Rethinking how success is defined in the youth game
Soccer is an invasion game. The ultimate objective is to invade the ball past every opponent on the field, including the goalkeeper, in order to score a goal. That’s not an easy thing to learn. It takes an inordinate amount of practice to deftly manipulate a ball with your feet, all the while keeping your head up to make decisions as 22 players intersect and morph on a field that's an acre and a half in size. It's hard. It's particularly hard for young players as they also adapt to their growing bodies.
But there is a way to circumvent that difficulty. If you force the opponent to make a mistake and turnover the ball deep in their end, there will be far fewer players to invade past in order to score. Send multiple players sprinting forward to disrupt the opponent’s ability to pass out from their defensive zone and the job becomes much easier. Avoid getting caught in your own end by purposefully kicking the ball out of bounds when things get difficult. It sounds like a wise strategy, particularly at the younger ages when the physical ability to disrupt possession is generally far greater than the technical and tactical ability to retain possession. The same could be said for many of the older age groups as well.
But when examined more closely, we can see that such an approach incurs a heavy cost on the development of players. Ultimately players need to be learning how to invade past opponents using their skill and their soccer IQ. If the sole focus is on disruption, the players are robbed of these critical foundations in the game.
“Disruptors want you to play out from your goalkeeper. They want you to swing the ball around the back while trying to find an open channel forward. Their ambition is to feast on your mistakes."
Disruption is primarily about the physical. It's about strength, speed, and aggression. Yes, it can also be tactical but disruption is, by definition, a tactic done without the ball. This is why it can be so seductive because teaching players how to succeed without the ball is far easier than teaching them how to succeed with the ball. In fact, teaching them how to succeed with the ball, particularly when skill is in its infancy, can be perilous. There's a far greater chance of making consequential mistakes when players are encouraged to possess the ball. They become easy prey for disruptors. Disruptors want you to play out from your goalkeeper. They want you to swing the ball around the back while trying to find an open channel forward. Their ambition is to feast on your mistakes.
That's not say that teaching young players how to disrupt possession is wrong. Not at all. It's vital for players to value the defensive side of the game, to be strong and aggressive when trying to win the ball back. It only becomes harmful when this approach is done to the exclusion of technique and soccer IQ on the ball. Young players (and their parents and coaches) should value goals that are scored by invading through the opposition with skill and tactical acumen. Applauding a goal when a goalkeeper makes an errant pass from their goal area is quite simply the celebration of someone's mistake. If this mistake happens to be made by your rival club in the English Premier League then that celebration is understandable. But when it happens to a 10 year old trying to get better at the game then the celebration becomes harder to understand.
An often repeated quote is that "Football is a simple game." It sounds like an apt quote but in reality, football is far from simple in terms of the skills required to play. The youth game, and even the early adult game, is fraught with mistakes, but those mistakes are meant to be snippets of information, a signal that a particular technique or decision needs to be slightly altered. Mistakes should be fertilizer for the young developing footballer. But if mistakes become nothing more than nourishment for disruptors and the objects of cheer from the sidelines then players may choose to avoid them entirely. Of course, the most effective way to elude mistakes is to avoid being on the ball for any length of time, particularly in the defensive end of the field. Kick the ball out of bounds if under pressure. Play the ball forward continually with the sole intention of disrupting the opponent in their own end. And so the cycle continues.
Brendan Quarry is the operations director and co-owner of TSS Football Club and Total Soccer. He has been coaching on the female side of the game for the last 20 years and helped countless players progress to the collegiate level.