In every group, there are the "insiders.' If you're one of them, you can often tell the difference pretty quickly. If you can't tell the newbies from the insiders, chances are you're one of the newbies. There is nothing wrong with being a newbie, of course. We've all worn that title at some point. But today I'm going to help you advance from the rookie ranks, help you understand some of the more subtle things worth knowing about the game, and at least make it seem like you've been around the game a little longer than the time it took you to walk from your car to the sidelines.
The "Offsides" Foul is Actually the "Offside" Foul
I didn't figure this one out until I started hanging out around referees. I had coached for years calling this the "Offsides" foul. In fact, although I corrected the title and show notes to reflect the proper name for this foul, I recorded episode #18 titled "The Offside Rule Explained" calling this foul by its wrong name. I could fix the text, but I couldn't fix what I said when I recorded the show. If you listen carefully, you'll hear my blunder.
This foul is discussed in more detail as Law #11 of the 17 laws of soccer described in the FIFA rules. It's arguably the most complicated law of the game & one of the hardest to spot correctly. Newbies, wanna-bees, and know-it-alls can often be heard yelling at a ref for calling this foul incorrectly. This is something true soccer insiders might find amusing if it wasn't so ignorant and disruptive. Most people yelling at the ref about this call are not even in a position to see the call - even if they knew how to call it.
This call is full of nuances like:
True soccer insiders know to leave opinions about this particular foul to the judgment of the referee team. There have been many times as a coach where I thought I saw an offside (or missed an offside) foul, but I wasn't in a position to see it properly. I keep my mouth shut - and I know the rules. My alternative is to don the yellow uniform and run the field as an assistant ref.
Don't get caught yelling about this one. It's a sure sign you haven't been around long enough to know how to evaluate the game.
There Are Many Different Size Soccer Balls
I do a show-and-tell every single season for parents in the sidelines and this one never fails to get some "Oh wow" comments. True soccer insiders know that soccer balls are numbered. The most common sizes of soccer balls we see on a youth pitch are sizes 3, 4, and 5. Like everything in the youth game, balls are sized to be appropriate for the size of the players using them. In our academy, which serves kids from 3 years old to 8 years old, we use a #3 ball. Players jump up to a #4 ball when they turn 9 and continue to play with that until they are 13. Once they turn 13, they move up to a #5 ball. Then, when players strive to get really good, they will sometimes seek out smaller balls and go back to working with a #3, a #1, or even a tennis ball to practice juggling with. The smaller surface requires more precision for older players. They know that when they work with a smaller ball, they will have more control when they play with a #5 ball in a match.
I go into much more detail about the different ball sizes in Episode #43 titled "Different Soccer Ball Sizes." I even include photos for your viewing pleasure in the show notes. And I throw in some information for you about the Futsal ball - often confused by people who are not true soccer insiders as a #4 soccer ball.
Find the ball that's right for the age of your player and don't be one of those newbies who show up with a #5 ball for their 4-year-old's first practice. You'll be tucking it under your chair if you notice what everyone else's kid is kicking and your son or daughter won't be able to kick it very far if you let them practice with it.
True Soccer Insiders Know that Small-Sided Games Are Developmentally Superior
Newbies sometimes look at field sizes, ball sizes, and numbers of players on the field and imagine a progression or advancement - like kids are leveling up when they go from 4v4 to 7v7 to 9v9 to 11v11. This is a misinterpretation of what's actually going on and it often results in parents coming to me with stories about how great their kids are and why they should "play up" to a larger field or a larger format.
As with everything in the game, fields, balls, and even timing of matches and rules are age appropriate. It is a strain for kids to work with adult size equipment and environments. Moving them to a larger format too fast actually deprives them of important development opportunities.
It's also true that the number of touches each player gets on a ball goes up the smaller the field and the fewer the players. More touches mean more opportunity to develop control and ball-handling skills. True soccer insiders know that pressure increases in smaller spaces too. More pressure means that players learn to keep the ball close to them, to keep the ball under control, and to excel at 1v1 situations. I spent time in Europe last month and guess what I found? Lots of small sided 4v4 and 3v3 games. Those players were learning control in ways that players playing on larger fields simply can't. The advantages of small-sided games are so well known by true soccer insiders today, that US Youth Soccer made playing more of them one of their national initiatives. At this point, the insiders are basically waiting for the rest of the paying public to be educated enough to embrace them instead of fighting them. I expect we'll be seeing more small-sided games as lightbulbs come on and people understand why they are important.
True Soccer Insiders Know That the Scoreboard is Only One Element of the Game
Competition is important. It grows in importance as kids mature up through early teenage years. However, under the age of 13, the scoreboard is often a distraction from the true purpose of youth sports. The scoreboard is in everyone's face, and parents and coaches can get really wrapped around the score outcome of a game. But it actually matters very little to young children & its not why we play games at these younger ages.
Ask a young player what the score was from a game two weeks ago and they probably don't remember or care. Ask them if they're having fun playing soccer, on the other hand, and the answer should be a resounding yes.
Even in the older ages, we often use the scoreboard as a tool to motivate, to sharpen focus, to evoke a deeper commitment to training or working together with others. But to be clear, it's the motivation, sharper focus, or deeper commitment we're after - not a string of wins on the scoreboard. Those wins are still meaningless in the bigger picture. We don't want selfish or self-absorbed adults who only care about winning at all costs. We want sharp, committed, and motivated adults who are adept at working together in teams to accomplish goals too big for individuals to accomplish on their own.
Soccer Doesn't End At the Touchline
A lot of people new to the soccer community see the sport as something that takes place in defined windows of time a few times per week in practice and maybe on the pitch for scheduled games. When practice is over or the game has ended, they put the game out of their mind and move on to the next thing. True soccer insiders understand that practices and games are just formal expressions of the game and that a lot more happens off the pitch than on it.
If you know a group of soccer players, you likely know a group of friends that connect in other venues. The team goes to school. They meet in virtual space on video games. They connect through youth leadership venues, at concerts, and in scouting events. Kids might not be talking about the game of soccer in these venues, but the team is there. They challenge one another, support one another, and share an unspoken bond.
True soccer insiders understand that the game comes home too. Mom and dad are given countless opportunities to teach life lessons around supporting their team, about the right and wrong ways to win in life, or about the right and wrong ways to lose in life. Kids and parents have countless opportunities to open discussions about sportsmanship, empathy, integrity, teamwork, confidence, courage, and all the other truly important life lessons we want to talk with our kids about. The opportunities to stimulate good family discussions are everywhere.
True soccer insiders understand that what they eat, when they eat, what they drink, when they drink, and the quality of sleep they get has a direct impact on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Stretching to avoid overuse injuries, drinking to hydrate the day before a practice or a match, and avoiding the fast food options - all contribute in really big ways to how well our bodies will perform when the pressure is on.
Finally, true soccer insiders understand that practices and games are team time. Individual development - that edge that some players have over others - is something that happens in the after hours. players get better when they walk around the house with a soccer ball. They bond more with mom or dad when they pass a ball in the back yard. They improve their touch and feel for the ball when they find a wall and kick a ball at it 1,000 times a day, or spent time in the garage learning how to juggle for hours on end.