Don’t Follow the Herd

If you lead U-8 and U-10 teams, herdball is a fact of coaching life. Herdball – the clump of half a dozen players that follow the ball all over the field. Do you want to create scoring chances, eliminate a few defensive breakdowns and teach your kids the rudiments of full-field team play? Then, Coach, you need to understand why herdball is the default mode for these age groups.

Let’s address four main causes of herdball.

Here comes the herd

Here comes the herd

1)     Physiology

2)     Psychology

3)     Parents

4)     Coaching

Physiology. Young children are rarely capable of kicking the ball very far. Even if you have skillful players capable of consistent solid contact, U-10s & younger lack the musculature and leverage needed to drive the ball with any pace. Coupled with the inherent slowness of natural grass fields, if one’s teammate can’t kick the ball far, you don’t want to be very far away.

Psychology.  Kids are inherently selfish. Not in a negative adult sense, but “ME” is their worldview. We’ve all heard the TODDLER RULES. At ten, on the soccer field, kids behave like toddlers. It will also happen that a stronger player will run over to “help out” a less-developed player.  My experience is that this move is 20% team play and 80% “This kid’ll lose the ball and then I can get it.”

Parents.  Sigh. Here is the scenario. You’ve spent two weeks working with the kids on team play. It’s game day. The sideline is filled with 20 anxious parents, all shouting “GET IN THERE AND GET THAT BALL! GET IN THERE GET IN THERE GET IN THERE!”  After the game, in the car on the way home, Mom and Dad are talking with their little Lionel Messi. “You were great out there. I really liked the way you got in there and got after the ball.”

Two weeks work, down the drain.

Coaching: These issues are manageable and they are on you, Coach.  Address them positively and your kids will play well and have fun, your parents will love you and the number of times you come home fuming to your spouse will be significantly lessened.

HERE’S WHAT TO DO. And How to Do it.

  •  Parents: At your pre-season parents meeting, you must explain your philosophy.  For U-10 and U-8, my simple philosophy is two-fold.

1)     “I want the very best possible experience for your children. Everything I do as a coach is structured to make this happen. I stress positive coaching. I teach individual skills. I teach team skills. I need your understanding to reinforce these skills.” (To yourself, you now say “And screaming “GO GET THAT BALL” is not useful.  )

2)     We have 7 players (or whatever size sides you play in your league) and one ball. The kids will learn to share. (Practice that phrase – you’ll be saying it a lot. “7 players, one ball and we gotta learn to share.”)

  • Psychology: Once you understand the mindset of the 10 year old, you can work with it.

“Lisa, I know you want to run over there and help Jody out.  Let’s look at what happens  when you do that.”

You now have a teaching moment. Do a quick walk-through which demonstrates what happens when Jody comes over to ‘help.’  Jody’s action either brings another defender over, or allows one defender to now mark two players.

  • Physiology:  We address this with a smaller ball and short-sided games on smaller fields. As a coach, you have to remember that swinging the ball across the field in two well-struck passes is not possible.

1)    Focus on movement without the ball and short passing.

2)    Playing three-a-side games in a 15 x 15 meter field is a great way to have fun, maximize touches and reinforce these coaching points. Use no goals. Set a guideline that says 3-5 consecutive passes equals one point. After a point is scored, the ball changes hands. Play to 5 points and then rotate opponents.

  • Coaching:

1)     “SPREAD OUT” – A completely useless phrase. “Spread out” corrects nothing. It conveys no useful information. Eliminate SPREAD OUT  from your coaching vocabulary. As a coach, what you want is proper spacing amongst your players. The phrase you need is “Balance the Field.” Use this demonstration with your players AND at your parents meeting.

You need:  8” x 10” (approximate) coaching white board or a piece of paper on a clipboard.

a)     Sketch out a soccer field (if using white paper)

b)     “X” in four field players. Place one in each quadrant of the field.

c)      Hold up the board and balance it on your finger.

d)     Explain that now ‘the field is balanced.’

e)     Ask “What happens to our balance if one player runs over here?” (indicate a player tippytoeing into another quadrant) Wait for answers. (wait time is important for kids – if you ask a question, wait for answers.)

f)       Press down quickly onto the now double-weighted quadrant. Make sure the board goes flying.

g)     Explain that when the kids hear “Balance the Field” or “Balance” from you it means to quick look around and see where they should move in order correct their spacing

An Important General Coaching Point:

Stop saying “Stop.” Don’t say “Don’t.”

You’re at work. You believe that your work on a project is going well. Your manager walks past and peers over your shoulder for a few moments. You look up. She says, “Don’t do that report like that. Stop it. That’s not right.” She walks away. How’s that work for you? It doesn’t work for the kids, either. Negative coaching doesn’t work. If you can’t think of a “DO THIS” to say after a “DON’T DO THAT,” then keep quiet and watch how things sort themselves out whilst you think of a “DO THIS.”

Coach, you will never eliminate herdball in U-8 and U-10 soccer. However, by being aware of the causes of herdball, using and re-using the “Balance the Field” demonstration consistently, and getting the parents on your side, you can minimize its effects. Your kids will learn more and be more successful, the parents will love and respect you, and your spouse will be thankful.


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at

Courtesy HAAP Media Ltd.

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  1. Brandon P. Duncan says:

    I’m really impressed by this article. I wish I’d known some of this when my kids were playing at this age. Home run article—or should I say, “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAALLLLLLLL!”

  2. CJ Cat says:

    Great points. I have coached my son since he was 4 (8 now) and my number one rule is that the kids must attend practice. I don’t care if they miss a game, because until they reach 9 or 10, games are fairly useless. As I tell the parents, the games are for you to yell and cheer when your son accidentally dribbles the ball into the goal. I also tell them not to shout commands (pass, shoot, run) as that’s my job. For the most part my parents appreciate my candor.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. Some great tips here for coaches and parents of young players.

  4. Great tips David! I coached U-10’s for an all-girls league and used this same framework and it worked very well. I also made sure to let all the kids get a chance to play each position during the games throughout the season. The biggest thing (other than spread the field) was talking with the parents at the start of the season to tell them my expectations for their sideline behavior. This made my job easier, and let the kids have fun and build passion for the game. Great post!

  5. David Stanley says:

    Thanks to all who left a comment. You make great points – Engage the parents. Clear expectations. BTW-I’ll need your help in a few weeks. I am working on a “Coaches and Parents Wish List” – What do we as parents wish in our coaches? What do we as coaches wish in our parents? I’ll be drawing heavily from comments both here and on twitter for this one. FYI – Dstan58. Thanks again.

  6. Gordon says:

    I’ve got a son just about to start a season of U8. This is great stuff! Thanks Dave!

    • CJ Cat says:

      U8 is really when things changed in our league. The field got bigger, goalies were added and the competitiveness with the kids, parents and coaches tripled. I had a lot of fun coaching the kids because they actually exhibited passing skills and played something that resembled soccer. I do wish that parents would remember that these kids are still 6,7 and 8, so chill. Parents should never ask their kid why they didn’t do something, like pass, shoot or stop a shot. Most coaches will notice these things and teach accordingly. You should just encourage them and remind them that fun is the name of the game.

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