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).
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.