Within my first year, the number one question that has been asked of me so far by you coaches is. .. How do I get my players to spread out on the field. Great question. Here’s an article you need to read and at the end, a test you can perform to see if they are ready.
How can I get my U9s to spread out?
I currently coach a team of U9 boys.
I have a problem with getting them to spread out.
I know it is a hard thing for the boys to understand and consciously think about, but from where I stand on the touchline, it seems the fundamental reason we lose games.
I also know it takes time for them to stop bunching around the ball and think of themselves as a team, but I would have thought they should start to understand it by now.
Is there some advice you can give me or even some games I can use to get them to think about their positioning?
As your players get older they will, without any input from you, begin to move away from each other and find their own space to play in.
There are some things you can do to speed up the process but whatever you do, don’t shout at them to “spread out!” because young children will take you literally and run to all four corners of the pitch. Yes, they will have spread out but they won’t be able to receive a pass and the team will have no shape at all.
What you really want is for your players to move into positions where they are not being pressured by the opposition but not so far away that their team mates can’t pass to them.
There are some tips on how to do this in newsletter 139 but before you rush off and force your U9s apart, take a moment to consider if that’s the right thing to do or whether playing “bunch ball” is actually doing them good.
Young players are learning how to solve problems and be creative while they’re bunched up and these skills actually help them with their game when they’re older and the game is more structured.
One day you will want players who can keep the ball when they’re surrounded by five defenders and the one who can break out of the pack and dribble to goal is going to be your star attacker when he’s a bit older.
But I know that the pressure on coaches to intervene and encourage their players to play “proper” soccer can be quite intense. So by all means check out the advice in newsletter 139 as well on these pages on footy4kids:
However you decide to encourage your players to spread out on the pitch, remember to reward the behaviour you want to see.
A simple “well done” for a player who moves away from the bunch without being told will work wonders. You might also want to consider using some of or special reward patches. I’ve used them with great success.
Space: the final frontier?
While it may be unreasonable to expect three year olds to abandon their natural inclination to swarm round the ball and spread out across the field, the question “why won’t they spread out?”‘ is a good one.
The stock answer is that very young children are primarily interested in themselves, are not mature enough to understand the concept of teamwork and they just want to have fun! And for a young soccer player, the fun is where the ball is, not guarding a piece of grass 20 yards or more from the action and hoping to receive a pass that never comes.
My advice to coaches who have teams of very young players is to not waste their time trying to make their players spread out. Instead, they should let them carry on swarming around the ball because they are learning so many useful skills. They include how to tackle, how to take the ball from another player and how to keep it when they’ve got it.
I don’t blame these coaches from wanting to stop their players doing what comes naturally. There is a lot of pressure on them from parents who expect their child to play for a team which looks like a miniature version of Manchester United instead of what they really are – a bunch of kids having fun with a ball.
But the day will come when your players are ready to be shown they can still have fun playing soccer if they find their personal space on the pitch.
How will I know they are ready?
You can test your players’ readiness for this major change with a simple experiment.
Set up a very small pitch (about 10 yards by 15 yards with goals at each end), put two teams of five, six or seven players on it and let them play.
Stop the game after 10 minutes or so and ask them if they like playing on such a small pitch. If they say “no”, ask them why. If they say something like “it’s too crowded” then you know they are ready. If they don’t seem to mind playing on such a small pitch then you need to wait a bit longer.
Great, they’re ready! What do I do next?
It’s no good simply telling your players to “spread out” because it doesn’t mean anything. Should they should stand five yards apart? 20 yards? 30 yards?
You can find the optimum distance your players should be from each other by watching them in a small circle (say, five yards across) and putting a defender in the middle. Ask your players to pass the ball to each other and keep it away from the defender without changing their position.
After a few minutes ask them if it was easy or difficult to stop the defender getting a touch on the ball. Hopefully, someone will say it was difficult because “we’re too close together”.
Now make the circle really big (about 35 yards across) and repeat the exercise with a new defender. Your players will probably still find it hard to keep the ball away from the defender because they are now too far apart.
Now gradually make the circle smaller until you find the size that works best for the outside players. That’s the distance that your players should try to keep from each other when the ball is in open play.
Talk about this with your players which will help to reinforce their understanding. Play a match (scrimmage) on a normal-sized pitch and congratulate your players whenever you see them supporting each other AND being the right distance apart.
Don’t expect your players to abandon the swarm and spread out until they are ready to do so. When they are ready, help your players understand why there should be some space between the ball carrier and the supporting players and, most importantly, what the optimum distance actually is.
Praise them whenever you see them keeping the right distance apart in training sessions or matches and soon they will be playing, if not quite like Manchester United, in an attractive and effective way.