Coaching advice for 6U-8U

For the 6U-8U divisions, games are played on two adjacent fields simultaneously. Half of your players will play on one field supervised by one coach while the other half will play on the other field, supervised by the other coach. Your opponent will do the same. There are no goalies and all players play the entire game. While you might think that players will score a lot of goals with this format, you’ll be surprised how difficult it is for a player to score with no goalie.

After halftime, the home team will switch fields so both teams will get to play against each group.

The laws of the game are modified in the 6U-8U program

Preparing for the game

  • Divide your team in half before the game. In the spirit of the AYSO philosophies, we recommend that you divide the make each group roughly the same skill level, which makes it fun for all the players on both teams. As the season progresses, try to allow different players to play together vs. keeping the same players in each group.

  • Encourage your players to try to get the ball and kick it whenever the ball is near them. Many players at these ages will watch the ball, watch the opponent dribble the ball, or even run away from the ball to defend their own goal.

  • Before the game and before the start of the second half (i.e., after the teams swich direction), talk with your players to see if they understand which goal they are supposed to score on and which one they are supposed to defend. Point out which goal is which. You’ll have to do this frequently in the beginning of the season, but most players will get it as the season progresses.

What should I do?

What do you do when a player doesn’t want to participate? Susan and Shanti answer:

This is a common enough occurrence, and the solutions are rooted in trying to understand the motivations of the child.

Whatever the age, establish a supportive team culture built on mutual positive reinforcement. Other than lots of high-fives, how? For starters, formally introduce every player to every other player. It may take a few tries to look each other in the eyes, shake hands, and say, “nice to meet you!” The best practices in youth sports (see suggest the Team Circle. This is mostly to get the kids to connect with each other.  

  • Start each practice with a 5 minute team circle. This time belongs to the team, not the coach. Invite the kids to volunteer an observation or share something from their week. In the Friendly Divisions (6/7/8U), it can be more like “let’s go around, say your name first, and then share something you thought was fun about the last game and it’s OK to repeat [this takes pressure off the kids].” Or you can just ask them to share something fun about their week or their pet’s name, etc., which is even easier. You can have a coach start it off. For Competitive Divisions (10/12/14U) I ask “would someone like to share something that went well at the last game and something that we can improve on?” 
  • “Show me your fingers: on a scale of 1-5, how much energy do you have today? How pleasant are you feeling today?” This encourages introspection, and is useful information for the coach, too! If a player on the team has a nonstandard number of fingers, use a thumbs up-medium-down scale instead.
  • Ask them to park the soccer balls in a goal beforehand.
  • A sit-down circle for littles keeps them from playing duck-duck-goose.
  • If someone struggles to participate in the circle, say, “I like the way you’re paying attention, [someone else]. What do you want to share?” and eventually the rest will figure out that that’s the way to get attention.
  • End each practice with a team circle. Invite reflection on what we learned, and ambitions for the next game. Solicit feedback on the training session, also on a scale of 1-5.
  • Team circles similarly, before and after games. This time belongs to the players, not to the coach. The Team Circle is not a coaching moment.

Playing together is hard at first for a lot of kids (at 5 years old, many are still in parallel play mode), so sometimes connecting first outside of “performing” can be helpful.

  • Draw the child’s attention to the action, over the result. For some kids, it helps to keep it really simple during games (and practices) and the phrase that has always worked for me is “put your foot on it” by which I mean “kick the ball” but it feels like less pressure because I’m not asking you to kick it any certain way or direction or hard or into a goal, just “put your foot on it.” That often gives the ones who are feeling trepidation a little more confidence to get in there.

There’s a lot of information to process in a 5v5 soccer game, and that could very well be the obstacle. If she will participate in team training, then start with 1v1 activities (passing with a teammate), and gradually add complexity. The AYSO Way (TM), is to begin with completely unopposed activities that reward cooperation. Then you add direction, and finally, competition. Here are some ideas to consider

  • Performing an unnecessarily elaborate task may introduce enough of a cognitive challenge that it crowds out the “I don’t like this” thought. For example, start with 3 kids together. First one kicks the ball toward the goal, then runs backwards to a cone and performs a task (say animal name, move cone, talk like a pirate, whatever). As the first one is doing the recovery run, the second one runs up and kicks the ball, then does the task. Then, the third kid runs up to kick the ball does the other task, and then the first, and repeat. You can probably imagine variations. When the ball reaches the net, everyone high-fives. You ratchet up the complexity: two kicks each, then one kick with each foot, etc. Then you can introduce opposition: maybe the attackers are trying to use 3 kicks each to move the ball to the blue cone, while the defender gets 1 kick in between to try to slow them down, or at least make them run a lot, and they count out loud how many kicks it takes. 
  • Maybe she’s unsure of where to begin. Set up a choreographed play, like a goal kick, so a lot of people are moving, and cones on the ground shows people where to move. Seeing the cones constrains the possibilities, making it easier to process the activity. The cones are crutches, of course — they’re there to establish mental frameworks that the kids can build on. You only need them to get started, and provide a framework for understanding variations.
  • Maybe she’s unsure of her relationship with the other teammates. Start with dribbling-with-a-friend (one touch to control the ball, one touch to set it up, and a third touch to pass it back, all while walking forward together, perhaps holding hands). To introduce competition, count down “3-2-1-Go!” and release a defender who tries to steal the ball.
  • Rigged go-to-goal game with offense overwhelming defense 3v1, or 4v1, or even 3v0. so that the players are successful in cooperating to put the ball in a goal. But they’re only allowed to touch the ball twice each. To add a defender, choose the most confident children start as the 1 defender, until the rest ask for a turn to do it.

What if a child is “stuck” in an oppositional behavior, which we often label as “stubborn.” Changing one’s mind is energetically expensive, so humans have an instinct to. “Go play” can be too much of an intellectual jump, so we’ll try scaffolding, to get some game-related ideas into working memory, and then take advantage of saliency bias.

  • Once, I was observing a game where a parent was melting down over a kid who was stuck, so I asked if I could intervene. I knelt down, introduced myself, and shook hands with the boy. The body did not want to make eye contact, so I looked where he was looking, and we did a little Socractes-style match analysis: 
    • “Who’s that with the ball over there?”
    • “Where do you think he wants to go?”
    • “What’s the blue team called?”
    • “What would you have named the team if you were on the blue team?”
    • “Which one of the blue players do you think is going to get the ball?”
    • “Uh, oh. What’s happening now?”
    • Here’s the key question, because it forces cognitive dissonance in a way that sometimes bypasses critical thinking: “If you were on the field, where would the best place for you to be right now?”
    • Before you say this last line, be confident that the answer will be, “yes”: “I think your team could use some help. Go help them right now. Go help!”
  • One time, a player was stuck at the edge of the parking lot. I handed him a soccer ball and asked him to kick it to me. Then I kicked it back, and we did it again a few times. Then I showed him a few passing tricks, and asked him to repeat those, as we slowly drifted toward where his team was doing drills, with my back to the other kids. He could see them doing similar technical drills. Once we got close enough, I arranged a formal introduction, “Beckett, this is Luke! Come on over and say hi.” Beckett knows how to introduce himself and shake hands, and brought some more kids over. They asked him to join them, and the rest is history.
  • One time, there was a kid who was afraid to get involved in practice. So I, the team referee at the time, just played pass with him. That was the best we could do for him, that year.
  • One time, there was a player who said, “Stop yelling at me, Mom, I’m trying to watch the game!” Mind you, she was in the game, rooted in place on the field, fully absorbed in observing everyone else. At least she knew what she needed!

It may be that a child is afraid to start because she is comparing herself to an older sibling or friend. Parity may seem so unattainable, that the safer course of action seems to be to invent reasons not to try. “I don’t want to coach or referee because I might not be good at it” is the adult version, so it should be understood as a completely normal human behavior. Here’s an article by Prof. Carol Dweck, What a Growth Mindset Really Means.

  • If you succeed in un-sticking a child, please tell the coach staff how you did it.