Our league (United Soccer Club) transitioned from 8v8 to 9v9 this year. In any event, in any league you play, you will encounter variations of small-sided games. As you balance development versus results, the way that you align your players at young ages says a lot about your motive.
I believe, without reservation, that the optimal developmental formation for SSGs (7v7, 8v8, 9v9) requires you to play 2 Center-Mids. This opinion has been years in the making. Are there other formations that would be easier to get forward? Yes. To score goals? Of course. The problem is that at the ages where the players are playing SSGs, you have to balance development heavier than tactics or results.
In the new 9v9 setup, I see most coaches play a 332. The lone center-mid is left to spray the ball forward for the forwards to run onto it. To me, this is seed of the 442. My problem is this: if you can teach players how to build through the middle and teach 2 players to operate in that boundary-free zone, they can always play “direct” 332 style when necessary. But the reverse is not true.
I played competitive tennis as a youth. I loved overheads. I loved to spike them (play them short). I was taught by a wise coach to play deep overheads – preferably in the corners – but in no case should I spike them. He told me that if I could learn to play deep overheads, I could always spike one when appropriate – but knowing how to spike doesn’t mean you know how to play a proper deep overhead.
Using 2 CMs in youth soccer is the same to me. Will it slow down your attack? Yes. Will it cost you goals? Yes. But, if you can start building the concepts of having 2 CMs learning to work together in the middle – learning how to move in support (either away or to each other), it is like learning to hit a deep overhead. As a coach, you just need to do it.
So, for the last year my 9v9 teams have played a 323. And, for me, I do not see a 433 like Real Madrid – they are not all 3 “forwards” for me. I have a lone forward with two wingers or attacking midfielders (however you want to call them) that provide width to the attack. They are expected to track back and defend but not all the way back to the touch line. The their defensive duties usually stop around the penalty area or a touch higher.
But, for me, the bottom line is that you need 2 CMs in the SSGs to encourage play through the middle and encourage technical growth, not selling out for short-term results.
I was reviewing my old posts on this site and stumbled across a great reply that we received from an ex-professional player. His name is Carl from Seattle. He included a session broken down by minute from his favorite coach. Here is a link to the Lake City Hawks Facebook page. I also discovered that the coach, Walter Schmetzer, Sr., runs a store and skill academy. Here is a link to that. And, it looks like from what I saw, that Walter’s son is the coach of the Seattle Sounders. For all those reasons, and because you just want to learn, read closely what Carl posted:
The Team Training Session Focused on Player Development
Coaches have asked me what an ideal practice looks like if player development, as opposed to team development, is the primary objective. It looks today, as I practice it, just as it did as practiced by Coach Schmetzer–my former youth coach–the most successful coach in developing players to excel in ODP since its inception in 1977. He didn’t coach elite players; he coached ordinary players who became elite.
Before the days of “super clubs,” Coach Schmetzer, a master at player development, who did no recruiting, produced, from a single U18 boys team, the Seattle-based Lake City Hawks, six Washington State U18 ODP team players. Of those, three made the regional team. Of those three, two –at 17 years of age–played for the U19 youth national team. Three of his 18 players turned pro, all before age 21.
What I, who didn’t start playing competitive soccer until U15, learned from him allowed me to represent our country in international play at 17 and play this amazing game professionally at 18.
His brilliance was in his simple approach, as demonstrated here is his typical practice, which can–and should–be used with children as young as 10:
First, before any player arrives, set up the three following areas with a total of 12 cones, 4 for each area:
1) 20yds X 20yds, the “juggling box”
2) 5yds X 20yds, the “skills rectangle”
3) U-12-U-14, 35yds X 35yds or U-15 to U-19, 40yds by 40yds, the 9 vs. 9 “keep-away square.”
These three separate areas should be close to each other.
Second, place practice bibs in a pile in your “rest break” area.
Note: Every player is to have brought his or her own soccer ball, so there’s one ball per player.
Third, when players arrive at practice—even if early—they are to go immediately to the juggling square and juggle.
The first fifteen minutes of a two hour practice is spent juggling.
Fourth, players pair up and go to the skills rectangle. Players are lined up on one side, 5 yards opposite their partner..
Instruct players to do 1-touch passing, back and forth between the two partners. When you estimate each player has made 200 passes, change the drill.
One player tosses the ball to his partner, who traps it with his thigh and then does a trap-pass, using the inside of his foot, back to his skills partner. When each player has done about 30 traps, move on to the next drill.
Tell players that in 60 seconds, they—the pair— are to try to get as many volley-catches back and forth as they can. They’re to count. You tell them you’ll see which pair gets the highest number of successful volley-catches. To start, the players with the ball, in hands, lean over the ball, drop it lightly and, using the instep, volley it to their partner, who attempts to catch the ball with his hands. Each time a pair does this successfully, it counts as one.
Next, the players, with partners standing about four feet from each other, are to head the ball back and forth as many times as they can without the ball dropping.
In the drill that follows, one player, with the ball in hands, tosses it up about 15 feet, and out about 20ft. His skills partner sprints out to the ball, trying to catch up with it to do a trap, using his feet, to turn back toward his partner; once trapped, the ball is passed to the partner who tosses it. This player sprints to the line and his partner tosses the ball again. This drill, which incorporates fitness training, is done for one minute. Players do these as fast as they can.
While this is just a sampling of skill drills, you continue the skills training for 45 minutes before taking a 2-3 minute break, during which time you randomly hand out the nine practice bibs to players who are to put them on before returning for more skill drills. At this point, you are an hour into the two-hour practice.
Fifth, you resume skills training and, again with players pairing up, continue for another 35 minutes.
Sixth, without taking a break, take your players over to the 9 vs. 9 “keep-away” square. Be sure to take 10-12 balls with you in the event some are kicked far away during the game. Your players spend the last 15-20 minutes of practice playing 9 vs. 9.
Here are the instructions:
One team starts the game, anywhere in the square, with a free-kick. No opposing player or teammate may be closer than 10 yards to the player taking the free-kick (a “start” of play or “restart’) at any time in the game. The game is 2-touch soccer. If a player touches the ball more than twice, you blow the whistle to stop the game and the opposing team gets a free-kick to restart the game. Teams score by completing four consecutive passes. If a team gets a point, blow your whistle to stop play. The team that just scored gets to restart the game with a free-kick.
Any time the ball is intercepted (possession is gained) by the opposing team, blow your whistle to stop play. That opposing team, whose players just intercepted a pass and gained control of the ball, now restarts the game with a free-kick. Any player taking the free-kick must, before making a pass to restart the game, look around and behind him (360-degree view). If he fails to do that before making the restart pass, blow the whistle to stop the game, say ”Didn’t look around” and the ball goes to the opposing team for a restart free-kick.
Also, if any player during the course of the game does not know where he is going with the ball before he gets it, then blow your whistle, stop the game and say, “didn’t know where you were going with the ball,” and the opposing team gets the ball for a restart free-kick. If at any time the ball goes out of bounds, a throw-in restarts the game.
Note: While at first there are a lot of stoppages, you will be amazed at how quickly your players pick this up. Plus, as you will see, you are quick on the whistle, which gives players no time to daydream. It’s intense, exceptionally fast-paced and challenging for players.
Once teams are getting four consecutive passes frequently, bump the requirement up to five, then six, seven and eight to score a goal. Once your players have mastered the 2-touch and 8-pass requirement, it’s time for one-touch soccer. Start with three passes equals a goal and follow the same procedure you did for 2-touch, bumping up the requirement of the number of consecutive passes to get a goal.
We Lake City Hawks played 9 vs. 9 one-touch keep-away during the last 15-20 minutes of every single practice, after 1hr. and 35-minutes of skill training, for four years. In my thirty years in the game as a player and coach, I have never seen any single training drill that does more for player development (“game play”) than this one.
The Reason Why
What’s most important for you is to know why such skill training is so effective.
1. First, it’s very efficient. Players arrive at practice and immediately go to the juggling square. During the 15 minutes of juggling, each player will get an average of 600 touches on the ball. Also, by having players do skill drills in pairs—not two lines of nine players
with sixteen standing, watching and waiting to pass the ball—you maximize players’ touches on the ball.
2. Second, you introduce competition (i.e., get as many headers back and forth as you can), and time restrictions (i.e., you are to trap, turn and pass back to your partner, doing these as fast as you can for the next minute), both of which require players to perform at game pace, or as close to game pace as is possible. Thus, players get accustomed to trapping etc. under pressure. Furthermore, you are incorporating fitness into skill drills.
3. Third, it’s effective. In the 1hr and 35-minutes of practice so far, your players have likely gotten at least 3,000 touches on the ball, more than some players get in three or four of their club team practices. How?
1. It teaches your players the most important facets of the game: to think one step ahead, to consider their options before the ball arrives; they realize the incredible efficiency and effectiveness of 1-2 touch play, so they don’t hold onto the ball too long; they gain an appreciation for the importance of excellent vision, getting the 360-degree look to see the whole field; as they are in such a tight space and have limited touches on the ball, they are forced to make excellent supporting runs for teammates. Furthermore, this game requires a very high level of focus and concentration. It all carries over to actual game play.
2. Also, in 9 vs. 9 keep-away, your players are playing at faster-than-game pace, in an area much smaller than the actual playing field. So when they do get to an actual game, they will have more time and space in which to play.
3. Your players don’t pick up bad habits. The rules and restrictions of the 9 vs. 9 game (and your quick whistle) don’t allow for them. In contrast, in a scrimmage with unlimited touches, full field, etc., players invariably pick up bad habits and these, unfortunately, carry over to the game.
4. In addition, your players will play “purposeful possession,” being patient, smart, willing to play the ball in any direction to maintain possession. There’s no “reckless race” the opponents’ goal.
What’s the Next Step You Can Take for Your Players?
I encourage you to use game time for player development. I have a recommendation that has proved very successful: Impose a 2-touch restriction during actual game play. Before you do, ensure your players have mastered 1-touch play during 9 vs. 9 keep-away. Also, the first time you do this, select any 20-minute segment of play for the 2-touch to start any time after the first ten minutes of the game. Players, of course, can use 1 or 2 touches to play the ball.
Furthermore, tell your players during your pre-game instructions that they’ll be playing 2-touch for that specific 20 minutes you’ve chosen. And all that you ask of each player during that time is that she knows where she’s going with the ball before she gets it. Add that the only time a player may use more than two touches is if she is in the opponents’ penalty area—this should, but it doesn’t always, take care of the inevitable question at least one player asks, “But, coach, what if I’m in front of the goal and need to dribble to take a shot?”
Also, tell your players you’re setting a team goal of six consecutive passes. Why six? They’ll achieve this goal and, regardless of the outcome (score) of the game, will feel a sense of achievement and be eager to try 2-touch again the next time you ask them to. Plus, they quickly become believers of the efficiency and effectiveness of 1- and 2-touch play.
OK, so those here know I am a lawyer. And, as a lawyer, I am actually a trial lawyer – the ones that go to court, object, cross examine, etc. I love a good question. One thing I loved about the National Youth License is the concept of “guided discovery.” (@nealellis @samsnow!). As a lawyer, I love well-crafted questions so this was right up my alley.
So, after coaching youth soccer for more than a decade, and studying the game, other coaches, learning with the players, etc., I have discovered what I think is the “best question.” I have to say, a lot of the lessons I have learned, sharpened, and developed started with a group of girls in a pasture by my house. That was my first 5 years. One of those girls is an early-enrollee at Texas Tech on a soccer scholarship. I still think about Macy when I coach and, along with the other girls, her affect on the game and on me. One of the things that defined her as a player, and it is now my test of an elite player, is she made the players around her better. I have spent 12 years trying to create more Macys. How do soccer players make the players around them better?
Definition of an Elite Player
It is their spirt, their effort, technique, creativity, ideas, concepts of the game, willingness to fight through mistakes – theirs and their teammates – their spirit of competition. It is their HEART. It is their WORDS – what words do they use? What words do they avoid (that may be as important)? I am very picky about this. I do not want to hear negative words on the field toward anyone – not the referee, other team, and especially not their teammates. It means that when their teammates make mistakes, they lift them up with their words. It is their DEEDS. It means they lift their teammates up – literally – if they are down. It means that when the team is down, they stay up. It means they never quit. It requires sacrifice. It requires a willingness to deal with failure, not accept it. It requires constant positive body language. These things infect those around them – for good.
I appreciated our Athletic Director in Vidor, Jeff Matthews, who works hard to develop this in atheletes. He would come and support the girls soccer and verbally comment on the value of leadership and what it means for the game. One of our captains last season spent a lot of time rallying the troops – she used words and positive body language. While she might not have been fastest, most technical player, she used positivity to be leader on the field. And, her AD and head football coach called her out on it. As coach, don’t forget to praise these things. Don’t spend time picking low hanging fruit. Nourish instead with specific positive feedback.
Confident, Not Arrogant
It requires a ton of confidence with equal measures of humility. It does not need arrogance. Confidence and arrogance are strangers to each other – people get confused on this. Confidence requires humility to accept responsibility for yourself and, even better, for those around you. An arrogant player blames others. An arrogant player makes excuses. An arrogant player is hard to teach. A confident yet humble player strives in adversity; works through failure; is teachable. A confident player spreads confidence to those around her. An arrogant player brings players around him down. An arrogant coach does the same. I am passionate about this – just writing this paragraph tells me I need a whole post on this.
The Macy Test
My first 5 years doing this shaped my perception of elite players. Macy Chilton helped me form those ideas. They apply to all sports. They apply to coaches. Macy never felt that she was too good. I watched her play high school – on the field surrounded by players that made mistakes she didn’t. What did she do? What did she say? Nothing negative. No negative body language. No assessment of blame. No excuses. No throwing hands up. No arguing with teammates. That is the essence of greatness – they inspire those around them through positivity – not by fear, blame, and bullying. Not by making players who are not at their level feel that way; rather, players gained confidence as hers spread to them. She elevated the play of those around her. I apply the “Macy Test” to all my players. That is what I am looking for.
When her teammates made mistakes, she worked to cover them. When she lost the ball, she fought to win it back immediately. She risked much – dribbles, passes, shots – she failed plenty – she kept going. She got better. Players around her improved. Players around her gained confidence. She smiled. She never dwelt on defeat or mistakes. She moved on. Yes, she is agile. Yes, she is fast. Yes, she is quick. But none of those things define her.
She learned the game in a pasture with lines made with gasoline. She moved from the pasture in Vidor to a country team from Jasper. From Vidor to Jasper – that is her pedigree. She moved to Houston at a top club only after those years. She had access to great instruction – some better, some worse. I can tell you this – she never made me feel as a coach that I was inadequate, that she was too good for our team. Unfortunely, I have seen that attitude from less talented players and their parents in years since. It is sad. The same parents who so badly want their kid to be elite get in the way or give their kid the wrong roadmap. I never heard Jeff or Rebecca complain about any of their coaches. I never heard Macy. (And I have seen her plenty since she moved from our little squad – they live across a pasture from us).
My lens may not be perfect. And certainly there are elite players that are a different flavor. But, for me, this is the standard. It is from this that I rate players. Sometimes, my evaluation differed markedly from another coach. And I am not saying it won’t change in the next 10 years, but the truth is, I don’t think it has changed in the last 10. I just now can express it in words better. For the last 5 years, I have run 4-6 90 minute sessions/week. I have coached hundreds of games. I have expanded my coaching vocabulary with experience and education (and a lot of failures along the way). But I still look back to the pasture.
For Coaches, It Means Not Coaching the Mistake
It applies to coaches too. There are lots of pieces of “low hanging fruit” during a session, during a game. You really want to pick it. You know those moments – a failed dribble; a poor touch; a mis-timed tackle; a poor passing decision. I know we want to coach the mistake – to get on to them. Why? I used to do that. Somehow I was offended that they screwed up – like it reflected poorly on me. When I had those moments, I realized I was making it about me. –Take a step back, Clint. It is not about you.– I am just much better at it now. Rather than pick the fruit, let it hang. Nourish the roots instead – watch what they do after that moment. Praise the willingness to fight back. To rise up.
We are Americans. That is what defines us. It is why Rocky is iconic to us. Rocky gets knocked down a lot – that is not what defines him. It is what he does next. He gets up. My teams (all of them) share this motto: “Get Off the Mat.” I am looking for the moment after, not the moment of. I am not interested in picking the low-hanging fruit – the players know what just happened. In other words, as a coach, I judge myself by the same standard – “what am I doing to help my players play great?” If you are honest with yourself, you know that picking the low-hanging fruit is not the answer.
The Best Question
But, 12 years in, I think I have found the perfect question. I am introducing it to my 05s. I use it with 03s. It applies to high school kids. It applies to me as a lawyer with my trial team. The low-hanging fruit is to get on to someone for screwing up…does that help? I have learned that the most important thing is not the mistake – we all make them – it is what you do after that that defines you. I tell the boys – “if you are willing to deal with adversity, not accept it, and fight through mistakes, you will be great individually and as a team.” I am proud to say that I don’t coach the mistake any more – I praise the effort after. I look for it. I celebrate it. I specifically mention it to the boys. (In trial, that is what we call “squeezing the orange.”).
And, before my players step on the field, and when they step off, they have to ask themselves this question: “What have I done to make the players around me better?” “What have I said? What have I done?” That is it. At halftime, we review it. Then ask I use: “Can you do better?” Answer, EVERY TIME, “yes coach.” And then, the best follow-up: “How?” There is your half-time talk. There is your post-game talk. And your players leave feeling like a million bucks. `
I love doing this. My wife thinks I spend too much time on it. I love it as much trying cases (just finished a trial last week). I give coaching the same amount of dedication, work, and focus I do my cases. It is a brilliant game with brilliant opportunities to teach lessons about life.
I have been coaching soccer for over a decade. During that time, I have also been raising 5 kids. All of them play soccer, some at very high levels. I think one question I get a lot from parents of the kids I coach is “how do I help my kid get better?” So, here are some helps for parents who would like to see their child improve.
Two training sessions/week will not make your child an elite soccer player. You need to understand this.
Kids like what their parents like. So, the first thing I do when I am asked this question is I ask the parent: “how much soccer do you watch on TV?” Almost without exception, it is little to none. This is a problem. So, you need to improve your passion for the game. Watch it. I mean all of it – not just the goals. Learn why defense is so important. Learn how keepers manage a game. Learn how teams play through the back and middle. Listen to an English game, when they applaud the defense for winning the ball and playing simply through the middle, and ask “why are they clapping now – there was no goal?” If you spend your time watching baseball or american football, talking about baseball and american football, that is what your child will like (with rare exception). So keep that in mind. It starts with you.
Talk to your child about soccer (professional), not about their game. This will increase their passion for the sport. We discuss league standings (Premier League), tactics coaches used, formations, etc., at the dinner table. If you have a daughter, follow the national team — they are the top of the world. Go to a match when you can.
Take your child to a professional game or local college game. For the players to see, up close, what top soccer looks like is inspiring. In some ways, I would recommend your local college team first as your player will have more access to the players and get closer to the game. Your player’s team may even get to be collect balls on the sidelines.
Play Fifa with them. I know this is a big ask for many parents – but, if you want your child to understand and love the game more, (a) let them play Fifa (PS4 or Xbox) and, (b) better yet, play with them.
Knock the ball around with them in the backyard. No, don’t lecture them or try to make it “a session.” Just go out and play. Pass and receive – do a aim challenge (if you don’t have a goal, use a fence post), design a set piece with phantom defenders. If you have 4 people, make a game. We play 2v2, 3v3, with weird rules (the little kids’ goals count x3, only score with _______, volleys only, etc.).
All of these ideas are things you can do and you are spending time with your child. One thing I have learned raising 5 kids, they like what you like if you make it fun. If you are too serious about it, it won’t come off.
Writing about youth soccer, player development, and the professional game.