Last June a National Youth License coaching course was held in New Jersey. One of the coaches in the course had his U10 girls’ team come out to be demo players in the U10 training activities run by the course candidates. During those sessions I (Sam Snow) mentioned to the group of coaches about the quality decisions being made by those players on their positioning and movement within the activities. They clearly were beginning to think one step ahead in the game. They also backed up their decision making with good ball skills. A week or so after the course the coach of those players sent me a message part of which I copy here:
"After watching my girls – you mentioned that the next thing I should work on was checking runs. That is a topic that there doesn’t seem to be too much material on and yet I am wondering if you were suggesting to make it an entire lesson – or just part of what they do during a session on triangles? I am sure this is elementary to you – but I wanted to get your thoughts on introducing the checking runs, any activities or games? Or should I just use it as a coaching point? Any help would be appreciated."
I replied to the coach and as I always do I copied the state association Technical Director. The New Jersey Youth Soccer Technical Director is Rick Meana (RM) who is also an instructor for the National Youth license. From my response to the club coach, Rick and I began a discussion on off-the-ball movement. In the Principles of Attack this is called Mobility.
Adjustments in positioning and runs to get to the right spot on the field are what tactically aware players do throughout a match whether they are attacking or defending. With that fact in mind, here’s the discussion beginning with part of my reply to the club coach.
SS: It’s good to read that you are continuing to work with the girls on the triangle shape in their defending and attacking play. When you think the players are ready, add the idea of the checking run to create space for yourself to activities 3 and 4 in your session plan. Checking Run: a feinting technique that involves taking a few quick steps in one direction before turning and sprinting in another.
RM: So moving on with this area -- they say 98% of the game at the top level is spent without the ball -- various "locomotor" movements, etc.
7 possible movements a player will make in a game without the ball:
1. Checking (away from and back to the ball --U10-12s?)
2. Supporting (to a teammate under pressure --U8s?)
3. Penetrating (between opponents, preferably through a different "seam" that the ball travel through; i.e., straight ball being played to an angled/diagonal run-- and an angled/diagonal ball being played to a straight run)
4. Unbalancing (to the blind/off-ball side of the opponent)
5. Clearing (out of a wide channel for a teammate penetrating run)
7. Withdrawing (into a wide channel)
So my question from what ages is possible to address/train these runs?
SS: I think all seven movements are possible with the top U12 teams – far left on the bell curve – think the best U12 teams at Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, etc. I believe some of the off-the-ball movements (mobility) are assigned to appropriate ages in the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model (PDM).
1. Checking – I think the idea can be introduced at U10 and then clearly a part of the training plan from U12 onward.
2. Supporting – I think the idea can be introduced at U8 and then clearly a part of the training plan from U10 onward.
3. Penetrating – well one could say that penetrating runs occur for U6 and onward. However, tactically timed penetrating runs through the seams of the opposing team likely won’t start until the U12 age group. I think there are college teams that have a difficult time with this type of attacking run – as opposed to just mindlessly sprinting up field. Again players to the left of the bell curve in the U12 age group could read the run, but they will need a really good coach to help them see the tactical moment and to take advantage of it. When to run and when to not make this run will be the biggest challenge to teach.
4. Unbalancing runs – U14 and onward. I think runs number 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 will be a lot for the U12 age group to learn well enough for it all to be a conscious part of their game. Third attacker runs for the U12 age group are possible if it’s presented in a somewhat concrete manner, such as far post runs on a cross or a corner kick.
5. Clearing – the notion of run out of a place to open that space for a teammate is an idea that U12 players can comprehend. Again make it a bit concrete for them with a tactic like – when the left or right fullback overlaps then forward players should pinch in toward the middle of the field to help open the space on the flank.
6. Overlapping – the tactic could be taught from the U10 age group and onward. The problem for the U10 players with this tactic will be patience – theirs and their parents, and possibly their coaches, too. However, players who are not expected to run-n-gun all the time could add the overlap to their attack.
7. Withdrawing – do you mean this move as the opposite of clearing? If yes, then I think for sure U14 and older players will understand the maneuver.
RM: Yes--- for withdrawing run I mean an outside MF or winger getting "sideways on" or "butt to the touchline" or "white on your boots" type run.
SS: OK, so "withdrawing" is to get out as wide as possible when on the attack; get some chalk on your boots. I think that even U10 players can begin to grasp that idea, especially if they get passes from teammates when they are wide on the pitch and wide open from marking. However, the idea of withdraw in order to create space for a teammate in the central channel of the pitch may not click for the kids. It’s an indirect reward for a 10-year-old. For example, Sam says, "Yeah my run opened up Rick, but he got the ball instead of me. I made the run, why didn’t I get the ball?"
We then carried the discussion over to runs made when defending.
6. Sliding over
7. Stepping Up
8. Dropping Off
SS: First I have two questions. Are numbers 2 and 7 essentially the same? If # 2 is about the first defender and # 7 is about 2nd and 3rd defenders then the breakdown of the eight types of defensive off-the-ball movements make sense to me. My second question, is sliding over in item 6 the same as pinching in?
With these thoughts in mind here’s my age group introduction of each type of run:
1. U6 – true it’s not an intentional tactical thought, but it is occurring and should be encouraged.
2. U8 – the idea of controlling your speed as you close down the dribbler I think can be planted as a seed in the minds of U8 players.
3. U10 – for sure the straight forward notion of pick up an opponent and run with him or her when your team is defending is comprehensible to this age group.
4. U10 – it’s concrete, but since its off-the-ball I think the skill can be taught at U10 but not sooner.
5. U10 – the coach will have to be patient though as the kids will often forget to recover in order to cover.
6. U12 – this is a much more abstract recognition of space and a tactical moment in the game.
7. U12 – this age group could get the idea since it is a way to stay compact and I think that idea, both for defending and attacking, is important to teach and reteach from this age onward. However, only coaches with solid understanding of the principles of defense will be able to teach the concept in a way the U12 players will understand
8. U12 – since it’s just the opposite of "stepping up" then I think it could be introduced.
The last two tactical movements, stepping up and dropping off, are only introduced to the U12 age group. I think consistent execution of those defending tactics begins at U14.
RM: YES and YES to your two questions!
SS: Based on our discussion the saying that U12 is the Dawning of Tactical Awareness jumps off the page.