When should coaches start assigning specific positions to young players?
We see it so often one wonders whether American youth coaches are getting their soccer advice from Garry Kasparov.
"Kids come up to the halfway line," says Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer's Director of Coaching Education, "and actually balance themselves not to go past it, because they suddenly realize, 'Oh my god, there's the line that I'm not supposed to go past.' Their arms are swinging, it's almost like they're on a balance beam or something."
It's a prime example of overcoaching - prevalent even though it's generally agreed that pickup games or street soccer spawned the world's greatest players.
And because it's widely lamented that American children don't play enough soccer in unsupervised games, where they're allowed to experiment and enjoy the freedom of the sport, the sensible response is that organized soccer for young children replicate a pickup-game environment.
One of pickup soccer's main characteristics is that players explore the field as they wish and decide on their own how to position themselves. I am constantly impressed with how even very young children begin to comprehend positioning without being instructed.
Snow recommends that coaches not worry much about talking to children about positions at the U-6 and U-8 levels.
"We're saying, from U-10 on up, begin to tell them the names of the positions, show them where they are, but don't screw them into the ground," Snow says. "Don't say, 'You play here and you're not allowed to go beyond a certain part of the field.'"
At the higher levels, teams interchange positions. Making players rely on instructions in their early years isn't likely to prepare them to read the game on their own. Besides, the children's instincts often make more sense than the sideline instructions. Manny Schellscheidt is the head of the U.S. Soccer Federation's U-14 boys national development program and Seton Hall University coach. He sees older players he calls "position stuck."
"When they don't know exactly what to do," Schellscheidt says, "they go to the spot they're most familiar with regardless of what the game is asking for."
The easy answer to the question of when to assign positions is to make it moot by using a small-sided format, as recommended by U.S. Youth Soccer (U6: 3v3; U8: 4v4; U10: 6v6; U12: 8v8).
"The small-sided game environment for preteen players aids the players in learning concepts of play, for example positioning as opposed to positions," says Snow.
Schellscheidt says, "It needs to be small enough so positions don't matter. That's the best solution. If coaches would have the patience to graduate their kids from really small numbers, one step at a time, that would be the most natural and the most potent education the players could possibly get.
"They would learn to deal with time and space, and how to move around and have some shape. The problem is we go to the bigger numbers too early."
Even if the league doesn't use a small-sided format for its games, Schellscheidt recommends that approach in practice. Above all, don't scream orders from the sidelines and shackle players to areas of the field.
"It destroys the children's natural instinct of being part of the game," he says.
Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer's Director of Coaching Education and Youth Development, says youth coaches are "skipping steps" when they try to organize and discipline young teams to play within a formation at a stage when they should be focused on the 2-on-1 situations.
Overemphasizing positions, Schellscheidt says, demonstrates the difference between team development and player development.
"There's such a difference," he says. "You can divvy up the field, make players rehearse what they're supposed to do in their small areas, and as far as team development it works fine because they can find a quick way to get results. It's a short cut to success, but the kids don't become good players."
U.S. Soccer's "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States" is pretty clear on the subject of allowing young players to make their own decisions on the field:
"A team of 9-year-olds who hold their positions and maintains a steady group of defenders who rarely, if ever venture into the attack, looks like a well-disciplined and well-organized team."
But U.S. Soccer does not recommend this approach, clearly stating it isn't how to develop good players:
"This approach hinders the player's ability to experience and enjoy the natural spontaneity of the game. It does not allow players to have an equal opportunity to go and 'find' the game based on what they see from the game or to handle the ball and develop instincts for the game.
"These are skills that they will need at the older ages and that are often lacking in the older players."
(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)