At any level, there can sometimes be a mismatch that occurs between a player’s preference for a position and their playing style. Don’t get me wrong, as a youth coach, you should always play your players in the positions they want to play. Rotation is an equally important consideration. But sometimes there’s a mismatch that has to be identified. A player might say their favourite position is striker, but they don’t have an attacking bone in their body. A player might say their favourite position is goalkeeper, but then the team lacks their presence when they’re not playing as an outfielder. A classic example in the professional game in recent years is Antonio Valencia’s transformation from a right winger into one of the best right-fullbacks in the game. When Valencia first arrived at Old Trafford from Wigan Athletic, he was a pacey, skillful winger who had all the qualities to make for a good wide player. But he lacked in his decision making and end product in the final third. As such, Louis Van Gaal played him a little deeper as a right-wing-back and soon after as a fullback. His game has matured and grown exponentially since then and he’s gone on to captain one of the biggest clubs in England and even develop a reputation as one of the best defenders on the planet, despite only becoming a defender a few years ago.
As a youth coach, this kind of thing is always going through your head. A player says they like striker best, but they cannot score a goal to save their life! So what do you do? Play them at striker? Rotate them around aimlessly? Or do you try and mould them into a position that might suit their playing style better? My inclination as a coach is a mix of all three with a particular emphasis on the third option, in a quest to discover their best possible position. I’ve learned over the years a few different creative ways that you can mould players into specific positions that best suit their style of play and skill-set. This post may provide counter-arguments to long-standing opinions on youth development in sport, but at the same time, it is a topic that has gone through every coach’s head at some point and as such is a necessary topic to discuss.
CREATIVE NAMES FOR POSITIONS
One of the best ways to intrigue the minds of young players is to introduce alternative names for positions. Who wants to play a position called defensive midfield when you can play something called striker? So instead of calling defensive midfield its proper name, rethink what that position is truly about. In my first year as a competitive coach working with U9’s, the coach I was working alongside nicknamed the defensive midfield position the ‘pig’ for the tireless energy and sort of ‘muddy’ work it requires to play there. Another one that kids love is the ‘sweeper’. Not only does the word ‘sweeper’ help kids understand that defenders need to stay back and ‘sweep’ up all the messes left behind by the midfielders and forwards, but it also increases the likelihood that players actually want to play defense. In my final year with recreational soccer, I was able to successfully mould a player who at the start of the season would have said her favourite position was forward into the best defender on the team simply by giving her the sweeper role. She’s been a central defender ever since and the position suits her unlike any other because it allows her to utilize her best skills: her natural strength and aggression. Unpopular positions like fullback or goalkeeper could be given epithets in a similar manner. It’s just asking for someone to do it. The moment someone starts calling fullback, the ‘bumblebee’ or the ‘ox’, you can guarantee to see a spike in player interest. Creative names can be a fantastic way to get players interested in playing less desirable positions.
CONSISTENT PLAYING TIME IN FEWER POSITIONS
You’ve heard it time and time again; at the youth level, players should be experiencing every single position on the field and should not be nailed down to just one position. The benefits of rotating players around different positions is undeniable. For example, a striker may be able to learn how to effectively beat defenders by playing as a defender and learning what makes defending so hard.
That being said, there is an argument to be made that the more exposure a player has to a specific position, the more time they will have to master it. John Terry would not have become the heroic central defender that he was if every other game he had been playing as a right-back. Sure, he might have learned to become a more complete defender, but he would have also missed out on a countless number of hours learning the trade of what it takes to become the best centre back in the world. If you can tell that a player does not make for a good striker, what is the point in playing them there over other players who could use that valuable exposure in the position to develop their games? In theory, by playing a midfielder who is terrible as a striker up top, you are helping them to develop into a better player. But if they suck at the position and you know it and they know it, what does that do for player confidence? What does that do for a player’s identity as part of the team? Does it really achieve the benefits that were intended? The answer to that is probably a firm no. A player won’t truly get it in their head that they can play effectively as a central midfielder if they only play in that position once or twice every match. In order to become a good central midfielder, a player needs to be playing there regularly, even from a young age.
For that matter, there is an argument to be made that players need to start being shaped into specific types of players as early as nine years old, when they first begin to truly grasp the concept of positions and and play on larger field sizes. Otherwise they may develop a bunch of really good interchangeable skills, but may not excel at any particular part of the game. This may lead to a player being cut from a team down the road and/or a slowing down in their development. Would you rather take the player who can’t defend for their life but can score goal after goal game after game, or the player who is an all-rounder but doesn’t excel at anything? In one case, the player is underdeveloped in one area of the game at the price of being really talented in another area of the game. In the other case, the player is underdeveloped as a whole because although they are good at most things, they do not excel at any given skill.
The other case for primarily playing players in one or two different positions is in helping players understand their role in the team. In order for confidence to flourish, players need to understand what they bring to a team and why they can make a difference out on the field. If you constantly rotate a player around nine different positions game after game, they will struggle to develop a sense of identity. This is something so understated in the youth game. The best way to keep players playing the game is to boost their confidence. One of the best ways to boost player confidence is by helping them understand what role they have in the team and what makes them the player that they are. A player who has a sense of identity will always perform better than a player who lacks one.
Again, this mismatch can sometimes occur between a players’ belief on their best position and the coach’s belief on their best position. Obviously a player likely knows themselves better than you as the coach do, but they can sometimes be blinded by their own ego, just like you as a coach can also be blinded by your own ego. The point is, a player who thinks of themselves as a striker, but never scores or assists goals, probably isn’t best suited to be a striker. A player who likes to play on the wings but is very stagnant and slow, might be better off where being stagnant and slow is less detrimental, such as central defense or as a Mesut Ozil style ‘number ten’. And if you give a player consistent playing time in that position, they will slowly start to learn how capable they actually are in said position and their desire to play there will skyrocket. The key is in developing player confidence and keeping their morale up in that new position. They might say to you ‘I suck at defensive midfield!’, which is when you might have to reply ‘Actually Sydnee, you’re one of the best on the team at winning the ball back, which is why defensive midfield is a position that suits you.’ At the same time, it’s also important to give that player that option of ‘Where would you like to play?’. A compromise may be very easy to reach. In 9v9, right and left midfielders need to be diligent defenders, particularly in a team playing with a back two. These wide midfielders have to almost play like wing-backs and have an integral job to do in marking the opposition’s wingers. By proxy, defensive-minded players are needed in those positions and so a player who is good at defending but doesn’t like defense, might enjoy those midfield positions instead as you slowly develop them into capable wing-backs and perhaps even later transition them into fullbacks for 11v11.
In summary, a player should never be nailed down to just one position at a young age and should be given the opportunity to play all over the pitch, regardless of how much they might moan about it. However, consistent playing time in one or a few very interchangeable different positions will help to develop a player’s confidence, ability and help them to understand their role in a team, further taking their game to another level.
One final way that a coach might be able to get the best out of a player who has a desire to play in a position that doesn’t really suit them, is by creating an unorthodox spot for them in their formation. This can be demonstrated above by the example of right and left midfielders in 9v9 needing to play like wing-backs. You tell the players that they are right and left midfielders, but what they don’t realize is that they are playing almost the exact same position that a right and left fullback might take up in 11v11. Similarly, this could also be done by telling a player who likes forward but is more of a provider than a goalscorer, to play as the ‘second striker’. Essentially they are now the ‘number ten’ of the team but you’ve told them they are playing striker, so that is what they believe. Why not incorporate a ‘false nine’ or a ‘sweeper’ at 7v7 & 9v9? Teach players the intricacies of the game as early as possible. We are past the days of simplicity in football. 4-4-2 is a dying breed and if players are going to understand the intricacies of a midfield diamond at 11v11 why not start to incorporate similar positions into a 9v9 or 7v7 formation? Get creative. Your youth players will love you for it.
This article aims to demonstrate how players can develop into specific positions that best suit their style of play and skill-set. It is not meant to make an argument that players should stick to one specific position all game long and play the same position year after year. Playing young players across a variety of different positions is one of the most important things you can do as a youth coach. But beyond rotating players across different positions and playing them where they want to play, players need to learn what makes them effective as players. As such, you may need to ‘mould’ a player into a position that they are reluctant to play at first. However, with consistent playing time, creative names and creative formations, players can easily be moulded into specific positions in order to help aid their development into the best possible player that they can be. If players understand their role in a team, their confidence will skyrocket and their likelihood to continue playing the sport will also increase.
Thanks for reading!