This was originally published as a two-part series. The first part focused on individual tactics and the second part on team tactics.
When coaches talk about tactics, many of us get excited and love to start analyzing and scheming all the different strategies we like to use. We then spend loads of time trying to teach these schemes to our players - sometimes successfully, sometimes not. In reality, we are making it way more complicated than it has to be.
At the youth level, teaching tactics is a very simple process. Tactics, at the most basic level, simply means “decision making.” Therefore, we need to teach players how to make decisions. The key word here is “how.” Many of us tend to teach our players what decisions to make. This is not nearly as effective as teaching them why to make those decisions. Teaching our players “why” empowers them to make their own decisions and helps them become better and faster at solving problems.
The most effective way to do this is to take these decision-making concepts and break them down so that they make sense to our young players. Since tactics are just a series of decisions, making these decisions is simply answering a series of questions. Let’s say we are going to work with the 1st attacker (the player with the ball). At the most basic level, here are the questions this player needs to answer:
1. Q: If possible, what is my preferred action with the ball? A: Score/shoot
2. Q: If I cannot shoot, is there space I can dribble into to shoot, get forward, or get away? A: Yes = dribble into the space, restart the questions; No = move to question #3
3. Q: If there is not space to dribble, is there a teammate to whom I can pass? A: Yes = pass it; No = shield/hold the ball
If we can continuously ask our players these questions and help them learn to make these decisions in a split second, they will become very effective at a very young age. These players are learning how to make decisions on their own, and the answers to these questions are applicable to every single situation in the game.
As players begin to understand and master these questions, we can move on to higher-level concepts. At the next level, these questions will be something like this:
1. If I am dribbling into space and a defender is in front of me, is there space to get around and/or behind him?
2. Even though there is space to dribble around the defender, is there an easier way to get around him? (e.g. wall pass)
3. Even though I have space, is there someone else on my team who has more space and/or is in a better scoring position?
4. Although I can dribble forward into space, is there a faster way to get into that space? (i.e. pass)
5. Although I can get forward 5 yards, is there somewhere else I can go that will open up even more space? (e.g. backward or across the field)
6. How can I make the defender(s) move to where I want them to go? How can I get them to move out of the space they are blocking?
We are now teaching our players some exceptions to the basic principles they learned previously. These exceptions allow a faster method or a higher likelihood of success. And again, we are simplifying the process and teaching them how to make decisions so that they can solve any problem at any time on their own.
These types of questions can be asked of any player on the field. If we are working with the 2nd attacker (nearby teammates who can support the 1st attacker), we might first ask “Where can you go so that the 1st attacker can see you and you have space when you get the ball?” A next-level question might be “Even though I can move wider and closer to support the 1st attacker, could I find a place with more space and/or closer to goal where he can pass it to me early?”
The most important aspect of teaching tactics at the youth level is teaching players why to do something, not just what to do. If we do this, we will find our players executing the more complex strategies we originally visualized without having to explicitly tell them. Instead of having to tell our players to switch the point of attack, they will do it on their own because they recognize that they no longer have space in front of them, and their teammates on the other side do.
Once players begin to understand and consistently find success with the individual decision-making process, we can begin to introduce them to bigger-picture concepts: group and team tactics. This just means how multiple players work together. Each individual needs to focus on their own role, as well as the roles of their teammates.
It is still crucial to teach our players why they should make certain decisions. And there is still a series of questions to be asked and answered. First, we must ask the primary question – what is it that the group is trying to accomplish? In order to properly respond to this question, each individual must ask and answer his own set of questions. Let’s continue as the attackers, as we did in Part 1. Here are the basics:
1. Q: If possible, where are we going to go with the ball? A: To goal
2. Q: If we cannot go to goal in a short series of actions, is there another space we can attack? A: Yes = get into that space; No = move to question #3
3. Q: If we cannot find any space to penetrate, how can we create space?
The answer to Question 3 will vary, but often it is to keep the ball and work it around, possibly drop it back and/or switch it to the other side.
To answer Question 1, each player must recognize the role he plays to make that happen. The first attacker must decide if he can shoot or dribble into space to shoot. The 2nd attackers must find a place to support the 1st attacker in case he needs to pass. The result might be a through ball then a shot. Perhaps it is a wall pass or short series of one-touch passes followed by a shot. It can also be a cross finished with a volley.
If there is no obvious or immediate way to get to goal, we must explore the next best thing (Question 2). Maybe this is switching the ball to an open player on the far side. If we are not near the goal yet, this is simply penetrating space to get closer to goal. In either case, each player must recognize how he can create these options – one of which includes the 3rd attacker staying wide (away from the immediate play) to provide the switch option.
One of my favorite things to teach is the answer to Question 3. It goes like this: “Where do we want to go?” (Forward) “If we want to go forward, where do we want the defense?” (The opposite direction/away from their goal) “How do we get them to go there?” (Pass it backward – they will chase it and leave space behind).
A major light bulb goes off when your players realize this. It opens up a world of possibilities. They now understand that they can create opportunities by manipulating the defense – something they can apply in many situations and all parts of the pitch.
Making these group decisions can be complex, but if we simplify them and establish the right foundation by teaching individual tactics first, our players will be able to grasp these concepts quite easily. Once they find regular success, we can move on to even larger ideas.
This is when we begin to teach team-wide concepts. Things like the game situation – are we winning or losing? How much time is left? We can begin to recognize the momentum and flow of the game – do we need to slow it down? Should we play with more urgency? Players can also begin to recognize the opposition’s style of play and respond accordingly – are they slow to transition? Maybe we change the point of attack quickly and often. Do they like to knock the ball long? Maybe we sit back and wait to collect it before getting forward.
As always, it is crucial that we help our players recognize these on their own. We must teach them why we play a certain style or change our mentality, not just tell them what to do. This allows them to adapt on their own and take advantage of situations in the game. If we do this, our players will always play direct to take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities, yet possess the ball when we are numbers down going forward.