Reiterating the obvious point -- winning's not important in youth soccer

A fellow soccer coach wrote to me at the weekend that he was about to take a mixed-ability 11-a-side team, and asked which formation I'd recommend. I suggested that 4-4-2 was safe, flexible and -- although unadventurous -- easy to explain and for the players to understand. Then my response turned into an extended monologue questioning my own motivation for coaching, and wondering how much tactical setups matter at all in youth soccer (a warning to anyone planning to send me an email with a single, simple question).

Last week a father of a player on my U-9 team asked me when we were going to start working on tactical instruction. I vaguely muttered something about "maybe next year." I should have been straighter with him and said, "In five years time, at the earliest." Regardless of how old they are, I'm more often than not tempted to tell my players to just go out and enjoy the game. Do what you want, play where you want. If the goalkeeper fancies going on a dribble through midfield, let's sit back and see what happens.

The youth director of Bundesliga team Eintracht Frankfurt, Marco Pezzaiouli, revealed in a weekend interview that he's taken the club's U-10 to U-13 age groups out of competitive league play in order to better concentrate on their development. They focus instead on tournaments, where the players can get three times as many minutes on the field. He's wondering if he should do the same with the U-14 age group. "Up to U-14 we don't play in larger groups than four vs. four," he told the Frankfurter Rundschau. "In four vs. four games, the boys get far more touches on the ball and have to make more decisions."

Pezzaiouli added that he sees a lot of young coaches "who spend all day on a laptop designing a game plan and analyzing their opponents. I don't look at my opponent at all. We go out on the field and we play how we want to play. We never adapt our style for a particular opponent. The focus is on our own qualities as a team."

You can certainly argue that scouting an opponent might help you to win, but that's to miss Pezzaiouli's principle point -- it's just not that important to win in youth soccer. The focus must always be on development.

I'd take that point and -- like my fantasy wayward goalkeeper -- run with it all the way down the field. For youth coaches, losing may be the most desirable result. If my team plays well and we lose, I’m pleased with the performance and can stress all the positives. If we play poorly and deserved to lose, then we have plenty to work on in training. There's also the obvious life lesson of coping with setbacks and recovering. Winning is the biggest challenge, because it's harder to stem arrogance and complacency, and to make your players understand there’s still plenty to work and improve on. I actually hate it when parents congratulate me on a win -- I did nothing. I know they mean well, but they're misunderstanding why I'm there at all.

Youth coaches who are in the game to win should seriously question whether they are suited for the role. The priorities should be teaching technique; the motivation of all players to continue improving; fostering a cooperative team spirit; and the firm instruction of respect and sporting values. Again, those are very obvious pointers, but they're constantly pushing against the too numerous coaches who jump up and down on the sideline and comment on, shout about or gesticulate over every touch -- good or bad. Any coaches not in control of their emotions, and who make themselves the constant center of attention, should not be in charge of a youth team at any age group or level of play.

So, back to the original question. What's the best formation for an 11-a-side team? Hey, try two at the back, three in midfield and five up front -- the formation of my very first school team, age 10 (our coach had grown up in the 1930s). We conceded more goals than we scored, but I can recall every player on that team and where he played, and the result of every game we contested -- the shellackings as well as the wins. I went on to play for another 40 years. Meanwhile, those memories are far more precious and enduring than what any aggrieved parent might have thought back then about the wisdom of playing 2-3-5.

19 comments about "Reiterating the obvious point -- winning's not important in youth soccer".
  1. R2 Dad, February 10, 2020 at 5:44 p.m.

    "Any coaches not in control of their emotions, and who make themselves the constant center of attention, should not be in charge of a youth team at any age group or level of play." This is the same for officials--the game is not about the refereeing. Good column, helpful reminder, Ian.

  2. Terry Lynch, February 11, 2020 at 9:12 a.m.

    Playing a 2-3-5 made me laugh out loud!  What a good memory!  I'm not quite that old but I did play 40 years and I can still remember some of those early teams.  I completely agree with this coaching philosophy.  Sending to my daughter for our 3 1/2 yr old granddaughter who is already in a play for fun, once a week session and loves it.

  3. frank schoon, February 11, 2020 at 10:09 a.m.

    2-3-5?? Well I got news , we are still playing it....I grew up in Holland with this system, later called also WM.
    2 represents the two centerbacks; the 3 represents ,  the #6 and the 2 outside backs; the 5represents (2-3), in other words they never played with 5 up front but two inside forwards behind the 3 up front...BINGO!!!

  4. frank schoon replied, February 11, 2020 at 10:26 a.m.

    Never get stuck in these stupid systems, for it has nothing to do with playing soccer. This is why I had to laugh when Ian was approached by a coach by who asked about 4-4-2. If you want to keep it simple for the kids is to play 4-3-3, never play with 4 midfielders for you only confuse these kids. Keep it simple , 3midfielders, covers all lanes, 4midfielders just clog things up....At Ajax all the youth learn to play 4-3-3 which is really a perfect system for it covers all the cardinal point on the field. The 4-3-3 allows for faster ball movement as compared with 4-4-2 that forces too much running by the players and forces also the players, especially up front to have their backs to the goal when receiving the ball either when running wide to sidelines or receiving it in front of the penalty area.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, February 11, 2020 at 2:26 p.m.

    Seems obvious to me too, Frank. The only good alternative is the 343, but once you get a couple years into development 343 and 433 is "six of one, half a dozen of another".

  6. frank schoon replied, February 11, 2020 at 2:49 p.m.

    Exaxtly, Bob. I wish the book by van Hanegem" with the outside of the leftfoot" was in English. You would so enjoy it for there is so much down to earth insights about the game he talks about.

    I remember when he was asked to coach a team called Sparta of Rotterdam, for they fired the other coach who never played at his level but had earned an A-license and taught the basic meat and potatoes stuff learned the KNVB coaching school.
    The first thing he did at the club was to lock the door to the weight room and threw the key away. 
    He stated that lifting weights doesn't make you a better soccer player nor improve one's skill level, it only makes one  look better at the beach.....

  7. Alan Goldstein, February 11, 2020 at 10:19 a.m.

    Sounds great, but there are some fundamental flaws in the writers premise. One - parents and their view of successful coaching. One can preach all day to many of them about the goals of youth soccer, but they want to see wins. Two - at some point young players need to know what to do with that ball that they are learning to control, dribble and pass. As soon as they are given more than one option and must decide what to do, it's tactics. Too many adults underestimate the ability of kids approaching age 10 to play an effective game that uses team concepts and tactics. Technique AND tactics can be developed together. It's a matter of emphasis....good play is more important than winning, having fun is most important. And learning effective team play that works against opponents is a lot of fun.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, February 11, 2020 at 2:37 p.m.

    Alan, the reason we are noat talking about tactics is that we all assume that the principles of play are being taught along with ball skills. The Principles of Play are considered the fundamentals of tactics and we reserve "tactics" to refer to team tactics which is taught after players master the fundamentals for efficiency.

  9. frank schoon, February 11, 2020 at 11:05 a.m.

    Reading this article makes me think of what Johian Cruyff stated about the negative effects of licensed coaches, or coaches in general have upon the development of the youth. Cruyff stated this back in the early 80's for he saw an enormous drop off in the youth having less technical skills ,even at Ajax, as compared to when Cruyff grew up playing in the streets. He noted the lack of thinking ,the lack of playing savviness, and the most important of all the less touch and the diminution of 1v1 confidence on the ball like a Zlatan who is a pure street player who didn't get involved in playing club ball and coaches untill his late teens....

    Cruyff like van Hanegem, considered the second Cruyff in Holland, and teammate of the great '74' Dutch team that gave the world Total Soccer, both stated that the problem with youth development was as it became so popular  everyone wanted to become a coach and get involved. And in order to get involved all one needed was a license. Every Tom ,Dick and Harry, like here got a license or forced to get a license in order to coach. This is where it all went wrong for most of these licensed weekend warriors lacked good skills to demonstrate, but they went to the Coaching School learned and became little 'programmed' robots following the dictates  of how to coach and train.

    As you compare how Cruyff and van Hanegem learned , they learned without coaches,spending 90% playing pickup ball, a la Zlatan, without constraints of a coach who himself lacks good demonstrating skills. Playing at a club in their youth ,the coaches they learned from were former players of Ajax, or stil playing, who didn't have a coaching license but 'knew' the game ,think like a player not as a coach.
    Of course fortunately there was no Coaching School in Holland until the late 60's and therefore the great dutch stars who put Holland of the map soccer never really were interfered with by a coach in their younger days in learning soccer. Their was freedom of play, of playing. NEXT POST.

  10. frank schoon, February 11, 2020 at 11:52 a.m.

    With the advent of the coaching school and the issuing of coaching licenses to qualify as a coach has turned the  development of the youth into developing of the coach, for that's where you the money is....When you go to annual soccer convention the emphasis is how to training  ,how to coach, it's not about the kids but about the coaches. As a result there lots of structure, organization,  'laptop'coaches with programs to follow, lots of dogmatism, little or no creativity for the coaches are allold what to do, how you do it. Here is the irony, one doesn't need the coaching element for developing the youth, its TOTALLY  unnecesary in the early stage, and if anything the coaching element further aids in stifling youth development.

    Now after 50 years of soccer ,one is beginning to hear about letting the youth play, play small sided games.  Some coaches are beginning to open their eyes, that it's not about coaching but, IN OTHER WORDS, playing more like pickup ,street soccer, for which you don't really need coaches. I've have suggest we need to study the elements of steet soccer and take those elements to improve our player developments.. Ian believes in teaching tactics when players are older nearing 15. Cruyff stated back in the 70's that kids shouldn't be burdened with tactics until about 15 for up to that time tactics goes into one ear and out the other. It is so simple how youth develop but we have adults mess up a perfect system, and now 50 years some eyes are beginning to open. 

    There is nothing wrong about wanting to win for that is the object the game. Kids that go out and play street soccer in my days wanted to win, enjoy playing and in so doing we learned the game at the same time. Now we have these nitwit coaches deciding we shouldn't emphasize 'winning'. Again we have the coaches trying to interfere and mess up a perfect system. 

  11. Christopher Tierney, February 11, 2020 at 12:25 p.m.

    Is it important to have the best players playing with one another?  Should the most skilled be paired on teams or in a larger group with other players of similar skill and ability?  This is where I think American youth soccer really whiffs and it stalls all kinds of potential development.  The training ground is the most important place for these kids, but they need to be challenged.  My experience has shown me that our best kids are not challenged enough at younger ages.

  12. Kent James replied, February 11, 2020 at 2:21 p.m.

    I think its good to have both; sometimes players need to be playing against their skill levels to be pushed, sometimes it's better to play against people you are better than (so you can take some risks) or better than you (so you can learn something).  I developed a youth program that did both (not intentionally, but once I saw the results, I realized the importance).  We played each age group (U6-U10) as one team that trained together (separated into smaller groups, but everyone had the same color shirt for games).  On game day we sometimes sorted the player randomly (letting players of all skill levels play on the same field), but later (when we had a better idea of the skill levels of the players) we would sort them by skill level.  When sorted by skill, you'd have a very high level game on the fields with the skilled players, and on the fields with the weakest players, those kids would be involved in ways they couldn't be when there were more skillful players.  It worked much better than a conventional league where at best, with evenly distributed talent, you get a couple of talented kids playing against each other, so they may not have much support around them.  

    At higher levels of play, I think it is good for kids who train seriously with people of their skill level to have some opportunity to play pickup (or some other low key environment) where they can try thihngs without fear of failure.  Everyone needs to be challenged, but players also need time and space to work on things that may not be ready for prime time.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, February 11, 2020 at 2:32 p.m.

    We are talking about kids. The objective should be to make all the kids "best" players. Even a novice can have impressive ball skills after about three months. The learning curve for novices is sharp, unless of course we are talking about players with no movement skills at all. I coached kids 25 years ago when children were still active and not developmentally "challenged".

    With the youngest age groups, the team that best masters the fundamentals will usually win the matches. So focusing on player development is a "two for one" deal.

  14. frank schoon replied, February 11, 2020 at 2:54 p.m.

    Kent, that's good. When you play with kids of different skill level some better and some worse than you are then in former you are challenged and in the latter you can try your skills out...

  15. Kent James, February 11, 2020 at 2:10 p.m.

    Preaching to the choir, but it is a beautiful song that we need to hear now and again.

  16. James Madison, February 11, 2020 at 8:13 p.m.

    4-3-3 with a weeper and a stopper works for young players for a different reason than Frank says, or maybe for an additional reason.  It is easier for young minds to divide the field into thirds---a center and two sides---than for them to share the middle.  Apart from that, the only point I would add to Ian's ecellent reminder is that, in addition to developing technique, players need to be free to explore, i.e., to develop their abiiity to make and deal with the consequences of decisions. consistent with their individual growth in cognizant ability.  This is why we "let them play," instead of standing on the touchline (in the technical area) and yelling, i.e., attempting to make decisions for them.

  17. frank schoon replied, February 11, 2020 at 9:01 p.m.

    James, the other reason for the preference of 4-3-3 at Ajax for  it allows the players to face downfield more  with a better view of attacking options which leads to quicker ball movement.

  18. frank schoon replied, February 11, 2020 at 9:11 p.m.

    James, your mentioning of lanes is what I meant by 'cardinal' points which is set up in a grid system, that covers horizontal and vertical lanes

  19. Goal Goal, February 13, 2020 at 4:03 p.m.

    One thing about the old, old, old 2-3-5 you always knew on a corner kick that you had someone guarding the posts.  Don't see that much today.

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