I spent the last 14 summers of my life as as part of a youth soccer association in Montreal. I started off as a referee, moved up to head referee (and field director), technical director of the club as well as technical trainer of competitive teams. I built the infrastructure of their youth development center, coordinated it and was asked to associate my soccer academy to it as well. Over the years I have refereed over 3500 youth games and supervised and overseen over 4000 games in total. I have also had the chance to train over 2000 youth players through my soccer academy, personal trainings and through the soccer association.
Tactically soccer has evolved in the last decade – but at the youth level it has barely moved. The coaching tendencies at the youth level that I first noticed when I started refereeing in 2002 have absolutely not changed whatsoever. To me this is extremely alarming because youth soccer is essentially the future of the sport in this country (or any country for that matter) and it’s at a pretty big standstill in terms of development at the youth level (predominantly at the house league level). I have easily witnessed over 600 coaches coach their youth teams in over a decade and I would say that 90% of them share 1 thing in common: FEAR.
What is fear in youth soccer? Here is a short list that describes some of the most common tendencies (7 on 7 soccer) from amateur youth coaches that you may recognize:
1- Defenders are kept next to their own net when the team is in the attacking zone.
2- The ”best player” is more than often the go to player to take most free kicks, penalty shots and corners.
3- Defenders are asked to always clear the ball up or kick it out when they get it.
4- Goalies are asked to always boot the ball up as far as possible when they make a save – even if a teammate is completely open next to him/her.
5- The coach panics if any player happens to play the ball back (i.e ”Always kick it up, never back!”).
6- Coaches will rely on his/her best player(s) to even the score or run up the score against a weak team.
7- Goalies have no other role but to make saves and are never used as a last player and a passing option for players in trouble.
8- The best player(s) are kept on longer than weaker players.
The reality is plain and simple: coaches do not want to lose games. They may think that losing will look bad on their CV, that parents will judge them based on the success of the team or simply, they dislike losing. The game has been bubble wrapped and there is a tremendous urgency to play the ball up the field that seems to be contagious from one coach to another. A big part of the game involves taking extreme preventative measures in order to prevent a player from the other team to find himself on a breakaway against the goalie at all times (i.e the two defenders that stay back no matter what). This not only gives the wrong idea of what soccer is to those players but creates a developmental delay in their game since they are away from the action whenever the ball is in front of them.
For players to develop properly, they must absolutely be actively involved in the game. This means, for example, that defenders at all times should be ready to get the ball passed back to them if the play cannot continue forward. For this to happen, players from every single position need to move together up and down the field. Not doing so creates a gap between positions that become neutral zones for the opposite team to heavily exploit if they get the ball (because they can go up uncontested as much as possible until they reach the players from the next position – usually the defenders).
Until this culture changes, overall player developments will suffer tremendously. Only a selected few players get to develop themselves in games and most of the time, it’s only the top players of each team. Even then, these players are mostly developing their individual skills and not being taught to play collectively. What you end up with are players who are very dominant at the 7 aside level (the field is smaller, players are younger and less experienced – therefore technically skilled players are able to exploit those factors tremendously). However, once they start playing 11 aside, everything changes.
Dominant players at the 7 aside level experience shock and frustration once they transition to 11 aside. Whereas before they had to dribble 3 players to get to the net, they would now have to dribble 5 to 7 players in a row to achieve the same result. At the 7 aside level these players were all over the field – wherever the ball was, they were most likely within a few meters of it at all times. Now? These players are unable to keep up with the level of physicality that the game requires because the field is so much longer and wider than a 7 aside field. Many of them will leave their positions to recuperate the ball but will end up losing it by the time they advance a few meters and wind up in front of 3 or 4 defenders.
I have witnessed thousands of players transition from playing 7 aside to 11 aside in the last 12 years and the reason that they struggle so much is simply because they have not been taught to trust their teammates with the ball. Top players still feel like they must carry the team, do all the work and score all the goals. Passing back is a foreign concept that is very difficult for them to adopt since they have been playing a certain way for so many years and always been praised for it.
On the other hand, less developed and weaker players are even more discouraged when playing 11 aside. At the 7 aside level they have had little involvement during games (usually asked to kick the ball up or pass it right away) and now they are faced with a much bigger space to cover defensively and offensively on the field. The distance that the ball must cover to reach teammates are much bigger and many will lack the power, precision and accurate decision making skills in such a big game.
At the end of the day, the equation is pretty simple: players who get more touches on the ball during games will develop faster than others. Youth amateur coaches tend to look at the short term benefits of having really strong players on their teams and yes, at the 7 aside level, one player can make the entire difference and win games for you. Little do they know that once those players move up to a full size field with 11 players on the other side, their instincts won’t be sufficient to help them perform they way they did anymore.
Obviously all that has been said so far doesn’t apply to every single team and coach at the youth level. These are my general observations. I have also seen many coaches who are not scared to teach their players to pass the ball back, keep possession of the ball and distribute the many responsibilities of a team to its rightful players on the field. We do however need more of this and it’s imperative that soccer associations provide the necessary resources and training for coaches to implement a team strategies and not only rely on their best player(s) to get the job done.
Thank you for reading!
Montreal Soccer Coach