“Spread Out, Spread Out” are the cries that I hear from the parents imploring their 8-year-olds to spread out during the game. Often, the children don’t respond, and the cries are ineffective.
The strategy of spreading out is a great idea from an adult’s perspective but that is not how children see the game. Children think differently to adults, and at that age, they don’t understand the strategy. As adults, we understand and know the benefits of spreading out, but children have not yet reached that level of understanding.
When it comes to playing invasion games like Hockey, Basketball, Handball, Soccer, Football or Netball, 8-year-olds play the game according to their cognitive development stage.
Providing there is an interest, children embrace learning. They appreciate being pointed in the right direction and value their parents watching the game from the sidelines. Children understand the rules of the game and they enjoy experiencing new skills.
Their development is important. Play may be congested but that is how they learn. They are developing their skills and learning how to manoeuvre in tight places. They are building good instincts that they will use when they play the game in future years.
The ball is their magnet and they are constantly figuring out how to get it. When the other team has possession of the ball, they are continuously taking space away from the other team in order to get the ball. They instinctively know the concept of zone defence.
When one of their own players has possession of the ball, they just want that player to pass them the ball no matter how congested the play is. They enjoy the contest. That is how they play their natural game. Their thinking is “I want the ball, now.”
So, when there are four other players thinking the same thing, congestion occurs. They are not thinking about the subsequent pass, nor the pass after that. They are thinking about the current pass and what they must do to get it.
When play is congested, the players learn how to solve problems and learn how to be more creative. The skills they learn today will be second nature when they are older.
They will, however, understand the concept of spreading out when they reach the appropriate stage of cognitive development. The game itself will teach them to spread out. Usually, by the age of eleven, children begin to understand strategy. They will encounter a more sophisticated game where tactics play a major role. The game will be more advanced, and the play will be more structured.
Swiss-born Jean Piaget created a theory of cognitive development. He suggested that children move through four different stages of mental development as they grow.
He conceded that children between the ages of seven and eleven experience the concrete operational stage, characterised by the development of organized and rational thinking.
He concluded, however, that although children at that stage can solve problems in a logical fashion, they are typically not able to think abstractly or hypothetically.
I coach a team of 8-year-olds and discovered that they:
• Understand the concept of teams
• Understand the rules of the game
• Pass and receive a ball satisfactorily and in a controlled manner
• Are developing physical confidence
• Respond well to positive reinforcement
• Are easily bruised psychologically and easily embarrassed by negative criticism
• View their parents as the most significant people in their lives
• May feel overwhelmed by instructions from the sidelines offered by parents and fans
• Prefer a direct, unambiguous direction from one person (usually the coach)
• Enjoy playing the game and knowing the score
• At training, enjoy smaller versions of the game rather than drills.
• Do not understand strategy
At training, they enjoy playing games that develop their skills. They welcome the playing for life philosophy where there are no drills, no waiting in line and no sitting out. A game within a game is what they enjoy most.
A smaller version of the game like 4 v 4 with distinct rules and special licences makes it enjoyable for the children. This type of game develops technique and develops mental qualities. If the game is set up so that the play is continuous, it develops their mental stamina.
In these smaller versions of the game, children like to know the score. Both winning and losing are necessary for growth. Knowing the outcome of a game, helps them lower their fear of failure and leads to a more stable appreciation of what the results really mean. By experiencing winning and losing in a training environment helps them accept the result on match day.
How they train is how they play.
The game itself makes them smarter and the more they play the better they become. They will automatically teach themselves.