If you speak to most knowledgeable coaches, they will tell you that players at young ages need to focus mostly on technique first; tactics become more important later. This is sound advice. After all, what good is a strategy if you don’t have the technical skills to execute it?
However, this approach is a little short sighted. At the very beginning – when kids are first starting out – they need to learn tactical concepts more than anything. This does not mean positions. This does not mean team strategies. It means basic, individual decision making. Spatial awareness, what to do with the ball, and where to go are some of the most important concepts. To be clear: players do need loads of technical exposure (maximizing the time each individual is touching the ball) – but we don’t need to focus on the teaching of the perfect technique.
When we talk about the weaknesses of American players, what always comes to mind? 1. Speed of decisions, 2. Creativity. Teaching these basic tactics first helps solve both of these issues. Firstly, it lays the tactical foundation needed later for more advanced concepts. In a child’s mind, knowing how to find space and where to go with the ball are extremely useful – kids can apply these to every game situation, even if they are taught using “Monster Tag” and “Sharks and Minnows.” Creative thought processes are also developed because we do not tell them how to execute their strategies. If all a player knows is “get the ball from here to there as fast as you can,” but he does not have any instructions as to how to get it there, he will have to figure out how on his own. Try it. I bet that you’ll have some players pick it up with their hands and run with it. And guess what: those kids will probably get the ball to their destination first. Brilliant.
From there, we can mandate that they must use feet. Now it’s up to them to figure out how they are going to use their feet to control the ball as they move it. They are solving the problem and creatively coming up with a solution.
As we add pressure (someone trying to take the ball), we can give them some hints like “If you don’t want the shark to take your ball, should you keep it close or far away?” Now it is up to them to figure out how to control it AND keep it close to them. But remember – we did not give them any technical instruction. We did not tell them to dribble with their laces or pinky toe. Try this and watch the players – I bet you see all different kinds of strategies and different parts of the foot being used. Sometimes, you’ll see methods you’ve never seen before – and they work! If we give the players too specific of instructions from the beginning, strategies that work for some kids will never be discovered, and all our players will play the same way.
Furthermore, focusing on tactics establishes players’ interest and love for the game. The reality is that kids, when first starting out as players, are not interested in learning proper technique. That takes a lot of repetition and is “boring.” Kids are interested in competing and playing. Focusing on how they can win the game, not get tagged, or stay away from the shark is useful and interesting to them. It helps them be successful in the activity.
This does not mean that we never teach technique. Once players are engaged in the activity and trying to figure out how to be successful, they become more interested in learning how to create that success. You will also have some of the players struggling. This is when you teach basic technique. Now that they recognize that they need actual technical help in order to find success, they are interested in learning it. It is relevant to them.
As time goes on, players will begin to fully understand these basic tactical concepts. This is the foundation for more advanced tactics (a foundation that is often skipped) and makes learning those tactics much easier. Also, by keeping our coaching aligned with what players see as most relevant to them, they learn to enjoy going to training. This turns into a love of training and improving. Once they develop that love, we can shift our focus to loads of technical repetition before getting into more advanced tactics later on.