Eight steps to teaching kids how to understand positional play

Let’s be entirely up-front about this. This is aimed at coaches who want to develop good soccer players. It is a long-term plan. You will definitely give up goals and lose games while trying to implement this. You will be working against a majority of coaches who encourage a very direct style of soccer that results in a kick and chase strategy that is focused around their strongest player. That type of soccer works at younger ages when physically dominant kids can have a disproportionate impact on the game and there has been no tiering.

Gradually that changes and if you have been focusing on teaching proper positional play, your team will be far beyond these teams tactically when the physical differences start to level out.

If you are working with very young players you can use it as a general plan to guide you through mini soccer. If you’ve got slightly older kids you may see areas that you’ve already covered thoroughly and see how some other points are connected to where your team is at. In other words, it may connect the dots for what you’re already doing.

Even if you don’t plan on taking a team right through from mini and into divisional soccer, what you will be doing by following this plan is creating players who do not have to have a lot of bad habits un-taught by another coach down the line.

The bracketed age groups are a guideline for when these ideas are most important.

1. Technical Skills [U6 – U18]

Becoming a skilful player is not something that you teach in a year or two. It is a process that takes years and years and never really has an endpoint. These skills are essential to positional play.

  • Balanced stance when receiving and making passes
  • Ability to strike balls with both feet and different parts of the foot
  • Ability to receive passes across the body by opening up
  • Ability to control ball with one touch that takes you somewhere (rather than just stopping the ball dead in front of you
  • Moving confidently with the ball under control using both feet and different parts of the feet. Able to do so with head up so options can be constantly assessed and able to adjust speed as necessary while maintaining control and composure
  • Ability to bring the ball under control with different parts of the body
  • Ability to shield ball
  • Ability to turn quickly in either direction with ball

2. Leg strength and mechanics of striking the ball [U6 – U16]

This is essential for other points to be able to evolve. If you do not have the ability to play a driven ball half way across the playing field you’re using, you will be at a disadvantage. If players sense they will not receive a pass because their teammates are not capable of reaching them, they will abandon proper spacing and wide positions and creep closer to the ball.

  • Tactically, it makes sense to put players with good leg strength in the middle of the park and encourage them to knock passes to players who are not crowding in
  • Good leg strength gives the ability to incorporate spaces you create; it allows you to reach wide players and to switch play. It gives you options beyond the player who has moved to a close support position.
  • Allowing players to focus on the mechanics of striking the ball needs to be done in a low key, slower paced environment in pairs or three’s without opposition. Here’s a video I did four years ago with a U11 boys team I was coaching breaking down ball striking form
    • Start with calm demonstration and give them plenty of room on the field to concentrate on what they’re doing
    • Stress mechanics over power and gradually have them build up to more powerful swings at the ball
    • Make sure this is done with both feet
    • Good mechanics when striking the ball can overcome a lack of leg strength considerably

3. Spacing and appropriate passing distances [U6 – U8]

Proper spacing is a function of the time needed to receive a pass and then take a second touch (shot, dribble, pass) before an opposing player can pressure the player receiving the pass.

  • Good spacing prevents one defender from covering two attackers, thus giving a ‘choice’ to the person with the ball
  • The antithesis of good spacing is leaving one or two defenders 30-40 yards back behind the play. This just narrows options, leads to turnovers and to players getting bored. Yes, it will probably lower your goals against in the early years but at the expense of teaching several of the fundamentals covered here
  • Here are some general guidelines for appropriate spacing by age
    • U6 – U7 : 6 –8 yards
    • U8 – U10: 8 –15 yards
    • U11 – U12: 15 – 18 yards
    • U13- U16: 15 –30 yards
    • U16 – U18: 15 – 36 yards
    • The average player should be expected to be able to play a firm pass and receive a firm pass over these distances most of the time

4. Movement off the ball [U6 – U8]

One of the most important concepts you can engrain in young players is how important it is to be moving even when they don’t have the ball. To start with, even movement for the sake of movement sake is a big step. Make them feel they are an important part of the game the whole time they are on the field. Once they get over the idea of only playing when the ball is in close proximity you can start teaching applied movement, or movements specific to certain goals like creating space, providing options for teammates, denying attackers space, etc.

  • Movement creates options, for you to receive a pass, for the ball carrier to give you a pass and for other teammates to receive a pass.
  • Defensively, movement can narrow options and force attackers to play in directions more advantageous to you
  • Start teaching movement to areas within age-appropriate passing distances while maintaining spacing

5. Support angles / Body Positioning [U8 – U12]

Players need to recognize that the other team’s job is to impede their forward progress and that while proper spacing and off the ball running will help their team, it is crucial that they move into positions where a pass to them will not be intercepted. As an adult, familiar with angles and velocity, these positions look painfully obvious to us. But it’s not obvious to kids. It’s important to see how these two go hand in hand.

  • A good supporting angle with good body positioning allows your teammate to easily reach you with a pass that bypasses a defender and cannot be cut out and can easily be controlled with a first touch that takes you in the direction you want to play
  • A great support angle with excellent body positioning is what allows your teammate to play you a critical pass that bypasses a defender and that you either strike at net first time or release another teammate first time for a strike

As players get older and the game gets quicker and spaces get smaller, finding support angles necessary for a successful pass become only half the equation. The other half is how you position your body so your first touch opens you up to what your options are. Receiving a pass in a position away from any support is a red flag to a smart defender to close you down and pressure you immediately.

This is where great players make the game look simple. They ghost into minute spaces where the slimmest of angles for a successful pass exist and they position their bodies in advance to play a balanced, well weighted pass to a teammate who scores. To an untrained eye, it just looks like they moved five yards and made a simple pass but the timing, anticipation, balance, and geometry involved are quite complex and had to be figured out very, very quickly.

6. Width and Depth [U9 – U11]

Bear in mind the premise that when you have the ball you want to make the spaces bigger to give you more time and when you’re defending you want to make the field as small as possible to increase the chances of winning the ball back. Getting players to provide width and depth maximizes the area you have to work in and creates more space centrally for players to operate in.

  • As you advance from your goal to the other goal you are constricted by the width of the field, the players on the other team and the offside rule.
  • You must play the ball past these players while keeping it in bounds.
  • Logically, if you are trying to play through four midfielders, you have a better chance using the full width of the field rather than the width minus 20 yards.
  • Encourage wide midfield players to get their heels on the line and look for support positions and up and down the touchline; this will provide better passing angles.
  • Strikers provide depth by by pushing back on the deepest defender while staying onside. This leaves room for them to come back into to receive a pass of for central mids to make forward runs into.

7. Creating Space and Denying Space [U10 – U18]

This really could  be an entirely separate topic. Many of the points already made involve elementary way to create space. Players first of all have to be able to identify what a ‘dangerous’ space looks like and then learn how to create it. From an attacking perspective, you are looking for:

  • Spaces in behind defenders
  • Spaces that lead to overloads (ie. 2 v 1’s, 3 v2’s)
  • Spaces that isolate defenders away from support
  • Spaces that set up a shot

These are all dangerous spaces in that exploiting them creates attacking opportunities.

Attackers, once they recognize these spaces, have to learn how to manipulate defenders into creating them. Timed, determined runs to or from certain areas will either drag defenders away from the space you are trying to open up for a teammate or allow you to exploit a space and receive a pass.

This is such a difficult concept and requires so many other skills to do effectively. It also requires a willingness to work hard and selflessly as a lot of the time you are creating space for other teammates and not for yourself.

From a defensive perspective, once players can recognize the dangerous spaces, they need to become decision-makers and constantly adjudge whether they should be staying tight on their mark or backing off and trying to nullify a dangerous space. This is a balancing act.

Ideally…

  • Defenders try to force attackers to play where they (the defenders) have numbers and thus the best odds of winning the ball back
  • Defenders try to eliminate dangerous spaces behind them
  • Outside backs generally position themselves to try to force wide players down the line and hopefully out of play; don’t allow crosses are square balls back inside.
    • Note though that more sophisticated defending can see outside backs forcing attackers inside if they realize that it puts the attacker onto a noticeably weaker foot and/or brings them inside towards a supporting defender (creating a 1v2)

8. Choosing a formation [not age specific]

Obviously, this depends on the format for the age group you’re coaching. What’s important is that the formation have balance in terms of logical spacing and support options, width, depth and all the players have an understanding that their position is not an anchor that ties them to a particular patch of grass.

For six a-side, a 1-3-1 provides width, depth, natural support angles and good spacing. Moving to an eight a-side league, 2-3-2 and 3-3-1 do the same. The most common eleven a-side formations are 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 are both becoming more popular as well. For me, the biggest drawback with the 3-5-2 is you have to have exceptional work rate from your wing backs (the outside mids). They have to also be very strong defensively while still being able to get forward and put crosses in. It does however give you the extra player centrally which is good at younger age groups where wide play isn’t as prevalent. The biggest drawback to 4-2-3-1, in youth soccer, is managing the wide spaces between your right and left back and the three attacking midfields. If the outside backs don’t push up and the attacking mids see themselves as forwards and don’t track back at all, it leaves a lot of work for the two holding mids as they need to really move well laterally when defending.

The Intangibles:

There are factors that will positively or negatively affect your ability to teach kids positions. Soccer is such a fluid game that it frustrates the best efforts of coaches. This is not football where the game is a series of highly scripted plays sent in as a response to a particular (and static) situation. It’s not baseball where almost everyone watching can anticipate what the person with the ball is going to do (ie. Batter hits the ball, fielder will throw to a base to get him or a base runner out). There are no timeouts where you can call them to together and reiterate certain points and you don’t really have the luxury of making substitutions for specific situations (ie. Pinch hitters, three point specialists, etc.). The game is designed for players and coaches have to make their influence felt in deference to this or they will end up very, very frustrated.

Here’s what can help or hinder your progress:

Common sense (not just you, but your players): players who are quick to recognize patterns and guess outcomes are going to learn positional play more easily. Players who can process information you give them and see it as part of a larger picture will do better than those looking for literal directives. Here’s a study that confirms some of that.

Work rate: You can be great technically and you can be smart but if you aren’t willing to work hard to create passing angles, to provide width and depth and to create space for yourself and your teammates with off the ball running you are simply not going to do well. Fitness is a factor but the willingness to work hard is more important and is a very difficult thing to coach.

Your ability to teach rather than preach: Issuing loud commands in the absence of context will get you nowhere. This is not chess. You are not moving inanimate objects about a board. The underlying intent is that you are teaching the players to recognize situations and opportunities so they can make good decisions themselves. To do this, you have to get them to see that they have the biggest stake in the decision making process. You do this by asking them questions rather than yelling instructions. “Are you in a good position to receive a pass?” “What’s going to happen if we turn the ball over right now?” “Did you take a first touch that opened you up to your options?” Get them to take ownership over the decisions that have to be made rather than waiting for a command from you.

Quickness over 5-10 yards: I’d rather a player who was quick over 5-10 yards than one who was fast over 40 yards. While both are assets, you will use your quickness far more than your speed. Positionally, it allows you to create passing angles much quicker and allows you to get team shape right more quickly.

Conclusion:

Just as I’m fond of saying that giving coaches a bunch of drills for training sessions isn’t really going to help them become better coaches if we don’t try to get them to see the purpose of each drill and what they should be trying to get out of the drill, it doesn’t do players any good to simply tell a player they are a left midfielder or a centre back at a young age and expect that to mean something to them.

To expect youth players to come to grips with all that positional play entails we have to start giving them tools before we even tell them that what they’re learning is part of learning positional play. We start with fundamentals and very general technical and tactical topics and build a foundation that lets us overlay more complex ideas about specific runs and use of width.

Positional play is what lets teams maintain possession of the ball when they have it and win it back more often and more efficiently when they don’t have it. It provides options when in possession and takes options away when defending. It’s not something that is learned in isolation from other aspects of the game. There is no point in taking players and trying to demonstrate, at U11, what a centre midfielder does and where they do it and considering that the start (and possibly the end) of teaching positional play. The instruction has to be layered and related to spacing, technical skills, movement off the ball and the other topics above. It will take several years but will result in a much better understanding of positional play for the majority of players.

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18 Responses to Eight steps to teaching kids how to understand positional play

  1. Fred Cutler says:

    I want to do all of this. But I’m already in a remedial role at U11 and U12, fixing the boot-and-chase instincts learned in untiered U9 & U10.
    So much of this is near impossible to do with teams of 22 in the dark and rain on gravel.
    If these objectives are important to us, we need, at U9/U10:
    1. gentle tiering by voluntary assignment by parents (e.g. “rec” vs. “competitive”)
    — if we do this at U8, by U10 parents will have figured out how to appropriately place their kids
    2. smaller teams (12 max)
    3. a Mar 1-June 30 + Sept 1-Oct30 season.
    4. Boys to behave like girls

  2. Gregor says:

    1. we already ‘soft tier’ at U9 and U10
    2. the ‘double’ size teams are what allow a soft tier; teams of 12 would be set and would be a permanent tier
    3. agree
    4. agree somewhat (while laughing).

  3. M says:

    This is a fantastic article Gregor and a must read for all youth soccer coaches, parents and clubs!

    I think the most important thing for coaches to work on is the “Your ability to teach rather than preach” piece. Too many coaches I observe at the younger ages rely on the, as you have said, “a very direct style of soccer that results in a kick and chase strategy that is focused around their strongest player” and telling players exactly what to do… “Kick it wide” “Pass to Jimmy” “always turn outside” and so on. Asking questions (and not just questions to the player with the ball, but also focusing heavily on players off the ball) is a massive benefit to the players mental side of the game and decision making process.

    Another major issue we have in the younger age groups revolves around training. Players are not training enough and when they are training, they are not working on things that will also be the focus of the next month of games. Players become confused as there is no direct link between what they worked on in training and what they are being asked to do in the game. If we can link the 2, players will begin to build on certain aspects and thus improve from week to week.

    The other important message is about soft tiering at the youngest ages and how player movement between teams is vital to the development of all the players. Players need to play with other players similar to themselves but also know that one season you may be with the advanced group and the next not or the other way around but as long as you continue to work hard, all players will reach their potential and fall into place when they reach their later teenage yrs.
    Just as in swimming, kids are placed where they belong at the current moment. If we place them in the deep end too early, they are bound to struggle and not improve / progress properly. Likewise, if we hold someone back in the shallow end, just because of age) they will never reach their full potential.

    Keep up the great work on these articles as they will help transform the future of the game here in Canada!

  4. Fred Cutler says:

    Gregor, how many reads has this got? Have you ever done classroom sessions that are about THIS, exclusively?

    • Gregor says:

      About 2800. Which makes it the third most read thing on MMCB if you exclude all the BCPL stories I used to post (which still get regular reads even though most are two years old).

      As I said in reply to M, I actually wrote this eight years ago for PGSC coaches and did a couple of classroom style presentations around it. I’m going to read through it again sometime soon, see if I can make some updates and maybe offer another classroom version of it to VUFC coaches.

    • Gregor says:

      Strangely, less than a year after saying this post had 2800 it is now the third most read story on the site (of over 300) and has over 6600 views. They’re all spread out too rather than the result of a link from some massive site. Obviously people are looking more and more for info along these lines.

      • Daniel J. Pritchett says:

        Hello from 2016! I’m watching eight and nine year olds play lately and I do a lot of daydreaming about how to help them see good angles, strong field positions, and solid off-ball play. Lots to learn from this article, thank you!

      • Gregor says:

        Most welcome. Still a bit surprised this is the most viewed post on my site. By far now.

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  8. cupquest says:

    Outstanding article, Gregor. Really good stuff here, especially the section on importance of movement off the ball. The hardest part at the younger levels is to convey the message that everyone has a role/job to do on the field — even when, especially when they don’t have the ball. My experience has been that the typical U8/9 player thinks his primary role is to go get the ball and then to advance it as fast as possible in order to score — no matter what position they are playing. This is generally what they were encouraged to do as a rec player by parents and coaches alike. Often the encouragement continues even as they get older.

  9. Moj987321 says:

    I agree that tiering CAN be a good thing, but from my experience, it is not at all beneficial to anyone but those on the older end of the age group. If you want to get serious about tiering, it should allow for kids to play down one age group as well as playing up one age group if their birthday is within 3 months of the cutoff. How this would be accomplished, I do not know. It may be impossible. But my point is true. Every competitive club I have experienced has the oldest kids (fall birthdays) on the A team and the youngest (spring and summer birthdays) on the B team. I’m not accusing clubs of checking birthdates to determine which squad they go on, mind you. I am saying that age is a predictor. And a pretty reliable one, too. Which is a big problem because summer birthday kids will grow up on the B team, internalize that they are “B” players, be exposed to only the “B” coaches, and be used and abused as practice fodder for the A team squads. I’m on my fourth child, in this soccer world, and I have seen it play out exactly as I describe all four times. My youngest and a middle child can’t understand why their teams aren’t championship teams like their brother’s and sister’s teams. I can’t tell them it is because their birthdays beat the cutoff date by a month or 2 and therefore they won’t be on the A team. The only advise I can give is to stick with it, work hard, and look forward to tryouts in highschool when bodies start to even out a bit. The worst is the combined age division U11-U12. My young U11 B team has to compete against old U12 A teams. Do the math on that. An average of 20 months of age difference (that’s huge at this age) and with night and day differences in coach caliber. Quite honestly, it is sick.

    I propose a 3 month age group overlap, which would allow someone who is up to 3 months too old for an age group to play down. You may say that this just effectively moves the cutoff date. Not necessarily. A big and quick young player may opt to play thier own age group just because it seems natural, and to prepare for highschool.

    I also propose youth rules being adjusted for U12 and below to limit the opposition to their own half of the field when we get a keeper kick. Allow the kids to get possession of the ball before the opposition can come across. This is one of the worst exploits in youth soccer their is. In professional and college soccer, teams ALWAYS back off to mid field for a keeper kick. This alone would create better soccer players. See, kids have no limit to energy, and this full pressure style of soccer has reduced the game to an exhibition of who can assemble the most athletic kids on one team wins. You know I am right. You know this is true.

    The only other argument against what I am saying is that the great A-team A-team matchups would never take place. I have watched these supposed great matchups at U8 through U12, and I can tell you, it is still just a battle of athletics. Not the beautiful game. The USA has a broken youth soccer system. I can say this with certainty, because any program that discourages entire groups of kids because of their birthdate, is broken, as unintentional as it may be.

  10. football_UK says:

    @Mojo….I agree about birth date. It’s statistical fact. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/37/Month_of_birth_distribution_UEFA_youth_tournaments_2010.pdf

    Also in the UK we have the retreat rule (to halfway line) for children up to age 10 or so.

  11. Fred Cutler says:

    Just got an update on this post, Gregor. It looks like it will live forever.
    I still don’t understand why we don’t have our VanUFC parent coaches read, re-read, study, and get tested on THIS content. It would be a perfect supplement to the courses, which are fine on preparation-for-sessions and modes-of-coaching, but have almost nothing on how the game works, individually and collectively. This is where many of our coaches in our club, and certainly other clubs, are lacking, and that’s why at U12 I’m trying to have them unlearn the Canadian approach: pass-it-straight-up-the-field-to-the-heels-of-the-striker-that’s-barrelling-forward-into-2-centrebacks! (at least my players play this pass on the ground).
    Simple: we need this text distilled into a club, provincial, and national Technical Charter for parent coaches. That’s what soccer-culture countries have over us — even the parents and the very-poorly-paid and poorly-trained paid club coaches at tiny clubs know all of this material in their souls. I realize this every time I step on the pickup soccer field at UBC with guys from all over the world. I learned that playing o40s in France.
    I don’t think you should be shy about this. As TD, make some required reading and online testing quasi-mandatory for our coaches.

    • Gregor says:

      Thanks Fred. The problem is every time I read it (every couple years) I see how it can be improved. I’ll probably update a few bits over the weekend [edit: just made changes now – put link to video I did on ball striking and to a study on brain function of elite v non-elite youth players, fixed some typos and general housekeeping]. It still gets way more views than anything else on here. Over 11 000 now.

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