The Foundation Phase broadly covers the ages of 8-12 in youth soccer and is a crucial period of experimentation and skill acquisition for young players. So what game formats should we use in order to give them the best opportunities to learn, enjoy the sport, and develop? Below, we look at the range of formats available to coaches and consider how we can incorporate them into our training and games programs to give kids a variety of positive experiences playing soccer.

In This Article

Progressing Through the Foundation Phase

While kids have traditionally been expected to make the step-up to 11v11 games before their teenage years, there’s now increasing recognition of the value of small-sided games. “I remember playing 11-a-side as a ten-year-old,” recalls Dan Wright, Technical Advisor at PDP. “The pitch was far too big, the goals were far too big. But the landscape in the UK has definitely become more age-appropriate for children.”

Generally, kids now play 5v5 games between the ages of 7-8, 7v7 from 9-10, and 9v9 from 11-12. “The UK has done a good job of moving away from 11v11 football,” adds Wright, “and recognising that smaller formats are good for the players in terms of touches and repetition of actions.”

Giving Kids Different Experiences

No matter what the age of our players, we should strive to give them a range of different playing experiences. “The Elite Player Performance Plan, which is governed by the Premier League, has made some really progressive changes in recent years,” says PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “They’re running things like futsal tournaments, street football tournaments, and giving all kinds of variety in order to expose players to different game formats.”

Elsewhere, the Belgian FA famously overhauled their youth soccer program to focus on small-sided games, introducing 1v1s and 2v2s in order to give young players lots of opportunities to master the ball.

“Variety is really key in these age groups,” adds Dan Wright. “I also think there should also be a link between the individuals in the group and the format we put on, because if we’re always doing the same thing then we’ll always get similar returns.” 

This might mean using small-sided games to help a player improve in 1v1 situations. Or, if a player is more comfortable on the ball and showing greater awareness of their surroundings, using 7v7 games to give them more opportunities to link with teammates and work on their ranges of passing. 

Considering what the individuals in our team need allows us to use different game formats to give them appropriate challenges and help them to develop. “We’re challenging the kids differently so that we give them skills to play the 11v11 game when it’s appropriate,” says Dan Wright. “We have to think about what kinds of skills we’re helping them develop, and then how the game can support that.”

Challenging Traditional Systems

In youth soccer, teams are often committed to specific games programs, requiring us to be creative if we’re to provide our players with different game formats. “Perhaps you have a street football night. Or you do 3v3s and 4v4s one night and focus on bigger sizes, where there are more tactical outcomes, another night,” suggests Dave Wright.

“But in these grassroots settings, we’ve got to step back and ask whether the system is right, or if it’s just there because it’s easier to organize. With a little more effort, we could perhaps do things differently, which might lead to players emerging with broader skillsets as a result of their exposure to a mixture of 1v1s, 2v2s, 3v3s, up to 7v7s.”

This could even extend to having multiple games, of different sizes, taking place simultaneously on gameday — enabling us to meet the individual needs of our players while giving them plenty of game time. “When you think about it, having subs at these ages is pretty bonkers,” says Dan Wright. “You wouldn’t go into a school and say ‘some of you are going to learn, some of you are going to watch.’ But in soccer, we seem to think it’s okay for nine-year-olds to stand in the rain and play half a game.”

“We have to be comfortable saying ‘we have this many kids; the best game formats would be a 5v5 and a 3v3.’ And then everyone’s playing.”

The Key Points

  • Foundation Phase players need lots of repetition and time on the ball.
  • Use different game formats to give kids a variety of experiences.
  • We can individualize our approach — tailoring the game format to the needs of our players.
  • We should challenge traditional systems and go beyond rigid games programs that provide similar challenges.

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