Tactical Coaching for Younger Players

Interview with Kyle Lineberger

September 8, 2017
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In 2014 Kyle Lineberger was State Champion and Coach of the Year for his work with a U12 boys team. He is U9-12 Boys Director at FC Boulder and previously at Stingers Soccer Club in Colorado. Kyle has been a NSCAA Associate Staff member since 2007, administering coaching education courses through the NSCAA to coaches in both Texas and Colorado. A native of Lakeland, Florida, Kyle played college soccer at Webber International University (NAIA) and began his coaching career as a High School and Club coach in 1997. Kyle has the NSCAA Premier Diploma, NSCAA DOC Diploma, USSF “C” License, USSF National Youth License, and NSCAA Goalkeeping Level 3 Diploma.

How do you plan your practice sessions for your teams and what would a typical 90 minutes look like?

I typically have a fairly straightforward progression to the practice. The warm up I try not to have them working in a set pattern. They will have some kind of decision-making element in there as well as getting a high number of repetitions of whatever the skill is that we will develop through the practice. For example, I might have three different groups in colored vests and they are not allowed to pass to the same color as they have on. I’ll vary the size of the area to make it easier or more difficult.

Next we tend to move into some form of possession game, with a direction to it. If I am doing possession without direction I will start that as a warm up and not have technical work that day. After that we will move into a game to goals with varying stipulations and numbers. We will always end practice with a full on game.

Does the focus shift between practices for 9 year olds and 12 year olds?

I make small changes. With 9 year olds there might be some set patterns in the technical warm up. I will be emphasizing proper technique more than I would with the older players, but both will get that throughout the practice.

You also coach National Premier League teams at the high school age. How different are your sessions there?

I coach our ‘00’s so most are now 14 years old on that team. We had six sessions to prepare for the first round of NPL matches. Typically they are only an hour long because of the available daylight here in winter after school, which can be a challenge. The first three were all addressing the defensive side of the ball – refreshing the basic principles and showing them how I want to defend as a team in certain areas of the field, then finishing with set pieces. The next three practices were covering the attacking side of the ball, which I feel is a little bit easier to take care of in the short amount of time. We look at the shape we will play, breaking down how I would like us to build up from the back to the midfield, then the next session from the midfield to the final third and so on. Again, we finish with set pieces here too.

That sounds like quite a focus on defending, compared to other coaches we talk to. How much of your regular season is defending vs attacking topics?

I would say I do three attacking sessions to every one defending session. If it is a new team that I am taking over I will flip that around for the first month. In my experience teams start to have success once we have sorted out the defensive side of the ball. Right now we are talking about low pressure defending moments and how to defend them as a team. We start in a smaller area where they are not working particularly hard, just to articulate the point – maybe 5v5+1. Then building to a bigger area and numbers. At a stoppage I will talk about whether we need to be chasing the ball everywhere or can we sit off and end up playing with 11 players in half the space, which probably makes more sense. They pick it up pretty quickly at the older age but it is more difficult when younger. Over a couple of years they understand why at times we might not want to immediately try to recover the ball.

Your approach to coaching at this age seems to have more small-sided games and less isolated technical training than some of your contemporaries. What is your thinking behind that?

I believe the game is the best teacher, but you can’t just put them into a game or exercise and expect them to learn on their own. They have to be playing at game speed to learn the concepts, but my job is to explain why we are doing what we are, during the game – where it applies on the field, when it applies and so on. Understanding those things are very important for players, and if you have them in the right setting and exercise they can get the technical repetitions while they are making choices. I see a lot of teams that might be more technical than us, but they don’t understand the game as well. I had a game in the fall against another club and you could clearly see that they train their players how to move the ball around the back – it had been programmed. But when there were opportunities to play out of the back into the midfield it wasn’t happening. I challenged our team to put them under high pressure and see if they could do anything else or if that was the only thing they had learned.

Do you find that your stoppages during the games are more technical or tactical? If you see a consistent technical mistake will you have them all stop and work on it?

My group stoppages are more tactical and I’ll coach technique during the flow of play, usually on an individual level. I tend not to stop games to make them do something isolated but as an example, I do see quite often a play breaking down because a player tries to reach for the ball across their body, so I’ll stop then and talk to them as a group and correct it. I’ll rehearse it with them on occasion too, but keeping within the activity we were playing.

In a simple 2v2 Dribble Over The End Line game, what are you teaching players tactically to improve?

When in possession I am always encouraging players to get in behind the defenders (when the game allows for it). I will emphasize trying to isolate one defender and get at them; we’ll talk about when to dribble vs when to pass; and I’ll talk about the starting shape – maybe if I have the ball my partner is getting as far away from me as they can to pull the second defender off from the ball. We’ll talk about the timing and angle of the run from there to attack the space between them when it makes sense. On the defensive side it is pretty much the opposite – trying to keep the team from getting behind us; slowing down the play; and making a good choice about when to pressure the ball.

How much will you manipulate the environment to challenge them?

I utilize numbers up and down situations in nearly every training session. Sometimes I’ll use neutral players to do that, but more recently when I’m looking for a certain thing, like defending numbers down I’ll have one team just having fewer players, or they have the same number, but two are targets who can’t defend. Generally the impact is to change the situation and give the players a different moment to think about, but it can also affect the difficulty and speed of play in activities. I’m not a huge proponent of touch restrictions because the game is never set in stone – it is always changing – so restricting it in practice won’t help. I will encourage the team to take as few touches as they can if they are taking too many – maybe I’ll say two touches or less.

How do you get the players to problem-solve for themselves?

Typically when a player has made the same mistake enough times I will talk to them about it and ask what they could have done better, rather than me give them the answer. I might ask why they think I am looking for a specific thing too. Getting them to dialogue is very important to me. I encourage in every meeting I have for them to watch games on television and live as much as they can so they improve their understanding of the game.

Do you like games with different zones and restrictions about how many can be in each one, for tactical concepts?

Very much so. Especially games where certain numbers of players can move through to the next zone as the ball goes to it. The game gets them looking to play the ball out of the back rather than just keeping it there. Also they have to understand the transition and the need to support it. On the other side of the game when the ball breaks your line, the game helps them learn how to recover and win it back. Almost every training session for my college team was run in two penalty areas with a dividing line between them and different stipulations. Sometimes they would have three zones. I think playing through a lot of those games I brought them into my coaching and see a lot of merit in using them as tactical teaching aids for players.

How much time do you spend in larger games or scrimmages with your teams and what are you looking to teach during them?

No less than 20-30 minutes – usually with two 12-15 minute halves. In the first half I might stop it once to refresh their memories about what we have been practicing so far today. Then the second half I won’t say a word: I’ll let them play. The way I phrase it to them is that you’ve done the homework so far, now this is the exam, so let’s see what you’ve taken in. My stoppage will tend to stick on the topic we have covered so far, but it might extend to how it applies to the larger game.

What games do you like for finishing and improving chances on goal?

I love games where the attacking team has numbers up, so we can talk about penetrating the penalty box rather than settling for shots from distance. Sometimes it might be two 5v2 games going at the same time in separate halves and seeing which can score more goals within a time limit. Sometimes I’ll start with unopposed pattern play, just to give them some practice on goal too. I’ll use neutrals and end line players to create those numbers up moments for them.

During your actual games, how much coaching do you do and how do you do it?

I’ll bring them in twice during the warmup to talk about overarching themes for the game, what the opponent brings, what we’ve been working on that week. I might talk about setting the tone physically and mentally then too. During the first 10-15 minutes of the game I tend to observe, only delivering a coaching point if something is really out of whack. I will give directions during the flow of play if the players are around me. If they are far away I’ll have the center back relay the information to the right back and so on. I’ll talk to the players on the bench also. The last 10-15 minutes of the half I’ll be formulating what I’m going to say at half time. When I am about to make a change I’ll often wait another two minutes to sit on it and watch what is going on, to make sure it is right.

What about at half time?

At half time I’ll talk about each of the three lines of our formation and find something for each of them. If the opponent is doing something that is causing us problems I’ll talk about that, then I’ll always remind them where we are in the game. Where is a good place for us right now, what the score is and what that means for how we are going to react in the second half. I always have a place in my mind for where I would like the game to be at halftime and where I want it to be halfway through the half. If we get to that point or better then I try to keep it there until we can get in and relax rather than trying to press for more unless the other team is particularly vulnerable at that moment.

Do you see a difference in tactical understanding between players now and when you played? How about in different parts of the country?

That’s a good question. I feel like they understand the game a bit more in Texas – maybe because there are more high level coaches, but also because there is more emphasis on winning, which means they emphasize tactics more over technique. For the game as a whole though I don’t see a huge amount of change from when I was a player. I am teaching tactics a lot more than I was taught as a player, but I still see many teams who are a dog and pony show – trained to play this exact way that doesn’t change throughout the match, regardless of what happens. I think we as a coaching group have dropped the ball on that in some ways and could continue to improve.

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