By Sam Snow
For quite a few years now US Youth Soccer, U.S. Soccer, AYSO and the NSCAA have advocated playing less than 11-a-side soccer for our younger players.
We should all be proud of the fact that the USA has been a world leader in this modification of youth soccer. Now we are not alone in this change to the youth soccer experience. Many members of FIFA have joined us with their version of small-sided games. Some of those nations and overseas clubs have used the US Youth Soccer model as their template for change.
Why have so many soccer nations, US Youth Soccer state associations, leagues, tournaments and clubs made this change? For the players!
Times have changed and the days of school-yard and neighborhood pick-up games have largely disappeared. This is true in all of the industrialized nations. Children spend more time at the computer keyboard or in front of the TV than outside playing on their own.
In the days when children 12 years old and younger did have pick-up games they were never 11 vs. 11. It would have been the rare neighborhood to have 22 9-year-olds turn up for a match. Small-sided games as the match format is one way we adults are giving the game back to the players.
"But it's not real soccer!" I hear this comment fairly often from adults involved in youth soccer across the nation. It's curious how many people have the misguided notion that if youngsters don't play 11-a-side and set positions that they will not learn how to play soccer. Yet the world is full of players present and past who grew to world-class level and didn't get locked into one position prior to their teen years nor did they play 11 vs. 11 exclusively.
There is nothing sacred about the number 11. It is just a compromise number settled upon by men representing England's public schools. History tells us that they met at the Freemason's Tavern, so how many beers did they have before deciding on the number 11?
I'm not being glib here, but simply pointing out that 11-a-side soccer is not the be all and end all of the beautiful game. Even FIFA has competitions that are small-sided games; futsal and beach soccer.
The small-sided game environment for preteen players aids the players in learning concepts of play, for example positioning as opposed to positions.
A game with fewer players is more engaging to children because they are actively involved in the game, not just waiting for the ball to come near them. They play on both sides of the ball because the game surrounding them requires it.
Sharing the ball with fewer players is enticing to them as they actually get to touch the ball. Frequently the game will put them into individual and group tactics situations and this in turn is a critical foundation to the teamwork required when they become teenage players.
The smaller field causes more end-to-end play. That means transition, an area in need of improvement with the American player.
In this child-centered game their ball skills will improve, their ability to stay focused on the game will improve; regular interaction with the other players will help them learn how to cooperate and to compete.
Most important is our goal of keeping kids in the sport. With a more player-centered and child-friendly game-day atmosphere these aspiring players will grow naturally toward the adult game of soccer. When we keep more players in the game then everyone benefits!
Sam Snow is US Youth Soccer's Director of Coaching Education.Click HERE for U.S. Youth Soccer's team-size recommendations.