A quick question for you: would you like your five year old to be sitting through an AP physics class? No? So then why do so many parent coaches try to run elite level soccer practices into their Pre-K teams? The answer is probably that this is what they were told to do. All too often, books and websites give out “drills for soccer” but don’t explain at which level they should be used. For example, did you know that most children are unable to open their hip outwards sufficiently (required to pass the ball with the inside of the foot) until they are 7 years old? So what use is a book of passing activities to your U5 team? Not much.
In this section we discuss the ability and age differences between players and how this should affect your practices. We also talk about development versus results.
Age – Physical Differences
The example above showed one skeletal difference between young children and teenagers. There are plenty more. Young children’s bodies are not nearly as developed as those of teenagers. Their cardiovascular system is not very efficient, which means they regulate body temperature badly and can only work hard for short periods of time. As a result, at a young age we recommend doing lots of different activities for relatively short periods of time. The general rule of age says that a six year old should be playing each game for no more than six minutes without a break, and so on. What you will find is that with frequent breaks young children recover quickly, allowing them to go out an play again. Older players can go much longer without a break, but generally need longer recovery periods.
Children’s skulls also differ from those of teenagers. First of all as a proportion of their entire body, young children have larger heads, meaning that they tend to be more top-heavy, which reduces their balance. Also as their skull is still developing it is more sensitive to impact. This is one of many reasons why heading the ball should not be incorporated into practices until U10-11 at the very earliest. If you do, we recommend using a specific (soft) heading ball.
Finally, in Colorado you should keep in mind that children have fewer fat cells and their cardiovascular systems mean that they are generally poorer at coping with temperature extremes. As a coach you should be particularly sensitive to working players too hard when it is hot or giving them too much standing around time when it is cold. When a player complains of being thirsty, you are already too late with your water break.
Age – Psychological Differences
If you are now concerned that young kids need more breaks because of their physical systems, the good news is that that should rarely be a controlling factor in your activity length. The reason (and bad news) is that young children’s attention span is usually much shorter than their physical endurance, so they will need a mental break long before they need a physical one! Generally, after a few minutes at the most, kids need to be redirected on to a new challenge in order to keep their focus. Added to this, the younger they are, the less they can focus on at once. Below age 11, most players will spend almost all of their attention on the primary task you gave them (e.g. dribbling) and have no time to think about looking up at the field. As a result, you need to limit your coaching points to a few seconds and to one focus only each time.
Young players also have a limited field of vision. They see things in front of them and they are unable to imagine to the same level as adults. For example if you lay out a 20×20 box with four cones, they will not imagine the lines between the cones, so you need to be putting down considerably more cones to help them visualize the box than you would need for older players.
Young players cannot tell the difference between working hard and playing well. What this means is that if they ran around a lot and put in a lot of effort they feel like they played well, regardless of how many times they did what you wanted them to do. You need to recognize this and congratulate them for what they did. Young kids have fragile egos and need significantly more positive feedback from their coach than teenagers and adults. That being said, everyone needs positive feedback to some degree. Your job is to recognize that some players need more than others and that generally it increases the younger they get.
Finally, remember that young players cannot do things in groups in the same way that teenagers can. If you had a classroom full of five year olds, would you give them one toy to play with? The same is true with soccer balls and activities. By age 7-8 players can begin to share with 1-2 others, then by 9-10 they can share in larger groups. Until then you need to plan your practices accordingly.
On any team there will be some players who are more technically or tactically advanced than others. Your job as a coach is not to only focus on improving the weak or strong ones, but to find a way to challenge all of them. Back in psychology class they call this concept Mosston’s Slanty Line. What it explains is that you can draw a graph of players vs ability for your team. If you pitch your activity at one level, only some kids will be challenged by it. Others will find it too hard and give up, and others will find it too easy and get bored. By slanting the line you find activities that can simultaneously appeal to everyone. For example, if you have set up a grid with simple cone gates scattered around for pairs of players to pass through for points, to meet Mosston’s rule you would vary the width of the gates. The advanced pairs can choose to pass through the smaller gates and the weaker pairs can pass through the bigger ones. Everyone develops at their own pace.
Elimination games rarely meet the Slanty Line concept as they give more practice to the advanced players and leave out the weaker ones. If you do include elimination games we recommend that players go right back in after doing something for the coach, or switch teams etc so that there is no sitting out. NSCAA recommend eliminating elimination games altogether. We understand their reasoning but also see the benefit of competition in games for kids. Use your own judgment to find what works for you and all of your team on this.
Development vs Results
Ask yourself what your coaching goals are. The first one should be the development of your players in some form. As you all know, winning is never rated highly as a reason most players play soccer, so it shouldn’t be your top reason either. In this country we struggle with technical ability. Players at the highest level are able to play keepaway until the cows come home, but they find it difficult to take on opposing defenders 1v1 and beat them. Current hypotheses point to a focus on tactics and specificity from too young. Players are typecast into a role and given certain rules to follow (e.g. you’re a central defender. If you get the ball under pressure, hoof it into the parking lot). Rarely do they get the chance to dribble at opponents and get comfortable on the ball. Yes this might make you a killer team that can tactically win games, but is it really helping your players?
“We use tactics to hide players’ weaknesses” (Arsene Wenger)
“The English player thinks; the Brazilian improvises.” (Jonathan Wilson)
With this in mind, we encourage you to swallow your pride when it comes to short term results and think about how you are helping your team develop as players and people. By rotating young players into all positions you will give everyone a chance to take risks at the appropriate moment and to try to take on opponents. Equally, worry less about tactics and more about improving technical ability. If you tell a player that every time they get the ball they are to pass it to the winger, you are robbing them of solving their own problems or reading the game. Soccer’s greatest strength is that it is not a coach-centric game (unlike football, baseball, and basketball). There are no headsets or timeouts to allow the coach to move all the players around the field as if they were on a giant chessboard. Players are required (and encouraged!) to think for themselves. So sit back in your chair during games, let players solve problems (and make mistakes) for themselves!