Soccer Camp – Is it Worth It?

IMG_2001 (1)We are halfway through what soccer coaches refer to as “camp season.”  This is the time that paid coaches for clubs have available time to make some extra money in the form of “camps.”  And that is the first thing that your should know … camps are about money to clubs and coaches not skill development of individual players.

I am writing this from two perspectives:  (1) as a parent who has spent a lot of money on soccer camps, and (2) as a professional coach (I am paid per team that I coach) who is very demanding on preparation and teaching in sessions.

Observations:

(1) Skill level of participants is mixed.  There will usually be a few high level players, but a lot of weak players.  If a camp is open enrollment, meaning all skill levels allowed, the competition and quality of the sessions will be mixed.  Most camps are open enrollment because, remember, these are money-makers, not skill-makers.  How can they realistically promote player development when you have everyone from beginning recreation player to a highly skilled player in the same session?  We would never allow that at club-level training.IMG_2002

(2) Quality of coaching is mixed to poor.  From what I have seen, the coaches are young, inexperienced coaches but former or current players.  The only value coaches like that have is to inspire the players by their presence as, usually, they lack the ability to teach the game to young players.  There may be some top youth coaches mixed in, but, from my experience, most of the coaches are young and inexperienced in teaching the game. But, as your player is not realistically going to gain increase in skill in a short camp, fun and inspiration from a former player may be the perfect thing.  Just do not expect a good evaluation of the players.

I have sent kids to the following camps:  Lamar University (multiple times), University of Texas (residential), LSU (residential), Dynamo Elite Residential Camp (residential), as well as Manchester United Soccer Schools.  I have sent kids at very high skill levels to middle skill level.  So, here is my two cents:

(1)  If you are putting your kid in a camp to improve their skill or further their technical development, you are wasting your money.  That kind of progress is not going to happen in 3-6 days.  Yea, they may learn a new trick, but you won’t see much else.  If this is your prime motivator, don’t spend the money.  Rather, put your child in a year long training program focusing on player development.   If you are near a Coerver training program, and your kid is accepted into their academy, that is your best hope to improve ball mastery because that is their primary focus (not team development).

(2)  If you are putting your kid into camp to have fun, perfect.  It is expensive but this is a more realistic goal if you are looking for ROI.  They get to stay in a dorm, meet new players, hang out with other like-minded kids.

(3)  If you are putting your kid into camp to further their love of the game, some camps can deliver on that.  If you can find a camp that delivers here, it is worth it.  In other words, if they leave camp wanting to play more soccer, touch the ball more, talk about the game,  then you got a solid ROI.  If the camp doesn’t deliver here, you are really wasting your money.

(4)  If you are putting your player in to get a solid evaluation, you will be disappointed.  Remember, camp coaches are usually young, inexperienced coaches.  The top coaches at the clubs are not coaching at the camps.  So, while a former player for Swansea may be fun, do not look for him to give your player a quality evaluation.  At one camp, the coach gave the evaluation form to the players to let them complete it.  That tells you everything you need to know.

Evaluating players is serious business.  It requires focus and energy.  You have to be willing to pay close attention to the player.  It means that you may have to intervene — if a precocious player is dominating coaching time and play on the pitch, move kids around and see what happens.  Players come in all shapes and sizes with different personalities.  The coaches in a short camp do not have the energy or interest in looking beyond the superficially obvious observations.    Your best bet to get a solid evaluation is ask your regular coach.  In addition, find out what youth coaches, no matter the club, take it seriously and bring your player to them.

Remember, many of these camps charge as much for 3-4 days as your club does for training for a year.  If you want technical improvement, find a coach that values that.  If you don’t know one, find a licensed Coerver coach.  Since they do not care about team success, they are only focused on individual player growth.  It is the only program I am aware of that you can be 100% certain that your kid will improve in individual ball touching, dribbling, etc.

LUSC: 6v6 Team Shape by Brendan Donahue

*While researching images for 3-2, I found this wonderful article from Brendan Donahue.  I emailed him and received his permission to re-publish it here.  Thanks Brendan!

This is an article to provide coaches a few options to consider. It is NOT intended to be a training session for young players.

 The transition from the 4v4 game with no goalies to the 6v6 game can be a bit overwhelming for players and coaches. It is the first time the goalkeeper is introduced as a member of the team and throw-ins and goal kicks are introduced to the game. All of these new facets of the game can make for a difficult transition for everyone involved. Although the technical development of the players MUST remain the priority of all coaches, it is helpful to understand various ways you can align your team. Please note these formations are something a coach should be aware of, but not spend a great deal of time focusing on. Please encourage players to cover spaces and not remain in a certain position!

Remember to rotate all players so they experience playing in different areas of the field!

Here are a few options to choose from and reasons why you might select to align your team in this fashion. I have inserted triangles to show how players should remain connected to one another. This includes the goalkeeper:

Option 1: K-2-2-1 (back to front)

2-2-1
2-2-1

This formation will allow you to maximize the width of the field, while still having a strong amount of cover at the back (notice the keeper should not be planted on his goal line). One area you’ll be conceding in this system will be the central midfield. This might not be the best option at the youngest age groups. The single player up top can become isolated from his/her teammates and the team may struggle to create goal scoring opportunities.

Option 2: K-2-1-2

2-1-2
2-1-2

If you choose to align your team in this fashion you’ll be in a good position to control the middle of the field, while conceding the space out wide. Defensively this is a better option for young players. They learn to remain compact and not get beat down the middle of the field. If they move as a group they’ll be able to limit the space for the opposition to attack through. However, it is difficult for players to learn to “widen out” and create space once they regain possession. This can be a good option to select if you are playing against a stronger opponent. You will also have closer support when one of the players up front receives the ball.

Option 3: K-3-2

Let’s examine this formation a bit closer!

3-2
3-2

This (K-3-2) would be my preferred playing style.   You have excellent cover at the back while having good numbers to control the middle of the field. One of the keys components, if you choose to align your team in this fashion, is that you encourage the flank players at the back to “attack the space” in front of them.

(Pictured Below).

3-2 Building from Back
3-2 Building from Back

“Building out of the back” (pictured right): Notice how when the right wing player attacks the space with the dribble that the two other players at the back slide over to protect the space at the back. One of the reasons I prefer having the additional player begin at the back is that young players are generally more comfortable when they can see the field in front of them. If you start players higher (K-2-3) up the field, the front players will spend a lot of the game facing their own goal.

3-2 Shape
3-2 Shape

Midfield or beyond (pictured right): When the team is in the opposing half of the field it is okay for the central defender to step into the attack if he is under no pressure, but the other players at the back should recognize this and “pinch in”. Please observe how the goalkeeper does not remain on the goal line, but instead moves toward the top of the penalty box to remain closer to his/her teammates. 

Opposition in possession (below):

3-2 poor shape
3-2 poor shape

In this picture you see an example of poor team shape! White is defending too much of the field and the players are “disconnected” from one another. It is important when the opposition is in possession of the ball that players learn to try to get “compact” and defend as a group.

 Proper Team Shape (Below):

3-2 proper shape
3-2 proper shape

(Pictured right) Notice how the white players limit the space for red to play through by remaining closer together or more “compact”. If the central defender steps closer to the oppositions forward, it will discourage the opponent to play into him. Observe how the keeper adjusts his/her position when the central defender moves forward. The two forwards (on white) should try to remain close to one another and begin to work as a group.

Ball on the flank (opponents’ possession):

White continues to remain “compact” by shifting to the “ball side”. This will limit the attackers’ options on the “near side” of the field. By remaining as a unit you will give the opposition far less open space to play through and create more opportunities for your players to regain possession.

Final thoughts:

Before deciding on “What system to play” or focusing on your team defending you must recognize that defensive success is first and foremost based on quality 1 vs. 1 defending. Getting pressure on the player with the ball is vital if the rest of the team is to carry out their defensive responsibilities. Only when this pressure takes place can the remainder of the players get “compact” and take away space from the attacking team.

Offensively, it is easier for young players to find space on the flanks. It is important that coaches encourage this in training by choosing exercises such as the Four Goal game. The exercises should allow the players to “discover” the answers for themselves without constant instruction from the coach.

Comments and feedback are always welcome at bdonahue@lexingtonunited.org

Brendan Donahue

6v6 Formation Ideas

This season I am coaching a U9 boys team.  It has been a while since I have coached this age group.  I love it.  We are privileged to play in the Houston Texans exclusive Academy development league where emphasis is on technical growth rather than outcome (i.e., no punting).  The game is 6v6.

While it is more appropriate to focus on technique at this age, it is important to teach the boys ideas of tactics and formations.  This is a great age to introduce the concept of how to name a formation (from the defense first).  In the National Youth License, Sam Snow recommended a 3-2 formation.  His advice was based on simplifying the game — why add a midfield line to complicate it.  I am using his concept this season.  While, at the end, you will note I completely disagree that coaches should be given tactical advice and instruction during the game (other than guided questions), I do believe that you can spend time teaching the boys or girls what the formation is, what the names of the positions are, what are their responsibilities.  Then, at the beginning of each game, select a player and have him use cones to lay out the formation (calling it by name).  Let them teach.  Quiz them on the names of the positions.  I do it at at the conclusion of a training session, beginning of a game, etc.  Never more than 1-2 minutes.

Here are my lessons learned:

3-2.  I like it a lot.  The center back keeps back and maintains shape while the right and left back are free to move up.  Yes, kids will struggle with this concept, but, on a small field, most of them want to attack and defend at this age.  From my experience, at 8 they have not developed the “I am a forward only” mentality yet.  For the 2 forwards, we call them our “wolfpack” and they are encouraged to win the ball, working (“hunting”) together.  Here is what I love about losing the midfield line — it teaches the forwards to come back and fight in the middle.  If you place a kid in the middle, particularly an advanced one, it could develop bad habits for the rest of the team who become over-reliant on distribution from one advanced player.  We rotate players at all positions and, the fact that there are only 2 lines means instructions are simple.  Thus, game coaching is focused on improving technical aspects (“can you dribble to find space” “can you take the defender on” “can you block a shot” “can you move to support where the player with ball can see you?” etc. etc.) rather than tactical instruction (which should, in my opinion, be almost nonexistent at this age).

2-1-2.  This is my old formation.  I always had a few kids who were tactically and technically very advanced.  So, I could sit them in the middle and everything looked great.  Parents were happy.  We won.  This was selfish coaching and damaging to the center mid as well.  At an age that they should be exploring creativity, I had them passing out of problems to forwards who ran onto through balls.  Yes, we won a lot of games, but, in the end, it was a mistake.  I am not saying this formation is a mistake …. I am saying they way I did it was.  I used it and placed players in it based on our likelihood of winning a match.  With the boys I have now, since I rotate them about the field, having 3 lines would be hard to do.  I believe I can teach the concepts of how to play CenterMid without having one (move to the ball, use back foot, switch field, etc., etc.).  Those concepts can be taught no matter the formation.  Again, not saying this is wrong but, for me, I am having a much better experience with 3-2.

2-2-1.  This formation again has 3 lines so you are going to be spending time explaining the middle one.  It is always the midfield line — the kids have no problem playing forward or defense.  The midfielders have to work backwards and forwards.  When you watch it at U9 or U10, it looks like a 2-3 because the midfielders have a hard time tracking back.  Oddly enough, in a 3-2 the outside backs have a less difficult time because they know they are a “defender.”

Again, thanks to the Texans for letting us participate in a league where, while the games are competitive and the competition is fierce, we are able to focus on technique and growth.

Learning as a Soccer Coach: And you thought you were good

Biggest problem in professional development, no matter the profession, is an unwillingness to recognize that you can still improve.  Masking inadequacies with over-confidence is all too common.  It is a disease the infects all types of work, even soccer coaching.  As a coach, are you open to new ideas?  Are you considering how you can improve individually?  Are you willing to collaborate and share with others things you have learned and honestly ask for help in areas you know you are weak?

The last phrase is the kicker because if you do not know where your weaknesses are then you will improve at a snail’s pace.  Are you willing to self-evaluate?

I was reading a profile of Al Pacino (The New Yorker, Sept. 15, 2014, “Caught in the Act”) and one of Pacino’s comments struck me.  Comparing Pacino’s rise and success to Brando, the author quoted Pacino as follows:

I believe I have not reached my stride, which is why I persist.  The day I turn to you and say, ‘John, what I just did in this role was a real winner,’ I hope you’ll have the courage and decency to throw a wreath around my head, and then so very quietly and compassionately shoot me.

This is from an actor who has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards (winning one).  How great does he think he is?  How great do we think we are?  If you think you are, then you are done growing.   Are we “persisting?”

Writing about youth soccer, player development, and the professional game.