A dialogue between two of our writers on coaching youth soccer.
Eric: When you think about it, Wes, our coaching careers really started at the same time: two years ago during the spring of our senior year, when we were desperate to win an intramural championship in our last chance to do so despite the fact that our 8 v 8 team regularly started, by my count, at least two players without any organized soccer experience. I fully accept the blame for our team’s failure that spring (Well, most of it. Ryan Jones’ thesis committee deserves at least some.). Our biggest error was tactical, and it was my formation and obsession with creating offensive width that made us too easy to bypass in the midfield and left our fullbacks, sweeper and central midfielder overworked. The people we were slotting into those wing roles weren’t eager to be falling back on defense, which left us with something of a split team; four defenders and three attackers, and not enough link between them. In my defense, Zonal Marking didn’t exist yet.
Plus, we should have played Lim at forward.
I mention all this only because I caused that formation to work the next fall, when I made my first actual attempt at coaching, in the U14 Cutters recreational (as opposed to club or select) league in Bloomington, Indiana. (For our readers, it’s a reference to “Breaking Away,” nothing to do with the wrists. I hadn’t paid enough attention that first go-around to the bits in “Brilliant Orange” or “Inverting the Pyramid” on the importance of contracting the space in defense. I learned from that, and played with a denser midfield three that would move wide when we had the ball and return to center when we didn’t.
You see here already my bias, one that I’ll freely admit: The most interesting part of coaching, to me at least, is the tactics. I’ve seen said before that that’s the least important part of what you’re trying to teach young players, and while I understand where they’re coming from, I disagree for reasons I’ll get into later.
You though, were working with kids significantly younger than I, so I know your experience was rather different. What was the most interesting part for you?
Wes: OK, well first, a quick note on the intramural (we were both students at Emory University, O87 crowd) bit–we lost two years in a row for several reasons, but the main reason (you touched on it, but I think its crucial) I can see was that we had few kids (I’m referring mainly to our defense) who had ever had any big field, official game experience. Sure there was you and Kevin (and to a lesser degree Ryan)–but my point is that myself and most of the rest of us had no idea how to manage a game on that scale. I learned quickly the finer points of big field soccer when I went to France (and suffered a lot of embarrassment in the meantime). But I’ve come back, and currently play on a recreation league team (at the Atlanta Silverbacks stadium) of slightly better individuals who dominate regularly. That’s not to sound conceited. The point is valid: you can’t win with a bunch of kids who are great at pick-up soccer and nothing else. There needs to be positional sense, discipline, ability to look down the field, anticipation, and all the other things that come with playing 8 v. 8 or larger games. We have that now. We didn’t have that back during our college days.
I wouldn’t say that my coaching experience was radically different from yours. My kids were younger (7-9 year olds), but there was still the sense that where you played certain kids mattered. We had our naturals–the ones who got it, could run with the ball, pass occasionally, shoot the right way; we had our not-so-naturals–the clumsy, slow, distracted daydreamer types. I constantly debated where to play which. You couldn’t stick the non-naturals back in defense, or we’d lose in a shootout; you couldn’t stick the non-naturals totally in offense, or we’d never get out of our own half. With a roster of twelve kids for six spots on the field, you had to constantly balance playing time and wanting to win. Formationally, we played something similar to the my rec league team. Three in defense, a midfielder type, and two kids playing forward. It worked, but only when we had the right personnel. I had one little guy who was probably the best player on the team. He liked playing defense, and I stuck him at sweeper. When he was there, we gave up less than five goals, even against the good teams. When he wasn’t there, we didn’t have much of a chance. You can’t tell children that young to “tuck in” or “stay back” and expect them to infer your meaning. I mostly just screamed something along the lines of “boot the ball” and “don’t run forward.”
Really, all I wanted was for them to play pick-up with each other. I think we’re both in agreement that this is the smartest way to improve children of that age. Sadly, time constraints, parental pressure, and my own desire to win made me spend more time than I wanted to drilling the young’ens in formations. They did improve, significantly, over the course of the season. We had our 9-3 wins, and our 3-9 defeats. But I could never help feeling that these kids would benefit from more practicing and less games at that age.
Eric: See, here’s what I think the difference was between the team I coached and the one you worked with. Yours, at that age, were all still little bundles of potential. Sure, most of them probably aren’t ever going to be very good players, but some, you never know, might still turn out to be awesome.
For the majority of my twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, their soccer ship had sailed. My recreational program was run by a club team. The best players were already over playing travel soccer. I watched their U14 squads once (there was an A and a B team), and they would have run circles around the circles they could run around my kids. That’s not to say I didn’t have good players — my first year the B travel team tried to poach four of my players, and succeeded in taking two, before our third game — but the best ones in the area weren’t on our fields.
You and I have talked extensively about that first team I coached, both A) Because that was the first time either of us had tried anything like that, and B) They were awesome. I still think of them as my own Dragon Army. They were just an ideal squad for me: They ran all the time and could pass fairly well, and by the midpoint of the season I think I had successfully broken them from the habit of caring about who scored our goals. Their skill sets complemented each other very well, and they were fun to coach, more fun than any of the subsequent teams at least.
But I told those kids at the beginning that my goal for them wasn’t just making sure they could kick the ball straight or dribble while looking up. I wanted them to understand what they why they were doing things on the field, to instill in them some tiny kernel of what Arrigo Sacchi called “knowing-how-to-play-football.”
I had a good reason for this: I grew up warming the bench for on small-town Alabama travel and high school teams because as I realize now I was never actually taught to understand how the game worked. I went through the drills and knew my role on the field, but I never saw the game as a whole unfolding.
I have no idea why this was. I like to think of myself as a somewhat intelligent, perceptive person, and that seems like something I should have figured out over time. I do know, however, that I got much better much faster and started to enjoy the game more once I gained that understanding (through a combination of FIFA, soccer books, and watching Xavi play for Spain and Barcelona). I wanted to give these kids at their young age that sense of watching soccer unfold that I only picked up in college, so even if it didn’t make them a great player, it made them a good enough one that they’d continue playing at whatever level they could.
The kids of course, didn’t seem too interested in this speech, so I dropped it the next two seasons. But since that first team was far and away the best season I had, I wonder now if I shouldn’t have.
Wes: You’re absolutely right. My kids were fresh out of the don’t-worry-just-kick-the-ball-and-run-after-it league. None of them understood the game at any kind of sophisticated level, and even the best ones had only a dim understanding of anything other than offense vs. defense. That’s not to say they didn’t have moments where they looked like a team, but that’s just what they were–moments. Going into our first game, I couldn’t help feeling like Brian Clough at Leeds United, insistent on playing football the right way. I didn’t care about winning or losing nearly as much as I cared whether or not little Isaac or John passed the ball going forward, or they stayed in their positions. I envisioned a utopian/teleological progression by which we’d lose our first few games, steadily improve, and by our last game, be set for a Wheaties box feature photo. Selling that to the kids wasn’t an issue–I didn’t even need to try. The parents were a tougher, however. After our first loss I had to deal with the weight of crying children and parents who, while understanding my motives, were more concerned their child have a fun time (read: winning) and less concerned with playing soccer the right way. Not to mention, in real life game settings, no matter the pep talk or pre-game prep, all their practicing dissolved immediately and predictably into anarchy.
By the end of the season, we had won a few games. The parents were happy with me. The kids were beginning to understand. But in retrospect it seems like we had the same issues on the complete opposite of the spectrum; your kids’ ships had sailed, my kids’ ships were just starting construction. I did find myself consistently reliving memories of playing soccer at their age. Things are fuzzy, but I can remember being slow, uncoordinated, lacking a fundamental knowledge of how the game worked. My only distinguishing factor was my right foot, connected to legs and thighs the size of small telephone poles, that could kick the ball halfway down the field (I played defense as you can imagine). At that point, like most of the kids I coached, I could not have cared less about soccer. I played because I knew that a Dairy Queen footlong chili-cheese dog was waiting for me if I ran around and looked motivated. Looking back, I wish things were different. I wish I had had a motivator to push me, to show me the intricacies of formations and through balls. To be good enough to be a collegiate or professional athlete, you have to start early, and, as such, my ship sailed before I realized I was even had a ship. Recognizing this fact was the ultimate motivation for not bending to the pressure of the parents and consistently working in practice on the things which would make the kids understand the game.