A Team of One

By Tony Earp

Spending some time at a soccer tournament this past weekend and watching a lot of youth soccer games, mainly U12 and under, I noticed something very interesting. On many teams, the same player was being called on to do almost everything on the field. The same player always took each direct kick, goal kick, corner kick, or any other set piece for the team, and the team tried to get this player the ball as often as possible. You could probably guess which player this was? Yes, it was the player with the strongest kick, was the fastest, most skilled, and who could give the team the best chance to score or have success. The player was a Team of One. The team relied on this player to help secure a result in the game through taking all the set pieces and having that player be the focus of the team strategy. The player rarely came off the field and was asked to do almost everything on the field. To quote from one of my favorite movies, it is a “Pass it to the Italians” type of approach to the game.

What about the other players on the team? If this is truly a team sport and we are trying to develop all the players on the field, why would we not give other players on the field the opportunity to be the player over the ball in those situations? How do they learn what to do with the ball, how to strike it, where to play it, if never given the chance? A coach might say, “Well, the other players cannot do it or play the ball where we need.”

Two things here: 1) A coach’s job is to teach and help kids learn how to do things they cannot already do. Simply deciding a player cannot do something is not coaching. It is giving up. 2) If a player knows he or she will never be asked to do something in a game, the player will never take the time to try to improve that skill area. There is no reason to practice something the player will never get the chance to do.

The other players on these teams are being deprived of opportunities to “be the player” the team relies on in these situations. Not matter what the result, each time a player gets a chance to take one of these dead ball situations or play in a certain position, the player learns something new and it helps them grow as a player. If the games are just an extension of practice at the younger age groups, all players on the field need the chance to practice being involved in all situations of the game.

It seems logical to have players practice a skill they have not learned how to do yet as it is the only way to get better. In a training session, I do not think a coach would allow the players who are good at dribbling to be the only players who dribble, and only players good at passing to pass, and the players good at shooting are the only ones allowed to shoot. I am pretty sure all players need practice in all of these areas. A game is no different. The players all need opportunities to do work on not just their stronger skills but the skills they need to improve on. This means all players need to be put in situations in the game that the team relies on them through the run of play and in set pieces.

Now, if you think games are different. Games are not practice. The games are for competing and getting a result.  If this is how you feel, then having the same player take all the set pieces and dead ball situations in a game because it helps your team be successful does match up with your coaching philosophy. Getting that player the ball as often as possible throughout the game, as it will help your team win, makes a lot of sense based on your goals for the game.

On the other hand, if you feel the game is about ALL the players on your team developing and learning how to play the game, getting all the experiences necessary to continue to grow, then having the same player do everything on the field does not match up with your coaching philosophy and approach. Instead, players should be given opportunities to play important roles within the team and asked to do various things on the field, not the same things over and over. This does not mean giving other players these opportunities ONLY when your team is already up by five goals and the result of the game has been determined.

Yes, older teams, college and professional, have players who take a majority of the set pieces or are relied on to do much more than others based on their position and role within the team’s system of play. But I am not talking about that age group or level of player. I am talking about youth players, at the younger ages who are still learning and developing their skills. If we do not know which kids will grow up to continue to play this game, or how players will physically, mentally, or technically develop, I think it is important that all young players get to experience all aspects of the game. If not, then we need to hope that our strongest players at 10 years old are still our strongest players at 18 years old. This seems like a big gamble on only a small percentage of the kids who start out playing the game by only giving a select few most of the opportunities to develop.

I have seen teams that allow whichever player is closest to where the ball is to be the one to takes a free kick. A defender does not come up from the back to take the corner kick because that player has the biggest leg. Instead, the player playing in a position closest to where the kick is to be taken is the one who is given the chance. To do this, kids would need to be rotating positions as well, but in short, the kids know if they are near the ball, it is their responsibility. This means all kids need to know what to do in all of these situations so they are prepared when given the opportunity. Again, this gives all players the opportunity to practice these skills and they will learn what to do when in these types of situations. I think educating each player and giving all the players a chance is a better approach to a team sport than just allowing one player to do it all.

When teams are really committed to helping all players learn how to play the game, the coach and organization gives all players on that team the same opportunities. If not, than it is not a team. Instead, it is a group of players who rely on one player, or a Team of One. The success of all the other players relies on the skill, strength and talent of one player. This is normally the approach taken by teams with a “win first, teach second” type of environment. The more professional and developmental approach is creating a team of many, all of whom are given the chance to contribute in the same ways to the team’s success during games. Creating a Team of One is a very recreational approach to the game, and no better than a “Pass it to the Italians” approach to coaching.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@superkickcolumbus.com

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