I’ve been writing about soccer on a steady basis for 12 years and irregularly before that. I’m deeply immersed in the issues of the sport in the USA from the national team through the pro leagues down to the youth level.
Now I’ve got another perspective on the game. I have been an assistant coach for two years at the U6 and U7 level. This fall, I’ll be an assistant on a U6 team and the head coach on a U8 team.
Single-Digit Soccer will be a regular SportsMyriad feature in which I talk about some of the issues I have encountered and will encounter. I’ll talk about striking a balance between those who consider soccer at the U5-U9 level a critical development period and those who consider it a glorified play date. It’s the balance of teaching one-touch skills to kids who can’t tie their shoes.
The issues and debates over youth soccer in the teen years are fairly well-documented. Club vs. school.* Club vs. ODP. Perhaps letting kids take a break from overly complicated drills to shoot the ball at those odd objects with netting at either end of the field.
But for the “ULittles” (BigSoccer’s endearing term for the single-digit years), we have little discussion about what to do and a whole lot of people who seem to have the answers. U.S. Soccer has its new curriculum. That seems slightly more skill-oriented than what I was taught in my “F” license training, where fun little games were all the rage. (Incidentally, can we rename the “F” license as “youth” license? I’m finding that the letter “F” doesn’t inspire much confidence.)
The bigger divisions I’ve found are between what I read/hear from soccer-knowledgeable people and what I see on the youth soccer fields. We’re told to keep a light hand as coaches, to encourage players to learn the game by playing — something they don’t do enough in a hyperorganized country like ours that doesn’t have a lot of pickup soccer for kids. Then I go to games and see coaches trying to shift their U7 teams from a 2-2 formation to a 1-2-1 to encourage better wing play. (No, the kids don’t get it.) A high-up bigwig in our local youth soccer organization coached a U7 team and would stop games to dissect what they could’ve done differently in the buildup to a goal.
That coach is clearly overbearing, but at the same time, have we gone too far in just tossing out the ball and hoping kids will learn how to play? Our U7 league didn’t call fouls — hiring referees would be a little extravagant, after all — but shouldn’t we give kids some incentive to stop shoving, tripping and so forth? And what can we do for the 7-year-old who has matured past the “kick the coach” game and wants to become an actual soccer player?
I spoke last week with Scott Leber, a former Stanford and Columbus Crew player who went on to launch iSoccer. His program is designed for players who want to “measure, track, improve” (the company’s motto) their individual skills. In a clever psychological ploy, Leber and company borrow from video games — improve by a certain amount, and you pass to the next level, getting a new avatar. Players can also earn badges and so forth.
He thinks players who don’t develop skills will eventually lose interest.
“The kids are having more fun because they’re developing,” he says of his clients.
Leber wants to remain neutral (“trying to be Switzerland”) in any debates over how to coach. But the iSoccer system is at odds with some schools of thought. First, iSoccer suggests 6-year-olds could start learning to juggle with their heads, several years ahead of current conventional wisdom on heading. Leber discusses the distinction with a doctor here.
When I first saw the iSoccer assessment, I thought there was no way a ULittle player could cope with it. I’ve had players pull off successful backheels and slalom through several players to score a beautiful goal. But if I saw a player pull off a “scissor” move, I’d immediately pull him off the field, hand him over to his parents and give them directions to D.C. United’s academy. I could no more coach that player than I could teach guitar to a kid who shows up and does a perfect imitation of Hendrix (or Vaughan) playing Voodoo Child.
But when I signed up and entered some rough guesses on what one of my players might do, I was hooked. Even if you can’t juggle or comprehend the “scissor” move, you’ll find a few things you can track.
So the tools for improvement are there. And I’ve noticed some clubs offering additional training for kids who want to take things a bit more seriously.
Then I came across this: A program taking the top U8 players out of the “house” or “recreational” league and putting them in a program with professional coaching, more practices and fewer games.
We’ve had a good discussion about the program at BigSoccer, and because I’m one of those idiots who posts under his real name, you can see I have some reservations about it. Playing travel soccer at U9 already seems a bit much — taking U8 kids for a prep program just seems like a recipe for burnout. But read the BigSoccer discussion for some dissenting views.
You won’t find easy answers in this series. At best, you’ll find some good reality checks on certain schools of thought. At worst, I’ll have a bunch of tales of kids weeding the grass when they’re supposed to be playing soccer. U.S. soccer isn’t competing with other sports for its athletes; it’s competing with botany.
Hopefully, it’ll be an entertaining and engaging quest to figure out how to make botanists and soccer players co-exist in one U8 team. Please share your thoughts.
* It’s not relevant to the single-digit years, but I have to say I don’t get the rush to pull kids out of high school and college soccer. For the 1% of kids who will go to play in the pros, it’s a unique chance to play in an atmosphere in which winning matters quite a bit to the hundreds or perhaps thousands of people who’ve gathered — a little different than playing an elite club match in front of a bunch of scouts. For the other 99%, it’s the only chance they’ll have to experience the thrill of meaningful competition. Besides, developmental academy bosses will always tell you their goal is to develop players, not just to win. When is it OK to care about the score and revel in the victory?