Single-Digit Soccer: The lessons of basketball

The general consensus says playing multiple sports is a good thing for kids. They get a broader range of physical activity, they avoid overuse injuries, and they may find some skills in a secondary sport that transfer to their primary.

Also … they’re kids. The overwhelming majority of them are just looking for fun things to do with their friends. And later in life, they may have more social options if they’re comfortable playing pickup basketball as readily as they play soccer.

So as I spend parts of my winter sitting on a gym floor watching 7- and 8-year-olds heave a ball up toward a basket on which I can actually dunk, I sometimes try to shut off the coach/philosopher part of my brain and just enjoy the spectacle.

But not always. And I’m finding a couple of interesting philosophical differences between the USSF youth soccer mandates (which not everyone follows) and the approach I see in basketball.

1. Tactics. The basic advice for youth coaches in the single-digit years is simple: Get out of the way. Let them play. Let the game be the teacher. At the earliest ages, kids can’t even understand positions. And for heaven’s sakes, don’t yell at them during the game, or we’ll call you a “joystick coach.”

No such concern in second-grade basketball. Our team spent the first practice session of the season learning how to set screens for the point guard. Every time we bring the ball down the court (excluding fast breaks), our coach yells out “2!” or “3!” — and now “4!” and “5!” These are plays designating which player is supposed to set a screen. A couple of other players are supposed to move accordingly.

I think if my soccer club’s technical director saw me doing that, I’d be in for the lecture of a lifetime. But is it more necessary in basketball than it is in soccer?

And why do we think kids are better able to grasp these concepts in basketball? Are basketball players smarter? Or is it just because basketball has a clearer distinction between who has the ball and who doesn’t?

2. Passing. Yeah, they don’t get that in basketball any more than they get it in soccer. U8 soccer players are probably better at passing than second-grade basketball players, at least in our town. Also, the refs tend not to call dribbling infractions, and holding onto the ball until shooting is just a higher-percentage play than trying to fling it to a kid who can’t really catch it.

3. Individual skills. In soccer, we’re supposed to make sure players are getting plenty of touches on the ball at every practice, especially at the earliest ages. It’s not so much that we aren’t teaching how to pass as much as we are supposed to let kids get comfortable with the unnatural state of having soccer balls at their feet.

Our basketball practices? Usually no more than two balls in use, often just one. Players take turns learning plays or a particular skill such as boxing out for a rebound.

Is this typical? I don’t know. When I went to USA Basketball’s site, I just saw a bunch of things about teaching a 2-3 zone and so forth. Basketball is, at its heart, much more of a chalkboard sport than soccer is. But I do see a bit of hand-wringing over how we’re teaching kids, particularly when it comes to “the fundamentals.”

My hunch is that kids who play basketball in the winter will return to the soccer fields in spring with better spatial awareness. Maybe they’ll see that what they do away from the ball can affect the game.

So soccer players can learn from basketball. Can soccer coaches learn anything as well?

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