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Tactical Regurgitation

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

Daddy Ball

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

We hear the phrase often: “Daddy Ball.” It is a derogatory term describing a situation where a parent becomes a youth coach for the sole reason of promoting his own child. The accusation is that the child gets benefits in terms of playing time and position that he or she wouldn’t have received had someone else been coaching the team. But what if it’s not true? And what if it is?

Those of you who have read my articles through the years know I have done a lot of volunteer coaching. I coached three boys and a daughter primarily in baseball and softball, but also basketball, soccer, flag football, roller hockey, nearly everything they played growing up. So I’m quite sure there were times people looked at decisions I made regarding my kids and chalked them up to preferential treatment or, “Daddy Ball.”

So my first question is, where were those parents when the league asked for coaches? I didn’t do anything sneaky to become the coach. I volunteered. Same as they could have. I find it tough to think of someone who is not volunteering to accuse an individual who is of having anything less than admirable motives.

Are there parents who manipulate and “game” the system to ensure their children have advantages? I’m sure there are, though I can’t really remember a case of ever seeing it blatantly. Maybe I was blind to it because it was something I was doing myself.

I think there is also possibly an aspect of jealousy. Of course, anyone who is watching their child play behind the coaches’ kids is going to automatically believe that the decision is not based on merit or fairness, but is “Daddy Ball.” And, if one of those parents were to take the helm of the team and put their child where they believe he deserves to be, that’s what everyone would be saying about them.

Mike Matheny, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, was asked to coach his young son’s baseball team a few years back and he wrote a preseason letter to the parents that has become rather famous. The part that stood out to me was when he asked that all parents get involved and work with their children away from practice. He said that in his experience, the common denominator of every player he’d ever seen make it in the pros was that they had someone to work with them as youngsters. It seems to me that wanting to be the coach for your kids is an extension of this. Sure, I wanted to give them advantages. Not unfair ones. None that were unearned. I wanted to give them the advantage of my attention, my time, my knowledge of the game and my coaching. I didn’t feel anyone else could do a better job and so I sacrificed a lot of hours and career opportunities to do it. If that’s “Daddy Ball,” so be it.

When my children were just beginning to play recreational sports I remember speaking with a friend of mine whose sons were all older and in college. He had coached them in baseball all the way through high school and said that one of the main reasons he believed he had such a close relationship with his boys was all that time they spent together in the dugout. I made up my mind then and there that I’d coach my kids as long as I could.

And speaking of a letter to parents, as I write this I think of a bit I might put into a letter of my own, should I ever become a volunteer coach again. It might go something like this:

In an effort to avoid the perception that I am giving preferential treatment to anyone I will be asking for a democratic vote before each game to determine the batting order and playing positions. All parents who have attended every game and observed every minute of each practice will be eligible to vote.

I wonder how many votes I’d get.

I guess the answer could be to not allow parents to coach their own children. But then we’d have no more rec soccer, basketball, softball, football or baseball. So maybe another solution is to tone down the insults and use the phrase “Daddy Ball” less and the words, “Thanks, Coach.” more.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at He can be reached at

Back to school could mean stress in sports

Now that your kids are back to school and playing youth sports, it is important to watch for signs that maybe they are feeling pressure or that they’re overwhelmed. Take some time to notice the indicators and be sure to understand that kids who have busy days can be just as frazzled as parents.

Brawl at seven year-old soccer game

Way to go, grown-ups. Last night, in Encanto, CA, parents from opposing teams of 7 year-old soccer players got into a brawl. Apparently, some fans were upset that a player was using his head, which must be illegal at that age. We’re not sure about those details but what is known is that the melee involved multiple parents and ultimately someone resorted to pepper-spray to try and break up the fight. Two children and an adult were treated at the hospital. That must have taken the place of the post-game snack. Here is some video if you can stomach it. Unfortunately, no arrests were made.

What took so long?

We say this tongue-in-cheek, but it has always been confusing the way sports organizations who use the “U17” or “U10” etc. label their age groups. Since the “U” stands for “Under”, the phrase reads like, “Under 10” which would lead one to believe that 10 year-olds don’t qualify because a child must be under 10 to play. But no. We all learned that “Under 10” was really for ten year-olds and we all just accepted the terminology and moved on. Volleyball uses the same classification and even some travel baseball and other sports. But fortunately, US Youth Soccer came to the realization that there is no good reason to continue confusing folks. They are changing the age classifications to read “10-U”, as in “Ten and Under”. Let’s hope the other organizations out there still putting the “U” first come to their senses as well. (Courtesy Soccerwire).

Youth soccer injuries on the rise

According to this CNN article, youth soccer injuries are on the rise in the United States, due in part to the overall rise in the number of youngsters playing. However, the article is a good read for tips on staying healthy and concussion-free.

May, 2016 OnDeck Newsletter is out!

Check out the May, 2016 OnDeck Newsletter with great articles about promoting sportsmanship, educating volunteer coaches, making baseball and softball more interesting and teaching soccer players the right shot at the right time. Get your copy for either baseball/softball, soccer, or both here!

Throw the book at him

Here’s another one of those cautionary tales we sometimes run into, sadly. A league official who, for some reason, thought that the money coming into his soccer league was his to keep. How sad for the kids.

Tips for coaching youth soccer

We’ve offered some pointers this week for coaching youth baseball and softball, many of which can apply to any sport. Our tip for soccer coaches? Spend as much time as possible having young players touch the ball. Drills that involve a lot of standing around or running up and down the field while others control one ball, (a.k.a. scrimmage) do not improve players’ abilities to dribble, pass and shoot. We have some great suggestions for soccer drills you can use to encourage lots of touching and improve technique. Thanks for being a youth soccer coach!