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games where they can get used to touching the ball often, and we worry about teaching them the tactics of being a withdrawn forward or holding midfielder a few years later.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