Kickball- What it is; What it is not

Recently the Soccer Yoda has reentered the world of youth soccer coaching. Although I have coached many different age groups and both genders, this is a new experience. I am working with a team of 12 yr old girls, most of whom are new to club soccer. The experience is proving to be highly educational, infinitely challenging, very humbling , yet at the same time, very rewarding.

It has also reintroduced me to a term I have not heard in a while – kickball. In a soccer sense, kickball is not the baseball-like game played with a big rubber ball. It refers to a long kick, one which is considered to be very poor in terms of soccer tactics and , by extension, the use of these kicks as a team tactic. I have heard this term used frequently since my reentry into youth coaching.

First of all, lets discuss why we are talking about tactics at all in regards to youth. Many “experts” say that youth – up to as old as 14-16 – don’t need to be taught tactics. The emphasis should be totally on technical skills, tactics can come later. Indeed, many world stars didn’t even play organized soccer until around 12 yrs old or so. There is no evidence that playing on a organized team at early ages prepares a player better than playing hours of street soccer and many believe just the opposite. Kids will keep their own score in street soccer games but will typically forget about the result very quickly. But the ball skills learned in those small, informal games last a lifetime. So the “experts” aren’t necessarily wrong in questioning the need for tactical training among youth.

They just aren’t paying attention to reality.

Somewhere in the USA there might actually be an organization that simply provides a place for youngsters to play small- sided games ( 4 v4 ; 5 v 5) with small  goals and coaches to merely suggest or demonstrate skills for the kids to try. No scores, no refs, no uniforms………….no parents screaming, no pressure. There MIGHT be such a club…..but I haven’t seen it or heard of it. No… American youth soccer is all about making the team, playing positions, winning games, even getting ranked high. Yes, in a true emulation and over-exaggeration of adult world practice, there is a web site in which youth soccer teams as young as 10 are ranked by a point system on a national, regional and state level and unfortunately there are adults who pay attention to those rankings. This is the reality of youth soccer in America. If street soccer has a place, it is surely hidden behind the organized youth soccer world. So….since our kids are on fields, with uniforms and goals and refs and scores and championships……tactics must be taught to compete….and those who suggest that kids of 14 or 12 or 10 or anything older than 5 cannot be taught team tactics…they are wrong.

Which brings us to kickball.

The Soccer Yoda has heard this term tossed around a lot lately from players, coaches, parents, anyone involved in youth soccer. It is said with derision, as a criticism, supposedly describing a unsophisticated, unskilled style of soccer used by teams who either ( mentally) don’t know better or ( physically) are incapable of playing a more skillful, controlled passing game. Unfortunately , in many cases the use of the term is all-inclusive of any ball kicked farther than 10 yards and therefore is often misused.

To understand why that is so, we must go back to the basics of the game. The object of soccer is NOT to make pretty passes, to control the ball, to play with great positional sense, etc… is to score more goals than your opponent. The rest is merely a means to that end. True, in some cultures the art of soccer is considered more important than the score……the USA is not one of those cultures. We like to score, we like to win.

So, here is the Soccer Yoda’s concept of modern soccer tactics:

Every soccer player, from an age 5 beginner up to Lionel Messi, can kick a ball past a goalkeeper into the goal- if that player is close enough to the goal and if the player is given enough time to strike the ball with the best technique capable of that player. Each player has a distance from the goal that represents his or her maximum distance from which the ball can be kicked into the goal given a certain amount of time. That amount of time we can call the players “strike-time”, the area inside of which the ball can be kicked into the goal is that players “strike zone”. A study of goals scored at all levels indicates that most goals are scored when players get inside their strike zones with time enough to exceed their strike-time and with the ball at their feet (or head). Our 5 yr old beginner might have a strike zone of 3 yards with a strike time of 5 seconds while Renaldo has a strike zone of 25 yards and a strike time measured in tens of a second , but they both need their strike time inside their strike zone and the ball in order to score goals. Remember –  more space between a player and an opponent means more time to strike the ball well. So modern soccer becomes an effort by teams to get players into their strike zones with enough space ( and therefore time) and with the ball in order to score goals and an effort to deny the opponent the ball, the space, the time or any combination thereof, in order to prevent goals.

Given the objective of getting players into strike zones with time and space and the ball, teams must either 1) take what the defensive team gives in terms of space or 2) create that space and deliver the player and the ball into it. Defenses can be very good at denying space near the goal, therefore at high levels teams must work hard to create space inside strike zones if they want to score. This can be done by 1) set pieces 2) turning defenses 3) unbalancing defenses. More on these concepts in future posts. Good defenses follow certain “rules”  and these are not new. One of the most important rules is that defenders must be provided with cover whenever possible. If a defender is to attempt to pressure an opponent , there should be a teammate in place to pick up that opponent if the first defender fails and the opponent gets past with the ball. Modern teams typically play with 4 defenders and they are tasked with providing cover for each other. In particular , the central two backs must have a great understanding of when to go forward to attack the ball or an opponent and when to drop back to cover a teammate who is going forward. If they get caught level with each other or “flat” , the offense can beat them both with one well placed pass through the defense and one running player who now ,depending on the distance to the goal, has space and time to prepare a shot.

If a defense fails to cover for each other. one pass beats all of them

If a defense fails to cover for each other. one pass beats all of them

As teams control the ball and move up the field, they tend to give up space behind them. As long as they keep the ball or regain it quickly if lost , or drop back having lost possession, then having the ball in the other teams half should not be a problem. But often teams push up too much and fail to retreat when the ball is lost, so the space at their back is totally open.If an opponent gets into that space and gets the ball,  we see the goal “against the run of play” which happens so often in soccer. Its a known fact that owning field position in soccer can be the very thing that creates goals for the opposition.

If the player with the ball (blue dot) passes the ball behind the defense to his teammate (red dot) on the run , they beat the white defense

If the player with the ball (blue dot) passes the ball behind the defense to his teammate (red dot) on the run , they beat the white defense

Lately the Soccer Yoda has seen many youth teams play their defenders high up the field. IF they are covering for each other and dropping back when opponents attack them , this does not have to be a problem. However, many of these teams play their defenders flat across the field , so they are leaving space behind them and allowing well placed passes to put opponents into that space. (see above illustration)

Great teams and players can exploit space behind defenses in the blink of an eye (see below)

Renaldo passes to James and the runs behind the defense as James hits a long ball to him.

Renaldo passes to James (blue line) and then runs behind the defense as James hits a long ball to him.


So what IS kickball? In my view, a kick made in the general direction of the opposition goal without aiming for a teammate or a space, is “kickball”. And , yes, many…perhaps even most… youth teams use kickball as their primary means of playing the game. But playing balls into open space for attackers to run to is not kickball, it’s smart soccer.

This leaves the youth coach with a dilemma, does the coach, in the interest of teaching the skills and tactics of the “good game”, ignore the space being left open by high, flat defenses? Does the coach, in the interest of winning, abandon all attempts at short passing and individual ball skills and just put long balls into that tempting space? ( And thereby be accused of playing kickball).  I have seen both strategies being employed. Ideally, youngsters are taught a combination of these strategies….pass short when appropriate to establish possession and move defenses, pass into space when it is offered or created. However, this requires skill and knowledge and to teach it to youngsters is not easy, even as they become older. If our youngsters were playing more street soccer than anything else, we wouldn’t worry about any of this until they become much older. But they aren’t, so it’s a constantly discussed matter with no true right answer. But, one thing is certain….well placed long passes into space for running teammates are not kickballs.

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