Youth: Choosing a Soccer Position: When and How Should it Happen?

Mar 4, 2020

***This article is part of an educational series for soccer parents and youth players new to soccer***

According to this quiz, you can discover which soccer position would be ideal for you (or someone else) in just 10 steps. Of course, choosing the right soccer positions, or specialization, for kids is far more complicated than taking a short quiz online. 

Specialization in soccer is a hotly debated topic. Some coaches and experts highly discourage parents from pushing their kids to play a position too early. Others see no issue with deciding a niche for their children. With that said, you might be wondering how and when your kids should fill a particular position on the team. 

Here are some more insights into the process. 

A Look at the Specialization Debate

You have those who support specialization in soccer (and in various sports), and those who are against it. Both sides present compelling arguments as to how and when a young player should specialize. 

For those who are against it, their main line of reasoning is this: specialization puts too much pressure on young athletes, kills their joy for the game, and leads to burnout. There is research to support this theory. In fact, 70% of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13 due to feeling too much pressure to compete. 

There is also research to suggest that the most committed and successful athletes, who eventually specialize in one sport, tend to be the ones who played many sports when they were young. 

In one survey, only 22% of professional athletes said they would want their own kids to specialize in just one sport during childhood and adolescence. This speaks to the belief that athletes who play in more than one sport may benefit from a more well-rounded, cross-training background. 

With that said, playing in different sports facilitates full-body muscle development, coordination and other athletic skills. This may not be possible by playing just one sport. Ultimately, the advocates of non-specialization suggest that kids shouldn’t stick to a single sport or position until their later teens. This way they have a chance to see which sport they enjoy the most.

Of course, you have the folks who believe that specialization should happen fairly early. The advocates of early specialization themselves have made some compelling reasons as to why kids should enrol in particular positions sooner than later. 

In the case of soccer positions, most experts will agree that kids age 10 and under shouldn’t worry about specializing yet. However, beginning at the age of 11, some coaches will start encouraging kids to play certain positions. In fact, some think that age 11-14 is an ideal age for kids to start specializing in a position since this is when youngsters play full-sized 11 vs 11 soccer. 

By the tween and early teen years, most kids will have a solid grasp on soccer fundamentals, and therefore, a solid understanding of the various positions. This differs from the aforementioned group who believes that this specialization shouldn’t occur until the late teens. 

With that said, one thing remains consistent - there is no reason for kids to choose a position before the age of 10. Young players need to develop a broader sense of the game first and then wait until their tween and early teen years to specialize in a position. However, as the cliche goes - “age is just a number” when it comes to choosing soccer positions. This is because a change can happen earlier or much later in one’s career. 

Choosing Soccer Positions is More Flexible Than Most Realize

Here’s the honest truth about choosing soccer positions - the role a player settles into is less about their age and more about their natural development and performance consistency. A player should pick a position when they show a measure of precision and prowess in it. In other words, it doesn’t matter if a player is 15 or 21. When they demonstrate technical and tactical proficiency is when they should assume the new position. To better understand that concept, lets a take a look at some of the elite soccer stars who played different roles on the field well after their professional debuts. 

  • Messi started his playing career as a centre forward in the 2006-07 season, focusing all of his efforts on attacking and goal-scoring
  • However, he eventually morphed into a midfielder, growing his reputation as a playmaker who created goal opportunities for Xavi and Iniesta
  • More recently, Messi has contributed more defensively and now, plays most often as a right-winger
  • In 2006, Ronaldo was most recognized for playing as a right midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation on Manchester United
  • On Real Madrid, he typically played winger positions 
  • Playing alongside Benzema and Bale, Ronaldo moved up to the striker position 
  • Back in his days in Tottenham, Bale played as a left-back defender 
  • However, an epic hat trick he scored against Inter made it evident that he could dominate in an offensive position and is the reason why he went on to play as a winger and forward in Real Madrid 

What’s the point of these three examples? Messi, Ronaldo and Bale are examples of elite players who didn’t stay in the same positions they started in. So if you’re a parent of a young soccer player, there’s a good chance that they too might play in more than one position over time. Specialization doesn’t necessarily mean more success through focusing on one way to play, as the above examples illustrate.

Our Stance On Choosing Soccer Positions

Ultimately, the decision on when and how players should choose a soccer position boils down to this - letting kids have fun playing various positions. As they start to show interest or talent for a specific position, then let them pursue it regardless of their age. 

More importantly, make peace with yourself that the position they gravitate to now might not be the one they stick with throughout their sports career. They’ll likely move onto other positions over time. 

By keeping these principles in mind, you can be sure that young players won’t burn out and lose joy for the game. More importantly, once they discover their strengths and aptitudes, they’ll likely feel motivated to play the position they’re most comfortable with. This will ensure their real strength as a player comes from their passion and joy, as well as their practice and skill.

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