The Center Field Wall
It's game day and the players are restless all day long. In most cases it's because the day seems so long especially when it ends with a soccer game. The game is not foremost on their minds so there is no need to get all worked up so early about it. In fact, when the game actually approaches it will seem like the next day. So much will have taken place from morning until the pre-game meal.
The pre-game meal makes the players realize that the game is about to begin. Right there as the pasta comes out, a players favorite food; the concentration is intense. One cannot possibly sit still knowing the game can only be minutes away when in reality it's hours away. But not to these players because the game is not just another game like the last game. That game is as if it was played decades ago. The score becomes obscure and of no interest. All that one can think of is today’s game. So much so that the players don't even want to finish their pre-game meal. Utmost on their minds is putting on that uniform and getting on the field.
The drive to the field seems like an eternity and the game takes on significance of astronomical proportions. It is of no importance as to who is the leading scorer or what the standings are because this game is as important as a World Cup Final. And so it should be because these players have worked so hard at trying to get there faster that they can already see themselves on the pitch playing the game. This pre-game ritual becomes paramount for optimal performance according to the World's top sport psychologists.
As the players warm up, the teams' spectators size up their opponents, and as usual, both sides, feel their opponents look huge. That doesn't deter the huge crowd at the game from cheering on their teams as they get set for the kick-off. The players look around as the coach gives last minute instructions. As they look at the crowd they are mesmerized by the noise and feel the electricity of the spectators which they estimate to be in the tens of thousands. The players on both teams are looking rather dapper and the faces of the combatants are quite varied. As they wait for the whistle to start the game some are looking rather intrigued at the whole proceedings and others are looking rather un-interested as if to try and take away some of the pressure that the huge crowd is expecting of them.
I, of course, am quite calm in comparison to the others at the game. I'm looking to make observations that can improve the game at this elite level, the highest level in this bracket. I'm as excited about what I'm about to observe as the players because I know before the game is even started that I will have plenty of comments about the game. I casually, finish my conversation with the person in the seat beside me and then I hear the whistle to start the game. I turn my head to watch the kick-off and "holy cow" I say to myself, I can’t believe what I'm seeing. I didn't expect to find something to write about so early in the game. The coach of the team defending the kick-off had just developed a completely new strategy, which I had never seen before. He had his seven players form a wall just outside the center circle to defend the kick-off. What a gutsy move. I've heard of a wall on a free-kick just outside the box and even a mini-wall at a corner kick but never had I seen this. A wall to defend the kick-off. And guess what? It worked. The players defended well, won the ball quickly, went into attack and stayed in the opponents end of the field for nearly five minutes and almost scored a goal. A brilliant strategy that I just had to investigate.
After the game I approached the coach identifying myself and telling him that this was something I had never imagined. When asked about his strategy he had a brilliant answer.
"I thought that if I positioned my team outside the center circle (which is only five yards away), in a wall, we could block their kick-off. Also, a 4 and 5 year old cannot kick the ball hard enough or high enough to clear the wall and they would not have the skill or understanding to pass it around our wall. Therefore we would win the ball quickly and have numerical superiority immediately to push the ball via the scrum up the field into their end and hopefully score a goal."
So there you have it, a new soccer strategy for all you coaches of four and five year olds (sorry I better be administratively correct, under 6).
As the game progressed the superior players of each team were quick to spot. They ran the fastest and were not claustrophobic. These two or three players out of 16 on the field controlled the game and the ball. In the game I watched, the final score was Stephanie 6, Michael 4. (Who says females can't compete with males?) The remaining 15 players barely touched the ball but I don't think they actually came to play soccer. Follow the leader is a more appropriate name of this game as some were not quite so impressed with this game called soccer. One player did not want to go on the field for his last shift citing that he never got a chance to kick the ball as his excuse. Tears followed when the parents tried to convince the player that soccer is a great game to try and play. Saving the day for this little chap was the popsicle promised at the conclusion of the game.
Four and five year olds mostly tend to run with their weight forward which is because they are head-heavy. The growth of their body and their co-ordination skills has not caught up with the growth of their head. Therefore as they chase the ball, it is quite often that a player will fall. As one can imagine when 14 people are all chasing the ball in close quarters, when one falls, quite a few behind them will also fall. Sometimes with not so pleasant consequences. The game was stopped five or six times for injuries usually of minor proportions but when accompanied by a pool full of tears, it seemed much more serious. That popsicle seems to cure all wounds although in one of the injuries the player tripped over the heel of another and fell with enough force to whip his head on the ground causing a scratch on the chin. The player had to be carried off on the outstretched hands of the coach, who surely needed earplugs to soften the high pitch overtone of the accompanying sonata.
The crowd of 50 or 60, which seemed like thousands to these 4 year olds, cheered at every opportunity and shouted words of encouragement. When I focused on them it was hard to imagine grown adults looking so foolish. It was certainly just as enjoyable as the game. As one player finally caught up with the ball, he ran with it in any direction but turned his head towards his parents and smiled. It drew a big laugh from the crowd as did the players who tried to score in their own goal. Whenever a goal was scored the crowd let out a huge cheer with applause but all the players on the field froze while trying to figure out what they should be doing next. "Did our team score?" "Are we supposed to cheer?" "Why are the parents going nuts?" "Why are they laughing at us?" "Why are some people looking rather let down?" "Did I do something wrong?"
The game ended and most came out with the proverbial question; "did we win?" The answers were usually positive and the kids were told to line up to shake hands. They rushed through that ritual because they knew what was next. The popsicle! Did they care whether they won or lost? No. Did they know the final score? No. Were they looking forward to their next game? I'm not so sure. Well I guess so. Because of the popsicle of course!
My assessment of the situation is not one of positive conclusions for the game of soccer. In reality, it shocks me that adults who administer the game cannot see all that is wrong with the above scenario. Over 50% of these four and five year olds will play a whole season of soccer and not score a goal. Some will barely touch a ball over the course of the year. Many players will only want to play again because of the uniform they get as opposed to the game itself. The spontaneous play that occurs off the field , at home with friends in the form of small sided games will not occur naturally. Many clubs still try and jump right to 7 or 8 aside with big goals and a field 60 yards by 40 yards. The Dutch, and Brazilians develop players using small sided games at the younger age levels.
Soccer is not fun when players barely touch the ball, don’t shoot and don’t score. The novelty of being in a uniform or getting the popsicle will eventually wear off and the kids will eventually want to quit. Dr. Tom Fleck said in a panel discussion a few years ago that the coach of the year should be the coach who brings back the most players the following year. Nothing is more fun than kicking a ball and trying to score. If you can’t touch it, you will never score and there goes the fun.
There are plenty of ready-made programs available to help clubs organize themselves for small-sided games. Please do your part in influencing clubs who haven’t already converted to 3 or 4 a-side soccer to do so as soon as possible before we lose those kids to other sports.
Thanks for reading
John DeBenedictis Executive Director National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada