At young ages players are focused on the ball. They do not think of team play or passing. These are ideal ages to teach individual skill, principally first touch and dribbling. These are still critical years for bad habits learned now take years to break. To keep the player’s interest and to provide proper development, the number of options a player is confronted with need to be kept to a minimum. We want player’s to dribble a lot. The best format is 4v4 with no goal keepers.
An excellent soccer site on the web is Better Soccer More Fun. Larry Paul, its creator and a good friend, there describes the reason for 4v4 play at these ages:
As already stated practices should be child friendly. Small pictures are clearer; space and options are more compatible with their abilities.
The elements of soccer have been identified. 2v2, 3v2, 5v2 and so on can all be soccer or soccer like. However 4v4 is the smallest manifestation of a real match. In it are all of the elements necessary for children to experience real soccer without any confusing duplication.
In a real soccer match children have the option of passing the ball forwards, square or backwards. Three children cannot do this because one of the directions will be missing. While 3v3 is a valuable tool for young children and learning technique, it is limited in its use as a tool for the positional game. With five children the extra one duplicates one of the elements. He becomes “also wide, also deep or also back.” This “also” position clutters the picture.
4v4 also provides the minimum numbers needed for all of the principles of play. One player is up top for penetration. Two are needed for width and one holds back to supply depth. Three cannot do this; one of the principles will be left out. With five, confusion will result as the “also” player gets involved when they change positions, which is called mobility. In 4v4 the responsibilities are very clear. All tasks are covered and none are shared which keeps things simple.
Four v four is the optimum number for teaching in small-sided games. It has all of the necessary elements without any duplication.
As a warm-up. Most children come to a practice from school. They may have just spent 7 hours in a structured and controlled environment under adult supervision. A little time to let loose and play might be just what they want. The small scale encourages short runs and passes and serves as a dynamic warm-up. 4v4 offers an excellent bridge between where they have been and where they are.
As a diagnostic tool. For the coach 4v4 offers an excellent view into the abilities and character of the children. They cannot hide in the pack. Their strengths and weaknesses quickly become apparent and the coach has the opportunity to see them exposed. See TIPS.
Ownership. In big games players can often place the blame for their problems on teammates. There are too many options, too much confusion. In 4v4 the root cause of problems is much clearer. Responsibility is harder to deny. If the children do not see the problem as their own, why should they accept the coach’s solution? Ownership and responsibility is an important step in development.
Corrective tool. When players accept the problems as their own and they are motivated to fix it, 4v4 and other small-sided games, offers them the fastest way to learn.
Small-sided games allow the players more touches on the ball. It also puts the player in a greater percentage of coaching moments. That means, not only does he have to deal physically with the ball more often but he’s also involved more mentally. His concentration must be greater because the action will be quicker; there is nowhere to hide. This is an important element in developing the playing mentality.
If Larry’s thoughts sound similar to the Soccer America Article in the first Chapter is not without coincidence. Larry has long been an advocate of teaching soccer in the manner used by the Dutch and the Brazilians. It is a method we have followed since the beginning days of the Club, and it is the direction the US National Team coaches wish youth programs would go.
As players gain confidence with the ball, learn to play with their head up, they are ready to enter the next step of learning about space and movement. The focus on play is still on individual as opposed to team development. Players need to hone how to control the ball, moves, and, how to weight a pass; but, now they are beginning to learn how to do these things in relation to the space around them, where the pressure is coming from and how to position their bodies.
Soon they will be incorporating elementary tactics – give and goes (wall passes), overlapping runs and on defense learning to use 1st and 2nd defender concepts (pressure and cover). They are now introduced to marking opposing players – goal side and ball side.
US Youth Soccer has pushed and the neighboring States Soccer Associations have adopted 6v6 play for these ages (U8 to U10). As a parent you should not underestimate your children’s ability, nor should you see them as little adults with adult decision making powers. Besides a lack of technical skill, the major road block to being able to play tactical soccer is the players’ ability to remain focused on the task at hand for the period of play. Simply put, they zone in and out.
This is when it is most tempting to yell instructions to the players. Resist the urge.
The next stage usually occurs as the players move to 8v8 play during the U11 and U12 years. Players learn how to move and the effect of their movement on the opposition. The players now see more options and the increased numbers of players on the field reflect the additional options that are available. The players tactical ability is still limited by their technical skill, however, they will have progressed enough to begin crossing the ball and making planned runs. Players will be taking the game far more seriously, now and the intensity that results is like a two edged sword: the players are more focused and alert, but also they will retaliate when fouled.
This is also the age when “smack talk” starts. In the pre teen and early teen years players are hyper sensitive to the insults and slights of others; when called names they react as a child would and call names back. They need your understanding, but also a firm guide to help them understand that responding to a provocation usually will get them in trouble and more importantly draws them out of their game. Let the opponents engage in stupid behavior – we remain focused on the game. Our revenge is the score.
In the mid teen years, with high school, come choices. The players need to be at practices now, more than ever. The flexibility allowed in the younger ages is no longer possible. After years of developing technical skill it is in these years that tactical play finally becomes truly possible. Now we need all the players at every practice. When a player misses, they miss learning the cues and signals that are taught for programmed plays. They miss how we will execute set plays. One player gone can mean the entire practice has to be repeated.
Yet now is the time when players have the most demands placed on them. The player who could before juggle multiple sports, the school play and keep their grades up, will find things slipping. Part of growing up is making choices. Such choices are not fun, but they must be made and it is not fair to teammates who are committed, working to play at the highest levels, and are paying money to travel to major college showcase events, when one or two are not committed. If you are not committed to soccer first and foremost, you should look elsewhere. We are not for everybody. We are for those who are committed.