Youth Coaching Strategy: Separate Children Based On Ability
Since my son was old enough to play recreational sports, I have either coached or helped coach some of his teams. Those sports have included soccer, t-ball, and flag football. Due to a number of circumstances, including soccer being year round in my town, I have had the most experience coaching soccer.
There are many challenges to coaching youth sports, but personally, I have found the biggest challenge to be just how to handle children of vary skills and interest. That applies not just to games but also to practice.
When it comes to my town, there were services available where they had some coaches from organizations attend your practice to show useful coaching strategies. I had adapted some of those drills while ignoring those I felt were not useful. Overall, I had initially followed the strategy of one game plan for everyone.
I’ve come to realize that doesn’t work.
Like many coaches, I had tried to balance the lineups to ensure as good a game as possible. There was one game where I realized this was a big mistake. My son had stolen a ball, and he went up field to score what was his 12th goal of the game.
By around his fourth goal, I had called him over to say to him he needs to be passing the ball more and incorporating his teammates. The problem was there were really no teammates for him to pass the ball.
While he was charging up the field with the ball, there was one kid who decided on his own he needed a break, so he walked off the field to sit down. Two of his other teammates were engaged in an epic leaf throwing fight. Finally, the last teammate was honestly just afraid of the ball.
This isn’t good for anyone. The kid afraid of the ball doesn’t have to engage because he knows there is going to be another player to take care of it. The kids having the leaf fight don’t need to pay attention because there is a savior. While that is happening, my son is basically playing by himself learning little to nothing about teamwork.
After that game, I developed A and B squads for the team. Essentially, I’ve split up players based on ability.
Admittedly, this was at first a disaster. In the first game, the “A” squad ran up the score on the opponent, while the “B” squad completely squandered away the lead and then some. This led to frustrated parents for both teams. That’s the worst possible scenario.
To mitigate against that, I have taken the time to reach out to the coach my team is going to face prior to the scheduled game. I inform him or her of the strategy I will be implementing. While some do not at all agree, they eventually acquiesce because they want to see a good game and not a completely one-sided affair.
That’s what happens. A good game. In fact, it is a much better game.
With the better players on the field, there is a higher level of play. At the Kindergarten level, I’ve since seen more team oriented play both in terms of defense and offense. There is passing, and partially because these kids play with each other more, there is actually communication on the field.
As for the B squad, something exciting began to happen. With them only playing against players with a similar skill set, they have had more of an opportunity to play competitively. With that, the leaf fights have drastically reduced, and the players who walked off the field out of boredom are now more engaged. They actually have a chance to touch the ball. In fact, players who would not have previously touched a ball would actually score a goal.
That has brought about a greater sense of both interest and pride in these children. With that has come some real improvement.
The splitting up of these players is something I have carried into practice. Now, the key there is to not necessarily let the children know they are being split up based upon ability.
For example, during passing drills, children of similar abilities are paired together. During those drills, the very basics are instilled on the players with a lower skill set. With the players who are better, I have them focus on using their not dominant foot. As a result, while everyone is doing everything as a team, they are still getting the more focused attention to help them improve as soccer players.
This can be carried out in all aspects of the practice.
Instead of scrimmages, smaller team games are preferable. Have 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 games. You can also have scrimmages happening simultaneously. Split your A squad in half and have them play against one another while having your B squad playing against each other.
In the end, it is important to remember part of coaching is helping everyone on your team improve. For your best players, dominating bad players isn’t helping them at all. For your worst players, never getting to touch the ball not only doesn’t help them, but it also serves to help them lose interest in the sport.
In the end, this is not a cure-all, and it is not perfect. Some children are never going to have interest in a particular sport, and there are some who have attention issues. You’re not going to resolve that over a two month season. There are also going to be times where you only have so many players show up to a game thereby blowing up your plan completely.
However, what this will do is permit you to foster an environment where everyone can improve on their game while also giving everyone an opportunity to play in a competitive game where they have a chance to make a real impact on a game. This will leave them feeling good about themselves and wanting to play more, which at the end of the day, is the primary objective for anyone coaching children.