It has become commonplace among many coaches that our youngest players need to master technique before learning tactics. After all, how can we teach players to switch the point of attack if they can’t even pass or control the ball?
The logic behind this philosophy is mostly sound, but it is often misinterpreted and certainly mis-implemented.
A succinct counterargument to this logic would be: Why should we teach a player how to pass a ball if they don’t know why they are passing the ball to begin with?
At the youngest ages, players need to develop their technique. They need to have repetition of certain actions and, just as crucially, learn to make decisions related to those techniques. This is what we call skill: execution of a technique for the purpose of achieving a desired outcome or decision. Skill is what our youngest players need to learn.
What this means for coaches of players at the youngest ages is that we need to develop training session activities that allow each player to get loads of repetition with the ball, yet at the same time, players need to be working toward some sort of objective or goal.
Striving to achieve a goal is what teaches players how to make decisions, and in order to achieve that goal, certain technical execution will be required.
An example of how to implement this method: Instead of having players take turns dribbling in and out of cones in a straight line, we could have players each with their own ball, trying to avoid other players who are trying to kick the ball away.
Although this may appear as just a simple game of tag, it is actually a game that helps children learn to perceive their environment and explore ways to maintain possession of the soccer ball. In order to be successful in this game, they need to figure out where the space on the field is, where the opponent is, and where any other obstacles might be in order to decide where to go, when to move or turn, and how to run or move their body, all the while trying to figure out how to control and manipulate the ball to avoid giving it up. In this game, players develop both the technique and the decision-making that leads to acquiring skill.
In the “dribbling through cones” activity, players are given all the decisions and don’t need to perceive any part of their environment other than the non-moving cones. The only thing they are developing is technique – not skill.
The misconception of “technique before tactics” comes from a misunderstanding of two things: 1. That a low player-to-ball ratio means everyone working on technical skills, and 2. That tactics means “X’s and O’s” type strategy of the entire team. The first of these is correct in that having more balls per player helps everyone get repetition to develop technique, but ultimately, young players need to apply that technique to a purpose for it to translate to a game. The second of these misunderstandings confuses older players and younger players. At older ages, we hope that most players have developed a decent degree of technical ability, which allows us to work on larger, team-based tactics. However, at younger ages, we can work on the simple tactics of individual decision-making, which also requires a lot of technical repetition while trying to make such decisions.
Ultimately, teaching young players technique simply means providing an opportunity for players to get loads of repetition trying to execute certain actions with the ball. However, this can and should be done simultaneously with trying to achieve tactical (A.K.A. decision-making) goals, which will lead to the development of true skill.