Your state recently changed to offering small sided games at the U11 age group. Were you in favor of the change at the time?
I was. But I was also skeptical because without everyone being mandated to play it at the same time I wasn’t sure that the competition level would be there to allow us to have the challenge as well as the training. I felt like getting more touches on the ball at that age would be critical for player development. There was concern from other people that the ball would be out of play more on the smaller field, but I didn’t share that, and it seems to be untrue. As a matter of fact I had a game last weekend where I couldn’t make substitutions for fifteen minutes because the ball didn’t go out.
Now that you have seen a season of it, has your view changed?
I’m no longer skeptical at all. The competition level on a daily basis could be better, but it isn’t necessarily hurting us. The best part is that it looks like a soccer game now. When you walk up to the 8v8 field it looks like soccer you would see adults playing, just on a smaller scale. We see goals from crosses, which is something you would never see on a regular size field at U11. Kids can’t hide any more either, so they are all developing in games, which wasn’t the case previously. The players seem to have joy every weekend too and I haven’t had any complaints from parents about the format. Sometimes the scores can be a lot higher, which is both good and bad. It can be hard to lose 10-0 in this game where you might only lose 5-0 on the bigger field because it takes longer to get to the goal, but it is developing players at a faster rate so it is worth it.
How much of a learning process has it been for you and your coaches, playing with different formations and field sizes?
Field size hasn’t affected anything: we always trained small-sided at practice so that hasn’t changed. The formation part has been a challenge because we are playing a 3-3-1, which is more like a 4-4-2 than our club’s traditional 4-3-3 model. I like to have pressure and numbers on the back line, but the 3-3-1 seems to work out best so far. I think if you had nine on the field it would be really easy to come up with some formations that you would like to play with. We’ve played four different formations throughout the year to let the kids get the experience with what would be two center backs, one center back with outside wingers, two center midfielders, two outside midfielders, and so on.
Has it affected your training sessions and season plan?
We will do some shadow play to help them understand the formations, but not much – we still focus on the technical part and developing the individual player first. Sessions have changed though: we no longer train a flat four, we train a flat three, so there are some little parts like that.
What about some goalkeepers being able to punt the ball the entire field now?
It is an issue, but it keeps the defense honest, and hopefully at most cases at the top level the coaches are asking their players to play it out of the back rather than smash it down the field. It has put the goalkeepers in a better place in terms of the work they get in games and their ability to distribute it realistically. Previously it could be ten minutes between their moments of involvement as the ball was far away at the other end of the big field; now they are connected to the team at all times.
Working with the U9-12 age groups, do you target specific areas that you want players and their coaches to focus on?
At U9 it is all individual one player one ball activities. Rarely do we go beyond that, except maybe for 2v1 occasionally. At U10 we keep the same priority, but now add in small tactical pieces – 2v1, 3v2 and so on – challenging them to make decisions. The focus is still on the ball and individual technical development though, giving us maybe 60 minutes of technical work and 30 minutes of larger activities. For 11-12 we bring in more tactical coaching and in particular their awareness of the whole field but still individual-centric. The transition games that we work on become more of a priority, which gives us 30-40 minutes of technical, 30 minutes of small sided games with pressure, then 25 minutes of bigger sided games.
What percentage of the season are you working on attacking vs defending topics?
I would say it is about a 6:1 ratio of attacking to defending. My belief is that you develop the individual player’s confidence on the ball under pressure as a priority. As you are doing that, playing 1v1 you are giving the opponent the chance to practice defending, even when it isn’t the focus. We believe that the best defense is to keep possession of the ball, so we give our players the ability to do that.
How long are your training sessions with each of those age groups? How long are your training between water breaks?
At U9 we go 1:15, at U10 we go 1:15-1:30 depending on the session. At U10 the water breaks are simple, but at U9 we give them longer to help them go away and regain their focus. For the U9 we will do 20 minutes of technical work, which is the meat of our session for the day. As we see their focus wander we will give them a 4-5 minute break. Then we get back into the next topic, which is usually shorter – 10-15 minutes then another break. At U11 they get two breaks during the 90 minute session – generally between the activities.
When you have a player who loses focus and starts to distract others, what do you do?
I make them the assistant coach. If a player is consistently distracting at U9, which is typical for the age, I’ll bring them in and tell them they are now helping me coach. They need to point out good things that they see other players doing. By doing that we have taken away the distraction but we have also helped a kid to focus on something different. I’ve had players who struggle with focus at U9 who have the best concentration by U11, just because we help them channel and work through the issue.
What do you do when the practice just isn’t working – maybe the players aren’t focused or they can’t do what you want them to do?
At times I will send them off to get water and I will try to figure out what I am missing: it is always going to be my issue rather than theirs. I’ll then tweak the activity to make it work or move to a different game entirely. Usually I try to make it work before abandoning it though. Recently I was doing a transition activity with my U11 team and they just couldn’t understand it. I wanted to talk about what they would do once they were in with the numbers up, but they couldn’t get there to create the moment. We ended up giving up on how to get there, to make it easier for them. The next week we went back to it and asked them to try to do it again and they had more success – almost as if they went home and had time to organize it in their mind.
How much coaching do you do during the games? Do you have specific words that you use for efficiency?
I used to do a lot of coaching during the games but I do less and less as I have developed as a coach. I tend to coach the player off the ball now rather than the one on it – I like them to get the chance to make decisions for themselves. We’ll use simple language and keywords – raise your lines, support, can you join her? Etc. so we try to keep the communication brief and constructive/positive.
What do you say at half time and after the games?
At half time I ask the players to meet on their own at half field for a minute or two. That gives me time to collect my thoughts. I’ll ask them what they thought, which is often what I saw too. I’ll address the issues but only 2-3 things to look at in the second half. I’ll talk to a defensive piece, a midfielder piece and a striker piece, so that each group has something to focus on. After the game I say very little but I am very positive. I don’t want them to think that a loss is a bad thing: we talk about how we played and how we will address it for next time. I don’t keep them for more than 3-4 minutes at that stage.
Do you think players are playing in their free time as they did twenty years ago? Can a player really progress if the only training they get is their organized club activities?
This is a big issue for me. Very few players on the girl’s side of the program seem to watch games or play outside of practices. The ones with brothers do – they’ll play in their back yard at home – and it is easy to recognize those players at practice. There are rare cases who watch games and play on their own but for the majority, not doing it takes away their creativity and flare in comparison to girls from other parts of the world where creativity is the focal point. I do have one player who does all of it though – supports a professional team, plays (often minority) pickup games in the community and you can see the joy and intelligence that she has for the game.
Are your players watching games or going to them? Do you ask them about NWSL or MLS games?
Generally they don’t watch professionals at the club level. They don’t know about Arsenal or teams I like until I explain it to them. They do all watch the US Women’s National Team though, so it is sad that they only play once each month. I’ve started sending out the college games that are on ESPNU and other networks, just so they get a chance to watch it. Part of becoming a good player is watching better players do it – I remember growing up watching and playing basketball where I would try to emulate what the pros were doing. If the kids see Alex Morgan do it, they will try to do it too. If we had a professional team in Denver for women it would help. We do have a Division 1 college program in town, but generally the players only go to the games if we organize it for them.
Do you build relationships with players off the field? Team building activities for players and parents?
Each team has activities throughout the year – from ropes courses, to bowling nights. We also use tournaments as a big teambuilding function: we will play charades and do skits as a team at the hotel. The more time the team spends together the better they play together. For the female game they need to care for each other on the field to play together. We will do a monthly Truth Circle with the girls at practice so that they get to talk to each other about how they feel. We also keep a strong relationship, so that they know we are there to help them. The kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
How do you communicate your approach and maintain contact with the parent groups?
I send weekly emails out to the parent groups in the form of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly after each game. The ugly is always about me (hair, shoe color etc.), the good is what we have done well in the games and the bad is something that we will be working on at training in the next week. That commination goes a long way and as a matter of fact, when I am late sending it the parents will email to remind me because it has become important to them.
What do you look for in a team coach at this level?
Energy. Positive, excited energy and the willingness to learn. Usually we will develop a coach and they want to go on to coach older kids – it is the rare coach who wants to stay here because the game doesn’t resemble the speed and size that we all love and know. I’ve lost several coaches to the older age groups so I am continually looking for new talent. I would like to do a better job of convincing some of them that this is a pinnacle of the game that they can continue to learn from, rather than needing to move on to a different age. I’ve made a living coaching this age and I love to do it, though I do also enjoy coaching my high school team. If you have a great recreational program below this age, you can go a long way to develop players during the 9-12 age and get great joy from it.