Eliminating Games of Elimination

Taking they National Youth License course way back in 1999 was a transformative experience for me. I learned so many things, I have trouble keeping track of them all. In addition, it allowed me to more fully develop my personal coaching philosophy centered around the developmental stages of the children and what appropriate activities are for each of the different stages. We know that the worst thing you can do to a player who has come to practice is not let them play. However, we employ lots of activities where that exact thing happens. How can we eliminate that element of our practices?

One of the most popular dribbling games around is sharks and minnows. You know the rules. A couple of sharks chase the players as they dribble around and try to keep their ball away from the sharks. When a player has his or her ball kicked out, they are eliminated and sit out until the game is over. The last couple of players with their balls get to be the sharks in the next round.

The problem with the game is that it favors the best dribblers, who are usually the best players and they get to stay longer in the game and also get more opportunities to be the sharks. Basically, they work the hardest. The child who is new to the game or not a confident dribbler gets eliminated early every time. Their reward is to sit and watch the better players get better. As a coach, you have limited the development of the players who haven't yet decided whether or not they like the game. They all came to play and sitting out is not playing.

Watch the activity develop from the beginning and time it. In the first 30 seconds, the intensity is high, there is a lot of action going on and there are a lot of touches under pressure. After that point, players quickly get eliminated and the pace slows down considerably. You get maybe 30-45 seconds of game speed activity.

So how can you tweak it to make it more game-like and provide the opportunity for all players to get additional touches under pressure? Eliminate the elimination element. 

Instead of the the role of shark and minnow being a permanent assignment, have a player be a shark only until he or she has taken the ball away from another player. Notice that I said taken away, not "kicked away." That is a key tweak in terms of my philosophy. When I have a defender who kicks a ball away, that player hasn't actually won possession of the ball. Instead, most likely that player will remain a defender because the ball goes out of bounds or goes to someone else. It might go to someone on their team, but it might not.

The "take away" is an important skill and tactical component of the game. The player who wins the ball immediately transitions into an attacking role. The player who loses the ball transitions into defending. One difference between this activity and the real game is that in a real game, the player who loses the ball should immediately press the player who just won it. In this activity, I want the player who just lost it to challenge a different player. If not, then the whole activity is the same two players alternately stealing the ball from each other. So the game isn't a perfect activity, but the goal of the activity is to develop dribbling skills under pressure, and it does a great job in that regard.

The sharks have to carry a vest with them, not wear it. Once the shark has won the ball, the player drops the vest and the new shark has to pick it up before challenging another player.

Because the field space is defined by the grid, sharks can also win a ball by causing a player to dribble out of bounds. However, if a shark kicks the ball out, just like in a real game, the minnow gets to keep possession. This tweak leads to fewer balls leaving the area and eases your management of the practice because balls are not rolling everywhere.

The last reason I like this activity is that I can increase the intensity of the game simply by adding more sharks. The highest intensity would occur if the number of sharks = the number of minnows. It also helps to reduce the number of players walking around because they are not currently being challenged for the ball.

So, a quick summary:

  1. Elimination games are bad for player development. 
  2. Tweak your activities to keep all players involved (I talking to you "World Cup")
  3. Think about how you can combine different soccer principles into the same activity (dribbling, 1 v 1 defending, shielding) to make the activity more game like.
  4. Choose activities that are easy to explain so that you can maximize play time. 

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