Teaching Tactical Intelligence to Young Players

In team sports, athleticism and technical skill matter quite a bit. In soccer, it is apparent that world-class professionals are capable of running faster, and passing more accurately, than the average player. In addition to these skills, top level players are able to read a game at a very high level, and process information very quickly. Many coaches are eager and able to coach players to become better physically and technically, but struggle or neglect the intellectual side of the game.

Teaching young players to think about the game is especially difficult. They often lack the attention span and the vocabulary to converse about even the most basic tactical concepts. I believe at the age I coach at, U10, most tactical teaching should be within a core set of activities during training. Teaching and showing them them, not telling them, how to attack and defend individually and collectively within your playing style is of primary importance. While longer team talks about what went wrong and right may sound beneficial, and look more like a traditional 'learning environment', I think there are better ways to get ideas across to younger players.

Still, in the future, I do see video analysis and longer discussions as a tool for me to improve my team. Creating cohesive teams full of skillful, intelligent players involves more than cones and soccer balls; a coach has to be able to stimulate a player's intellectual approach to the game as well, both on and off the training pitch.

In this area of coaching, my main objective with the U10 boys is to frame soccer, and specifically, our team's approach, as something that is as much intellectual as it is technical and physical. Creating this perception for the players has to take into account the context of our team. Specifically, we are a young, lower level club team, who train only twice a week. Along with the previously mentioned issues with younger players, I don't have direct access to them outside of training, and it is doubtful any of them are on track to become top-flight professionals. The primary method I have used to try and impart these ideas on the players is by focusing on the density of training sessions.

Some examples are:

-Highlighting the tactical element in every exercise (however small or simple)

-Discussions with individuals/small groups during water breaks, before training, after training

-Video clips of our team/relevant pro teams shown to individuals during water breaks, before training, after training

-Maximizing time spent training concepts, and minimizing time spent talking about them (giving advice during an exercise rather than 'freezing' the action; taking a single player aside to talk while the team continues playing)

As the players have begun to mature, and more consistently execute and understand concepts such as expanding when we regain possession, I want to expand on their capacity for tactical and intellectual learning. I'm especially interested in improving their capacity for watching and analyzing match footage, as I think that is one of the most valuable, clearest ways to get your ideas across as a coach.

I believe that this will be a gradual process for this team. I send out highlight videos to the parents every few games, and often some players will recognize a scenario from the game that we had trained. For some of the more mature players, I'll send their parents a video of a player I would like them to emulate; examples thus far include Toni Kroos and Luis Suarez.

Recently, I put out an optional video quiz for the players to take. It's a 5 minute long video with 9 questions about our attacking and defending principles, along with a couple miscellaneous questions. The level of focus required for this video is a step up from the fluffier highlight videos I've sent in the past. Most of the questions are recall, such as "How do we restart from free-kicks?" (answer: fast).  Some involve a little more processing, such as the first, in which players are shown our formation in and out of possession, and need to identify which is which.

I think in the context of this team at this moment in time, giving the players short assignments to complete at home is a solid 'next step' towards incorporating more off the field training and learning. It allows me to continue to reinforce the idea that playing on this team is about more than showing up to training twice a week, and that soccer is about more than kicking a ball and running fast. It also allows each player to proceed and participate at their own level. Some of the players would have no trouble right now sitting down for 30 minutes to review footage of our latest game; some are unable to listen to me explain an exercise for more than 30 seconds. By assigning players this 'homework', I don't have to worry about accommodating the various stage of development each player is at. Assigning work to be completed outside of practice also serves as a litmus test for a player's work ethic and dedication. In the future, after I feel the team has reached a baseline level of competency, I can revisit the notion of dedicated training sessions for game analysis.

Further reading for context: 3four3 on adapting world class coaching methodology to your (American) environment: