Tactics v. Technique: Are Americans too Tactical too Soon?

What is the difference between tactics and technique?  When is the right time to develop tactics?  While there very well may have been times or years where I was guilty of the subjects discussed below, it is by experiencing the mistakes of over-teaching tactics to young players that I have learned its weakness–it retards soccer development.  So, for starters, let me set out some definitions.

When I refer to tactics, I am talking not about how to pass, but where to pass.  Technique covers how to perform various passes, dribbles, traps, runs, etc.  To me, tactics are about the when and technique is about the how.   If you watch trainers work with kids, some will spend more time on technique while others are more tactical in their sessions.  I think I am somewhere in between.  I pitted them against each other in the title to this entry because, from what I have seen, many of our parent coaches have over-emphasized tactics (result) at a young age rather than technique (player development).

Tactics, in a U9 game, may mean keeping your best goalie at goalie all game to ensure the victory.  While he or she will gain valuable experience between the pipes, if treated like that regularly, will be prevented from growth in other areas.  Soccer is like everything else — you best learn the technical stuff early because the older we get, the harder we are to teach (or un-teach bad habits).  So, between the ages of 6-12 kids are primed to learn correct muscle memory.

Another typical example is having a fast kid as forward coupled with a strong defender instructed to send the ball up (long balls).  The tactics in this situation maximizing scoring but marginalizes technical improvement.  So, while playing a long ball up front may make it more likely that your team scores a goal with a given forward, it deemphasizes important aspects of technical improvement, like ball control and dribbling, that need to be developed at young ages.  

Or how about when a boy or girl who is relegated to one position every year from age 6-12.  It may be that a child has a talent to play fullback, but if he is not given opportunities to play in the middle or up front then his growth in the game will be limited by his experience.  It may be that playing a certain kid at fullback gives your team the best chance of winning an under 9 game, but how will that help the player later on?  

A couple of our soccer authorities have weighed in on the issue.  We all know Landon Donovan.  Here is what he had to say:  

“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, Soccer America, July 2002 (with emphasis).  

Read what Bobby Howe, the former US Soccer Federation Director of Coaching Soccer said about selfish young soccer players while he addressed the unimportance of winning small-sided youth games:

“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,  How to Play the Game: The official playing and coaching manual of the United States Soccer Federation (with emphasis).  

Some of the problem associated with this issue comes from the parents.  Our culture not only overemphasizes winning in youth games, we overstate the value of the forward.  Parents routinely demand (or passively demand) that their kid play forward.  The kids are aware of this.  Many parents offer incentives on the number of goals scored by a kid.  That may be a good incentive in an U6 game where you are teaching kids what a goal is, but it is not helpful later on.  It overstates the importance of the shot taker with no regard to the assist or build up.  Kids adopt the beliefs of their parents too.  So, if parents only value goal scores, then a kid will usually feel likewise.  To me, a kid who “does not want to play defense” is usually paired with a parent who says that “their kid just doesn’t know how to play defense.”  From a coach, the statement is a back-ended justification of why their kid is playing up front (I find most coaches’ kids play forward).  From a parent, it is a back-handed way to request the kid to play forward. Ironically, forwards and midfielders (and attacking mids) play a lot of defense.  Further, the modern soccer game is going away from a beefier front line and placing more strength in the middle (4-5-1 formation variations).  You better know how to defend to attack. 

The solution to this is to deemphasize the result and rotate kids around more.  If between the ages of 6-12 we deemphasize winning in lieu of player development, it won’t matter that “Little Johnny doesn’t know how to play defense.”  Now, we have a perfect environment to learn.  Play kids that have only played defense at offense.  Play kids that only play offense on defense.  We have a rule on our team — if you say you will not play defense, you will not play offense.  

Finally, I will say that it has taken me some time to come to these thoughts.  I love competition.  But, I think the best way to compete when it matters is to deemphasize winning (not competition) at early ages.  Then, later, when your are building teams to compete for Cups, you have players well-rounded in the game with better ball control.  If it is structured appropriately (matching skill levels in Academy games), then there will still be plenty of competition.   I do not advocate throwing kids onto a field and saying “it doesn’t matter, go have fun.”  I am the opposite of that.  I only think that the best way to advance is to devalue results at U7-U10 levels (U11 & U12 are qualifying years id EDDOA so it applies there too).  

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