THE INFORMAL PHASE: Grades K - 4 (Ages 5-9)
The goal of the informal phase is to reinforce fundamental motor skills and develop basic individual soccer skills, such as, stationary, and slow to intermediate pace movement while controlling the ball. To "hook" the kids to soccer, special emphasis must be placed on the creation of a fun, non-threatening--child centered environment. A child friendly atmosphere will certainly result in a reduction in the number of youngsters telling their parents on practice, or game days, that they do not feel like going to soccer.
The focus of each practice session should be placed on ample opportunities for qualitative active participation. Numerous studies have repeatedly demonstrated, that of all factors, the most important one for cognitive and motor learning to take place is "time on task." Practice in itself, however, does not make "perfect." Well planned, organized, and delivered practice does. Thus, each child must have a personal ball and the coach must be prepared to deliver fluent, interesting, engaging and accurate information. At this level, children should be encouraged to use a variety of ball sizes, and allowed to manipulate the ball with both, their hands and their feet, in soccer-related, and in creative, non-soccer-related ways.
In order to maximize player participation and satisfaction during games, special attention must be given to the organization and implementation of the "Saturday game" experience. Since for most kids, game day is their second or third weekly soccer experience during soccer season, 30% - 50% of the time spent during the league is game time. Playing the game is the ultimate goal of Little League Soccer. It also is (at least supposed to be) the most exciting and the most fun part of participation. Preliminary results of a pilot project on youth soccer in Southern California (Frankl, 1997) revealed that in games played by children 5-8 years old, 9 or more a side, less than 30% of the participants dominate the game for more than 70% of the action. For example, analysis of game performance of an AYSO 1996 Boys' Division 6 game via videotape and Second Look for Soccer software, revealed that of a total 312 contacts with ball by 9 team "A" members during one 40 minute league game, four players made a total of 260 (80%) contacts with the ball. The remaining five players (played equal time and were rotated, including the goalie position) contacted the ball a mere 52 times, or 10.4 contacts per player for the game. It should be pointed out here, that no qualitative analysis of the "total contacts" data is currently available.
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Based on the above observation, as well as the overwhelming consensus in the related literature, children's games should be played on relatively small fields with no more than 4-5 players a-side. Following, are reasons why I would also recommend to eliminate the goalie position at this level of play: (1) it imposes a disproportionate responsibility for game outcome on the youngster filling the position, (2) it is a very passive, low action position with few opportunities to respond (3) typically, the goalie that gets plenty of action is the unfortunate kid that can't punt or distribute the ball properly and the ball keeps coming right back to her or his chagrin, (4) the goalie position at the 6-9 age group makes the scoring of goals an "elite club" phenomenon (5) since the position is very critical to winning, coaches are tempted to over use competent goalies, thus creating an inappropriately early specialization and focus, (6) coaches who lack in understanding of the game and the weight of the goalie position, tend to fill the position with children who possess very poor field skills, thus, effectively eliminating the field experience that these kids sorely need.
Children at this age group enjoy organized games but find complex rules and complex requirements of proper position and team play difficult to follow. Therefore, game rules should be kept simple, involve only the most basic skills, and include no more than two to five kids per team. Coaches should wear distinctively visible outfits and be allowed on the field. Children should be involved in the refereeing of their game (with adult supervision); referees should facilitate and instruct, not rule. As pointed out by Leonard Koppett, sport reporter and columnist:
The most important part of play is learning how to set up the game, choose sides, agree with your peers, make compromises, figure out answers, submit to self-directed rulings so that the game can continue. . .These important civilizing functions are by-passed by adult-run leagues.
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Children ages 5-7 should be given continuous positive reinforcement along with specific feedback referring to "successive approximations" (what appears like, but isn't quite the correct technique) of skilled performance with little or no emphasis on performance outcomes. How a skill was performed, or the process of action, should be the focus of coach/player/parent communications.
In order to facilitate positive efficacy expectations (one's view of her/his personal ability and potential, e.g., "Can I control the ball? Can I play defense?") and positive outcome expectations (the expectation of some actual success, e.g., play well as defender or score a goal) in young children, the term "winner" needs to be redefined. If a winner is a person that can perform today a little more than what he/she accomplished last week, every child can become a winner. Repeated success and steady improvement may be achieved through learning progressions and participatory modeling.
The task, e.g., ball control, is broken down into a number of coherent and logical parts. The child then observes a demonstrator who proceeds to assist the child in the successful performance of the task at hand. This format follows Albert Bandura's (1982) model of self-efficacy, and is crucial for the development of feelings of competence and self-esteem in young athletes.
1996-2011, Daniel Frankl, Ph.D.
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Last Modified: February 19, 2011