November 07, 2015
Stop interrupting: Substitute sensibly

By Mike Woitalla

Part of this I found amusing as I reffed 8-year-old boys whose
coach had them wear scrimmage bibs on the sideline like they do in the

When he subbed, the boys often ran onto the field forgetting they had the pinnies on. For some, taking the bibs off looked more complicated than Rubik’s Cube as they tangled themselves up -- while everyone else waited for the restart.

But besides the pinnie problem, both teams were subbing about every five minutes. Also happening, and I see this all the time: Team A subs a couple players. A minute later or less -- Team B subs. You can end up having 20 to 30 sub breaks in a 50- or 60-minute game.

When the U.S. Soccer Development Academy announced its expansion to U-12s it also revealed its substitution guidelines for that age level -- and they make a lot of sense. They were borne out of the idea that “less frequent interruptions benefit player development.” They are, for 60-minute games:

• Target substitutions for the 15-minute mark, halftime, and the 45-minute mark.

• Teams sub simultaneously. (Opposing coaches are encouraged to communicate with each other to set up the subbing.)

Coaches may sub at other times if they really need to, such as for an injury or discipline issue. But the aim is clear: It’s important that children get, “Extended, uninterrupted periods of playing time,” says Tony Lepore, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Scouting.

I’m not at all advocating that strict rules on subbing are mandated for the young age groups, just that coaches keep these guidelines in mind, because soccer for kids is more fun, and they learn more, when adults don’t constantly disrupt the play.

Subbing at the quarter marks during a game provides enough opportunities to make player changes needed to, for example, spread out playing time.

“Many volunteer coaches don’t have experience with soccer and they pull tactics from other American sports,” Lepore says. “They manage and coach the game of soccer like other American sports -- hockey, or basketball, or American football -- in ways that don’t apply to soccer.

“In fact, [frequent subbing] takes away the opportunity for our youngest players to play real soccer. It contributes to frantic play. To a straightforward style. On top of it, with constant stoppages, the games have no flow, no pace, and it puts us behind as a nation, especially when it comes to what kind of players we want to produce -- imaginative, creative, technically comfortable.”

One reason coaches say they like to sub frequently is because they want to pull a kid off the field to give advice. I’ve even seen coaches sub young players because they made what the coached perceived to be a mistake.

“We want people to see training as ‘classroom’ and instruction time, and game day is the time for players to apply what they learned in training. And you need extended periods of playing for that," says Lepore. “And halftime is a perfect instruction time. Or after a scheduled substitution. … And part of learning is making mistakes -- a more guided-discovery approach.”

As far as subbing constantly in hopes of some tactical edge, Lepore says the focus at the early ages should not be on getting the desired result for the team, but on individual player development.

“It’s really simple in the end, isn’t it? In order to get better at playing, you need to play -- for extended, uninterrupted periods,” he says.