The Lowest Common Denominator pet peeves list

The lowest common denominator (LCD) "the most basic, least sophisticated level of taste, sensibility, or opinion among a group of people," according to thefreedictionary.com

In youth soccer, I often hear coaches and parents relying on the LCD to relay information to their players. In the quest to make the game easier for their players, they often end up building up patterns that are hard to break later, even among the strongest players. I have compiled a short list below and will add to it as I hear more of these comments.

Throw-ins
"Throw it down the line"
Data from youth soccer games shows that the most likely outcome of a throw in is a turnover. Players struggle to throw the ball to a teammate and when they do get it to a teammate, the pass is of such poor quality that the other team ends up with the ball either as a throw-in or as a turnover. In an attempt to simplify the game, coaches just encourage (ok, yell at) their players to throw it down the line. With the defending team in a numbers up situation in that part of the field, rarely does the throw in have a good outcome for the attacking team.

Apparently, throwing it down the line gets the ball vaguely closer to the goal and occasionally creates a chance on goal. This result therefore encourages more of the same behavior. Players get so used to doing it that they don't even think about it, they just throw it without ever taking the opportunity to see if they can get the ball to a player on their team in a better position (literally anywhere else on the field).

What should we be encouraging the players to do?
1. throw it to a player who is on their own team.
2. throw it to a player on their own team who is open or has the least amount of pressure.
3. Throw it to a player who has a chance to score.

Admittedly, this is a difficult thing for an 8 year old to do. However, this is EXACTLY the point that I want to make. Players need to be given the ability to make decisions and see the results of those decisions. A throw in is a great place to teach a kid because the ball has stopped and the child is in complete control of the situation. Unlike other decisions on the field, this one is far more static and easier to figure out. Making this decision for the player removes one more opportunity for the child to learn. Initially, you may see some bad decisions, but it will pay off in the long run with your team retaining more possession of the ball.

Defending
"Get rid of it" "Get it out of there" 
You know the situation, your child's team is defending furiously and the other team looks like they are about to score. What do you hear from both sidelines (parents, coaches)? That's right the famous "get rid of it." The LCD philosophy is to kick the ball away and get it farther from goal. Just like on the throw in where the LCD philosophy is to get it closer to the goal that you are trying to score on, in this case, you want to get it farther away from the goal to reduce the other team's chances of scoring.

The problem with this approach is that the ball is almost always given away to the attacking team. While you may have achieved the goal of getting it farther from your goal, you team still doesn't have the ball. If you don't have the ball, you can't score. Kicking the ball away is literally the least skillful thing you can do in soccer.

Especially at the younger ages, challenging the players to never kick the ball away is a good thing. It teaches them how to solve a problem in a more complex way. Can the player dribble out of pressure? Can the player make a pass to relieve pressure? In both of these cases, there is a higher likelihood that your team retains possession of the ball, even if it remains close to your goal.

A skillful player can solve the same problem in multiple ways. As a coach or a parent, you want to encourage skillful behaviors from your child. Of course, developing skill takes much longer and may result in giving up goals to the other team when your players try to use skill and fails (which will happen often). As a coach or parent, what matters is the percent of time the player tries to solve a problem using skill. One of my "look for" targets for coaches in games at the U10 and below level is to reduce the number of times that a player or team kicks the ball away during a game. That target is one that can be assessed throughout the season to show you how the player is developing. You cannot use that target if you find yourself saying "get rid of it" all the time.

Possession
"Don't pass the ball through the middle of the field" 
This one really annoys me to no end. Every week I hear coaches shout this out AFTER the player has done it and usually ONLY if something bad has happened (like a loss of possession). This is simply coach commentary and a way for the coach to feel involved in the game. Telling a player what NOT to do after she has already done it doesn't help anyone, but does add to the general noise of the game. 

It gets worse. One of our biggest issues is that players lack vision and tend to play and pass the ball in only one direction, straight ahead. The fact that a player has looked around and seen someone else in a parallel or diagonal position from them and has attempted to pass the ball to that player is a good thing, even if the result in this particular situation is not a good thing (loss of possession or a goal chance for the other team). Watch a professional game sometime and see how many times they violate this rule of youth soccer coaches. 

Remember that we want our players to play the ball to an open player. If that open player happens to be across the field from where the player with the ball currently is, then that is called "switching the point of attack." This is the most effective way to disrupt the defending team's balance and a good switch creates opportunities that are not available if the ball is kept in the same side of the field. Players who don't switch inevitably run out of passing options as the defense compresses the space on the side of the field where the ball is. The next thing that happens is a turnover, exactly what the coach wanted to avoid. 

Younger players who are just learning how to pass are not capable of evaluating the pros/cons of a player's position on the field in regards to the pass. There are simply too many decisions to make in a very fluid situation for the player to add one more rule and still expect him be successful. As I suggested with the throw-ins, let the players make decisions in practices and games and see what the result of those decisions are instead of adopting arbitrary rules that don't help them understand or play the game any better. When asking a player to make decisions about whom to pass the ball to, I usually rely on some simple visual and auditory cues:

  1. pass to a player on your team who is open or has only 1 defender nearby. 
  2. pass to a player who is asking for the ball (either physically or verbally)
  3. pass to a player who is moving. 
  4. optionally, pass to a player who is more than 5-10 yards away from you. 
I am more concerned about the quality of the pass and the decision to pass than I am about whom the player passes the ball to. Just because a player launches a pass in the general direction of someone on his/her team, doesn't mean that it was a pass or even a good pass. Caring about the quality of the pass is far more important than the result of any individual pass. A player should strive to give the best  possible pass to a teammate. Everything after that is easy. 

Tactics
"Defenders don't go over midfield"
This is an old LCD philosophy that heard and adhered to when I first started playing oh so many years ago. The goal of course is for the team to be balanced between attack and defense. If the defenders get into the attacking half, then your team is open for a counterattack and the other team might more easily score. Having numbers up in the defending half is an important component of a well-organized team. 

However, If neither team sends defenders forward, then that means that the attacking team is always playing a man or more down and it makes it difficult for even the most skilled players to beat a defense that outnumbers them the entire game. It also removes the ability of the attacking team to unbalance the defending team by sending in players who are not accounted for and who are in a space on the field that is not currently covered. 

As a defender growing up, I itched to get into attack. My skills weren't that good, but there is a thrill in getting a chance to score that is not matched by only breaking up the other team's attack. While most coaches rotate players through multiple positions in the game, there are those who play some players only in defense. When those players do get the ball, they are encouraged (strongly) to either get rid of it or give to someone else on the team and go resume their defensive (non-attacking) role. I can tell you from personal experience that this is not a fun way to play soccer. When defenders do get the ball, they are often under less pressure than anyone else on the field. That is the perfect time to bring the ball forward and try to create chances without worrying about whether they may end up out of position. 

One caveat to this is that you do want at least 1-2 of your players who are not going forward from a defensive position on an attack. However, that decision about who should attack and who should stay back and defend (it doesn't have to be at midfield) must depend on the situation and not on an arbitrary rule that takes away 2-4 players from ever getting involved in any attack.

"Punt it!!!"
While I have said this in multiple settings, it is now even more relevant as we consider the long term effects of blows to the head that can occur in soccer. We are also more aware of the fact that concussions suffered by children and adolescents are more severe and can take much longer to recover from than concussions that occur to adults. Having said that, I hope you understand that the most likely way for a player to get a concussion is by hitting the ground or running into another player's body part (knee, head).

So it is not solely a safety concern that drives my dislike of the punt as the only method of GK distribution, but it is a good way to reduce the number of times a player receives a blow to the head. My main concern is that most punts end up as a turnover. When the GK punts the ball there is only one player on his team who is facing the goal his team wants to score on. All of the players on the other team have that advantage.

If you haven't watched young players struggle to control bouncing balls or balls in the air, then take a few minutes at your next U10 game and you can see that they have difficulty judging the speed and direction of the ball and don' t have the skills to get it under control even if they manage to get themselves in the right position.

A GK can serve as the starting point in a possession oriented attack by simply playing the ball to a teammate on the ground by either rolling or passing the ball to the player. The GK can also throw the ball a lot more accurately than he or she can kick it. Either service is preferable to the random punt that most coaches encourage.

Now I know that if your players are not very skilled, that you can end up giving away possession very quickly once the other team brings pressure. However, that is the beauty of the decision that you ask the GK to make. A punt CAN be part of the attacking arsenal of your team, but by encouraging your players to get in position to help the GK distribute the ball and by having the GK primarily distribute in some method other than punting, you can keep the other team from predicting what your team will do and then taking advantage of it.

Don't believe me? at your next game, have your GK ONLY punt the ball in the 1st half. Count the number of possessions that you lose when you punt (ball goes out of bounds, ball is controlled by the other team). Then in the 2nd half, have your GK try to distribute the ball using multiple delivery methods and compare the results.

Summary
You may have noticed that the justification for many of these LCD philosophy statements is to reduce the chances of the other team scoring a goal. The underlying philosophy is that the other team cannot win if they cannot score a goal. The problem is that we would end up in a position where the players on the team don't develop enough skill to score any goals either. Played out to its logical conclusion, the perfect execution of the LCD philosophy is a 0-0 game in which nobody scores and neither team exhibits any skillful behaviors. I would argue strongly that it would be far better that our teams played out a 5-5 tie that involved lots of skillful behavior as well as players making decisions of their own free will with some of the decisions being poor and enough good decisions that the player felt that he or she was getting better as a result of playing the game. That sounds to me like the kind of environment that I want to create for my players. I hope you agree. 


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