Put Me Back In, Coach

Part II of our ongoing dialogue detailing what our experiences coaching teams of kids, friends or fellow students, have taught us about the game. 

Wes: In Part I, we touched on several themes of coaching youth soccer, including formation practice vs. pick-up practice, the difference between children and pre-teens, and our own memories of playing soccer and how that helped/hindered us. Now, we’ve changed places, somewhat. I no longer coach youth soccer. Instead I serve as something of a player-coach for my rec-team (we’ll get into the problematic nature of that in a bit). You, on the other hand, have just began coaching a team of children along the same lines that I did. They’re mostly under nine years old and very new to the game. As such, we’re revisiting this concept of coaching recreational soccer from something of a different perspective. What have we/will we learn?

For starters, a little history: I formed a rec soccer team with a group of my friends in February 2011. At that time, we were nine people, about half of whom (not including myself) had ever played institutionalized formal soccer. Most of us had had at least intramural soccer experience, but that did not count for much considering the sizable amount of time that had passed since we were in college. We played at the Silverbacks Park against a motley crew of Latin-Americans, former college players, and other interested parties from all over Atlanta. We played seven-on-seven with half-sized fields and regulation goals with goalies. At this point, I was a soccer fanatic, reading Zonal Marking and The Question consistently, with a pretty firm understanding of soccer tactics. Our first formation we played was 2-1-2-1. Neal, a silky smooth midfielder played in front of defense to keep possession and break up play. We had Kevin, Mark, Jeff, Matt and Howard switching out for the front three. Sebastian and myself were the two defenders. Our first game, we did alright, 2-0 down at halftime. We ended up winning 4-3 on the basis of our superior fitness (we were playing a group of guys whose mean age was about 35).

Before too long, we realized this was a formation that didn’t work. If the opposition brought forward three players as we did, the two centerbacks would be vulnerable unless Neal was always back helping on defense. As we relied on him to link the defense and forwards, this wasn’t always the case, and we were vulnerable in those moments (we were blown out a handful of times against superior teams and crushed a few weaker teams with our four guys forward). After about four games, we switched to a 3-1-2, with a designated sweeper. That limited how many goals we let in, but also limited our offense. We became reliant on our one or two players who could consistently create on offense. When they weren’t there, we didn’t win because we couldn’t score.

My role as (de-facto and unofficial) player-coach was something that I more or less slouched into by virtue of my (relatively) high soccer IQ. I’d tend to be the one to control substitutions within the game and convince this player or that player he should play defense or offense. I’d take on a lot of the responsibility for losses while trying to spread around praise for the wins. Thinking back over my time coaching youth soccer, there are the obvious differences: higher intelligence of the participants meant we could do things like press up top, look for the overlap, and switch formations. And yet the complexity of such a role hadn’t really decreased. When I was a youth soccer coach, I balanced playing time, parental expectations, the kids wanting to win, and distractedness. As the player-coach of my rec team, I have to balance playing time, being friends with the people  I’m trying to boss around, and paying attention to tactics while also playing. In other words, there are differences, but not as many as you might have thought.

Eric: I’ll give my introduction first, before I address your stuff.

The team I coach now is made up of six seven-year-olds, four boys and two girls, playing 4v4 without goalies. I was long wary of trying to coach here, because I’m not really interested in doing club ball and they only offered recreational leagues up to U10, a good four years younger than the teams I was coaching in Indiana that we talked about last time. Then the wildfires here in Bastrop happened, and someone put out a call for coaches, and I signed up because I figured it was something I could do to help. Turns out, the team I took over was missing its coach not because he lost his house in the fire, but because it created a bunch of new work for him and he didn’t have time to coach. Ohh well. One of my kids did lose his house, which he announced matter-of-factly at the first practice. He seemed to be dealing well with it.

Turns out, I was right to be scared of trying this age group. When I tell non-soccer people I’m coaching seven-year-olds, they all come back with the same joke, some variant of “Ohh, don’t you just throw the ball out and let them run after it,” which leads me to explain that that’s exactly why it’s so hard, because this is the age where we really try to get them out of that.

The most frustrating thing about coaching these kids is the seemingly random transference of things we do in practice into the game-time situations. One of the things we do at nearly every practice is play some form of keep-away, with players moving the ball around so one or two defenders can’t get it They seem to enjoy it — they even ask to play it as a warm-up before games — and they’re getting quite good at it. Even when passes are mishit or we dawdle on the ball for too long, you can tell they’re thinking about it, you can tell the ideas are there.

But despite the numerous times that we’ve gone through trying to do that kind of passing in scrimmages, come Saturday morning, I cannot get them to pick their head up and try to move the ball. It hasn’t happened yet. This was never a problem when I was coaching the older kids. There they’d try, and sometimes fail, but at least would understand and attempt what I was telling them. I recognize this is a function of the fact that these kids are seven, but it’s still taking some getting used to. These, I understand, are all things that you already knew from your experience, right?

I promise in the next one I’ll talk about some of the positives. They have greatly improved since our first game. But enough about me, let’s talk about you. I’ve heard about the makeup and tactics of your team since the beginning, and so I know your switch to 3-1-2 wasn’t quite that easy, or at least you haven’t always stuck with it. That’s what strikes me as the biggest difference between mine and your teams at this point, not the age or the skill level or the number of players, but the fact that the team you’re coaching is a democracy, while mine gets to be a (hopefully benevolent) dictatorship. Tell us about the cyclical nature of your squad’s tactics, and where you guys are now.

Warning: Don't look at me too long. May cause severe eye stress.

Wes: Democracy is actually a word that’s been thrown around actively recently. In the beginning, before we cared so much, the tactics and positions were determined really haphazardly. This was a fun thing, and whether we won or lost, the primary goal was to ensure everyone played an equal amount of time in a place they wanted to be. As we’ve progressed (I believe we just finished our fifth season), our machine has become more fine-tuned and purposeful.

We’ve enlisted new friends with specialized skill-sets. We’ve also begun implementing high-energy pressing and other such schemes to deal with our habitual inability to retain possession effectively. Jordan is tall and a defender by nature, but also has among the best energy/endurance of the team. Do we start him at sweeper or at forward? He’s certainly most effective sweeping, but he offers a kind of stamina up top that we can’t get 100% of the time. Gio is also a defender by nature, but prefers to play other places. He doesn’t want to play defense all the time–how do we balance his time there with his time at forward, and how does that affect our formation?

That’s all by way of saying that, as we’ve become a more sophisticated rec team (we even bought uniforms!), we’ve slid into a sort of complicated dance of appeasing attitudes and skill-sets that democracy and compromise are the only way of solving. There seems to be a trade-off here: your preoccupation lies not in managing your kids, but simply getting your kids to play in a way that improves them; my preoccupation lies almost exclusively in managing, both figuring out tactics and regulating expectations. Two sides of a coin, you might say. I’m sure my way is more fun, but that’s also because I get to play. You don’t, sadly.

The cyclical nature of our tactics has really only been one full cycle: we started with 2-1-2-1 (or 2-1-3), switched to 3-1-2, switched back to 2-1-3, and then finally realizing the error of our ways, changed back to 3-1-2. The narrative essentially is this: the one or two of us in the beginning that had any soccer experience figured that we’d start with two at the back, merely because the (smallish) width of the field made that seem like a reasonable amount of space for two people to cover. We were playing in a league with less talent than the one we play in now, so it took us a few games to figure out what the problem was. As referred to earlier, you can always expect that the opposing team will bring forward three guys. When you play with two at the back and a link guy in front, you’re asking that two defenders cover three forwards at all times. Ideally, the link guy is always there to help out with the third guy. Unfortunately, that was the case (for us) half the time. The other half, you’re asking two guys who aren’t stellar defenders to deal with three forwards that have the space to pass around. Imagine what happened once one of us got dragged out of position.

Eventually we realized this was the case, and added an extra defender in the middle (3-1-2). This really did work wonders. We had one glorious season where we were 7-1-1, letting in an average of about four goals a game (which is good considering we didn’t have a designated keeper). We also had a fantastic Scottish kid named Stephen that would score four times a game and assist at least two others. We didn’t understand how much an impact his leaving the team would have on our offense. The problem is, when you have three designated defenders and two designated offensive players with a box-to-box middie, unless you’re deploying three guys forward that are very good at moving the ball around and making canny runs, you’re offense is going to stutter a bit. Stephen was perfect for that. When he left, our average of goals per game went from 8/per to about 3/per. We were flummoxed. It didn’t sink in until much later why this was the case and how to solve the issue. In the meantime (after a season of 3-1-5 without Stephen), we decided to begin screwing with our formation.

The irony is that after several high-level discussions (I’m only slightly exaggerating), we decided that the formation that would best suit the talent we had at our disposal was a 2-1-2-1. The only difference was that the middie who played in front of the defense would be exclusively around to break up play coming through the middle. Any offensive role would be shuttling the ball from the back out to one of the two wide guys. We’d ask said wide guys to play centrally, filling in the gap between the middie and the forward. It seemed ideal. We got absolutely rocked (by a mediocre team) the one time we tried to use it. The defects were numerous, but essentially, we were vulnerable on the wings, and when they sent a player down that side, one of our defenders would need to cover him, leaving one defender in the box. The middie would then need to step in, but if the opposing team was breaking with speed, there would inevitably be an open guy somewhere. We lost that game like 7-1.

After that, we decided that our only hope was to go back to our original formation (3-1-2) and become better soccer players. We implemented pressing to fashion chances off of defensive errors, we asked our fullbacks to increase their stamina so as to help out on offense without getting caught out, we asked our forwards to come back and help on defense and play on the break. We actually substantially improved. I do believe we’ve found the ideal formation for the personnel we have now. When we lose, it’s not because of tactics–occasionally we face teams with talent that drastically out-class ours. In those situations, all you can do is relax and try not to make mistakes.

Eric: It’s funny how divergent our experiences are this time compared to last. Your battle is almost exclusively tactical — how best to utilize the players you’ve been rotating in and out of your roster for results, not just positionally, but in terms of the roles within your team. Mine is the opposite of that this go-around, because as is pretty obvious, seven-year-olds don’t have a ton of tactical sense. We theoretically, like every other team in our league, use a diamond formation out there, with a sweeper, a forward, and two shuttlers. Practically, it almost never works that way. We’re not playing bunch ball, but kids are swapping sides, the forward comes back on defense, the shuttlers push up and take the forward’s spot or come in super-narrow so we have more like an attacking trident through the center. It’s a mess, one that was easily anticipated. The question for me is then well what do I teach them?

Obviously, we do a fair amount of technique stuff. Striking the ball, keeping it under control on the dribble, staying fast and in a good stance on defense. I know this is important and essential to their growth as players, and I’d like to think I do alright with all the little things that add up to a soccer player. Except in one case. I have one girl who has never played before, as far as I know she’s never played any sport before, who cannot for the life of her strike the ball with the side of her foot. She does fine with the toe, we’ve worked on where to put her plant foot and how to use that to aim where she’s kicking, but when she goes to turn her knee and hit it with the side, instead of swinging her leg she tries to twist her hips, which leads to some awkward and sometimes painful swipes at the ball. And despite my efforts, I can’t figure out how to make her stop. I’ve tried everything I can think of, more than I’d care to enumerate here, and I still don’t know, and am open to suggestions.

It’s balancing those weaker players that’s proving to be the biggest challenge. Obviously at this age I’m going to give everyone as close to equal playing time as my limited memory and cheap wristwatch can handle, but the tasks at this level and with this many people are so universal that the weak points really show through. In Indiana, I turned some pretty crummy kids into not-bad fullbacks, defensive midfielders, or in one case a forward, because I could focus with them on certain skill sets but here, they have to know how to do everything, and it’s hard to do that in five weeks of practice.

But again, like with my kids in Indiana, I’m also interested in boosting their knowledge of the game (Because knowledge is power!). It’s not enough for me to tell them to spread out; I want them to know why they have to spread out. So far, I’d say about 4 out of the 6 kids get it, at least at that level, so we’re starting to work more on movement, on getting and staying open, when to cut to the goal and when to pass, working the ball outside and back in. When it clicks, they’re a joy to coach. When it doesn’t, and they start to wander off the playing field and tackling each other, they’re not.

Of course, I’m probably going about this all wrong. We’ve drawn once and lost all three of our other games, but the improvement is steady (and in some weeks drastic). I’m hoping for a second-half turnaround akin to what you guys experienced.

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