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Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Progression of Small-Sided Games

Sam Snow

Across the nation and around the world soccer clubs have already made the change or are in the process of making the change to small-sided games (SSG) for preteen age groups. If your club hasn’t already made the modification then it’s behind the times. This change in soccer culture is an acknowledgement of societal impacts on sport, especially in the nations within CONCACAF and UEFA.

In the USA, the move to SSG is advocated by the United States Olympic Committee, U. S. Soccer, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, American Youth Soccer Organization, Soccer Association for Youth and of course US Youth Soccer.

US Youth Soccer has promoted SSG in the early 1980’s. The initial effort was to change U8 soccer from 11 vs 11 on a full size field and with a full size goal to something saner for the players. The result was 8-a-side soccer.  Since then the game has evolved and the need for SSG is more poignant than ever. Beginning in 2000, US Youth Soccer has advocated a stair step approach for youth players into the adult version of soccer.

Here is the logic behind our progression of 3 vs 3 to 8 vs 8 and eventually 11-a-side. Our work on SSG began under the direction of Dr. Tom Fleck in the 1980s.  With a doctorate in primary school education, Dr. Fleck wanted to modify soccer so that it made more sense to young players and to novice coaches who had not ever played soccer themselves. Keep in mind that in the 1980s perhaps 95% of our coaches had never played the sport that they now found themselves coaching. We needed a format that made sense to them and to very young players. We could not say to a 6-year-old just go play with other kids in the neighborhood or with a parent, because none of them were playing the sport.

We recommend 3 vs 3 for the U6 age group. Given the ego-centric nature of 5 and 6-year-olds, to account for parallel play and for there to be some notion of soccer shape we settled on 3-a-side without goalkeepers for this age group.

We recommend 4 vs 4 for the U8 age group. Still no goalkeepers – let all of the kids be near the ball and chase it up and down the pitch. The ego-centric approach to soccer has improved, but not much, so let’s keep the numbers small. Also with 4-a-side it makes it easier to teach partner play and for the kids to understand it. Finally, the purists like these numbers as it theoretically allows for width and depth for the attacking team.

We recommend 6 vs 6 for the U10 age group. The position of goalkeeper is now introduced to the game. Small group play is now possible and 6-a-side allows for various combinations of triangles around the ball. For the less experienced and/or knowledgeable coach 6-a-side allows for a formation without a midfield line in the team, so it is easier to understand for the coach and young players. However, a more knowledgeable and experienced coach may introduce a midfield line into the game for the advanced group of young players.

We recommend 8 vs 8 for the U12 age group. There is now a midfield line in the team. We think that adding two more field players into the team is enough for children this age to absorb (cognitively and psychosocially) and actually be able to use in a match. The coaching emphasis now is on large group tactics. The State Associations, along with US Youth Soccer, started working on implementing SSG for the preteen age groups in the 1990s. Many of the State Associations have already established 8-a-side for the U12 age group, which is a fulcrum age group.

In a nutshell, this is how we have come to this place on the player development pathway.

SSG

Figure 1 From the Player Development presentation in the National Youth License coaching course

Comments (1)

 

Playing in Stressful Matches

Sam Snow

A youth coach wrote in with these comments and question:

"A few of the boys I coach in soccer (U13) tend to feel the stress when playing highly competitive games in Division I. Despite trying to reassure them and instill confidence, they tend to freeze up and not play fluidly. This causes them to make mistakes, which only makes the situation worse – they then further lose confidence in their abilities and the cycle continues. When they play games that aren’t high stakes they relax, have fun, and play well. That helps restore some of their confidence. I try and use those low stakes games as examples for them but it doesn't seem to make a difference. I've also tried positive visualizations (having them picture in their minds & speak out loud how they will play) which has helped a little at times. Do you have any advice to help reach these boys? I know they can do it – they don’t seem to know it though. Thanks!"

The scenario described with young players who are learning how to compete is not unusual. That the coach is already practicing visualization is a wonderful step toward helping the players cope with game day stress. I suggest adding to the self-talk and team talk the mantra of the US National Teams – respect everyone, fear no one.

Learning to play against quality competition is an ongoing effort with players moving up in the levels of play. Just look at the first day of matches of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup with the successes of Martinique and Panama. In two matches, the lower ranked team knocked off the higher ranked team. This U13 team could draw inspiration from such performances.

Here are a few suggestions to build up the team’s performance and confidence:

  • Play training matches versus older teams. Play three 25 minute periods. In this way the coach can change the lineup and/or formation between each period. The coaches should be the referees during this training match so that they can speak to players during the run of play. Playing against a team that is one or two years older will help the younger team to deal with a faster game both physically and mentally. When they then go back to a match versus their own age group the game speed will seem easier to manage.
     
  • In training sessions, play more two touch and one touch small-sided games (2 vs. 2 up to 8 vs. 8) to get the players accustomed to thinking and playing faster.
     
    • Speed of play is mostly mental (tactical decision making) and secondarily physical (technical speed and physical movement). In training sessions, build the team up to a full field game of two touch for a 10 minute stretch. The coach might have to gradually increase the length of time literally one minute per training session.
       
  • Continue training on visualization. Now add a trigger word.
     
    • Develop a refocusing technique helps to trigger mental focus to a controlled state of mind. The trigger word helps the player to forget about a mistake just made or to calm oneself just before a stressful moment, such as taking a corner kick. Practice the trigger word by spelling it out in one’s mind during the day of the match. Try the word “support”, which is important for all players to do for their teammates whether attacking or defending and regardless of their position in the team formation. Even during the match when a player senses distress then spell “support” out in the mind and/or say it out loud. The use of the word “support” is a great example of the effective use of a self-talk trigger word used to remain focused during difficult moments in the match.
       
    • Self-talk refers to the internal dialogue that occurs in one’s mind, such as the instructions or encouragement that a player gives to oneself. Players’ thoughts occur often and are very automatic; for this reason rather than trying to eliminate all thoughts during a match a coach should try to work with players on managing their thoughts. When players begin to doubt themselves or tell themselves what “not” to do, it tends to lead to poor performances and mistakes. By having a go-to trigger word, it gives the player the skill needed to counter their unproductive thoughts. By replacing the negative talk with their trigger word, they are able to remain focused on the skills needed to be successful.
       
  • During a match, point out to the players the small victories they are achieving:
     
    • A pass well received
       
    • A tackle made for possession
       
    • An intelligent off-the-ball run
       
    • Good communication with a teammate
       
    • Constantly looking around the field for tactical cues
       
    • Tactically good positioning
       
    • Acts of good sportsmanship

 

  • Remind them that their anxiety stems from their competitive drive. That’s a good thing. Now refocus that drive onto individual performance, not on the outcome of the match.

    • Did I make positive comments to my teammates throughout the match?

    • Did I consistently make recovery runs when we were defending?

    • Did I work hard to move to be in the right place to support my teammates?

    • Did I consistently visualize myself making good passes/distribution to my teammates?

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Interview with Tom Sermanni

Sam Snow

 

Coaches, administrators and parents please take a moment and watch this video interview with Tom Sermanni, head coach of the USA Women’s National Team. 

 

Comments (0)

 

Consistent Performance

Sam Snow

"My son plays soccer well, when he wants to. The issue is that he is like a roller coaster and has great days, and lackluster days. How do I get more of the great days out of him?"  - Soccer Dad

Consistent match performance is a never-ending effort for players. One can watch a professional team and see dips and rises in the performance of highly talented players. This ‘ebb and flow’ of performance is a natural human characteristic. One must also consider the age and soccer experience of a player. The younger and/or the less experienced player will naturally have more obvious peaks and valleys in game day performance. Research in expert performance, in a variety of fields of endeavor, shows that it takes about 10,000 hours of training and playing to become an expert performer. The clock on the 10,000 hours toward expert performance starts ticking once a basic foundation is laid. That foundation is laid in the U6 to the U12 age groups (Zone 1 of the U.S. Soccer player development pyramid). The expert performance time line begins roughly at the U13 age group; so 10,000 hours is about 10 years of training and playing on a very consistent basis every week. This means a soccer player begins to achieve expert performance in their twenties.

Working toward consistent performance requires a player to go through trial and error as a part of the development process. To an extent ignore poor performance, but praise good performance. This is the behavior we want a player to repeat. Ask the player to replay a good move or a good training session or a good match over again in their head. This will help them imprint the performance in their mind. There is now a chance of it occurring again.

To achieve consistent performance a player must be self-motivated.  Only intrinsic motivation leads to expert abilities!

A soccer club can help establish the right environment for peak performance by continually educating the coaches, administrators and players’ parents on a proper developmental soccer culture, by providing free play (pickup game) opportunities at the club, by hosting skills school evenings, by playing small-sided games, etc.

A parent can help guide a player toward peak performance by teaching and modeling best off-the-field practices; i.e., good eating habits, proper sleep routines, deep hydration habits, personal exercise routines, etc. The parent can encourage the child to practice soccer skills at home. Parents and/or siblings can get out in the yard and play soccer with one another to deepen the passion for the game. Encourage the player to watch soccer on TV and to attend high level soccer matches in person.

But the most important motivating factor for parent to child is for the parent to let the child know that you love watching them play soccer.

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