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Change the Game

When it comes to the importance of winning soccer games at the youth level, few topics can elicit such visceral opinions. There are those who believe that placing an emphasis on winning at the youth level can be a destructive undertaking whereas others feel that winning, or trying to win, is a critical component of learning how to compete. In truth, both positions are correct. The real problem lies in the misunderstanding of the topic.

Those who believe that winning should be de-emphasized at the youth level, are not embracing that approach for child coddling reasons. It’s not so every child can have a trophy and feel good about themselves. That parenting culture is indeed pervasive these days so it’s understandable that many people would react negatively to this approach. A more apt description of the belief would be this: One should only try to win youth soccer games with strategies that encourage and foster skill development. That’s the crux of it.

All those involved in youth coaching have seen the opposite approach over and over again. The ball is smashed forward to the fastest player on the team, or it’s smashed forward simply to force errors on the opposition so goals can be scored. It works. But it does little to advance the skills of the players or their understanding of the game. This is why the number one word you hear yelled across every soccer pitch in the country is “pressure!”

The game is unique

Developing in the game of soccer is unique. It’s very difficult to reach a level of technical proficiency in the game. The vast majority of sports we play in North America are hand-eye coordination sports. Those sports come to us more easily by virtue of what we all do with our hands every day. If someone has never played volleyball before, put that person on a court for an entire week and, I would argue, a basic level of proficiency can be reached. The same cannot be said for soccer. Manipulating a ball with one’s feet does not come natural to us. It takes an inordinate amount of practice just to reach a level of proficiency. So when soccer skills are in their infancy (ie. young players), the best strategy to win is to actually not have the ball. If you can’t dribble, can’t pass, and have no touch, why on earth would you want the ball? Get rid of the thing. Give it to the opposition deep in their own end. Give them the albatross around their neck. Make them cough it up in front of their goal by being stupid enough to try and pass and dribble their way through the thirds of the field. Defenders, on the other hand, have no impediment. They can move freely and dynamically around the field. This is, without doubt, the most logical strategy to win at the young ages. But unfortunately it’s the opposite strategy to develop skill and talent. Only having the ball can do that.

Fighting with the game

So the question is this: why are we fighting with the game’s objective (namely to score goals and win) in order to encourage skill development? Why isn’t the game itself creating those conditions? Kids sign up for soccer because they want to play soccer but that doesn’t mean they have to play the adult version of the game. They need to play youth versions of the game that will foster skill development. That skill development, in turn, will better prepare them for the adult version of the game. There are many examples of other sports taking that same approach. In baseball, they have t-ball. There’s no pitcher because kids need to become comfortable making contact with a static ball before the ball is moving. Another example is rugby in New Zealand – arguably the best rugby nation in the world. After winning the rugby World Cup in 2011 sports pundits praised this nation for their dominance in the sport. An article by the BBC identified some of the reasons for their success. In turns out that New Zealand has young kids playing a modified version of rugby called Rippa Rugby, a non-contact, small-sided version of the game. As one rugby teacher, and former All Black, says “Everything we do is about four key skills: catch, pass, run and evade.” In the school system, they play another version of the game called Canter Rugby which only allows a point for a try and primarily emphasizes running with the ball rather than kicking it. At age 11, they play the full 15 a-side game but even that is modified. It’s all about running with the ball. Anytime there’s a penalty, the ball is turned over rather than allowing kicks at goal. The Kiwis understand that if they allow kicking at the young ages, the teams will simply smash the ball down the field and prey on the opposition’s infancy in skill. Sound familiar?

So while it’s true that we don’t have U9 boys and girls playing the full 11 a-side version of soccer, it seems that reducing the number of players and the field size is not radical enough. We need to look towards modifying the game to the degree that participation in the sport alone has skill development as its natural outcome. Coaches shouldn’t have to fight with the game in order to help players develop skills. The game itself should be fostering that outcome.

Rule Changes

Here are a couple ideas to help modify the game (up to a certain age bracket) and ultimately reduce the advantage of the defender. That’s really the issue. The players without the ball (defenders) have too great an advantage at the younger ages.

Rule #1 Playing out from the goalkeeper

Create a blue line that divides equally between the goal line and the center line (defensive zone). When the goalkeeper is in the possession of the ball (goal kick on ball-in-hand), all opponents must retreat out of the defensive zone except for one. Once the ball crosses the blue line, all opponents can move into the defensive zone. This allows for goalkeepers and defenders to have some more breathing room playing out of the back. UPDATE: This rule has now been implemented in many provinces across the country

Rule #2 Two line pass

The ball cannot be played over two lines without touching a fellow teammate or defender. These lines include both blue lines and the center line. This limits a team’s ability to aimlessly play a ball forward.

Rule #3 One pass minimum

A minimum of one pass must be made when regaining possession before a goal can be scored. This prevents defenders from preying on mistakes and running alone to goal. It requires a supporting player to arrive for one pass before a goal can be scored.

While these are just a few ideas to encourage skill development in the youth game, I’m sure there are many other innovative rules to devise. Ultimately, we need to stop clinging to the adult version of the game at the young ages. We need to find creative solutions that will make the strategies to win and the strategies to develop skill one in the same. Imagine a modified youth game where skill is better reflected on the scoreboard. That would be progress.

Brendan Quarry
Girls Technical Director
TSS Academy