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Getting to Know the League You're In

Youth soccer leagues around the country are as different as the millions of kids who strap on shin guards to play in them. You can find outdoor and indoor leagues. Numbers go from 4-on-4 to 11-on-11 leagues. Ages fluctuate from 5-and-under leagues to 17-and-under leagues. You even have the option of same-sex leagues or coed leagues.

Along with this diversity comes the smorgasbord of rules that are a part of each league. Some adhere strictly to the official rules of the sport and allow no modifications. The majority of programs, however, alter the rules to fit the age and experience level of the kids.

Brushing up on the rules

Reading a soccer rulebook isn't as exciting as reading a Stephen King novel, but it should be bedside reading for you. To be successful at coaching, you have to know the rules of soccer, as well as the particular rules your league is enforcing this season, and be able to teach them to your players. Even if you have an extensive knowledge of soccer and perhaps even played at the high school or college level, take a look at the league's rulebook. Consider it a refresher before you take the field. Chances are good that the league is using some rules that were never applied in the same way when you played as a youngster. If you don't know and understand the rules, you can't expect your team to, either. And if the youngsters don't know the rules, playing soccer can be a pretty frustrating experience.

Don't plunge in and attempt to memorize all the rules in a single sitting. Review a few pages every night prior to the season's start until you're pretty comfortable with them.

Don't assume that older kids have a firm grasp on all the rules simply because they've played the sport for years. If no one took the time to explain certain rules that may be somewhat confusing, the kids may not have ever learned them. And as kids progress from league to league, they encounter new rules that may not have been enforced the previous season. It's up to you to know which rules are in place and to share that information with the team before the season gets under way.

Focusing on fun or first place

The two distinct classifications that exist for soccer programs are recreational and competitive. Each type requires a vastly different approach to coaching. Do you know what type of league you're coaching in this season? Before agreeing to volunteer, check with the recreation director to learn more about the league and make sure it's the right fit for you.

Recreational leagues

If you're coaching soccer for the first time, chances are good that you're involved in a recreational league. This type of program focuses on teaching kids the basic skills of the game. Generally, the program has rules in place regarding equal playing time.

Often, with kids ages 8 and under, the league scales teams down to 4-on-4 and has them play games on much smaller fields to allow each child plenty of touches with the ball. Usually, these teams have no goaltender. Because the players are so young and are just learning the skills, having a child positioned as the goaltender would result in an enormous amount of standing around and very little action for the youngster. Typically, pylons (orange cones) are set up at each end of the field to serve as the goals.

Recreational leagues also feature rules that have been altered to meet the needs of the age and experience level of the kids. In the younger divisions, you don't see corner kicks, indirect kicks, or penalty kicks. Referees don't call offsides; there won't be throw-ins; and a child touching the ball with his hands often isn't whistled for an infraction but is gently reminded that the action is a no-no.

Another trademark of a recreational program is that coaches are allowed on the field during games with the youngest kids. Usually, the league allows a coach from each team to stand on each half of the field, giving coaches a chance to talk to their players during the course of play and to provide positive feedback and encouragement.

As kids become older and stay involved in the sport longer, they naturally become more competitive. Winning takes on a more prominent role with a lot of kids around the age of 10 or 12. If these kids still play in a recreational program, some of the emphasis will shift to winning, but not at the expense of league policies regarding equal playing time.

Competitive leagues

Children whose thirst for competition can't be quenched in their local recreational program can turn to the avalanche of competitive leagues that exist. These leagues are typically referred to as select or travel teams.

This type of program is for youngsters who have demonstrated higher skill levels than many other kids their age. These elite programs give kids the chance to compete against others of similar ability in their state or region. Usually, kids involved in these programs have their eyes on long-term advancement in the sport, such as playing at the collegiate level (or, as is often the case, their parents are thinking college scholarships and have pushed the children into this highly competitive environment).

Coaches of select or travel teams have an array of issues to deal with that the recreational volunteer coach doesn't face. You have to orchestrate tryouts; make cuts; and, at the oldest levels, make game tapes to send to prospective college coaches.

Your schedule is crammed with practices and is typically tournament heavy, with lots of travel and weekends away from home. The environment is entirely different because victories in tournaments push the team into the national spotlight and garner lots of attention for the players involved. Coaches are given the reins of a select or travel team only if they have a strong coaching background and have proved through their experience to be well versed in all areas of the game.

If you're in a highly competitive league that you don't believe you're adequately prepared for, notify the league director immediately. Let him know that in the best interests of the kids, you would prefer to coach a less experienced team in a less competitive league. Do what you're better suited for at this time in your coaching career.

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