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.

11 thoughts on “Player Development Series: Perils of Position Specialization”

  1. Hi
    We train our kids (6yrs up) with a “Total Football” ethos. Everyone is taught and encouraged to play anywhere at any given time as long as the team holds it’s shape and they support one another. Creativity and high pressure are the fundamental ethics. The strikers know that they are the “1st defender” once the ball is lost and if defenders decide to run past everyone and dribble on goal then the strikers drop and defend. It’s actually more natural for kids, quite simple to learn and done well it can run riot with “positional” teams at any age. Just ask Johan Cruyff 🙂 Defined position football actually requires discipline and good football intelligence to perform effectively. Many coaches aren’t aware of just how difficult it is to do well and how unforgiving it is when done badly. For example, if the left-back or striker is having a bad game then it will be continuously exploited throughout. With total football they will just organically find themselves swapping roles throughout the match – supporting each other more and more as the need arises. More often than not the situation is naturally shored up or at least improved. The positioning becomes self-defining.

    9 years-old boys can just run and run and want to be where the ball/action is at all times. All the way up to 9-man (U14) we’ve found that working with those natural strengths and instincts is an awful lot more successful than trying to conform them into some arbitrary system. It’s a lot more fun to watch too! This fluid situation keeps the door wide open for development and allows for the players to change over time – as they surely will. Different sides to their game and physical aspects come forward and others disappear. This is a system that simply allows anyone to be anything at any time. And with kids we know they can chop and change very quickly. It also demands high physical training too – which is good for all.

    Just a thought – something that has worked for our team here in Sweden.


  2. Starting over with u7 and agree with a lot of your stuff. I LOVE putting forwards as defenders and vice versa, even though they hate it. The next week, though, you see a change and a little more understanding.

    1. great! i would recommend at that age just 2 lines in a formation — if you are playing 7v7, 231 is the preferred option but i would not do it until your kids can understand the midfield line — i would use a 4-2 and tell one of the center backs he can venture forward to intercept and tackle. keep it simple.

    1. is this a professional club? (is he paid to coach)? first thought is that the response is not professional. second thought is, are you in an area where a professional youth soccer club is operating?

  3. I am constantly annoyed that nobody wants to play defense! It means the kids who are easier to get along with, or the adults in my adult leagues, always play defense – even if they prefer to play all positions.

  4. Thanks for the article.
    As a first time coach (U8), it was a good read. (I was assistant last season, but our head coach took his kid to baseball this season) The team won all games last season (U6), and we stepped up this season to more competitive league. We’ve won 1, tied 2, and lost 2. I was searching for an answer on whether I should start positioning players, or keep the rotation that I’ve been using.
    I’ll have a talk with parents and let them know we’re going to continue the rotating of positions so kids can keep trying different aspects of the game. I’ll just keep trying to get them to “see” the game and not clump together in a ball blob
    I mean, everyone gets the same trophy at the end at this age anyway….

  5. Great article. I have to admit though that I am struggling with this approach. My daughter, 12, has been playing for the same team now for over two years, and after watching them play dozens of games I would say that I can see very strong inclinations and strengths in many/most of the kids. I mean, by now I know which girl(s) look for shots, which ones anticipate passes better than others, are more aggressive, etc. In other words, it seems to me that naturally some girls are more adept at certain positions than others. This also applies, perhaps even more clearly, to the goalie position: a couple of the girls seem to have much better hand-eye coordination and seem to be more comfortable and natural at playing goalie; one of them even expresses the desire to do it.

    However, the coach continues to rotate the girls in many positions, including goalie. Needless to say the results of the games are, usually, disappointing. I sit there quietly watching them play, but wonder why the girl that has the best offensive skills and shots ends up playing defense the last 20 minutes of the game even when the team is down by a goal; or why the best mid-fielder, who already seems to have good awareness of spacing and is perhaps the only solid passer in the team, ends up playing goalie even when they are losing.

    I guess the question is: how much time do you really need as a kid to ‘explore new positions’? Most of these girls have been playing since they were 4/5 years old… and although they only started playing with a more formal formation 2-3 years ago, don’t you think that by now most of them, and certainly the coaches, should have figured out what aspect of the game they enjoy/do best?

    Lastly, with the girl that WANTS to play goalie, and given how tough it is to find goalies at this (and any) age, shouldn’t we instead nurture that desire and train her almost exclusively to become the best goalie that she can be? Since she has a pretty tough time contributing on the field, I wonder if she will just give up playing for the team (or all together) sometime soon.


  6. I coach soccer and I do this and my team wins majority of there games. My child is playing softball for the first time and she wants to try pitching she is 10 and the coach said she had no time to Coach her. I was shocked so I’m gonna continue coaching Soccer and maybe now softball as we need more positive coaches

  7. I coach under 8s. Its 7 v 7 but I have not implemented any formations at all..I want them to get involved and naturally move to cover positions and anticipate danger. The more they can get the ball the better and free there minds to start thinking natural football. If you watch young kids in Brazil playing a street game they don’t create posiirons. Its a natural flow.

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