The Game is the Best Teacher

By Hemant Sharma

The Game is the Best Teacher
Tennessee youth team proves the old soccer adage

By Hemant Sharma

During the first week of November at the Tennessee Tide American Cup State Championships, a number of onlookers gravitated to the area where the U-8 boys were competing. On those fields in Columbia, Tenn., an entry from the Knoxville Football Club was cruising to a state championship by winning five straight games, outscoring the opposition by a 29-4 aggregate. Some of the players were actually as young as six years old, yet all eight members of the squad tallied at least one goal.

This performance, on its own, was enough to cause many spectators to wonder what exactly the coaches from this club were doing in east Tennessee. To further pique the curiosity of onlookers, though, a second entry from the Knoxville Football Club, which evenly split the 16 members of its U-8 division into two teams, came within a goal of potentially meeting its counterpart in the championship game.

The prospect of an all-Knoxville Football Club final was especially interesting in light of the fact that U-8 is a form of soccer free from the influences of recruiting to stack a team for a state championship run. Beyond that, coaches are truly starting with a clean slate, as most players have had minimal exposure to the sport of soccer or only a modicum of organized training. Clearly, at this age, a clubs plan can make all the difference in terms of a players soccer development.

Simply by watching the two teams play, even a casual observer could see that the Knoxville Football Club (aka KFC) seemed to have an excellent framework in place. Not just because they won this particular tournament, as scores and results should not be emphasized with children this young, but because the quality of play from the KFC players in terms of dribbling, passing, off-the-ball movement, defending, etc., was superior to that of other teams in its age group.

In fact, a number of opposing coaches asked the KFC U-8 head coach, David Hutchins, for his formula. In light of these queries, I ventured to east Tennessee for an interview with the clubs Director of Coaching, Gary Hindley, in hopes of getting a glimpse at the KFCs secret recipe for developing youth players.

Hindley is no stranger to success; he has coached professional soccer in the United States and Canada for more than 20 years, winning more than 300 games. He guided teams to championships in the National Professional Soccer League (Cleveland Crunch) and the American Professional Soccer League (Maryland Bays). However, taking over the day-to-day operations of a youth soccer club provided its own set of challenges. For instance, what do you do with six- and seven-year-olds, 15 of them, who, for all intents and purposes, have never played the sport?

In the case of the Knoxville Football Clubs U-8 Celtic, a well-organized training program was devised by Hindley and implemented by Hutchins, the father of one of the players, and his assistant, Jen Longnecker, a former U.S. Womens National Team player and the mother of another Celtic player.

The cornerstone of this program, to which Hindley attributes the teams success, was deceptively simple. Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, the club held a 3 v. 3 competition among members of the team. Players wore their game jerseys to the field, half of them clad in home white, half decked out in away orange. Fields were lined to form 30 x 20 grids, and portable Pugg goals were placed at each end.

Hutchins believed that weeks of shooting at these small goals made his kids focus on accuracy so much that putting a ball into the big goals during the state tournament was, well, childs play.

The U-8 Celtic, in fact, never actually held a practice in front of a full-size goal the entire fall. No goalkeepers were allowed in this 3 v. 3 format, and a two-yard crease was placed in front of each goal. Players from both teams were prohibited from entering this area, and goals could only be scored in the attacking half of the field.

The youngsters were divided into three-player teams (groups were rearranged every week to allow for different combinations) and essentially were turned loose, allowed to cultivate their own instincts for the sport and to utilize their skill training from the two practice sessions earlier in the week in a free play environment.

Coaching was minimized during 3 v. 3, and parents were required to stay far enough away so as not to distract their kids, either visually or audibly. Games consisted of two eight-minute halves with a two-minute halftime, and there was usually one team resting while four played. No standings were kept and results were not emphasized. Players were instructed not to ask what the score was or to complain in any fashion about teammates, fouls, weather or whatever else might bother them. Referees for these games were members of the Knoxville Football Clubs U-15 and U-13 teams. This afforded an opportunity for the clubs older players to act as mentors.

At the end of about 70 minutes of action in this 3 v. 3 setting, the players were gathered together for a coaching point. This did not necessarily involve a soccer technique, such as how to complete an inside of the foot pass. Rather, it was meant to introduce them to other aspects of the game that are not covered during a traditional practice, such as throw-in technique, the offside law or even a referees hand signals (for example, that for an indirect kick). Rather than lecturing to the children, a point was made by the coaches and then demonstrated by the older players.

The Celtic team then was broken into groups to perform an activity that helped them grasp the days principle. Hindley is a believer in a well-established notion that children learn by doing. As a result, he believed his clubs youngsters would make significant mental strides from activities such as imitating the signal for an indirect kick as if they were the referee or taking turns standing in offside and onside positions against a mock defensive line. These actions, as opposed to the mere dictation of theories, were deemed more likely to actually ingrain certain aspects of the game in the mind of a seven-year-old.

Clearly, the 3 v. 3 format was comprehensive and well-administered, but it was not the only ingredient in the development of KFCs Celtic. Many coaches simplify the training of youth players with the old saying, The game is the best teacher. Judging by the success that his club derived from this 3 v. 3 environment, Hindley certainly backs this assertion, but adds that there must be some degree of technical development to prepare youngsters for free play.

If it were really as simple as letting them play, we would have no need for youth soccer coaches. Obviously, we are not dealing with seasoned professionals who can execute basic skills flawlessly. Beyond that, we do not live in a country where children turn on the television and watch soccer almost 24 hours a day; nor, in many cases, can they head to a local park and try to emulate the skills and creativity of older players (although the KFC mentoring concept hopes to change this). Therefore, there needs to be some degree of instruction to familiarize them with basic technique and give them the tools to develop into true artists on the field. Failing to do so would have been akin to not giving Michelangelo a brush to paint with all of the creative artistic vision in his mind would have gone to waste.

The young Celtic members were first presented with their brushes during the final week of August, when the boys took part in a week-long camp directed by the founder and president of the Knoxville Football Club, Kyle McCoy. McCoy guided his own sons team, the U-12 Arsenal, to a state championship the previous year, but no mention of that fact was made to the young Celtic members when they first convened.

The first hour of the camp day was devoted to instruction in basic skills and fun soccer-related games. The camp day ended with 45 minutes of equally fun, non-soccer related activities like Capture the Flag. A Friday field trip to an amusement park capped off the week, allowing the children to become more familiar with one another and build some team chemistry. At that age, being comfortable in your environment and with your peers can play an important role in performance.

Following this week-long introductory camp, training sessions were held every Wednesday and Friday in preparation for Saturdays free play. Hindley himself took a hands-on approach and directed one of the weekly practices. The teams two regular coaches assisted on that day and assumed control on the other. All sessions involved roughly an hour and 15 minutes of activity; any more than that is beyond the scope of the average seven-year-olds attention span.

The sessions were geared toward basic skill development. They began with a warmup activity that afforded each player a high number of touches on the ball. This helped foster comfort with that round object at their feetan awkward experience for a youngster whose athletic background up to that point may have consisted of playing catch with a baseball, shooting a basketball or perhaps playing computer video games. In addition, players were introduced to one specific dribbling move, such as the Cruyff or the step-over. They were never given more than a few new moves during a particular session, so their ability to learn the techniques properly never was compromised.

After the warmup, a specific skill, such as passing or shooting or shielding, was covered. The chosen topic was broken down into its most basic fundamental movements. A slow progression, with attention to detail, was employed. For example, in teaching the inside of the foot pass, Hindley actually went from player to player and physically put their foot in the appropriate position behind a ball and then helped to swing the leg through the motion. Shooting technique was honed by having youngsters stand facing a fence and striking the ball without taking more than one step. For them, heading began simply holding the ball in their hands and placing it on the proper spot on their foreheads. Dribbling moves were taught step by step, and clever rhymes were assigned to each part of a movement to help players absorb the techniques; for example, the mantra step, lean, touch helped the children learn the step-over, while touch-touch-cut helped with quick direction changes.

These technical activities never exceeded 20 minutes, as young bodies tend to get restless and Hindley had no interest in producing soccer robots. He just wanted to give the youngsters a technical background to work with, then send them off into some type of fun game to apply what they had learned. For example, a game of freeze tag (in which one team tried to pass the ball off members of another team) emphasized passing technique; 1 v. 1 to a ball with no boundaries reinforced attacking and defending principles; and head-catch helped to review heading technique. Free dribbling, with one child trying to chase and tag the dribblers, was employed to allow players to perfect their own moves or combinations with the ball. The key to creative coaching, according to Hindley, is to devise a game that is fun and emphasizes a principle of soccer without overtly mentioning it. In effect, a transition from drills to a game continued the young players learning curve without them actually being aware of it

Practice concluded with about 25 minutes of free play in a 4 v. 4 setting where the players were encouraged to be creative both with and without the ball. No positions were assigned and two games were going at once, with Hutchins observing one and Longnecker watching over another. This ensured that all players were on the field no one was standing around watching and no teams were eliminated. The youngsters were urged to try different things, whether it was a dribbling move or a difficult pass, but tactical points were kept to a minimum.

Players were given no instruction whatsoever when they had the ball, and were expected to stay relaxed and make decisions on their own. In fact, no teammates were allowed to scream for the ball when someone had it and coaches were not allowed to tell children where the ball should be going. The only instruction that did take place was to players who did not have the ball. This instruction usually was done without stopping the game and took the form of a general question, such as Are you helping your teammates there? Lifeless, stagnant bodies on the field were discouraged, but bodies that ran uncontrollably with no purpose were equally frowned upon.

On Saturdays, the club also offered additional training sessions. These sessions were optional because the coaches did not want the youngsters to get overloaded or burned out. Goalkeeper training started at the conclusion of the 3 v. 3 free play. At this age, all players were encouraged to attend at least one goalkeeping session. They were never kept for more than 30 minutes, and were introduced to basics of catching, footwork, collapsing on their side to stop low balls, punting and, briefly, to diving.

The training paid off for the team, as its starting goalkeeper, who attended every session, was voted Most Valuable Player of the state tournament and provided his team with a substantial advantage over squads who may have had novices manning the nets. Another of the clubs extras was a weekly speed/agility/quickness session, in which techniques for running, shuffling and changing direction in an efficient manner were coached by Liz Walker, a former Duke University standout and U-20 U.S. National Team member. The youngsters were asked to attend only one of these sessions. All who participated found them to be entertaining and helpful.

In addition, once or twice a month the Celtic played 8 v. 8 full-field matches against local competition, usually against older teams. Playing older squads was not necessarily a coaching strategy, but a result of the fact that true U-8 opposition is difficult to find within the Knoxville metropolitan area.

The kids took their lumps against U-9 and U-10 teams, but results were never emphasized. Doing things the right way, as Hindley likes to say, was emphasized. On most occasions, in fact, the kids never realized the score. Competing against older, faster, stronger players forced them to find ways to think and play quicker, and it ultimately paid dividends.

Parents are the key to holding the infrastructure of any youth soccer team together (or ripping it apart in some cases). Hindley probably would ask that I rephrase the previous sentence to read: parents who are educated in soccer etiquette are the key to holding a squad together. After all, for many parents of U-8 soccer players, the experience represents their first encounter with competitive soccer, and they need some guidelines to help them help their child.

Hindley and the two coaches required all parents to attend a meeting prior to the start of the season. They were instructed to get their children to all activities on time, refrain from touchline coaching or yelling at referees and were asked to sign a code of conduct contract outlining appropriate club behavior. They were given the information they needed to assist their youngsters through the process of developing into competitive players and were commended for making a commitment to three weekly activities.

Following the end of the three-month season, all parents were advised to give their kids some time off from soccer until the start of the spring season in March just to keep them fresh. Their only activity during the interim would be an optional once-a-week indoor game.

Hindley said it is important for all the coaches to be on the same page, and that weekly instructions and updates were e-mailed to each coach. He also conducted monthly coaching seminars for the coaches.

Together, all of the parties involved played an important part in putting together a comprehensive blueprint for starting a youth soccer program from scratch and one that has achieved real success.

Editors note: Hemant Sharma is the Assistant to the Director of Coaching for the Knoxville Football Club. A former goalkeeper coach at Cornell University, he played at Cornell from 1993-97, leading the team to its first Ivy League Championship in 20 years and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances..