Dutch Youth Coaching Handbook & 4v4

I have been reading Coaching Soccer, The Official Coaching Book of the Dutch Soccer Association.   Many people regard the Dutch as world leaders in youth soccer training.  The coaching book, written by Bert van Lingen, is a bit dated (1997) but covers their basic philosophy.  For coaches, they say the demands are:

1.  The ability to “read” the soccer situation.
2.  The ability to “manipulate” soccer obstacles (make them easier or more difficult, organize them in a methodological sequence)(obstacles include the ball, opposing players, teammates, rules of the game, stress, time, space, and goal orientedness).
3.  The ability to explain clearly the problems involved.
4.  The ability to provide the right example and to demonstrate it.
5.  The ability to engender the right atmosphere for learning.  (Coaching Soccer, p.9).  

The book covers all aspects of teaching, but primarily focuses on teaching the three moments of the game:  (1) Own team has possession, (2) Opposition has possession, and (3) Change of possession – the moment the ball is lost or won.  

The basis for all of the training outlined is a formula called T.I.C.  It stands for technique – Insight -Communication.  At young ages (5-7), focus is on TECHNIQUE with less emphasis on insight and communication (labeled T.i.c.).  From 7-12, more insight is added by playing small-sided and basic games (T.I.c.).  It is not until age 12 that they heavily focus on all three (T.I.C.).  

The other thing that really stood out from the book was the emphasis on a fun atmosphere in training.  At the young ages, it is critical that the kids enjoy the game.  The author writes that years ago, many kids learned by playing on the street.  That is not as prevalent today so, in training, we need to try to replicate the atmosphere of street soccer as best we can.  In other words, think of the parents’ role in a street or yard soccer game . . . some measure of that needs to be carried over to training sessions in small-sided games. 

The book strongly advocates the use of 4v4 as a training tool.  In fact, a whole chapter is dedicated to espousing its benefits, complete with multiple variations of the game.  It is recommended that some rules by placed in the games and, while the coach should not interfere too much, there are great opportunities to teach from the exercise.  “4v4 is the smallest manifestation of a real match.”  Coaching Soccer, p. 104.  Players are rewarded for learning to read soccer situations.  They will also maximize touches.  There will be plenty of opportunities to take a player 1v1, and ball control is at a premium.  

We have been experimenting with this with our U10s.  I found that basic ball control was lacking.  We could drill on it OR…play 4v4.  4v4 on a smaller field demands good ball control.  If a ball is played to a teammate and it is not trapped appropriately, there will be a defender or a boundary nearby to frustrate the offense.  It is my passive-aggressive way of telling boys to concentrate on the first touch.  If they are on a big field, they have a wider margin for error.  What I mean by that is the ball area (after it touches them) can be within 5 yards and they can still have possession with time and space.  In 4v4, that is not the case.  Not only is there limited space, the limited space means an opposition player is nearby.  

I will write separately on this later, but it leads me to an observation I have learned over time.  Many times I hear coaches exhorting players to pass the ball at an opportune time.  (Assuming that is the correct thing to do at that moment rather than challenging a defender).  My problem with that is I think it skips a step.  First, they have to catch the ball.  I find that if kids properly catch the ball, they tend to be smart with it.  A lot of the frenzy I witness in youth games is because they lack mastery over the ball.  For example, a pass is directed to Player A.  Player A touches it but it bounces 5 yards away from her.  While no one was near her originally, now it is a 50/50 ball and the opposition sees a chance to regain possession.  This adds stress and pressure to the player who is now attempting to collect the ball.  By the time she regains, she has a defender on her.  To tell a kid in that situation to pass is giving the wrong instruction.  What they need to learn is to catch, then passing will come (or dribbling).  Just my two cents.   

Finally, in 4v4, the book points out that, while playing a 1-2-1, the shape manifests to soccer situations in a full-sided game.  Also, with 4v4, “there are options in all directions of play.”  He writes that the forward pass as a function of the square pass more readily arises in 4v4 versus 3v3 or 5v5.  (Coaching Soccer, p.104).

We are using 4v4s now and I can tell you that the kids love it.  I hope to see some of the benefits for our kids while at the same time keeping the game fun for them.  

US Women’s National Team Drifting away from Drift and Lift?

So…that’s what I call it.  If you watch the US Women play, I am sure you notice the regularity with which lofted crosses are served in hopes of careening off of Abby Wambach’s head.  Against the Japanese, it appeared to be our only tactic.  (Yes, there was a long ball goal — any team will take those shots too).  By and large, we pinned our hopes on Wambach’s now famous noggin.  How did we get to this?

Watch the Olympic qualifying matches and you will see.  Be on the lookout for the number of references to our “athleticism” and “height advantage.”  The commentators at the World Cup last summer sounded like they were measuring football players at a combine.  Why, in the men’s game, are the best players in the world under 5’8″ while in the women’s game, we still resort to uncanny predictors like height and strength?  In the prosperous country we live, are we resorted to resting our female soccer advantage on how tall or strong someone is?  That is so not-soccer. 

 (Oddly enough, size was the way teams’ chances of success were measured in the past –whichever team had the most weight in stones was considered the favorite — it, however, did not predict the success of the smaller Scottish squad that defeated the heavier and favored English in the first international friendly; mind you, that was over 100 years ago).  

I recall watching the game against Japan and, on more than one occasion, a midfielder or forward had an opportunity to attack the middle of the goal — with the Japanese pressure backpedaling.  Time and again, rather than look for a soft through in the middle, our players “drifted” to the side then “lifted” the ball into Abby’s head.   Abby would even drift to the optimal heading spot given the angle of her server’s drift.  I dubb it the “Drift and Lift” offense (you heard it here first!).  While it can result in cool goals, I generally hate it.  Can you imagine Xavi opting to drift wide of the goal then lofting a ball into the air to a player in the box surrounded by defenders (hopefully one of his)?  The greatest team in the World right now specializes in attacking the goal with short, soft through balls mixed with diagonal runs.  That is the soccer I want to watch.  

Now, in today’s press, is the line that got me thinking of the Drift & Lift.  The US Women are switching to a 4-2-3-1 (4-5-1) in lieu of their 4-4-2 in an effort to play more possession-based soccer.  Here is the quote:  

“As they begin defense of their Olympic gold, the U.S. women will unveil a new formation, a 4-2-3-1 meant to foster the possession-oriented style and encourage players to interchange positions more than the 4-4-2 they were using.”  USA Today, January 17, 2012.  4-2-3-1 v. Drift & Lift?

Great news indeed!  Abby is still up top, but now maybe we can look in the middle of the field for space to attack instead of racing (or retreating) to the sides.  Great news for up and coming young women soccer players who, while not necessarily gifted in height, can create, attack, possess, etc.  Some locally come to mind. . . Taking size out of the equation opens the door to honest assessment of talent.  It may also mean the US Women playing a Marta-styled player at attacking mid rather than holding mid.  Again, a local player comes to mind…

To be fair, I am not against size in soccer.  I just like to think of soccer as the pure sport that celebrates creativity, talent, athleticism, and speed regardless of size.  Too many sports place too much emphasis on one or the other.  You have heard it before — “too short for basketball, volleyball…too small for football…” etc.  Soccer takes on all – tall or short, big or small — the only price to admittance is ability to control a ball with your feet and create.  While soccer’s god does have an alter (Speed), greatness can be found with players lacking even that quality.   (Now, if you can combine speed and quickness (they are different) with balance and agility, throw in passion for the game with equal parts of competitive fire, a dash of IQ, and even some humility and willingness to learn and be taught, presto….you have a star.)  

Tactics v. Technique: Are Americans too Tactical too Soon?

What is the difference between tactics and technique?  When is the right time to develop tactics?  While there very well may have been times or years where I was guilty of the subjects discussed below, it is by experiencing the mistakes of over-teaching tactics to young players that I have learned its weakness–it retards soccer development.  So, for starters, let me set out some definitions.

When I refer to tactics, I am talking not about how to pass, but where to pass.  Technique covers how to perform various passes, dribbles, traps, runs, etc.  To me, tactics are about the when and technique is about the how.   If you watch trainers work with kids, some will spend more time on technique while others are more tactical in their sessions.  I think I am somewhere in between.  I pitted them against each other in the title to this entry because, from what I have seen, many of our parent coaches have over-emphasized tactics (result) at a young age rather than technique (player development).

Tactics, in a U9 game, may mean keeping your best goalie at goalie all game to ensure the victory.  While he or she will gain valuable experience between the pipes, if treated like that regularly, will be prevented from growth in other areas.  Soccer is like everything else — you best learn the technical stuff early because the older we get, the harder we are to teach (or un-teach bad habits).  So, between the ages of 6-12 kids are primed to learn correct muscle memory.

Another typical example is having a fast kid as forward coupled with a strong defender instructed to send the ball up (long balls).  The tactics in this situation maximizing scoring but marginalizes technical improvement.  So, while playing a long ball up front may make it more likely that your team scores a goal with a given forward, it deemphasizes important aspects of technical improvement, like ball control and dribbling, that need to be developed at young ages.  

Or how about when a boy or girl who is relegated to one position every year from age 6-12.  It may be that a child has a talent to play fullback, but if he is not given opportunities to play in the middle or up front then his growth in the game will be limited by his experience.  It may be that playing a certain kid at fullback gives your team the best chance of winning an under 9 game, but how will that help the player later on?  

A couple of our soccer authorities have weighed in on the issue.  We all know Landon Donovan.  Here is what he had to say:  

“As a kid you need to touch the ball as much as you can. You should always be with the ball. You should have a feeling that wherever the ball is, you can do anything with it. No matter where it is, where it is on your body, how it’s spinning, how it’s coming at you, the speed it’s coming at you, anything. You can learn the tactical side of the game later. It’s amazing to me that people put so much emphasis on trying to be tactical and worry about winning when it doesn’t matter when you’re 12 years old. We’re going to have big, strong, fast players. We’re Americans, we’re athletes. But if we never learn at an early age to be good on the ball, then it’s just useless.”  Landon Donovan, USA World Cup hero, Soccer America, July 2002 (with emphasis).  

Read what Bobby Howe, the former US Soccer Federation Director of Coaching Soccer said about selfish young soccer players while he addressed the unimportance of winning small-sided youth games:

“Even when the kids graduate to six-v-six, there should remain little or no emphasis on playing a position, on winning, or on restricting individual decision-making. The individualist who would rather dribble than pass may not quite be the pariah that (s)he’s assumed to be. The ability to dribble past several defenders in a limited space is a quality that only a handful of the game’s greatest players have acquired. Kids should not have their creativity stifled, especially at younger ages.”  Bobby Howe,  How to Play the Game: The official playing and coaching manual of the United States Soccer Federation (with emphasis).  

Some of the problem associated with this issue comes from the parents.  Our culture not only overemphasizes winning in youth games, we overstate the value of the forward.  Parents routinely demand (or passively demand) that their kid play forward.  The kids are aware of this.  Many parents offer incentives on the number of goals scored by a kid.  That may be a good incentive in an U6 game where you are teaching kids what a goal is, but it is not helpful later on.  It overstates the importance of the shot taker with no regard to the assist or build up.  Kids adopt the beliefs of their parents too.  So, if parents only value goal scores, then a kid will usually feel likewise.  To me, a kid who “does not want to play defense” is usually paired with a parent who says that “their kid just doesn’t know how to play defense.”  From a coach, the statement is a back-ended justification of why their kid is playing up front (I find most coaches’ kids play forward).  From a parent, it is a back-handed way to request the kid to play forward. Ironically, forwards and midfielders (and attacking mids) play a lot of defense.  Further, the modern soccer game is going away from a beefier front line and placing more strength in the middle (4-5-1 formation variations).  You better know how to defend to attack. 

The solution to this is to deemphasize the result and rotate kids around more.  If between the ages of 6-12 we deemphasize winning in lieu of player development, it won’t matter that “Little Johnny doesn’t know how to play defense.”  Now, we have a perfect environment to learn.  Play kids that have only played defense at offense.  Play kids that only play offense on defense.  We have a rule on our team — if you say you will not play defense, you will not play offense.  

Finally, I will say that it has taken me some time to come to these thoughts.  I love competition.  But, I think the best way to compete when it matters is to deemphasize winning (not competition) at early ages.  Then, later, when your are building teams to compete for Cups, you have players well-rounded in the game with better ball control.  If it is structured appropriately (matching skill levels in Academy games), then there will still be plenty of competition.   I do not advocate throwing kids onto a field and saying “it doesn’t matter, go have fun.”  I am the opposite of that.  I only think that the best way to advance is to devalue results at U7-U10 levels (U11 & U12 are qualifying years id EDDOA so it applies there too).