if you have given 100%, when you walk off the field you have nothing to regret and no reason to be ashamed.
  1. Don’t be afraid to be a hero. YOU CAN DO IT!