Never played soccer? Here, a former soccer pro, seasoned coach, and current soccer camp owner offers expert insights to help parents new to the game.
By Laura Quaglio
Coach Ken Mburu with one of his soccer teams in California
If your child is among those clamoring to dribble a bright-colored orb using only their feet, they’re one of several million American kids who are interested in soccer. In fact, the US Youth Soccer’s National Tournament Database reports that its organization alone registered more than 3 million soccer-playing kids in 2014. And that’s just one of the three largest youth soccer organizations in the United States. The other two are American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), which is a parent-run program with a more recreational and less competitive focus, and the U.S. Soccer Federation, which is the most competitive group. (US Youth Soccer falls somewhere in the middle in terms of competitiveness.)
For parents who never played the game, the different types of soccer camps, clinics, classes, teams, and leagues may seem shrouded in mystery. And the more we Google information on the sport, the more confusing things can become since the number of teammates and the rules of game play are different for different age levels.
To help clear the confusion, ActivityHero recently talked to Ken Mburu, who has been coaching soccer for young kids since 2003 and founded Coach Ken Soccer Academy in 2009. (Coach Ken played club and college soccer in Kenya, and he holds a diploma from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Coaching Academy.) Today, Coach Ken Soccer Academy offers soccer classes, camps, and private instruction for ages preschool through adult at locations in Mountain View, Los Altos, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park.
Here, Coach Ken shares an overview of the different levels of soccer and what to look for in a soccer program.
Soccer for Preschoolers
Coach Ken’s curriculum starts with kids as young as 3.5 years old. In his experience, kids who are younger than this will do better in a program that involves the mother or father. At the preschool level, Coach Ken lets each child have their own ball and ensures they will score goals very often. There’s no goalie, and if a child loses control of their ball or kicks it too far, the coach will quickly toss them an extra so they can keep playing.
Coach Ken doesn’t have kids going head-to-head until they are ready, which varies for different kids. He then has them play “1 v. 1,” which pits one player against another child or a coach. “If you haven’t prepared little kids and the ball gets stolen, they’ll cry or give up,” he says. “That’s the last thing you want.”
What Coach Ken says to look for:
A low kid-to-coach ratio. For 4-year-olds, look for 1 coach working with no more than 8 kids at a time. (There may be 40 kids in a lesson, he says, but they should be divided up among 5 coaches.)
A curriculum that ties drills to game play. It’s not enough for coaches to create drills that are fun. It’s also important for coaches to educate kids on how those games relate to a real soccer game. “People love what they’re good at, and if you’re good at something, you almost always love it. It’s a cycle,” he says. “The best way to make sure kids are having fun is to get them better.” Ultimately, kids won’t become better at soccer unless they learn specific skills that they will use when they later engage in a soccer game.
A focus on footwork. “Kids have got to be comfortable maneuvering the ball,” says Coach Ken. “That’s the main skill of soccer. We only get better by touching the ball.” Little touches, not big kicks, are the key to soccer success. One of the biggest problems little kids face is that they tend to boot the ball as far as possible, as they would in kickball. In soccer, though, it’s important to keep control of the ball, so kids need to learn to keep the ball close using little taps. Kids should also learn a variety of different ways to control the ball, using different parts of the foot to tap it. At this age, they should not be kicking with their toe because it’s very difficult to control the ball that way.
Use of correct soccer terminology. “The person who is harder to teach is not someone who knows nothing,” says Coach Ken, “but someone who has learned something wrong.” Your child will do better as they move up within the soccer system if they have a good foundation that includes using the correct terms. They should learn the names for different parts of the foot (inside foot, outside foot, shoelaces, etc.) and different soccer skills (pull back or drag back, throw-in, etc.).
Soccer for Ages 4 and 5 (U-6)
At this level, kids will move from playing 1 v. 1 (one player versus another) to playing some real soccer matches. “They don’t have to follow all the rules,” says Coach Ken. “At that age, I carry extra balls and throw in another ball when one is kicked out of bounds.” Kids in this group have a very short attention span, he explains, so coaches have to keep the ball and the game moving quickly. “If you don’t, soon they will be chasing butterflies,” he says.
Also teams begin to be grouped by age, with the kids on each team being “under” the number listed. So kids in U-6 must be “under” age 6, usually for the majority of the season. (Different leagues have different cutoffs regarding birthdays, but the US Soccer Federation has now standardized it to calendar year.)
What Coach Ken says to look for:
Kids being grouped by ability. Some kids naturally pick up the game more quickly and easily than others. Coaches should begin grouping kids based on their abilities —beginners together, medium-level players together, and so on. This is important because it’s very frustrating for beginner kids to face an advanced player who is always stealing the ball. And this scenario won’t help the better players develop their skills either. “The kids need to be in groups where they are challenged accordingly,” says Coach Ken.
Some mini games. Coach Ken tries to do 3 v. 3, 4 v. 4, and 5 v. 5 at this age. If there are more players than that, the field becomes too crowded and chaotic.
No goalies. Coach Ken says goalies should not be used until around age 8 or 9. “Younger kids don’t have the body control yet,” he explains. That means that goalkeepers could easily get kicked and injured. To practice shooting, Coach Ken does drills where the players stand as many feet away from the goal as their age, then kick into the goal. (So if they are 5 years old, they would stand 5 feet away.) Sometimes a child will play goalkeeper in that setting, but the shooters never come into the cordoned-off goalie’s zone.
Lots of use of the feet, but no use of the hands. Kids in this age group are encouraged to touch the ball as much as possible with their feet and not use their hands. This is true even for those who want to be goalkeepers in the future. “When I got my coaching diploma, I learned that professional goalkeepers touch the ball 7 times more with their feet than with their hands,” says Coach Ken. “So even a goalkeeper has to be very good with their feet.”
Soccer for U-7 and U-8
Starting at this age, kids who have been playing soccer since age 4 are already trying out for competitive teams, according to Coach Ken. Though he and many other coaches wish such tryouts didn’t begin until age 8, he realizes that clubs are forming teams at younger and younger ages – mainly because parents request it. Moms and dads want to ensure that their kids become part of a team early on so they will “grow up” with their teammates and not be left out socially or during game play.
In this age group, teams may play each other 4 v. 4 without a goalkeeper. Coaches will likely be watching from the sidelines. They also may serve as referees, with an actual ref being introduced for kids playing U-8 soccer.
Games will be broken into short time periods, such as four 8-minute quarters at U-6 and U-7 and four 10-minute quarters for U-8. Players won’t necessarily play positions at this point, but they should be getting a chance to touch the ball and dribble it. Games may be scored and reported, depending on the league.
At this level, rule enforcement will be more lenient, though. For instance, when a ball goes out of bounds, kids will kick it in or throw it in. In later years, throw-ins will be more regulated, with both feet needing to remain planted when the ball is thrown.
What Coach Ken says to look for:
Coaches who are willing to let your kids try other activities. Coach Ken advises that no matter what option you choose (competitive team or rec league), encourage your child to try other activities too. “When you commit to one sport this early, I think you are denying the child the chance to experience other things in life, and I think it’s a big disadvantage,” says Coach Ken. He adds that kids who start playing competitively at age 5 might burn out by age 15 since they have been going full-tilt for a decade already.
One season, one sport. “There are four seasons of soccer,” says Coach Ken. “I commend parents who allow their children to do a different sport each season, and at most two seasons for the one sport their child really likes.” This approach helps kids avoid burnout and leaves them time for other things like scouting, homework, and free-play with friends.
Time for unsupervised soccer play. Coach Ken recommends looking for a program that is not overly scheduled. “You want kids to be in a program where they are not being too controlled,” he says. “The best thing you can do is let the kids play in the park by themselves with their friends.” When kids aren’t being guided by parents and coaches, he explains, they have the freedom to become more creative in their game play. This is important because during a soccer game the coach is on the sidelines and can’t tell players every little thing they need to do. Kids need to learn to think for themselves and make quick decisions. If your soccer program doesn’t make time for free play, arrange for teammates to get together during off-hours so they can have a fun game without adult intervention.
Soccer for U-9 and U-10
This is the age group where soccer practice and games really begin to change, says Coach Ken. For one thing, there will be more players in the games. It might be 6 v. 6, including goalkeepers, and referees will be used. Some leagues play 7 v. 7 at U-10. Games will likely consist of two 25-minute “halfs” and the kids will use a larger soccer ball (size 4, not size 3).
Additional rules will be introduced. For instance, referees will penalize kids who are “offsides,” which occurs when they are on the offense and place themselves between all of the defenders and the goalkeeper. (The upshot: An offensive player can’t hang out by the goal waiting for a pass.) At this level, the refs might only penalize kids who are blatantly offsides, rather than those who are just slightly ahead of the defenders.
If you’re interested in what the rules are for your child’s team and age group, ask the coach to explain them to you or to direct you to league materials that can do so.
Note: Recreational (rec) leagues may not exist for every age group, depending on the level of interest in your geographical area. For instance, teams might be U-8, U-10, and U-12, if there aren’t enough kids to also fill the U-9 and U-11 slots.
Soccer for U-11, U-12, and U-13
According to Coach Ken, the main change at this level, U-13 especially, is that kids start playing by FIFA standards. FIFA is the abbreviation for Fédération Internationale de Football Association, which is the international governing body for the sport of soccer, aka “football” in other countries.
Kids will play 9 v. 9 (at U-11 and U-12) and 11 v. 11 at U-13. Each game half will be slightly longer than before, lasting a full 30 minutes. Rules will be more stringently enforced. For instance, offside play (even if it’s just by a few inches) will be called out by refs, and when kids throw in the ball from the sideline, they’d better keep both feet planted until the ball leaves their hands! At U-13, kids will switch from a size 4 soccer ball to a size 5.
Again, the coach can help clear up any confusion you may have, but your child should be old enough to explain the rules to you.
Also important at this age: Soccer clubs will be more keen in their separation of players based on ability, grouping them into A, B, and C teams (and so on, depending on the number of kids in each age group). The best players will start honing their skills so they might one day play on the U.S. National Team. Elite players start being recruited by national soccer talent development groups such as the Olympic Development Program, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (for boys) and the Elite Clubs National League (for girls). In 2017, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy also plans to launch a program for girls. Parents who have a child on the A team might want to inquire about these organizations.
If your child loves the game, they have the talent, and you really want them to make the A team, you may want to consider enrolling them in private lessons at this point. However, Coach Ken says parents should be sure not to show disappointment if the child doesn’t make the A team … or if they were on the A team one year and are on the B team the next. There are great variations in how each player develops. Some develop early … others may hit a seasonal snag in development due to a factor outside of soccer, such as teenage issues, an injury, a change in coach or players, etc., and they may need more time to bloom or rediscover their form.
Soccer for U-14 through U-18
As with U-13, kids will play 11 v. 11 (including the goalkeeper) and will play with a size 5 ball. Halves will be 30 minutes each, and there may be 2 or 3 referees on the field after kids progress beyond the U-14 level.
Coach Ken says that kids in this group may have been playing for 7 or more years. “At the beginning of each season, ask your teen, ‘Do you want to do it?’” says Coach Ken. “The kid should be deciding, not the parent.” He adds that you’ll likely have a gut feeling if your child isn’t interested anymore. “If Johnny or Jenny isn’t excited every single day or is not trying their hardest, stop wasting their time and let them do something they actually enjoy,” he advises. “Do not be adamant that your kid has to be a soccer player.”
One last secret: If your child does want to keep playing, Coach Ken advises that parents try not to be too invested in their success. “I’ve been coaching for more than 10 years, and the kids who I have seen go farthest in soccer are the kids whose parents don’t seem too eager to show like they care too much about their kid playing,” he asserts. Coach Ken shares the story of one mom whose son was doing so well during a practice that Coach Ken ran over to talk to her about “Johnny’s” progress. Her response? “She said, ‘Stop spoiling my nap!’” he laughs. “That boy was a really good soccer player,” he adds. “Those are the kids who go far in soccer. The ones who are doing it for themselves.”