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.