The Things I Wish I had Known Sooner Series

How to Rotate Positions in Youth Soccer

Keep your players in the same role for three games, then rotate. This is probably an obvious thing to do, but so often I hear coaches not doing it

I didn’t either. The first couple of years I coached, running shifts and lines was a stressful mess. It pulled me away from coaching during the game, and I was messed up if kids were late or couldn’t make it. Beyond that having kids play multiple positions in one game is absolute chaos, hurts development, and creates needless loses.

(ie. “Who wants to play goal in the second half” Hot tip: if you are losing no one wants to go in net.)

Kids have a deep sense of fairness and have positions they really want to play (and some they do not). This method also helps to manage that while better developing players. I switched to this method and now games are easy, fun and effective. I hope it helps you too.

THe legs of two soccer players battling for the ball.

It is striking to me that kids younger than eight define themselves in specific roles. Almost always this is because of a parent or coach.

“I’m a winger” two 10 year olds told me when he joined my team this year. Sure, sure they are. What those players are, is a combination of not brave on defence, lacking the awareness to succeed at centre mid, and wanting to score, but not being sure how. What those players needs is dribbling development, positional awareness, and confidence. They are not “wingers”.

This is what 10 year olds tell me all the time

At some point players should specialize and I’d love to have a beer and talk about when. As much as my friend (incredibly talented Olympic medal winning striker) Mel seems to have only ever played striker, specialization should not happen any where under 12 (and I doubt even at U13, but maybe I’m wrong). The current favourite Canadian Men’s player Alphonso Davies is a stiker with the Canadian National Team, but plays as a back for his European team Bayern Munich so… This is a forever topic of debate. I guarantee that players under 12 have been pigeonholed and under developed by coaches, themselves, and parents. They will all benefit from playing all roles.

When a kid who never thought they could be a stiker scores their first goal it is a marvelous thing. When a kid who was terrified of being keeper makes that key stop is a beautiful thing. There are so many examples of this. Kids are bad at most parts of soccer, our job isn’t to minimize their badness to win games, or to highlight their one skill for the same reason. Our job is to grow them into capable soccer players.

Here is how we use positional rotation to do that.

Our U11 Team as an Example

In this example we have 14 players in a league that plays 8 a side. This will also work with 12 or 13.

We schedule: 2 keepers, 3 defence, 6 midfield, 3 strikers (14 players) for a three game rotation. We play 1–2–3–2 (1 Goalie, 2 defence, 3 Midfield, 2 Striker).

Number of shifts

Halves for U12 and down are generally 30 or 25 minutes. In either case we play 4 shifts at about 6 minutes each per half.

I set a timer on my watch for the half length (25/30) and then set a timer on my phone for 5/6 minutes (5 for the 25 minute game). When the phone timer goes of I wait for the next stoppage and make my changes. I use the timers to know when to get players ready and to monitor where we are in the half. Sometimes I let a shift run long, or take advantage of an early stop to swap players, but I balance through the game.

We do not give our “best” players extra shifts. Instead, we balance and win/lose as a team.

What happens when you are short players

We make slight adjustments if we are short players remembering a few guidelines:

  • Keepers only play one half (a whole game is a lot for a kid)
  • Midfield runs a lot
  • Defence runs much less

If a defender is missing, no change. Two defenders play all shifts.

If a keeper is missing, pull from the strikers for half the game and you are balanced.

If a striker is missing, no change, just some extra shifts for the others.

If one midfield is missing, no change just some double shifts (sub off whomever is most tired).

If two midfield are missing move a defender to mid and now two backs play the whole game and mids get breathing breaks.

If more midfield are missing pull next from stikers. Midfield run the most and you need them fresh.

A three game rotation

Three games is generally ideal, as you get one game of chaos, a second better game, and a third where they really understand what to do and play brilliantly (🤞). It is also about the right number to move a team of 12–14 through all positions equally over a season and also gives you a tool every three weeks to re-engage the team as you announce the new roles. Make it a big deal! Announce it! “Ladies and gentlemen starting as keeper for our next three games we are excited to announce ___ and ____!” Round of applause. Then repeat for the rest of your roles building rom the back.

Creating fairness, and more importantly balanced time in positions to better develop players; or the math of it all: Number of Available Shifts Across Number of Players vs Number of Shifts per Player over Three Games

Goalie: 8 shifts (four per half) across 2 players = 4 shifts per game = 12 shifts per rotation + they each get 2 shifts per game at stiker

Defense: 16 shifts total per game across 3 players = 5 shifts per game each = 15 shifts each (and less running)

Midfield: 24 shifts across 6 players = 4 shifts/game = 12 shifts each over 3 games (and a ton of running)

Striker: 16 shifts across 3 strikers + 2 shits per half for goalie = 4 shifts/game for strikers and 2 shifts per game for keepers = 12 shifts each over 3 games + 6 shifts at striker for your keeper

If you build that into a spreadsheet¹ you will see that over the course of a season the time on field balances nicely. Just as importantly the time is divided in a way that makes sense to players, lets them know what their role is, and helps them to develop as players.

¹Happy to send you a copy of the spreasheet I use. It’s a messy work in progress.

I would love to hear what you think about specialization, if you do this or something similar, or if you try this and it helps let me know.

Keep coaching and thank you for reading.

If you have a comment, feedback, or idea add it below, shoot me an email, or send me a tweet.

I mostly write about leadership. A popular article is this one about Getting Comfortable with Conflict.

Ian.

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