By Tony Earp
What is most important? Teaching young players individual skills or a tactical understanding of the game? It is a debate many coaches have, and often a stark contrast you can see between two teams when they play against each other. Although both sets of coaches want their players to be successful, there may be a difference between WHEN they want their kids to have success and the type of “tactics” being taught.
So, what is more important? Simply, it is not one or the other. The answer is both are important, but too often, it is the “tactics” that takes precedent over skills.
It is critical young kids develop necessary skills to play this game in order to be successful later on. If you cannot control the ball, you do not have a mastery of the skills, you cannot play this game to your full potential. With that said, as you are teaching young kids the skills to play the game, you also teach the ability of how to use those skills in games.
When you are working on 1v1 skills, it is not just how to beat the player, but WHY and WHEN? Is it best to dribble or pass in that situation? When working on passing and receiving it is not just the technique of how to do it, but WHY and WHEN did you take a certain type of touch in a certain direction with a certain foot, or why did you play that pass, at that angle, at that moment, in that direction, with that speed or with that texture.
When playing and training, you talk about finding space, and helping them see what is going on around as part of the skill development and ability to use them and that is learned over time. The biggest complaint I hear about coaches of older players is not about the players’ understanding of the game, although it can always be better, but their lack of ability to do the simple things well enough, all the time, to play at a speed that is necessary at higher levels of competitions. Their control touch and competency on the ball is not good enough to deal with the high speed, unpredictable, pressures of the game.
With that in mind, and I think this where some coaches of young players make a huge mistake, sometimes a false or “rehearsed” type of tactics is taught to young players trying to learn to play. Players only move and stay exactly where the coach asks them to, not having to think, make decisions for themselves, or respond to what is happening in the game. It cosmetically looks great when you watch the team play, and it is often assumed that the players have a great understanding of the game. But the understanding is shallow, it is only on the surface, as it does not show a strength in competency, but rather a demonstration of the players ability to follow instructions. The players cannot solve the problems of the game. They can only do what the coach asks.
It is like teaching a kid that 2 + 2 = 4, but that is it. You never teach the child why, so he has no idea why that is the case. The kid has no idea about the actual value of each number, or that you are adding up its value to get to 4. So if you phrase the question differently, “If you have 2, but you need 4, how many more do you need?”, the kid would not know the answer. All the kid understands is the statement that 2 + 2 = 4 because that is what he was told.
At times, coaches with young teams will teach the skills needed only to play the way the coach wants them to, and only allow the players to do exactly what the coach wants. But what about when the coach is no longer the coach, and the next coach asks them to do more? Or what happens when the game evolves, and there are more players, playing in different positions, more decisions to make, and the speed of the game is increasing? In the moment, a very well organized U8 year old team can have a lot of success in terms of results, but how many of those players have the same type of success later on as circumstances change and the game gets harder?
Helping players use space properly and how to make decisions on the field can start at an early age, but it cannot be done in a way that limits players options and ability to explore and learn the game by trial and error. Simply, neither skills or tactics can be taught in a vacuum, and both need to be done at a cognitive level that is both appropriate and promotes growth.
As kids move up levels, coaches will continue to look for important qualities in players. Do the they have the skills required to play the game? Are they intelligent players who understand the intricacies of the game? Can they make decisions on their own? Can they learn from mistakes and make adjustments? Can they compete and mentally handle stresses of the game?
The goal is for any player who is willing and works hard enough to have all those things by the time he is in his competition years (15+). All the years before that are part of the process in getting there, so nothing can be skipped or prioritized in the wrong order for short term results, UNLESS the coach’s end goal is different.
Long term development is not everyone’s goal. And if it is not, then that process does not have to be followed. Since only less than 1% of kids will ever play at the highest level, many would argue that it is more important to just make sure the kids are having success and winning. Give them the best chance to win now. I understand the logic, but do not agree with it. I believe you teach every kid like they will be a professional because we have no idea who that will be, and I do not want a kid to miss the chance because of something I did to meet my own short term goals.
To use another school analogy, it is the same reason why you teach kids letters and sounds, and then teach them how to create words, that can be used to make sentences, and then can be used to write paragraphs/stories. It is a progressive process builds on itself. You can instruct a young kid to copy a long sentence down, and show that to someone else and say, “look what this kid just wrote”, but the kid has no idea what the letters, words, or sentence means. They are “just copying” what they have been asked to copy. What might look to be impressive is really not. It is just regurgitation of what was asked of them to do, and does not show meaningful understanding.
So in short, skills are critical to be taught at a young age and the game should be fun. It has to be fun or the kids will not play very long. Within that context, the kids can be taught how to play with other players and work as a team. In smaller numbers at the younger teams (pairs), then progressing into threes, and then into larger numbers as they get older.
An older player with great skill but no understanding of how to play will struggle just as much as a player who has a great understanding of the game but lacks the skill to execute a decision.
I have heard an overemphasis of “tactics” at a young age defined as teaching “smart” soccer. I am not sure how you teach “smart soccer” without teaching skills required to play that way. “Smart soccer” with the youngest teams translates to “mistake free” or “paint by numbers” soccer where little learning and development is taking place. Just a regurgitation of rehearsed soccer from a practice where kids spent most of their time listening to instructions and walking through set plays versus actually playing or practicing (or learning). Like rehearsing for a show, the kids go over their lines each practice and are asked to stick to them when they get to the game. Any deviation from their scripted roles is punished.
Now, I have heard a coach use the term “Brain Ball” with his players. This is something completely different. He asks his players to make choices in the game based on what they see. He asks them to solve the problems of the game using their brains and the skills learned in practice. For me this is “smart” soccer because the coach is asking the players to think for themselves, make mistakes and learn from them, and use all the skills learned in training during the game. The result? Players with the skills needed to play the game and ability to think for themselves when they are older. The players will not be like many who have no idea what to do unless they are told. The players will not be those who can regurgitate tactics when it is clearly defined for them, but have not idea how to apply them on their own.
Unplug the joystick and the player will stand idle.
I will end with this though… there is no set formula/timeline. Coaches will constantly debate the delicate balance between the time spent on skills and tactics in training, and debate is always good. It usually breeds new ideas and innovation in pedagogy. But in the simplest terms, at the youngest groups, if they are learning good habits in training, the skills needed to play the game, having fun, and at each practice and game learning a little more about how to play, the players and coach are on the right path.
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@