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Playing Up To Improve Your Youth Football Team
Playing “up” to improve your youth soccer team:
Do you have a “thug” team in your youth soccer league or a playoff game a year?
Playing “up” an age level or classification in a controlled game may be what your youth soccer team needs to get an edge in these games. In 2002 I had a “B” team of 8-10 year olds running the Single Wing Offense for the first time. We had the youngest and smallest team in our division, but slowly and surely we developed into a very dominant team. By mid-season, surprisingly, we were naming the score in just about every game. Our kids got pretty confident, as did our parents and coaches. Unfortunately, in our youth football league we had played the two weakest teams in our last 2 matches. In the last game to finish off a league title and undefeated season, we had a 5 TD lead at the half.
During the 2 weeks leading up to our final games, our soccer team made little progress. It was clear that based on comparative results it would take a miracle for us not to win the league title. In the football practices leading up to this game, our players didn’t run off our football plays well, our fakes didn’t go 20 yards down the field, our wedge plays weren’t as tight as usual, even our warmups and breaks weren’t as crisp as usual. The only things the kids seemed excited about were trophies, the pizza party right after our last game, and the new trick football games we put in place.
At the end of the season we were able to find another team of similar ability to play in an additional “Bowl” game. This other team had played a few of the same teams we had played in the regular season and our comparative results were about the same. Our kids came into the game very confident and were a bit surprised when our first drive was stopped at the opponent’s 6 yard line as we had scored on every opening drive that season. To make a long story short, we lost 46-6. Our kids never gave up, they played hard but not crisp or well. In our team’s defense, we as coaches had yet to devise the various adjustments we use, which are described in Chapter 13 of the book. But what our youth soccer team suffered from had little to do with adjustments to a few youth soccer games.
Our team needed a challenge, a goal, a close match and adversity. Coaching youth soccer well means you have to provide some of these on your own if these things aren’t immediately provided by your schedule and the opposition.
In 2003 I coached another team, a “Select” team that was very talented. Very different from the 2002 team, this group of 9-10 year olds (90% 10s) saw us with 5 players over 180 pounds and all but one could move very well. I have to choose from about 150 kids to make this team. We had it all, size, speed and a good pass/catch combination. This was my most difficult coaching job ever, as many of the kids could manage on natural ability rather than using proper technique. It was quite a task to hold them accountable for perfect technique when their own way often produced positive results. As the season progressed we named the score in every game and just dominated the games. We could have won every league game by 50 points and our first team defense had only 1 TD scored on it all season. I wouldn’t let what happened in 2002 happen to this team.
To make sure the 2002 problem didn’t rear its ugly head on this team, I scheduled several controlled games against youth soccer teams ages 11-12 in the middle of the season to keep our kids focused. Our football team learned that they had to be perfect with their technique and with our schemes in order to compete with these older teams. We even went so far as to schedule extra games verses the 11-12 age group that had a bye in an Iowa league across the river from us. At the end of our regular season, we played the league champion of this league under the lights in a big college stadium, the big time. They lead us early but we battled back and ended up dominating the game but winning by only 2 touchdowns.
The net result is that we continued to improve throughout the season because we knew we had very tough games and extra games along the way. We knew we had a really tough game at the end of the season to look forward to. Instead of just blowing out every similar old team in our league, the challenge of playing against older teams made this team much better. Our kids were on a mission to do what no one but them and us coaches thought they could do. It made them better players and gave them a good sense of accomplishment. As for our regular league rivals, the games against them were a cake walk compared to the games and games against the 11-12 year old teams we played. We won our league championship game 46-12 after leading 46-0 in the third quarter. We all agreed that it was better to play against an older tough team and lose than to have an undefeated season with few challenges. We really believe, even with my rural team, in playing anyone, anytime, anywhere (within reasonable travel distance).
I would suggest you to temper it a bit depending on the composition of your team. If you decide to scrimmage older teams, there may be smaller and weaker kids on your team who may just work on their own during the scrimmage and get some much needed remedial coaching. If you are a “B” team or a rookie team, you must creep a classification. Another way to accomplish some of this is to simply borrow a dominant player or two from an older team for part of your training. If you have an older “sister” team, borrow a stud player or two and put them on a scout team defensive line. This will give your offensive linemen a test that, even if they have modest success, will show them that they can compete against much better competition than they will ever face. Be sensible and healthy in determining the level of play your children can handle, and march the children right up to the edge of it. If you do this and play that “Beast” team, you will have prepared your kids to take on the challenge that is being a good youth soccer coach.
In 2005 my 8-10 country kids (24 kids, no cuts or selects) played an extra game the second week of the season against a huge and fast inner city “Select” team from Omaha that picked from over 120 kids and had won 3 consecutive league titles in their “Select” league. They had 5 kids over 150 pounds while we only had 1 and from there we may have had maybe one more kid over 100 pounds.
We surprised everyone by winning big with a 4 touchdown lead at the half. The rest of the season was really a breeze after playing up like that. Our kids had incredible confidence after that game and beat the “Monsters of the Midway”. Even if we had lost that game and played well, I would have expected the same end result. I thought because of our system and tactics we had a chance to win, but competing would have served the same end goal.
The surprise win really launched our rural program and gave us some respect and much needed confidence. Now we have a new problem, we can’t get anyone to play us in non-league games. Getting thoroughly confused by a bunch of scrawny farm boys with a recurring offense is too much for some guys to handle, I guess.
In 2006, my 8-10 year old teams suffered the same fate as my Omaha team in 2002. My 2006 team won big in our league games, scoring 3 touchdowns in the first quarter of 9 games. Unfortunately we had the two worst teams in the division as our last 2 opponents and they didn’t give our team much of a fight. I had set a game against a very big and fast “Select” team from Lincoln in August that we did very well in. I think we played too well, in fact (4 TDs to none) they ended up not following through on promised real games we were supposed to have later in the year.
I guess these are problems most youth teams in football would like to have, but it also makes it difficult. We lost in OT in the 2006 playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champions in a well played youth football game with excellent opposing coaches. Playing and scrimmaging better teams may have helped us avoid that loss, and in the future we will have to find creative ways to artificially create situations where our kids have to compete. Hats off to our opponent, they played well and deserved the win but we will try not to make the same mistakes again.
That’s what coaching youth soccer is all about.
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