Teaching tactics and teamwork to young children in sports

In the coaching community, there’s often a discourse around how the technical elements of the game must be prioritized in the early stages of development, typically between the ages of 4-10.

I have often accepted this belief, and although I would still be working to emphasize the social, psychological and physical elements for children of all ages, there’s no denying the importance of giving children the ball and letting them develop a love for having that ball at their feet. Walk by any soccer field and you’ll likely hear parents and coaches telling (or even yelling at) players to “pass the ball!!” I’ve often squashed this whenever possible, helping parents and coaches understand that the fact that the child wants the ball, loves the ball and wants to do much of the work themselves is a positive thing up to a certain age.

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But there also must be a balance, and it’s not as though children are incapable of sharing and collaborating at a young age. I think many coaches that prescribe to the ‘techniques first’ approach to youth development come from the idea that children between the ages of 4-6 have very little concept around how to share with others. The scientific literature will however point to the potential for children even as early as 3 years of age to understand how to share with others based on merit and even work ethic. That is, a myriad of studies have found that 3 and 4-year-old children are more likely to collaborate on a task when they perceive their partner to be working hard on said task. The theory is that when they see their partner working hard, they want to match that effort, and so they work hard too. It’s still an individualistic approach to collaboration, but this finding points to the ability for children even at the age of 3 (before they typically enter sporting environments), to understand how their role in a task can benefit the wider team.

So at first, when it comes to interacting in a sporting environment, talented children may be more likely to share and collaborate with others that they also perceive to be talented (or at least hard-working). Those that are less gifted at that age may also be more likely to pass off responsibility to others that they perceive as being more talented. It’s a form of sharing that is based on perceived merit, not equality.

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But then once children reach the age of five and six, their attempts to collaborate become more about fairness and equality, and less about benefiting themselves. They are even more likely to forego their own role in a game in the pursuit of helping someone else play their part in the game. From a sporting sense, this illustrates the potential for children between the ages of 4-8 to understand the fact that they play a role for the greater good of the team environment, and must work collaboratively with their teammates.

With 4-8 year-old’s, this is exactly where I would start when introducing “tactical” elements of football. We would not over-emphasize the complex tactics of the game by any means, but simply introduce the notion of sharing with teammates in a way that gives every player an important role on the team. This can even be position-based, which children even as early as five years old completely understand. For example, you could give each kid on the team a role such as “The Destroyer” and “The Engine”, helping them understand their own unique strengths and how their strengths fit into the greater scope of the team. “You are the rocket and when you score, the entire team blasts off!”

Those same players can then understand that others on their team have strengths that can help the team to succeed, and if they all play a part in an equal manner, they are more likely to have success. The findings from all the literature would suggest that you don’t even have to emphasize the need for every player to play an equal part. Instead, they are likely to make those judgements for themselves through seeing the effort given by their teammates, and adjusting to try and match that effort.

Now when you look at much of the debate surrounding the need to focus on the technical side of the game above all else between the ages of 4-10, most coaches will recognize that children between these ages are capable of understanding certain tactical elements to the game. But their argument will be that children cannot execute tactical decisions (such as adequate positioning or movement off the ball) if they cannot execute the technical demands of the sport. This is a reasonable argument. Take an example from an entirely different sport – ultimate frisbee.

This example recently came up in my Coaching & Leadership class for undergrads where one of the groups presented their sport on ultimate frisbee, and chose to do their session around ‘passing and moving’. One of the main points of feedback to the group was that they did not spend time to actually break down any of the technical elements for effective passing in frisbee (i.e. how to actually throw the thing!). As a result, the concepts around ‘movement’ ran the risk of becoming a mute point that the coaches could not focus enough attention on either. That’s because even if the player off the frisbee does everything right with their movement, it ultimately does not matter if the pass ends up not being a good one – and not just a bad tactical decision, but a bad technical execution.

If the coaching team had spent more time focusing on the technical elements to the passing, they would have achieved greater success within the tactical boundaries to both passing and moving. The same argument applies to young children learning their way through sport, particularly on the tiny playing fields that players of the modern era play on. The tactical and physical components naturally become more important when the field size increases, and there becomes more of a likelihood that players could go the entire match without making all that many on-the-ball decisions. But from 4v4 to 7v7, you don’t have to run all that far to be involved in the play. The technical side of the game is naturally emphasized simply from the size of the field. It makes sense why coaches of U4-U8 players would want to emphasize the technical side of the game over all else, and likely should remain the priority given the demands of the game at that point.

But again, that does not mean that tactics become a mute point. Simply helping to elucidate positioning and roles, and how to perceive space can all be considered “tactical” elements of the game. These can be taught without players needing to have technical foundations in place. Game awareness and game intelligence from understanding basic information around their role, position, and how to react to the space around them, will help a player to perform well on the pitch. This can be taught in combination to the development of techniques and skills. It does not have to be an ‘either/or’, nor does it have to be a matter of one coming before the other.

Instead, coaches can do a better job to bring the harmony in all five corners, focusing less on one specific element, and more on how each of those corners intertwine.

So there it is! A discussion around teaching collaboration, tactics, and teamwork to young children. Be sure to check out more from our Coaching Education, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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