Have you ever had to keep reminding a 9-year-old to stay in his position? How often do you have to tell your U8 team to spread out? Even if you’ve reviewed and gone over the positional roles of your players a thousand times, they still don’t get it. Why is that?
Because kids don’t understand positions. They simply don’t get it. Their brains don’t think that way. And that is perfectly okay!
As adults, we love structure. We look at the white board, see X’s and O’s shaped into a formation, and we understand what it means. We can translate that to the game when we play or coach. But kids don’t. They cannot translate the white board to the field. Sure, they can understand everything you talk about while drawing out all the movements, but when they go onto the field, it’s not nearly the same picture for them.
Kids hate structure. In fact, when playing soccer, they hate everything that doesn’t have to do with themselves and the ball. That’s just how they’re wired. Until the age of about 7, most kids can’t comprehend anything beyond themselves and the ball. That’s why they bunch up and forget about their positions – they are solely focused on the ball. After that, kids can comprehend themselves, the ball, and another player - but not much else. It’s not until about age 11 or 12 when players can really begin to understand small groups of players – emphasis on "small."
But still, at these ages, they still struggle to fully understand the concept of positions. Typically, players younger than U13 understand tangible things. They see objects and people. They don’t fully “see” or comprehend intangibles like positions and areas of the field. So if, as coaches, we focus too much on positions, we are wasting our time.
I am sure some people would say that I am wrong. They’d say that they have successfully taught their young players positions. But have they really?
When we see young teams that “understand” positions, are they actually playing quality soccer? Or are they just standing in designated areas of the field, playing robotically and predictably? How much movement or creative play do we see from these players?
These teams do not play creative, quality soccer. They also are probably not very technical.
Here’s why: Since kids do not naturally understand the concept of positions, getting players to stay spread out and in their positions requires two things: time and restrictions.
Since teaching positions is the ultimate uphill battle, it requires a disproportional amount of time to teach it to young players. If we want 10-year-olds to stay in their designated roles, we pretty much have to spend all of our time coaching positions. This leaves minimal time for technical development, which is arguably the most important aspect for players at these ages.
When the ball is in the attacking third, why do coaches tell young defenders to move up the field and stay at the halfway line? Or worse, at the edge of the penalty area? Because these are tangible things that kids can see. Remember: kids only understand tangible things – like objects and people.
But these are not actually the proper locations for our players. The proper locations depend on the position of the ball and the other players – which rarely results in the need for all of our defenders to stand on the halfway line or penalty area.
However, in order to get kids to stay in positions, it requires these types of restrictions. What is the result of these restrictions? Players getting bored from being so far away from the action and never getting involved in the play at the opposite end of the field. These restrictions also result in static, predictable play – everyone just stays in a designated area and must give up the ball and stop running once they have reached the end of their zone. We can forget about creativity, combinations, epic dribbles, or movement off the ball.
The Real Way to Teach “Positions”
Instead of spending large amounts of time on one aspect of the game and restricting our players, we should be empowering them and teaching them how to think and problem solve. Instead of teaching them positions, teach them why we create positions in the first place. Teach them the principles of play.
Attacking principles: penetration, width, support/depth, mobility, improvisation. Defensive principles: pressure, cover, balance, compactness, delay, control and restraint. These principles apply to every single situation in any part of the pitch. If our players understand these, they can handle any situation at any time, and the positions come naturally.
Teach players that their first decision on the ball should be to penetrate – can we go to goal? If not, can we get forward? If so, how? Can we dribble, or must we pass?
Teach players spatial awareness. Teach them to look for and how to recognize space in the attack, then help them understand why it is beneficial to them.
Teach players without the ball how to find space. Teach them why they should find an area where they can see their teammate who has the ball, but allow that player space to play while finding their own space to have when ball eventually comes to them.
Teach them how to recognize the movements of other players and the ball, then anticipate the next action and act accordingly.
This method might take longer to kick in. It will certainly take much longer to start looking like “real” soccer. But when our players finally do start to get the hang of it, they will have a true understanding of the game, and then we won’t have to spend much time at all teaching positions. Since they will have an understanding of space, depth, width, and movement, they will naturally begin to put themselves in areas of the field that look like positions. And if we ever actually place them in specific roles, these roles will make much more sense because our players understand the concepts behind why we use positions and will have the ability to play creatively within them.