Teaching positions to young soccer players (U-9, U-10, U-11)

By: Chico Borja, NSCAA National Staff Coach

When is the right time to teach younger teams field positions?

You might say, aren’t we neutralizing a younger player when we ask them to stay in one position? I then could say, even at such a young age, aren’t we neglecting the creativity of a player and his or her ability to think on the field?

I believe there is a happy medium. Continue to teach the kids the basic skills like trapping and dribbling. Furthermore, spend as much time as needed showing them how a ball can go forward but how it can also go from side-to-side and sometimes backward. This is the perfect time to introduce the word “build” in your practices. To build means to create. Let me give you a little background!

During my professional playing days in Wichita, Kan., I was asked by a good friend of mine to attend a try-out for an under-8 boy’s soccer team. About 25 to 30 kids showed up, including my son Piri. There was only one coach “committed” to training these kids, so one of the parents suggested they find another coach and create two teams.

Every parent, without missing a beat, turned their heads toward me and waited for an acknowledgment. I was and still am very critical of my son, so reluctantly I agreed to coach my sons’ team. I was still a player mind you, so coaching was not necessarily something I thought was hard to do. Boy was I wrong. It has taken me the last few years as an NSCAA National Staff member to realize that.

Well, back to Wichita and the “Stars” soccer team. We started practicing trapping, dribbling and passing and yet for the most part, during our games, the kids never used those skills. During the games, the kids would just kick the ball and run after it. The kids played what we then called “bunch ball”. Two bunches of kids, one from each team, running after the ball as it ricochets from player to player. After a few minutes, one of the kids managed to kick the ball straight toward the other goal. Another player was fast enough to beat everybody else and managed to kick the ball hard enough to score. The goalkeeper, scared to move in either direction, was just standing on the goal line.

As a former player, I figured out quickly that I needed to put the fastest player as a forward and keep him there, and have a strong kicker as a defender and keep him there. My formation was a keeper, a defender, a “bunch” and a forward; my son. Hey, I was the coach and he was fast. Well, that formation lasted about a month. Without prior coaching knowledge about when to teach players the different positions, I took a chance. During one practice, I started to teach them one by one the different positions and what each one did on the field. I placed cones at each position and took the players on a walk-through from goalkeeper to center forward. Yes, the kids were all 8-years old but I got their attention. We played what I now know to be a form of “shadow play”. The players started on each cone and we went forward! The players had to be mindful to stay together on the left, center, and right sides of the field. They passed the ball forward from one position to the other until we found the forward player. We practiced this drill for about 20 minutes each practice.

After about a month, I introduced switching the field. Yes, switching the field! They would pass the ball forward until I yelled “it’s closed,” which meant there were imaginary players in front of them and that they needed to stop and pass the ball backward. The receiving player would then pass the ball across to a player: the stopper, sweeper or midfielder in the middle, and then to a player on the other side of the field. We worked on this drill for about 20 to 30 minutes each practice. Needless to say, after about two months of practicing shadow play, there was a huge difference in our team and the rest of the league. We went from bunch ball to switching the field and thus playing a more developed form of soccer. Those were the days of 11-on-11 games for the younger ages. Now, most of the youth leagues, depending on the group, play games with fewer players on the field.

I believe, contrary to popular belief, that you should spend some time teaching younger teams the different positions in soccer. By using small-sided drills and games, it develops the player faster. You start with a basic 4-player formation on a small practice field. The players can create triangles between the back player, the outside players and the forward player, thus creating better understanding of passing and supporting angles.