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. Two key coaches who have written and presented methods of scaling the game down to young players are coaches Karl Dewazien and Tony Waiters.
Karl Dewazien was State Coaching Director of the California Youth Soccer Association and offers his FUNdamental SOCCER program. Coach Tony Waiters, the only coach to coach Canada’s National Men’s team to a World Cup tournament has his Byte size-coaching program. Both coaches have an assortment of books and DVD’s on the topic. They are both pioneers in making soccer fun to play so that the game becomes the motivating factor in future development. You can find more information on their programs on-line.
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.
Please note: This article was first written in 1995 and drew many comments from clubs and parents across North America. Some parents even asked for permission to re-print the article and distribute it to their club’s directors to convince their executive to introduce 3v3 or 4v4 soccer. I’m glad to report that many of those clubs now offer smaller sided games to their youth players and are experiencing positive results.
Although there are still organizations that do not play smaller sided games for young kids, I’m glad to announce that most now do including the club I first wrote about but did not name in the article. And if you wish to re-print this article for use in your club feel free to do so.