Tag Archives: age

Player Development Series: Perils of Position Specialization

Player Development Series:  Position Specialization Too Soon

At what age should players specialize in a position?  As a coach, are you willing to lose games to allow players to explore new positions?   How should we define success?  (As parents; as coaches; as clubs) Is it winning and losing?  Or, is it something else?

These are tough questions.  If you have ever coached, you know the pressure from the parents, even the kids, to win.  To be sure, soccer is competitive game where one team in the match is usually declared a winner.  In today’s youth soccer climate, parents are spending a lot of money on training fees, travel expenses, equipment, camps, etc.  In many instances, teams in urban areas are even coached by professional soccer “trainers/coaches.”  Clubs are often competing against one another for players and fees.  Tournaments and “tournament season” has created hyper-competitive climates where teams feel pressured to participate by the club, parents, and other teams with which they compete.   Winning and losing are often the barometers parents use and clubs sell to advertise their services.  In such situations, there is pressure to obtain results.

So, what is the big deal?  What is the relationship between focusing on immediate success and position play?  To me, the link between the two is that in order to maximize a team’s likelihood of success, a coach’s best play would be to play his best keeper at keeper the entire game, best forward at forward, defender at defender, etc.  The problem with this model is that if it is adopted at age 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, the players’ development has been sold for temporary success.  By age 13, a coach should be able to place a player in a position and, if they have been developed appropriately, they should be able to perform.  If players have not been developed properly, taking them out of their system will be a challenge for them – in other words, while they may be effective for one coach or team, they may not be as effective for another.  That is a problem.

In Appendix A of Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States (2005), it warns:

As far as positions are concerned, players should learn the game based on principles of the game rather than positions on the field. Players’ decisions on the field should be based on what makes sense to them in the game. Let the players experience different positions and the different challenges that these positions create.  (Page 29, regarding U12 players)

The reason is that if players learn the game from all perspectives, they will develop a deeper understanding of the game.  “As [players] move to the full-sided game at the U-14 age and beyond, the eventual and ideal goal is for all of the players to be able to keep track of all the other players on the field and then to deal effectively with the situations that evokes out of these relationships.”  (P. 29)

Keeper specialization is a problem throughout youth soccer.  Consider the advice inBest Practices:

No goalie specialization or selection of goalies based on ability primarily until U14.  (P. 33)

The implementation of goalkeepers within youth soccer is an issue that creates considerable discussion among coaches. Restricting a player to the position of goalkeeper at too early an age may have a negative effect and eliminate them from participation in soccer.” (P. 47).

Recommendations (Keepers):

U8:      No GK

U10:    GK is included within team – rotate players as GK;

U12:    GK is included within team – GKs share time but in order of priority which is recommended by coach;

U14:    GK chosen on ability and contribution to the team. (P. 47)

As a parent of a soccer player, you should demand from your club, coach, trainer, etc., a written curriculum covering the sessions, as well as a plan for the season, year, and subsequent years.  If you see specialization, you should step up and ask questions.  For example, if your child is a top-flight keeper, until he or she is 14, you should be requesting field time.   At the same time, if your coach is moving players about, week to week, just consider that it may not be because he or she lacks an interest in winning but may be rotating the squad for developmental purposes.  If your child only plays offense, you should request they spend some time defending and vice versa.

As coaches, we need to be mindful to give all the players a chance.  I often hear that such and such kid only wants to play defense.  Usually, from my experience, defenders are seldom the coaches’ kid.  We have a couple of boys in our U11 group that had only ever defended.  And, if I were to leave it to them, they would request to play defense.  At the same time, as they played more and more up front, they started to exhibit different aspects to their game.  Consider former US Soccer Federation Director of Coaches Bobby Howe:

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, former US Soccer Federation Director of Coaching Soccer, How to Play the Game: The official playing and coaching manual of the United States Soccer Federation

As a club, we need to balance the demands of success by the parents with development of the players.  We have to educate our parents about the big picture.  Clubs shouldn’t have to justify their product by winning and losing.  And, while winning is great, as parents we need to reduce the amount of pressure on the coaches and players based on short-term results.  It is the great stumbling block of US youth soccer.   Consider Landon Donovan’s words:

 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, in Soccer America, July 2002

Finally, from Best Practices:

Putting children into the straightjackets of positional play too early only destroys their instincts to be involved in the game. (P. 54) (This was commentary by the U14 Boys’ National Team Coaches).


Here is a link to get the Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United Statesdocument.  There is also a great appendix studying the characteristics of women national team players.

Player Development Series: PLAYING UP

221817_1070327726856_1991_nPlayer Development Series: When Should Parents and Clubs allow kids to PLAY UP?

In most areas of the US, soccer is still a growing sport. While, in a club, particularly in the recreation side of the club, a team may have a few players who are more physically, technically, and tactically advanced than others, there is usually a wide divergence in skill on a playing field at any one time. For clubs, placing players in training situations and game situations reflecting their ability can be a challenge. In addition, parents, some for good reason some for not, press upon clubs to make variances for their children. What is the solution? Under what conditions should young soccer players play against people not of their age? While clubs use age to divide teams, usually in one-year increments, is that recommended by US Soccer? Under what conditions should a parent press their child to play up? When should clubs say ok?

Playing up is not wrong per se. I think this is the first misnomer. Spokespeople for clubs have mistakenly given the impressions that youth should play in age-pure brackets, regardless of ability. There is no literature that supports this. Rather, US Youth Soccer advocates placing kids within 2-year increments. Sam Snow, the US Youth Soccer Director of Coaches, author of the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model, writes:

The majority of soccer clubs across the nation have evolved into single-year age groupings. This is done predominantly for organizational and administrative reasons, even though single-year age groupings have nothing to do with player development. Indeed, two-year groupings . . . create a better environment for player development.
U.S. Youth Soccer Player Development Model, p. 28 (Feb. 2012)

Another great document takes on the topic directly. In Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States, it states:

When evaluating your players, it is important that you don’t confuse your players’ biological age with their ‘soccer age.’ Each player’s “soccer age” is unique to the individual. Your player’s soccer age depends on several factors: 1) The rate of each individual’s emotional and physical growth; 2) The frequency they are playing soccer; and 3) The soccer environment they are in (encouraging or discouraging individual creativity and comfort with the ball).

As a coach, therefore, it is critical that you are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your players soccer ability. If your players’ skills do not match the demands of the corresponding age-appropriate phase outlined in this document, it is your responsibility to adjust their soccer ‘diet’ based on their “soccer age.” In some cases, for example, this may mean that a 16 year old player spends time addressing skills, or playing in numbers that seem more appropriate for a 12 year old. Best Practices, page 36.

The Best Practices document is incredible. While it is dated 2005, it is written for us – people that live in our country. It is focused on the development of US players, with our corresponding strengths and weaknesses (competition from football, baseball, basketball, etc.) In Appendix A, there is a section regarding “Ability to Play Up.” The rest of the material I am quoting is from that Appendix.

“Associations (or clubs) that create rules restricting an individual player’s options to play at the appropriate competitive level are in effect impeding that player’s opportunity for growth. For development to occur, all players must be exposed to levels of competition commensurate with their skills and must be challenged constantly in training and games in order to aspire to higher levels of play and this maintain their interest and passion for the game.” Best Practices then makes the following Recommendation: “When it is appropriate for soccer development, the opportunity for the exceptional player to play with older players must be available. If there are concerns regarding the individual situation, the decision must be carefully evaluated by coaches and administrators familiar with the particular player. “

The recommendation continues with a stern warning to coaches:

Under no circumstance should coaches exploit the situation by holding players back in their quest for winning team championships, nor should parents push their child in an attempt to accelerate their ascension to the top of the soccer pyramid.

What wisdom! As you can tell, the primary focus on the paragraphs above is the player, not a team. Clubs, associations, and parents need to grasp the concept of player development and reduce the emphasis on short-term seasonal success.

As a parent of five soccer players, I understand the pressure and situations that sometime mandate playing up. In rural communities, you may have no option. But, when given the chance, parents, we need to do the right thing. I am asked frequently about whether a child should play up or not. Many times, unfortunately, parents want their children to play up for the wrong reason – they want them to play with a certain player, they assume if they are playing up they are developing better (say, on a stronger team). I have derived my own standard that I share with people – here goes: “If your child can have the same creative influence, time on the ball, and opportunities playing up, then play up.” In other words, if your child, in a training session or game, can match the technical and physical elements of the game, then go for it. If your child is barely hanging on, make sure that there is no pressure from neither the club, coach, or, gasp, you to play up. If your child is limited in their role playing up, then they should not be playing up. If they are relegated to only performing one role on an older team, they should not be playing up.

Just a note about clubs…I have focused the language of this toward parents. But clubs have a big role to play here too. As a club, decisions need to made with respect to the best interest of the players’ development, not necessarily what is good for such and such club team. If holding a player back will make the club’s younger teams look good, that is not the right justification. If a club pushes a player up to play on a higher level team to complete a squad, for example, that is not the proper justification. Clubs, parents, and coaches should all make decisions with the same criteria – the best interest of players’ development. If there is a conflict between those three decision-makers (parents, club administrators, coaches), then someone is not on the same page.

The only other factor that I think is worth considering is emotional issues – can your child fit in emotionally with the other players on the team? I think placing a pre-puberty player on a team of post-puberty adolescents can be challenging because the subject matter of the conversations may be so far removed from what the player playing up is interested in, it could be unhealthy. (That is just one example). In other words, you might not want a 12 year old on a team of 16 year olds because they are not interested in the same things. I credit Jason Babcock for preaching that to me enough times that I get it.

As far as tactical considerations, little weight should be given. There are some exceptions with kids who enjoy great tactical advantages because they play the game daily, watch the game, etc., but those usually are also advanced technically too. Some kids are taught tactics too soon and, as a result, their technical development is slowed because, for example, they have been taught to pass when they should be dribbling. We should not play kids up because they “know the game.” We should guard the development of our players jealously, both as parents and clubs.