Learning and playing experiences appropriate to the age and ability levels of players is critical to retaining youth players in athletic activities, including soccer. Cycles of growth and maturation are well understood for various age groups and our coaching must respect these characteristics.
Coaches of younger soccer players, those under 9 years of age, must allow
children to learn the game at their own pace, minimize or eliminate stress from adult pressure to compete and/or win, and use training activities that are realistic and challenging but not beyond where they are developmentally. Prior to 9 years of age, children have limited
coordination they tend to be egocentric, seeing the world only from their own perspective (results in "my ball" phenomenon). Concepts of space and time are just beginning to develop.
They may verbalize "team' but do not really understand group play. They don't focus on winning or losing unless these ideas are stressed by
adults. Successful coaches of younger children concentrate on activities built around touching the ball as often as possible using all parts of the body. Basic technique development is the main objective of each training session. Emphasis on positional and team play should be eliminated until children are equipped to deal with these concepts.
In players 9-12 years of age, the ability and desire to learn is optimal. More advanced skill development is possible in this age group.
Coordination is much improved. This age group begins to move from
self-centered play to an understanding and utilization of cooperative team play. They can grasp basic principles of play. Teaching soccer tactics becomes possible particularly in small group activities. Most coaching experts agree that age 11 is the time to start 11-a-side play. However, give players timet to experience and develop within the "adult game." Don't expect them to deal with the pressure of highly competitive situations immediately.
Competitive play becomes enjoyable for youth soccer players at adolescence, from 13-19 years of age. Technical and tactical abilities mature. Players can
understand the principles of play. The concept of "team,' positional
roles, and shared responsibility for outcomes are understood.
Appreciation and understanding of concepts like sportsmanship become
important. Youth soccer players have the physical, mental, emotional, technical and
tactical tools necessary to succeed on the field. In other words, this age group can deal with the adult game.
When youth soccer coaching efforts are focused on age-approprite activities, an
environment is created helping youth soccer players to learn and to enjoy playing the
game. The gifts of skills, enjoyment, and love for soccer will have been given to the next generation of players. As youth soccer coaches we will have done our job and done it well!