When Long-Term-Player-Development (LTPD) was introduced to soccer in Canada in 2008, one of its many goals was to shorten field sizes, game times and players on the field in accordance with what would be most beneficial for the development of children. Now, eleven years on from all the changes which have widely been accepted and approved by the public, some debate still remains in the community. The most glaring debate will likely always involve the retreat line and its management by referees. But perhaps a conversation should begin about whether or not U13 is too early to be playing full-field 11v11 soccer.
The benefits of shortening field sizes and the amount of players on the field are evident. Less players on a slightly smaller field = more touches on the ball, more 1v1 situations, more decisions to make and more goals. So why is U13 the age that we start to take away some of these benefits in favour of a field size that matches what professional players on? Perhaps, it’s just a little too soon to begin to introduce such a large field for players who have only just begun puberty. Some of those players will not even have hit puberty yet. Players at the U11 and U12 age playing 9v9, are not a whole lot developmentally different from U13’s.Embed from Getty Images
When we get into 11v11, coaches begin to be tempted to nurture players into certain positions. We start to do a whole lot more position-specific training and tactics – teaching things like “how to defend in a back four” or “how to pass in a midfield diamond.” But research suggests that players should not begin to specialize in certain positions until the age of 14/15 at the earliest (Flandreau, 2015). Thirteen years of age is simply too young to be nailed into one position and not learn others, yet when we get to 11v11 that’s what the vast majority of coaches begin to do. Ultimately it’s still up to the coach and the player to determine the number of positions players should be playing. But there’s a whole lot of research that suggests learning a variety of different positions is very positive towards a player’s development. Coaches can keep players in just one or two positions at even younger ages if they please, but it almost becomes a necessary requirement in 11v11 with more players on the field. In 11v11, you’ll rarely have several players who want to play the same position. Rotating players around becomes more difficult and position-specific training becomes a natural progression. Again, this is dependent on the coach and should also be dependent on the player and their wishes. But it is also dependent on the environment that we are putting these children in. They’ve only just hit puberty and they’ve only just begun to understand tactics, formations and the more complex intricacies of playing the beautiful game, yet they are expected to play on a field that professionals play on.
There’s that crazy and often cited stat that by the age of 13 years old, 70% of kids playing organized sports quit (Miner, 2016). The “It’s just not fun anymore” tagline doesn’t really dig deep into why so many kids quit sport before or at the age of thirteen. Perhaps when children get to age twelve or thirteen in sport, there’s a bit of an unnecessary shift away from the fun-based activities into more of a competition focus, emphasizing a need to win. Playing time starts to be shortened for some and the pressure to perform looms larger for others. Kids at the age of thirteen should not have any bit of external pressure on their performance at all. If they do, they may turn into the 70% of those who quit.Embed from Getty Images
A benefit to full-field 11v11 soccer is that more players can play at a time, but they also get involved in less 1v1 situations, less decisions and less goals, all things that could contribute to the sport being less fun. At thirteen years old, it seems a bit early to take away so many of the positive benefits of 9v9 soccer. Having coached both twelve and thirteen year old players this year, they are not a whole lot different developmentally, physically, socially, mentally or cognitively. So if U12 is too early for 11v11, why is U13 not? At twelve and thirteen for girls, they’ll have just started puberty. For boys, they might not have even started puberty yet. Even those that have hit puberty at thirteen, will be in the very early, immature stages of it. There’s still a large focus on the self and players have only just begun to separate the “me” into “we” in sport. This means a more individual focused game, such as 9v9, may be more appropriate.
LTPD has created several positive changes in youth soccer, but perhaps U13 is just a little too early for 11v11 soccer. U14 might be a more appropriate 11v11 age, given that most children will have had their main growth spurts, progressed into puberty and have more of the physical and developmental characteristics required for 11v11.
So what do you think? Is U13 too early for 11v11 soccer or is it just about right? Let me know your thoughts below or on Twitter @coachingtms.