For matches, players should arrive ready to play no later than 45 minutes before kick-off. This means shoes, socks and shin guards on; jewelry off; hair dealt with and out of the way; and a properly inflated ball in-hand. This 45 min warm-up period is important not just for physical preparation, but for mental preparation as well. It’s the time to start focusing on the game and think through the lessons of the prior week’s practices.
As with Practice sessions, always bring a large water bottle. Sports drinks should be avoided unless they are cut 50/50 with water.
For U11, the state association (Colorado Soccer Association) has established a somewhat complex league structure designed (in theory) to guide each team into their appropriate level of play. During the summer before U11, every club will inform CSA as to how many U11 teams they will be fielding in each gender. CSA will then look at the performance of each clubs’ prior three years of teams (the exiting U11, U12 and U13 teams) to see how they fared, then “award” spots in the various leagues for each club with Super League at the top of the structure and regional Challenge leagues at the bottom. Once placed, teams compete within a league and at the end of the fall season there is a crazy shuffling of teams. See the “U11 League Alignment” box on this page.
This process is a one-time event with a simpler scheme consisting of first place promotion / last place relegation (plus play-in games for certain divisions) taking affect at the end of the U11 spring season. From U12 to U14, promotion / relegation is handled annually with league position determined over the course of both the fall and spring seasons. Going into U15, there’s another league structure altogether that won’t be described here.
The key take aways around leagues are:
- Coaches aren’t able to select the league: CSA tells clubs what slots they have and it’s up to teams to win their way up or lose their way down the league structure.
- During U11, promotion / relegation occurs twice. After U11, promotion / relegation is handled on an annual basis.
- League place is based on the traditional soccer scoring system of: 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a loss.
For a breakdown of anticipated league activity, see the “Annual Cycle” section on the Team page.
Tournaments are both good and bad. They provide the coach and team with the opportunity to try a number of different things over a short period, delivering a rapid and intense set of learning opportunities. On the flip-side, they are physically and mentally demanding, particularly when playing in hot weather.
Typically, my motivation for playing a tournament falls into one of two categories:
- To stretch the team. There will be times when I will elect to place the team in a division above their league level of play. This will let all of us (coaches, players and parents) see where we are and the gap that needs to be covered if we want to go further.
- To give the team confidence. There will be times when we may be struggling and could use a bit of confidence building. In these cases, we’ll play at a level closer to our comfort zone.
In either case, for tournaments, I will often deviate from the practices outlined in the Position Rotation section below with players spending much of their time in their Primary position, providing them with their best opportunity to shine and (hopefully) deliver on the objective for the tournament.
Another element of tournaments is location. Living in a metropolitan area, there are more than enough local tournaments with a competition profile suitable for most teams. And the reality is that for younger teams, travel tournaments means no chaperones (i.e. at least one parent per player must travel), thus costs rise rapidly. Having taken children of my own to tournaments in Phoenix, Las Vegas, the Bay Area and elsewhere, costs often equate to $300-400 per player per match which is a development ROI that I simply don’t believe can be justified. In my view, out-of-state tournaments are justifiable only for:
- High School age players (Juniors / Seniors) seeking exposure to college coaches and scouts via College Showcase events
- Elite teams for whom there isn’t sufficient local competition to continue driving their development
All this said, if a team’s parent group is REALLY interested in a winter out-of-state / fly-away tournament and is willing to fund the endeavor, Coach Dave is all in for that! But it’s not something I will insist upon. In fact, if you step back and take a look at the overall team cost (~$15,000), there are unique and far superior development opportunities that can be found closer to home for a fraction of that cost. My hope is that in lieu of out-of-state events, that the team may budget / fund other activities which may arise from time-to-time.
Additionally, there are a number of tournaments within a 4-6 hour driving radius in destinations such as Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction or Albuquerque. With these events, the team can enjoy a “travel tournament” experience without the added expense of airfare and typically whole families can afford to travel in support the team vs. what often ends up being just a single parent for a fly-away.
For a breakdown of anticipated tournament activity, see the “Annual Cycle” section on the Team page.
Matches often bring with them a heightened level of emotion for players, parents and coaches. As such, it’s a good idea to take a step back after matches to take stock. If a match has gone poorly, immediately following the match is the worst time to talk with players about what went wrong. They already know things haven’t gone well and don’t need a grown-up reinforcing it for half an hour. On the flip-side, if things have gone well, they also know it and a few minutes of recap / congratulations is all that’s necessary.
Regardless of result, I will rarely meet with the team after a match for more than 5 minutes, choosing to save a more detailed conversation for the next practice. Similarly, I ask that parents also respect this guideline and avoid any serious, deep conversations about the game with a player and avoid engaging with the coaches for at least 24 hours after a match.
When an adult makes a “mistake”, we often say later when thinking about what happened that it was a “learning experience”. Likewise, we shouldn’t think about errors players make in matches purely as mistakes. They too are gaining experience. With every bad pass, poorly timed tackle, missed defensive assignment and soft goal, we are learning. The faster we make mistakes, the faster we learn. A big part of Practice will be to get those mistakes flowing at a high pace so over time fewer of them occur in matches. But, in the end, mistakes are going to happen. We’ll recognize them, but move on quickly.
At the competitive level, matches are almost always managed by older, more experienced officials than what’s assigned for recreational games. Still, officials are like the field or weather: some days great, some days not so great, but part of the game the players have to learn to deal with. Players and parents negatively engaging with match officials is unacceptable. See also the “Match Day Behavior” section on the Parents page.
One or more Team Captains will be chosen for each match and will typically be selected from the players who are defenders that week.
Players, even at the youngest ages, will have natural tendencies and strengths that will lend them to certain positions. However, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for young players to have the same role every match. For the player’s long-term development, position assignments will change fairly frequently: front-to-back and left-to-right. If we are able to play a 3-4-3 (as outlined in Philosophy), the ideal situation would be for each player to spend about 30% of their time at Forward, 40% in Midfield and 30% in Defense during a season (+/- depending also on who is playing goalkeeper). Ideally, players will be in the same position (but perhaps different sides of the field) for an entire match, but it may be necessary at times for players to take up multiple positions in a single match.
Ultimately, by the end of U12, we are aiming to identify for each player their primary, secondary and tertiary positions:
- Primary: Strongest position (often the one the player enjoys the most)
- Secondary: Another position where the player is both confident and competent in their game
- Tertiary: A last position where the player is really stretched out of their comfort zone, but something the player needs to be able to do to help the team in times of short roster or other circumstances
Perhaps the most sensitive topic around matches is playing time. Many competitive coaches prefer to allocate more playing time to the stronger players or those that are “in form”. However, for a range of reasons, I believe in equal playing time. This is perhaps unusual in competitive soccer, but I think it makes sense.
In their book Coaching Outside the Box: Changing the Mindset in Youth Soccer, Mairs & Shaw do a great job describing the reasons for equal playing time, describing how unequal playing time negatively impacts not just the players seeing less time on the field, but those being preferred as well. Some of the salient points include:
- For players being held out
- Young players will eventually realize why they are being left out and will often feel “rejected, worthless, incompetent, and ultimately dismayed with their involvement in the sport”
- Players may drop out of the sport to seek opportunities elsewhere (this is a widely studied phenomenon across all youth sports)
- Players with limited playing time are deprived of the very opportunities they need in order to improve the perceived weaknesses that led to being held out (poor match performance is a self-fulling thing when a player is given less time to learn and improve in the game speed / full-pressure / full-sided environment of a match)
- For players being preferred
- Increased pressure to perform (and associated higher stress) as the measure of success for those players is not their improvement, but whether or not the team won
- Higher risk of acute or overuse injuries (especially in tournament settings)
- Friction within the team’s parent group which usually leads to friction between players and between the parents and coach
“I cannot even try to imagine a justified scenario in which the teacher and some parents manipulate the system to actively keep some children out of the classroom while allowing other children in.” – Prof. Daniel Frankl, California State University
Mairs & Shaw go on to describe additional negative aspects of the “competition for places” concept. While this approach is appropriate for older players (typically high school and up) who have a different set of psychological drivers, with younger players it’s a damaging approach which creates an unhealthy “ego-focused environment” where players often become fixated on constantly proving they are better than their peers. Over time, kids are trained to be selfish and think only of themselves in order to gain the coaches’ approval. Players at both ends of the spectrum “often become uptight, anxious, and fearful of making mistakes” as it may lead to exclusion. Children in this situation will often resort to the “blame game” in order to deflect attention from themselves and to put themselves in a more positive light. And players will become resentful of one another: the kids who are playing less come to dislike those playing more and those playing more come to resent those that are perceived as poor players because of the amount of time they are getting.
All of these things are counter to what I’ve been taught as a coach and what I believe in as a parent. How can there be a “team” when there is no harmony? How can learning be “safe” if mistakes come with a penalty? Certainly, as children get older, they need to take on more and more accountability for their performance, but with younger players, it’s mostly up to the coach to ensure players are succeeding. In competitive soccer, the coach picks the player, not the other way around, so the coach is ultimately accountable. If a player is struggling and holding the team back, I believe it’s up to the coach to help that player individually or find other solutions (including potentially moving them to a lower team).
One of my coaching touchstones is this: the only thing consistent about kids is they are inconsistent. Kids will have high points, they will have low points. But adults (i.e. coaches) can and should be consistent and, in my opinion, that includes an even-handed approach to playing time. If a player is attending practices, working hard and doing their best to improve, they will play.
All this said, there are a few exceptions in my equal playing time policy:
- Muscle or Joint Injury: If a player is injured and clearly struggling, I will pull a player out for no other reason than to ensure they don’t further aggravate an injury and lose them not just for the match, but for practices the next week or beyond.
- Concussion: If a player has taken a blow to the head (head to head, head to ground, head to goal post), they will come out of the game (or practice). If they exhibit any signs of a concussion, they will not be permitted to continue playing and parents will be asked to have them assessed by a physician. If a player is diagnosed with a concussion, they will not return to practice or match play until I receive a written release from the player’s physician.
- Effort: If a player is clearly checked out and disinterested in the match, they may see less playing time during that match. It’s possible for any player at any level to have an off game and make mistakes. That’s expected and completely acceptable. But giving up and not even trying is not acceptable. However, I also understand there may be things outside soccer that are impacting a player’s motivation or interest. In the unlikely situation that a player has been pulled because of effort, I will follow up with the player’s parents after the match to understand if there are reasons for the distraction and if there is anything I can do to help.
- Academics: Unlike school-sponsored soccer, clubs generally don’t have academic eligibility standards. However, I am interested to the extent parents choose to share. If a parent comes to me and asks for my help with creating an incentive for their child to improve their school work, I will do what I can including agreeing to playing time as a reward for achieving the player’s academic goals.
- Attendance: If a player isn’t meeting the training session attendance requirements outlined on the Practice page, they may see reduced or no playing time. Players need to earn the right to take the field with their teammates and that means putting in the work necessary to learn and improve alongside the other players in the team.
- Individual Matches vs Whole Season: Because of the math associated with 11-a-side soccer and the size of a roster, it may be difficult for every player to get an identical amount of time in every match. Some days, substitutions may also be slow in coming just because of how a game is flowing (if there are no stoppages, there are no opportunities to substitute). However, over the course of a 9-10 league season and a couple tournaments, the curve will even out and every player should end up with about the same amount of field time.
A final note: if for whatever reason a player is really struggling, they may see shorter shifts during a match (but more of them) to allow time for individual coaching. There may also be times when their Position Rotation is adjusted to leave them in roles where they are stronger in order to help bring up their confidence.
Purpose of Matches
At the youth level (ages 6-12), matches are important as a means to player development (enjoyment, ball skill, insight, and fitness), not as the aim. These competitive situations are a series of tests for kids. In this respect, the usefulness of the game can occur in many different forms. Focus on the process and performance rather than the outcome, but be prepared for the possibility that your team may lose some games in the short term with this approach. Keep in mind that it is actually easier to win games at this age group with teams that are “organized” but lack skill. Placing the more physically mature players down the middle of the field and just asking players to “kick it down the middle” or only allowing players to specialize at one position may lead to more victories.
This approach, however, does not effectively teach the players the game and prepare them to continue on in the sport. Instead, a skillful approach to playing soccer should be emphasized, even though this may result in conceding goals or losing games in the short term. During the learning process, ball control and passing can lead to more costly mistakes. At the same time, the coach can manipulate the level and variety of the competition to ensure that players and teams are being given the opportunity to win and to lose games. Valuable lessons can be learned in both scenarios. In the end, it is still the responsibility of the coach and the parents, to manage how competition is addressed and managed among his or her players.
US Soccer Federation, Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States (Chicago: Self-published, August 2006)