Thoughts On Training Less-Advanced Soccer Players At the Critical U12-U14 Age Group
Every year, throughout the U.S., less-advanced boys and girls are opting out of soccer as they enter high school. Clubs that have as many as four teams at the U12-U14 age levels are down to only one or two teams by U15. Many outside forces are at work, of course, when players turn 15 and enter high school: peer pressures; activities such as debate and theater, political and film clubs, music groups, other sports (more socially “in” than soccer); and the simple fact that at 15, teenagers are growing and experimenting with their lives in ways that do not always cleave to our sporting mentality and expectations. Add to that the following characteristics most experts agree define the young adolescent period: 1) intense interest in becoming or appearing to be more adult; 2) rapid physical growth and hormonal changes that affect coordination and adaptability; 3) mood swings between elation and lethargy; 4) possible experimentation with sex and drugs; and 5) emphasis on strong peer allegiances.(1) Keeping young soccer players motivated is a challenge for every coach at any age, but this young adolescence age-group in particular poses a unique challenge to coaches: Can we train U12-U14 players in such a manner as to lessen the possibility of losing them at age 15? Studies—and every DOC—can confirm that for the highly-skilled players, self-perceived competence is enough to overcome the conflicts and extrinsic forces that lead to drop-out; but for less-gifted athletes, the situation is more clouded.(7)
Highly-Skilled vs. Less-Skilled
A highly-skilled player’s confidence level allows him or her to experiment wildly within the young adolescent paradigm; the same player who begins behaving boorishly and fouling excessively at age 13, might be the same player who will work night and day to perfect a bicycle kick! But for the less-skilled and/or less athletically-gifted player—accustomed to making mistakes more often and very aware of the growing gap between him- or herself and the best players—this paradigm translates into a growing unwillingness to take chances,(2) depriving the player of one of life’s best teaching tools: trial and error. For the more skillful players, the repetitive nature of skill acquisition—and the possibility of real perfection—allows for integration with the uber-goal of appearing more adult. To the less-skilled player, this integration appears impossible—each mistake exists in a world of its own; as the mistakes accumulate, these players get caught in the trap of low expectations—yet retain high hopes for positive outcome.(6) But these hopes are more a by-product of inclusion on a team that satisfies external, or social, needs, than part of an internal drive for perfection (or at least progress).
During my 15+ years of coaching, I have observed this dichotomy (low expectations/ high hopes) moving forward the way an engine without oil moves forward: soon enough it will seize and stop operating completely—unless a lubricant is added. It is this article’s contention that the most suitable lubricant is a tactical awareness appropriate for the average or weak technical skill the players possess, but complex enough to foster the acquisition of “game intelligence. You do not have to “dumb-down” the tactical approach. Quite the opposite. Combination plays, zonal defending, all the complexities that help make soccer the “beautiful game”—the game for players—can and should be introduced and refined. But you cannot train both these groups of players the same way. If you want the less-skilled, less athletically-gifted players to continue with the sport, you need a different approach. You may even need a different kind of coach; one who is willing to 1) replace a training to win mentality with a training to understand one, 2) replace the goal of technical perfection with one of technical functionality, 3) spend more time with 2v2 and 3v3 before progressing—if at all—to the mid-sized games, and 4) stress the effort to problem-solve—ie: to combine on offense (give-and-go, wall passes, etc) and read threats on defense (who is pressure, who is cover, etc.)—and not so much the execution.
For the highly-skilled player, adapting to increasing numbers and increasing complexity is a challenge, but a seductive one. His skill base allows him to translate 3v3 to 6v6 and 6v6 to full-sided without emotional turmoil; increased complexity equals increased opportunity, even if those opportunities are initially elusive. But for the lower-level player, movement from 3v3 to 6v6 is like switching to a new language. She can feel lost in a sea of possibilities. Where the highly-skilled player sees opportunity, she sees confusion and—ultimately—failure. By age 12, she has been identified as less-skilled and knows it; she has developed little, if any, “game intelligence,” and the possibility of developing it gets slimmer every year. She is likely to rely more and more on extrinsic values (friendships, the “coolness” of being on a team) than intrinsic ones (the movements and flow of the game itself) for satisfaction and enjoyment. Coaches are often heard saying that a player has to reach a high skill level before he or she can develop a real feel for the game. Thus lower-level teams are urged to play “simply,” and games often end up being boring expressions of pass and move, the outcome decided by the most physically mature players on the field. But coaches make a costly mistake if they assume “game intelligence” is either innately developed, or acquired best by all level players purely through game experience. Extensive studies have shown that the less-skilled the player is, the more intervention, guidance and structured training are required.(3) Coaches who sense this, however, are often discouraged from instituting those training initiatives; the following excuses are most often deployed: “with only two practices a week, there will be less time for games,” “it’s only natural, kids learn at different rates,” and the often misused and misunderstood “just let ‘em play soccer, the game’s the real teacher.” Coaches sensitive to these critiques will often hammer away at repetitive practice in skill acquisition for short but intensive periods in practice, then move to small-sided games with the same emphasis on simple technical skills, followed by a to-goals game where tactical advice is rarely given. To me, this is like telling young children they cannot write or tell a story until they have learned all the rules of grammar and can correctly spell. Is that the way to nurture love of language? Is that the way to foster creativity? Over the last thirty years, school teachers have learned that the one is not dependant on the other.