By Tom Turner
Does the player move with the game or do they pass and stand still? Young players should not be restricted in their movements on the field, and moving should become a natural extension of passing. Passing to other players should be expected and encouraged at this age, although dribbling the ball is still the most likely method of advancing the ball.
Does the player move into open spaces when not in possession? Instruction that limits young players to a particular area of the field does not allow for the natural emergence of supporting positions and angles that become so important for positional play in later years. For all players under the age of eight, positional coaching is irrelevant and detrimental to their fun and enjoyment. Rather than be told what position to play, young players should be encouraged to “find” new supporting positions away from teammates so that passes can be exchanged. Smaller teams eliminate the need for an organized midfield, meaning that one or two well-intentioned passes can often result in a teammate being played through to goal.
Is the player aware of the position of teammates and opponents? Most young players have little or no visual awareness of their immediate surroundings, and, in particular, the proximity of teammates and opponents not directly in front of them. Receiving passes when facing away from the opponent’s goal is a difficult skill, even for accomplished players, and most children will not look up until they have received the ball, secured possession, and turned to face forward. Often, young players will simply let the ball run past them into what they hope will be open space.
Does the player try to recover the ball when possession is lost? “Defending” at this age should be no more complicated than encouraging the children to try and win the ball back when possession is lost. Any emphasis on “team” defending, or scolding individual players for not getting back when the ball is lost, is detrimental to the fun and enjoyment of the players. Because players should be encouraged to move forward when attacking, there will be many situations when no one is at the back of the team when the opponents gain possession. This should be anticipated as a natural aspect of play for young children and one reason why scores are usually higher in small-sided games.
Does the player simply kick at the ball when an opponent is in possession? Tackling for the ball can and should include efforts to regain possession, but slide tackling to dispossess an opponent is dangerous to both the attacker and defender and should not be allowed until U-10. Defenders should be encouraged to try to dispossess opponents rather than simply kicking the ball away, or to safety.
Does the player mentally transition after a change in possession? When the ball turns over from the attacker to the defender or from the defender to the attacker, the game offers chances to demonstrate awareness of two very important concepts: immediate recovery of the ball and immediate counter-attack to goal. Players should be assessed on how well they understand these concepts and encouraged to react as quickly as possible to any change in possession.
Does the player improvise when solving tactical problems? Those players who use nonstandard techniques to solve tactical problems are demonstrating signs of creativity. A “good” pass gets to its target at a pace that can be controlled, regardless of the technique used in the delivery; similarly, a goal is a goal, regardless of how it was propelled into the net. Young players who improvise should be encouraged, not scolded, and it must be remembered that for young players, the “thought” behind an action is generally more telling than the outcome, which is often limited by experience and technical range.
Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.