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games where they can get used to touching the ball often, and we worry about teaching them the tactics of being a withdrawn forward or holding midfielder a few years later.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?

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2 Responses to Single-Digit Soccer: Do small-sided games backfire?

  1. DLP says:

    I stumbled on your blog through bigsoccer and I find it pretty entertaining. I enjoy the honest, well-written perspective you give on your experiences in youth soccer. Keep ‘em coming!

    The objective of SSGs for the single-digit players is to keep the game at a manageable size. Too many players= too many variables to keep track of. This overwhelms their young brains and leads to a phenomenon called “lights out”. They’re just running to stay alive in essence.

    At these young ages the ball, controlling it, is such a big obstacle then you throw multiple defenders into the mix and you get lights out—”I can’t even get this ball to do what I want and I’ve got 3 kids trying to take it away from me!” Additionally, passing takes at least two people making a coordinated effort in a pressured environment—it ain’t easy.

    So it’s not that we’re under-appreciating their abilities through SSGs, but trying to bring them along at the correct pace. Teach the kids the basic skills of receiving, ball control, dribbling, passing (prob. in that order) and you’ll see they’ll naturally spread out over the course of a season or two. Once they are no longer stressed about the ball, then you can implant ideas of positions and coordinated attacks.

    Even at U10/U11 we rarely play a full (for us 9v9 game) in training. 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, 5v5. The lessons contained therein are specific and fully applicable to the full 9v9 game. In fact, in training, I rarely talk about positions—it’s just soccer whether you’re a wing, striker, center mid, defender.

    As for the physically advanced kids that overwhelm people—no one really tells these kids to stop using their bodies to “win”. It’s actually a detriment to their long-term development, once the late bloomers catch up they’re not so special anymore and they never developed a skill set to deal with it.

  2. I’m coaching U8 this fall in the Southeastern US. I’m conflicted about team size right now.

    I watch how well the U6 team I coach does – just in the basics like dribbling the ball and engaging 1v1 on defense. Our U8 team (5v5 inc GK) has trouble with those two things! It’s almost as if having more players on the field absolves the players of personal ownership, or else they have come to the age where they are socially inhibited and worried they will fail.

    I’ve started working on positional play – but it is another topic that must be taught and use practice time. I’ve started with trying to go for a diamond for field players – one deep defender, wings who run the whole field, and one forward. Problem that pops up is our defender is more likely just to boot the ball forward and not leave the backfield, even with clear field in front of him.

    I think a lot of it is the parents at this age start hitting the kids (and coach) with a lot of expectations despite being one year removed from playing the herd of cats U6 game.

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