A few months ago, I wrote up a lengthy email to our Recreation coaches to try and address some of the things some of our experienced coaches and I had noticed during the season. Our league works hard to develop coaches as well as players since we rely on all volunteer coaches for our teams. None of our coaches are paid. So this was an attempt to encourage our coaches to take a look at what they were doing and how they might improve some things for the good of the players. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide – instead it addresses specific areas of concern we observed across our Rec program. There are also some general tactical hints. This may strike some as ‘wrong’ since coaches are told over and over not to teach tactics until kids reach middle school. But it certainly makes no sense to have teams consistently make the same basic mistake because their coach doesn’t realize it’s a problem.
I don’t think the league ever sent it out, but I stumbled across it the other day and thought it was worth sharing.
Now that we have a couple of Rec matches under our belts, it’s time to talk about how things have gone and share some tips from our more experienced coaches on things you might be able to do to improve your player’s development and make sure everyone is having fun. Below are some tips for both practices and matches.
We’ve seen some lopsided scores, which happen sometimes. While we certainly don’t want to see a team win by more than 6 or 8 goals, it’s also not right to tell kids not to do the one thing they want to do more than anything – score goals. So if you find yourself on the winning side of a lopsided match, after you get up by a couple goals, start to restrict how your players can score. Tell them weak footed shots only (the whole team or your stronger players – up to you). Shots only from outside the penalty area. 3-5 consecutive passes before shooting, etc. Enforce it by saying you’ll sub out anyone who doesn’t do it. Don’t wait to do this when your already up by 6 – by then it’s too late. You can tell early on if you’re dominating play and likely to continue scoring. If you’re on the losing side of a lopsided match, tell the kids to not give up and try to learn from the other team. Switch from a 2-3 lineup (two defenders/three forwards) to a 3-2 (6v6). Stuff like that. Adjust.
For teams that play 6v6 and 8v8, don’t keep your defense at the top of the penalty area. You’re just letting your opponent get that much closer to your goal before they encounter pressure. Especially in U10 and above where offside is called, your defense should push up to midfield to pressure the ball as soon as possible. Also, don’t always put your weakest and/or slowest players back on defense as they will struggle to contain fast forwards on a breakaway. Instead, consider putting your better players back on defense sometimes. This will significantly reduce your goals against, and if you encourage your defenders to make runs up the wings, they can also score or feed your forwards.
Encourage your players to ALWAYS be the first to touch a free ball, especially on punts. Think how you can work the concept of fighting for the ball into some of your small sided drills.
Don’t be afraid to put all your girls in at the same time every once in a while. This can be a huge confidence booster for them. [ed. note – our Rec league is a co-ed league]
Encourage your keepers to throw the ball to players near the touchline instead of punting it into the middle of the field. This helps your players learn to maintain possession and also get used to bringing the ball upfield on the wing. Yes – doing this will mean at some point the other team will intercept a badly thrown ball or steal it quickly and score. So what? Once they get used to it, your players will be more likely to keep possession of the ball than if you just punt it. Making mistakes is how kids learn.
Don’t get hung up on positions. They are important, but if an opponent has one really fast kid who seems able to break away and score at will, put your fastest player on them 1v1 and never let them get open/free. This will often break things up and give your other players a chance to counter that player. It will improve that player’s 1v1 skill and also force the ball into other areas of the field where your other players will be involved. This isn’t suggested as a ‘tactic to help you win’ – instead, it’s meant to help ensure one player doesn’t dominate play and ball touches get spread out more across the other players.
U10 and U12 – encourage your players to shoot once they reach the penalty area instead of the instinctive desire to dribble as close as possible to the goal before shooting. In U5/U6, if you have a player who is fast and always takes off to score in the open net over and over, let them score a couple then suggest they pass to another player to score. They may not do it all the time, but keep reminding them and eventually they’ll learn important lessons (sometimes you should pass and also get better protecting the ball as they wait for teammates to pass to) and your other players will get more chances to score.
Lines… Walking around practices, we’ve seen a LOT of players standing in lines. Every minute players stand in line is a minute wasted when they could be getting more ball touches and more comfortable with the ball. For the most part, players shouldn’t be in a line more than 60-90 seconds. Yes, there are always a few really good activities that are an exception – the key thing being exception. Kids in line lose focus chatting with each other and you will often find yourself spending time mediating disagreements between players in line vs coaching those with the ball. Adjust your activities so you can shorten the lines (have two lines of cones for dribbling? Do four! Do a relay so they go faster. Stuff like that) Encourage players to bring their own soccer ball to every practice and then bring some more of your own, so you always have plenty of soccer balls. Then work to adjust your practice plan to use some activities where every player has a ball at their feet. The more ball touches the better.
Laps are pointless! You’re just wasting practice time when they could have a ball at their feet. That is your #1 goal, to have a soccer ball at their feet as much as possible. Tell them they can’t carry their ball on the field. They have to bring it over with their feet once they get to the grass. Players should never carry their soccer ball – always have them use their feet. If you think your team lacks fitness and needs to do laps, then you need to adjust your practice arrangement to be more intensive. Kids playing 3v3 will exert more energy than running laps. Try to make your activities circular so instead of finishing something and having to walk back to the start (where they ALWAYS walk back in the middle of the activity anyway), they move to the next section and work their way back with the ball. Constant activity and motion. For example, throw gates down on the field all around. Tell the kids to dribble through every gate without repeating once. Then start over. Now make four of your player chasers. Have them keep track of how many gates they can get through in a row without repeating gates. They’ll be exhausted in five minutes.
Explanations should be short. For U10 and below, if it takes you more than a couple minutes to explain the drill, it probably is too complex OR you should demonstrate it once instead and correct as it progresses. When you’re talking to your team, within 30 seconds they’ll be looking at friends, other practices, their feet – and you’ve lost them. Always stand with the sun in your eyes so they can see you.
Try to arrange your practice so they are constantly engaged. Working on dribbling? Have the entire team dribble in a square. Head up, don’t run into anyone. Have them try a soccer move. Toe taps, etc. Shooting drill? Instead of one big line, have kids near the posts passing the ball back out to the shooters. On both sides. Now instead of one line, you have four. Kids are doing different things. Pass, pass, shoot, switch lines.
Don’t sell your kids short. Coaching a U5/U6 team? Show them what a pullback is. They can do it and we’ve seen them in U6 games. Even for older teams – spread cones out around the field. They are defenders. Players dribble around the field and when you say so, they accelerate to the nearest cone and do a fake or soccer move. Work on passing. Instead of having two lines pass back and forth to each other, have them pass in triangles and tell them their heels can’t touch the ground – they should always be moving and passing to just their group. Instead of just shooting into a goal – which does get boring – set up cones they can shoot at, trying to knock them over. Younger kids LOVE this activity. Making stuff fly into the air (BOOM!) when they hit it with the ball – MUCH cooler.
The idea here is you have to work to keep things fun and interesting. Put yourself in their shoes during a drill. Would you be bored? Boring drills can be made exciting by adding an element of competition – see who can do things first, etc. Don’t be afraid to end an activity early because it isn’t working – always have a couple extra you can work into practice. Figure out what didn’t ‘work’ later vs during practice.
Don’t be afraid to steal! Good coaches steal stuff from other coaches they watched. Early in his career, Anson Dorrance (Coach of the UNC Woman’s Soccer dynasty) based his entire practice philosophy on another UNC coach he watched – Dean Smith. Go to other coach’s practices and watch what they do. See a drill they did you like – use it! Talk with more experienced coaches, and if they have time, they will likely talk your ear off about drills, ideas, common mistakes, and things they’ve seen.
The point in sending this to you all is to make sure we all are doing our best to develop our players. We have dozens of coaches of varying levels and our league’s mission is not just to develop good players, but also good coaches. So take some time and explore some new things you might be able to do to help your players AND YOU develop.
I realize there are hundreds of ‘Tips for Coaches’ articles out there, and this just adds another. However, some of us were struck by the types of things that coaches seemed to ‘get’ early on and other things that they didn’t – on a wide scale.
I’m sure many of you have other ideas, so share away in the comments!