This weekend, I coached a U8 All-Star team in a tournament here in suburban Northern Virginia. The kids were rambunctious but fun, and I saw a few glimpses of good soccer emerging.
They say this is a vital age for developing good habits rather than poor habits that will be hard to break. I think that’s true. But perhaps moreso for parents (and coaches) than for players.
The parents on my team were terrific. They got their kids everywhere they needed to be, on time. They put together a wonderful photo album and brought plenty of snacks for everyone. No one had any ridiculous demands. I surely didn’t hear everything they yelled in the course of the game, but I didn’t hear anything silly.
So let’s talk about some of the other teams, from what I witnessed and what I heard from other coaches:
- A U10 girl had the ball in her own half under no pressure whatsoever. A parent was maybe 10 feet away, yelling “Kick it hard!” She did, and it went about 15 yards to midfield before rolling out of play. “Good job!” the parent yelled.
- Some parents and coaches ran the length of the sideline during games to offer their high-volume input. One team’s coaches ran directly in front of my clubmates on their half of the sideline and blew vuvuzelas when their team scored. Somehow, this game didn’t end up in a massive viral-video brawl, for which I credit my clubmates. (The same club had another All-Star team with out-of-control parents, but they apparently forgot their horns.)
- U10 boys game: Player was offside by 10 yards, not called. Our club’s keeper tried to make the save and broke his wrist in the ensuing collision. Ref let play continue until the other team scored. Our club’s team also had four guys come off the field with injuries after uncalled fouls. (The opposing club, incidentally, is a D.C. United affiliate. But this is house league, so I don’t think you’ll see these kids injuring opponents in a Developmental Academy game down the road.)
- Similarly, a U8 coach was stunned to learn from the ref, a coach and parents that his players were totally out of control.
- U8 players and their coach practicing headers. (On a really, really good team — they have no house league, so this is basically a “pre-travel” team that does nothing but practice 2-3 times a week and play “pre-travel” events. But they’re nice people, and my goodness, some of their players have fantastic skills. You can tell they play more pickup soccer in a week than most suburbanites play in a year.)
It’s a strange tournament in the sense that I can’t imagine U.S. Soccer being thrilled with the game setup — five-a-side, no goalkeepers and big goals. So one of our club’s parents was lamenting the soccer on display — kids just slamming the ball toward that big goal while a coach yelled to kick it hard.
But it was fun. It’s different from our usual house-league soccer (five-a-side, smaller goals) and the pre-travel/academy/crossover league (six-a-side, goalkeepers). And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
A lot of U8 players lean toward magnetball — everyone gathered around the ball. This tournament may have taught them the value of keeping heads up and spreading out. (Those were the only two lessons I tried to get across in two weeks of practice: “Head up” and “Spread out.” I was tempted to add “Can’t lose,” but first of all, I don’t think they’ve seen Friday Night Lights. Second of all, you actually can lose. Third, it’s not that funny.)
From a coaching perspective, I walked into a dilemma with one player. A common complaint in youth-soccer circles is that parents and coaches try to discourage dribbling and make kids pass it. I had someone with the best one-on-one dribbling skills I’ve seen. And sometimes one-on-two. When it got to be one-on-three or one-on-four, it was hard not to notice the teammate standing wide open in front of the goal, and it was hard not to be a little frustrated when he finally lost the ball without attempting that pass.
But I think the kids are learning. We saw some beautiful goals — a couple on clever passes, a couple on terrific individual efforts, a couple on loose balls, and a couple of pure accidents. We didn’t magically turn players into technically and tactically sound soccer players, but they made progress.
So what do we do about the adults?