By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching, Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association
I have coached long enough and with enough age groups to state without a shadow of doubt that the most challenging job in all of coaching is working with the 5 through 7-year-old age group. Note: I purposely did not say Under-5 or 4-7 because I believe a one-on-one backyard approach with a family member is most appropriate for a 4-year-old. If he or she decide chasing butterflies or searching for worms is more fun, then so be it. Eight-year-olds listen better, can sequence more instruction, share the ball, spread out and therefore become less of a teaching challenge. The foundation that is built from ages 5-7 is a key marker for a player’s future in the game.
The player’s experience from 5-7 years old should be so rich in fun, excitement, howls of delight and learning that they become players for life. Enormously-skilled coaches are needed to achieve this goal. Coaches must have a deep understanding of child development and learning as well as the game. They must be animated, energetic, humble and childlike (not childish). A coach in this age group should understand how to use their voice as a teaching tool. They should have a curious whisper and the loud projection of a wizard. Sessions should be well-planned and centered around physical literacy and exploration with lots of balls included in each activity and play. Players should receive plenty of individual support and attention by maintaining a ratio of one coach to eight players.
Game Day: No child wants to be shouted at and ordered around while they are trying to play a game. Players cannot think and make decisions when parents and coaches are ordering them around the field. Coaches must coach with questions for players to think about and suggestions for players to try. It is essential that parents and coaches learn to applaud the skills a player attempts, the effort a player puts in and the support a player shows toward teammates. The atmosphere at games should be one of a party – not a gang.
Unfortunately, the age group that deserves the most attention, the best-trained coaches and the biggest investment is the one that often gets the least. Most clubs have little or no training for coaches, no training curriculum and this age group is often left with a parent coach holding a pile of shirts and a ball. Offering one coaching clinic for the parent/coach is simply not enough. What is even more of a concern is that the clubs who do invest in this age group typically become overly competitive, all about winning and are attempting to create mini-professionals. The learning environment becomes polluted, the coaches become overzealous, drills and commands dominate the sessions and weaker players sit on the sidelines during games. Fun fades into the distance.
Most clubs invest all their time and money on the travel teams. It’s almost as if they believe players are born at nine years old and up. I advise all clubs to consider changing their approach. Dedicate real time and real resources to the 5, 6 & 7-year-old age groups. Imagine how rich and strong your club would be if every 8-year-old player was in love with the game and the idea of mastering the soccer ball.
The benefits of getting it right early are immense.