Let’s suppose that a coach would like his team to consistently execute deliberately orchestrated possession-centered, attacking, attractive, and winning soccer during matches. But it’s just not happening.
Here are the two main possibilities:
1) The players are not at the level of competition.
This is the most cited reason. And it’s most often not true.
To start off, you do not need extra-planetary players! We’d all love to have the best rosters in the world, but you don’t need it.
So long as your opponent’s players aren’t in a totally separate class, and/or the opposing coach isn’t in a different class, a “weak roster” isn’t the reason.
2) The coach is out of his depth for the level of competition.
Now we’re talking!
This is almost never cited as the reason, and it’s most often the case.
Consistently executing this style of play and winning requires not just the will, but a bunch of competencies. Something that easily overwhelms coaches as the speed of play increases.
For instance, it’s one thing to implement a piece of set tactical training in your sessions with U13 girls, and have them execute it in games … but quite another animal at the top boys U16 level, and yet another in the men’s game.
In my experience, pretty much all coaches are already out of their depth with top-level U14 boys. The game just gets too fast for them, and they no longer command the respect of their players.
- Got a player problem? Recruit & Release (this applies at every single level).
- Play against lower level competition; until your players/team demonstrates a mastery of the requisite tactical work.
- Play against lower level competition; until you (the coach) have gotten good enough at executing.
Yes, you all heard me right. Play down!!!!
Everyone is so quick to recommend playing against the best competition, and heaven forbid, playing up! Well, doing it to see “where you’re at” is good, but doing it always is a mistake.
Matt Emmert says
Gary, I think this is a great point. I wholeheartedly agree that most coaches are out of their depth way before they ever admit it to themselves. With my current team (U10s), we struggled for two fall seasons. Partially because we were outclassed and maybe more so because I wasn’t able to teach the tactical part well enough. Now that both have improved, we’ve seem a huge change in our results this spring against the same and sometimes even higher caliber of team than before.
The main part of this change was my ignoring a lot of BS learned over the years (like focusing on technique only) and implementing a lot of set tactical work. Within a week we were creating chances and finishing exactly off the patterns we had trained during the week. We already had a lower level tournament lined up to try and get some success. While based on the ‘before set tactical training’ we probably would have been pretty even with these teams, we scored 19 goals in four games and only allowed 3. And now we’re back playing against top 5 teams in our state again and doing well.
Just wanted to share my experience as I’ve found what’s said in this post to be incredibly true.
Gary Kleiban says
Thank you Matt.
Keep us posted for sure!
great point Gary- I have done this before, but not as much as I should- next year we will be playing the top state league, so my first reaction was to play in tough summer soccer tournaments. Playing down in a tournament might help, especially before the Mustang Stampede, to work some bugs out.
Gary Kleiban says
Yeah … yet another example of how coaching is an art.
What league should we play in? What level? What tournaments? How many games? And on and on …
Some Coach says
Can you explain this more:
“In my experience, pretty much all coaches are already out of their depth with top-level U14 boys. The game just gets too fast for them, and they no longer command the respect of their players”
If a coach is out of his depth at this level or age, I am sure what he taught or thought about the game while coaching at U13, U12, U11, .. was still out of depth at an age close the Golden Age.
Gary Kleiban says
Not necessarily, but I do see your point.
Let’s take the example I gave (working with the back 5).
If a coach can get his team to consistently execute that during matches, then he and his players have learned something. And we can say that the coach was capable of teaching something important at that level.
Now, when the level / speed of play increases, the exact positioning and decision-making of the players matters far more.
It will matter whether the right back is on this or that side of a single blade of grass! Whereas at a lower level, the positioning can be off by many yards and things can still be executed.
Furthermore every players decision-making must be faster. Every millisecond will count at a higher level. Whereas at the lower-level, a player can take 3 whole seconds to decide and things can still be executed.
So you see, at the higher levels the demands on the coach to identify and train these things are far greater. DETAILS!
Lower levels = concepts
Higher levels = details
Most might be able to teach general concepts (a good and necessary thing), few however know about the details – nevermind teaching them.
Some Coach says
Good point. Makes lots of sense. Also at U11, U12 the little details even matter more. Opening the hip to solve pressure, that first touch (weight and direction) yo solve pressure. Is the player passing the ball to a player under pressure, correct foot or not … That makes the decision making important at older age. When you talk to a U14 kid that never had these details given to him, the answer would be “Ha.. Say what coach”. When building out of the back, does the right back knows why even open his him an inch more, why did he play quickly, why did he play to midfield and not to Right forward why not CB.
What we fail is stressing the coaching points that matters at age U11-U13. And therefore it shows at U14. Maybe coach sees the mistake, but cant fix it or his players are far away from the game.
At the end, also players can be too far from the game that these details are not important to him or understood.
El Memo says
Question the coach’s ability? Love it. What a concept!
I think that coaches are one of the most egotistical populations. (I can’t stand most to be honest – and I am one of them.) It comes with the territory, I get it. But, if you think you are doing it perfectly, then you got no business being a coach, as there is always room to improve. (Nothing wrong with some confidence.)
I totally agree, play down, implement your game style, then progressively move up in competition, while maintaining the game style – hopefully with a foundation of posession. Nothing wrong with going against the best as a barometer. But, if you are “drowning”, then you need to “balance” your competition, to continually maximize development. (Can’t be too easy or too hard – but too much of any of them – even the “right” competition – can be detrimental.)
dr loco says
The problems I have with playing down is parents interfere with the development process. Good players leave and break apart the team. Their is little understanding and patience. As a result, I have been focusing on releasing any player that is detrimental to my program.
Gary Kleiban says
“I totally agree, play down, implement your game style, then progressively move up in competition, while maintaining the game style”
On the ego thing though …
everyone has an ego, and they can all be judged as having a huge one. Coaches, parents, fans, media, … every breathing soul.
Erick Chomskis says
Great point and something simple that I can’t believe I haven’t tried more of. I’m of the belief that players develop if they play against good competition, with good competition, and have good coaching. I didn’t stop to think there are times it’s good to play a lower level to give your players a chance to perfect the tactical areas that have been worked. Against better competition they will have less time to think which is great once the ideas have been mastered. Sometimes it’s so simple hhahahahahha
El Memo says
Most teams/coaches place restrictions on their players, change formations or move players around when faced with lower competition. I am not totally against the latter two, but I am not a huge fan of “simple” restrictions (5 passes minimum, keeper has to touch it, etc.,). I would rather do a little of the latter two, but mainly focus on “restricting” their play to a possession based style – while still demand penetration. Basically, they should really start playing as we would’ve trained on set tactical training on all three phases of the pitch. Again, they should look like the final product you’ve (hopefully) been working on. A lot of times, lower competition games are the worse, as players can tell and end up turning into “dribblitos”, all trying to score their own goal. This is a sign of the coaches not imposing / demanding their game style on the players.
dr loco says
Right, weak teams expose a coach’s limitations. Something is wrong if a team can’t dominate weaker opposition just look at the USMNT.
El Memo says
The problem is that you (stronger team) end up winning the game by a large margin – still playing crap soccer. The parents and coaches are happy because of the win. But, at the end of the game, you are not any better soccer player.
Parents/coaches can be blinded by “Ws.” That is why it’s better to play the right way and still pursue a win, than pursue a win at whatever cost.
Soccer “education” will be tough given low exposure (by choice) of parents and skewed opinion of the game by exposure to coach-centric sports with a win in mind and exposure to EPL.
I know I touched on a bunch of other topics, but its hard not to get passionate.
I understand it in theory but playing down in a tournament is extremely selfish. Another team, kids, family is watching, … They entered to compete with “like” and “similar” competition, not get smoked by some team playing down to work on a few passing concepts. Not sure how this is good for soccer overall.
dr loco says
I play our team up and down when it is necessary to achieve my desired results. Tournaments are about money so study your opponents first before deciding to participate.
Gary Kleiban says
Should we abandon player development then?
Because no high-level development is happening if a team is always competing at a level where they can’t execute fundamental tactical concepts.
A coach is responsible for the development of HIS players. By definition.
If playing at a lower level is a good development decision for his roster, then it is a must.
If however, it’s a decision driven by something other than genuine development … then that’s another matter.
Gary, I was baiting you! Thank you for coming through!!!!!
“A coach is responsible for the development of HIS players. By definition.If playing at a lower level is a good development decision for his roster, then it is a must”
We did this a few months back and just about needed guards to get off the field. We stopped scoring goals but the other side stopped trying after we continue to maintain possession. The remainder of tournament was great but you run in to a complete disaster from time to time. The tournament director wasn’t thrilled about it either. Anyway, Thanks for the response and your very consistent message.
pg 19 says
Gary; great comment regarding how to develop the tactical concepts of play if the competition is too great to have success at it. Too often success is defined in winning games. If expressed from the coach to the parents of the players and players before the start of the season, you can gain support for that type of development because of the shift from winnnig games to how does our set tactical play look from game one to final game within a season. A winning record discloses nothing, especially against weak opponents. But just as a tangible as winning, seeing improvement in the game where more and more success occurs from the set tactical training elements that have been covered can really open some eyes of parents, players, fans.
To Tim, you mentioned the score being run up. With just about every team I’ve coached, I have taken the approach to not punish my players for being good. To tell a player that they no longer are allowed to score or have success is the WRONG message. A concept I borrowered long ago from someone was to shoot “negative” meaning just missing the goal wide. Fundamentally is teaching the player composure with their shot, finding the post (preferably far) and shooting just wide of it, not over. The fundamentals of shooting on the goal are still there as well as identifying the potential area of success when adjusted to placing the shot just inside the post. In games where I have players that have scored 3 or more goals already, I’ll tell them to go negative. No one knows what I mean but the players and parents. Interestingly, just missing close goals as opposed to just running up a score which can get further out of hand as the opponent checks out, you maintain the competitive integrity of the game and the opponent will continue to try versus give up. I’ve used this in my U6, U8, U10, U12, U14 and in a few high school games. Considering the wet and cold spring, we had to use our games as a means to train our teams due to the lack of outside training time on a field, being contained a small basketball court gym all preseason.
dr loco says
I used to be against recruiting and releasing players. Now it’s my main focus and key to the future of my program. It is a painful but necessary change. Thanks Gary!
We are living this one. At U11 the team rolled through it’s D2 league undefeated because of athletic superiority. We got promoted to D1 in U12, and finished at the bottom because comparable (or better) athletes exposed our technical and tactical deficiencies. We were relegated back to D2 this past U13 season and used it as an opportunity to try and dig deep and emphasize better tactics. We won the division again, but this time with much better and smarter play. We are promoted to D1 again; I’ll be curious to see what happens this time around.
I think you hit on something. It’s analogous to a weightlifter trying to 1 rep max-out every day or only working a single muscle group every workout. Although there is a time for playing up to test your team, a good coach will set the tone when there’s a win with sloppy play against a lesser team.
It’s amazing how you don’t hear a youth coach chide a team for not playing their best in a win and focus only on that in a loss. You disrespect yourself AND your opposition when you don’t play to your potential. Don’t pretend it’s about development when you get hit with a L but only the W matters when you win.
Angel Rodriguez says
This article reminded me of something that happened to me in high school. I was a baseball player and would go to the batting cages routinely during the summer and spend token after token taking cuts with the “very fast” machine. One time, a guy showed up who I recognized as a player who had just been released from the Pirates AAA farm team. He was taking swings with the “medium” machine. When my pitches were done, I walked out thinking he’d want to go in the VF area. He didn’t. He remained in the medium.
When he took a rest, I asked him why he was taking swings that topped out at about 60 MPH. His answer, paraphrased, was that the best way to hone the skills you want to work on is to slow everything down in order and master it, his swing in this instance. It’s about developing habits and me hitting in the VF cage was really accomplishing nothing towards developing good habits/muscle memory. I might get a line drive here and there, but no two swings were alike because I was in over my head.
I do see similarities with this article and training in so many sports. These ideas transcend. Great work, Gary.
Angel I love your example. It is spot on.
Dr Loco says
“slow everything down in order to master it”
Love this. This is one reason I prefer to work with lower level players. As a coach I am not ready for higher level competition. I need to master my teaching skills before I can ever work with better players. Unlike many coaches out there I know I am not qualified to coach “up” so I need to keep coaching “down”.
Coaches will not admit nor believe when they’re over the head. Simply because of ego and financial losses. These coaches will try every effort and tactic to get their team to a gold level even if they’re not in that level. Why? For recruiting purposes! Remember soccer club is a numbers game…. you get a piece for every player you have. While we commend you Gary and Brian for what you do, there’s lots of coaches out there simply because they can’t fit into another job. Hopefully, they’re reading and absorbing your articles to make them “quality oriented coaches” but the $ speaks loader… they already load up U10-12s with 18 players and you wonder why?
By the way, Brian, watched your U12 going U13 at chivas practice last Monday. Awesome team!!! This is the example of growing a quality team. They’re young but watching them is like watching pro soccer. They mentally know the game and play it!!!! Great job Brian!! Gary, keep up the honest to goodness information and dialogues the many try hard coaches need. They need to keep they’re feet and ears on the ground.
Gary Kleiban says
Thanks for weighing in Gil.
People do find it impactful watching the U12s going U13 – it’s definitely a whole other level. I totally dig the complement, but these players have a loooooong way to go. So many details remain to be learned.
Noah Creagh says
From my experience working with an inner city team where basketball and football dominate…As I have shaped my philosophy (With fantastic help from this blog that has caused me to think criticaly) it has really started to bleed through into our training sessions and I have achieved a lot of buy in with our U9s and the parents. The great thing about working with a group of kids and parents that dont know the game of soccer very well..is that there is no template for how a team should play..Before I got there it was just a lot of jungle ball. We had kids that were great athletes (not what we need as far as soccer players) but they had a lot of raw potential. So a portion of my time was spent creating buy in from the players..but because they are so young and have no template for playing (did not start off watching a lot of world class soccer) when I introduced them to very basic concepts of possession soccer and playing with high pressure when we lose the ball they ate it up! instead of dominating teams by playing jungle ball we started beating teams by circulating the ball better, the passing and positioning improved……. However ill be the first to admit we have a LONG way to go. And I am still learning and absorbing things as a coach. The catch…is that we have been playing awful teams..as I mentioned previously we are playing in a league where there are coaches who up until this year havent had the slightest idea what a soccer ball looks like.. No joke…. There was some coach who called his forwards “runners” and his defenders “blockers”. his idea was that runners would run aimlessly everywhere trying to take the ball and blockers would stand back at the 18 yd box and boot the ball away aimlessly. …….Needless to say I wanted to vomit my guts out everygame. My point is that..as piss poor as this leauge is….would I have achieved the same results with this group against teams who had a clue..? Most likely no..So as much as I have despised playing against these coaches and teams that make me cry myself to sleep at night it HAS been good for my players development as far as applying those basic concepts in a game…and I have been able to add on more and more while they gain confidence
Gary Kleiban says
Thank you for sharing Noah!
Noah Creagh says
Playing against lower level competition not only benefits your players..but it can also benefit you as a coach. As Gary mentioned, the speed of play in games will drasticaly increase as players grow older and more experienced. Playing against lower level teams and coaches is a chance for you as a coach to gain more confidence in yourself and philosophy. Because while we talk about players being able to perform possession soccer under high pressure from better faster competition.. You as the coach must be able to adapt and prepare accordingly. If you arent used to the speed of play and are not catching the little but neccesary details within the game because of the speed and your team is also suffering, there is nothing wrong with taking things down a notch or two for a while. It really comes down to being able to admit that you and your team may not be ready to apply certain practiced concepts of possession at a high pace. Theres nothing wrong with admiting your not yet where you need to be and you need to move down a notch or two so everyone can improve.
Would be interested to hear BK’s comments on playing up. His U12 team has dominated SoCal soccer for a few years and I can’t remember ever seeing them play up. His team just won one of the most competitive soccer tournaments in SoCal (Cerritos Memorial) and won the final by a score of 10-1. I watched the final and couldn’t see how this benefited his players at all. I am the last one to judge his coaching since he has had huge success with this team but would like to understand better his decision to keep this team in particular playing down.
Gary Kleiban says
The 12s have played up a number of times in competitive tournis and friendlies.
To see the “benefits” of what we’re doing, you’d have to know what we’re doing. You saw a 10-1 thrashing in a match. We’re looking at totally different things. We’re looking at details! And we’re teaching the players these details. For us, the weekends are just another training session – not the end product. You know how many times I was pissed off during that game?
These details are best correctable (and learned) in an environment where execution is more likely. This is where players have an opportunity to gain some soccer brains, some tactical richness, some problem solving and creativity.
If basics have not been mastered, what the hell are teams doing routinely playing in matches where the very basics of the game break down? Incredibly, this is what everyone is doing and advocating.
Hey Gary, I totally agree with what your are saying. I’m having a similar experience right now. I was coaching a silver elite team, which had a mix of players who should be playing above that level and players who shouldn’t. At the end of te season my brother and I were offered to take over the gold slot at our league but with the condition we combine with another team. I’m all for it because I feel it can enhance the level of play of some of my players. My problem is I know that the players I am leaving behind and bringing on to the silver elite team can not compete at that level. But league we play for and some parents are refusing to let that group play down, because they say its hard to attain that slot.
What would you recommend in regards to talking to both the league and parents about the benefits and the necessity to play down for a season or two?
Gary Kleiban says
As you know, it’s a tough sell.
I just wrote some things about not always playing at the highest possible levels. But most won’t get it, especially parents. And most don’t try to get it either, because not only have they heard otherwise, but they have other interests in mind to begin with.
My club has 3 teams in u/11’s and only this year we started to grade the boys in ability. The concept of better players training and playing against each has definately improved the overall intensity of training and our game tempo. We try and do some research on our opposition and set our fixtures up so all 3 teams get to play against equal ability teams each week. I do however feel at times we need to “play down” some weeks so we can really work on the finer details such as playing out of the back..( body positioning) as mentioned at u/11 level positioning can be off and you can still execute but it will get found out when the game speed increases. Playing down also allows your team to string 5,6,7 passes and they start to get the concept of “sexy football”..when playing against the stronger sides the games are very competitive and of high intensity but possession is limited as it becomes more about structure and quicker passes which break down after 2,34 passes..these games are usually decided by goal keeping mistakes or individual efforts…so playing down every few weeks actually helps with our development so when we play the stronger teams again our decision making quickens and so does our passing..the kids realise to get 5, 6, 7 passes together it has to be quicker and positioning is vital.
My biggest issue is having 6-8 players who have bought into my possession style but have 3-4 that are athletically advanced and attack forwards at any time…they may score 3-4 goals a game but their passing and positional play is letting the overall structure down…i try and change positions and give specific instructions but the kids drop their heads when they aren’t playing forward and it breaks down the possession style i have implemented…these athletically gift players seem to be the ones that get picked for representative teams and miss huge chunks of club training when the rest of the team are gelling…we were invited to play against one of these representative sides and actually drew 2-2 with 2 of our players , playing against us…was a real eye opener.
We are also sending our our 12’s this year to the largest youth football tournament in the southern hemisphere called the Kanga Cup with teams from Asia, Australia and Europe invited…It will be our first taste of tournament football after working with these boys for 5-6 years from 6 years old…will keep you informed of our u/12’s progress…
We are very lucky to have a special group of kids at our club aged 9-12 that we are working with. I have been very lucky that the coaches these kids have had from ages 5-8 have installed some solid footskills so at u/10-u/11 we can actually start working on formations.
I have a question about playing with the lower level team vs higher level for my daughter. She is a smart player but didn’t get recruited on a Gold team as coach said she has great passing ability but her speed of play is not there yet. I see it differently because the club she is trying out has six teams in her age group and we are new to the club and they move up within the teams. My question is how she will improve her speed of play if she is playing with girls who are not quick and faster than her. She is very coachable and I think will learn better if she has some role models. Should I take the lower team or look for better and more competitive team for her. She had an amazing year as U11 and was a top player on her silver level team.. Thanks