In today’s modern free flowing game it is becoming increasingly difficult to pin point the best players and say where their best positions are. Formation graphics that flash on the opening moments of a televised game are made to look like just a colorful roster as players begin appearing in different areas as to what the graphic states. If we look at the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s starting XIs you will see players look just as comfortable in one area of the field as another. The reason for this is the game today demands that players are well versed in playing under pressure all over the pitch. That they are able to receive with both feet, with and without space to play. The game is increasingly moving away from traditional pigeon holed players and into a more universal flowing game of dynamic interchanging movements between players. The team that is best able to manipulate their opponents through their movement patterns and then control the space when they do not have possession through structured defending are those that are coming out on top.
How does this relate to youth soccer though? Well as coach’s it is important that we are always coaching the principles of the game to our players. Whether it is a small segment or a larger idea, we are trying to prepare our players for the next stage of the game, slowly increasing the realism as they increase in age and quality. The final form of the game is as mentioned this highly interchangeable game in which players are no longer fixed to positions. Getting to this stage from our humble youth sides can seem quite far removed as players enter the game for a love of either scoring, assisting, saving, defending. Rarely will you find a young player who is unsure about what they love about playing (ask me and it was assisting every single time!) But there are small things we can do as of right now to prepare our players for this uncomfortable modern arena and the first thing to understand is we must start as early as possible.
Players need to experience different parts of the pitch and the different associated actions as soon as possible to fully appreciate the depths of the game. There shouldn’t be any positional specialization. Goalkeepers? Go and try and dribble past one instead! Strikers? Try and prevent a goal scoring opportunity! No young player especially in the foundation years should be playing in one set position. Playing across the field needs to be something that is done with every player as fairly as possible. But of course, there will be resistance.
The player and even the parents may question why you are placing the unmovable central defender in a more unfamiliar central midfield role, exposing the player’s weaknesses and subtracting a strength from the team. The thing to remember is to be consistent in your messages as to why your pushing players to try new positions. It is for the player’s long-term development, not the short-term satisfaction of people’s egos. You’re giving them more on the pitch tools, giving them a wider range of on the pitch experiences, allowing them to experience what it is like on the other side of the fence. Ultimately, the benefits of successful positional diversification will help lead them towards success and longevity in the game. Yes, the team may suffer as a result but the player will take huge gains in their tactical understanding. Of course the idea is to see this effect multiplied across the team. In doing so, the problem of having player’s playing out of position starts to become less apparent as the player’s competency improves over time.
Getting buy-in is huge and it is not easy. Even after selling the vision to the player, reluctance may still be there with some and confidence will naturally be low as mistakes are made at a more frequent rate than before. This is where it becomes important to meet them half way. Make the arrangement temporary and keep the pressure low. Minimize any knee jerk judgement of the players and the team and be completely patient and supportive. It is important to stick to this over a number of weeks and months and treat every positional move as a separate project. Every player will adapt differently and thus a calm coach to oversee the transformation is essential. It is key to make sure parents, teammates are equally supportive too. Openly acknowledging that failure will happen and that you are accepting of it is something that needs to be addressed from the start. Their success in a certain position should not be tied to their opportunity. Allow them to fail and get plenty of repetition.
An effective way of measuring the success of a player’s positional move is by setting some targets. Their performances can be guided by giving them game and session related targets influenced by their position’s key performance indicators. The expectation of these targets will need to be carefully agreed upon to be more achievable rather than overly challenging, particularly when starting out. Using targets will also help educate the player as to what are the expectations of their new role.
But most importantly, it is important that they have a level of trust and confidence first. This is done by allowing them to experience success in their more comfortable, preferred and natural position first. Positional moves can be made based on their individual needs. One example may be a striker that relies on their pace and needs to develop combination play. A move into a deep lying central midfield position where they become the axis of the team may be well suited as they will be forced to work on their awareness, first touch and passing range.
Regardless of where the player is moved, the reasons for any move must always be centered around the player’s needs. It’s always about them. It must be relevant to their own development and not just a thing that is done.