Help for beginning volunteer youth soccer coaches

Albert Einstein said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

Like many parents who know nothing about soccer, I got the call from the Parks & Rec coordinator to ask to coach soccer.

I was dumb enough to agree to it. “If you don’t, there are 12 kids that won’t get to play soccer this season.”

The biggest gripe I had as a beginning coach was the lack of resources geared toward beginning coaches and practical advice to help newbies teach soccer fundamentals to beginning players.

I searched high and low and felt that 95% of the stuff I found was superficial and lacked detail on coaching points. It was “do this and kids will figure it out.”

Or, it was all over the board. There’s large disagreement, even among soccer insiders, on what soccer fundamentals are important to work on at what age and order of learning.

Luckily, over the years, I encountered a few folks who, in my opinion have met Albert Einstein’s definition of genius — they took the complex and made it simple.

I thought I would share their resources in this post in case there are any parent/coaches out there, like myself, searching for help.

Inspire love for the ball

Nobody summarizes the importance of becoming a master of the ball or how to inspire it better than Tom Byer in his book, Soccer Starts at Home.

It’s a short book and easy read. It will take you a couple hours to read it. Read it. Encourage the parents of your players to do the same.

Build the basics 

Beginning soccer players, like the beginners of anything, need to develop the basics.

I wish I would have encountered Tom Mura’s Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast earlier in my coaching career.

His podcast touches on a wide range of topics and are more detailed than most beginning coaches need, but a few should be required listening for new coaches — with and without a soccer background.

I love the simple phrases he uses to teach the basics. For example, instead of “receive across your body” like many coaches say, we says, “receive with your back foot,” which is far easier for young kids to understand.

Here are a few of his podcasts I wish I would have heard in my first season coaching:

#182 Teaching the Five Core Soccer Skills

#178 What to work on with U8’s

#60 Coaching In Short Phrases

Work with teammates

Another genius simplicity is in the free coaching course offered at 3Four3.com.

The whole course is good, but it all won’t be too much for beginners. But, the one activity you can and should get kids started on early is their version of the 4v1 monkey-in-the-middle game (or start with 4v0 until kids can pass).

Less is more

Another thing the folks above taught me is that less is more. You don’t need 100s of activities. You only need a handful and some variations of those.

Some fall in the trap of lots of activities to keep kids from getting bored. But, kids also like familiarity. And familiarity takes less time to set up and transition and can lead to deeper learning.

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The function of soccer culture

In each episode of John Pranjic’s 3Four3 soccer podcast he plugs 3Four3’s coaching training program.

One of his best selling-points for their coaching program is that helps coaches get past the “trial-and-error discovery phase” of figuring out what activities work and getting right to activities and coaching points that will make a difference in the players and team.

While writing the previous two posts, it dawned on me that soccer culture serves the same function for individual players.

Becoming a competent player from scratch has two has two general periods:

A. 2-5 year period of trial-and-error of learning about soccer and what’s important. This phase is filled with dead-ends, traps and road blocks. One example is simply underestimating the importance of ball skills.

B. 3-5 year period of developing competency on basic skills like first touch, dribbling and passing.

Soccer culture is a shortcut past the first period, because the culture has already discovered what’s important and made it possible to achieve that with activities that develop the basics in fun, unorganized activities with nobody noticing.

In baseball culture, we know one such activity as “catch”. Examples in basketball are 1-on-1, OUT and 21.

Soccer culture activities include juggling, monkey-in-the-middle and 1v1 to 3v3.

In addition to being played in unorganized settings, it’s with people ranging in age and ability, which enables knowledge transfer between generations and ability levels that doesn’t occur in organized settings sliced by age and ability levels.

In the U.S. soccer culture, it’s typical for kids to learn how to self-organize and enjoy playing a game of monkey-in-the-middle (which develops about 60% of the basic skills useful in soccer) in their teens.

In stronger soccer cultures, kids learn to play this on their own and have fun as early as age 5. And they play it a lot.

High School soccer stunts passing of soccer culture to the next generation

This is a continuation of my previous post on how high school soccer hurts soccer culture in U.S.

I have nothing against high school soccer. It’s just that an outcome is that hurts, rather than helps, making connections between younger and older players.

Those connections are vital to help pass on soccer culture.

Clubs in soccer playing countries foster these connections since high school age players play for the club’s senior teams, practice on the same grounds and coach younger players (which also helps keep costs down).

Kids in these clubs want to watch their coaches play on the weekend and play like them. While their current results matter, they also want to become like their coaches.

Younger players in the U.S. don’t have this extended view benchmark of where they want to go. They just have current results.

This hit home when one of my players ran into the local pro indoor team practicing at a field that we often practiced on, by accident. We moved practice that day, but that player’s Dad didn’t get the email.

We had attended some of their games to help spark an interest among kids, so he knew of them and was surprised and excited to to see a pro team practicing there.

His Dad introduced him to the GK, the GK gave him his gloves and he became that kid’s hero. His Dad bought season tickets and took every chance to see the GK again at fan events and training camps the team offered.

That player was one of the 4 players who regularly played GK on my team. They were all about the same level of ability and were content with that.

Over the next year, that player excelled. His “goalposts” had moved from being good enough on our team to playing like his hero and that made all the difference.

I recall the first game where he made a diving save and how much he looked like his favorite goalkeeper while he was doing it.

Of all the players I took to HS, college and pro matches hoping to spark an interest in how the game is played at higher levels, that was the one success story that that I know of.

The rest of the kids complained about how boring it was.

The difference was the connection that kid had made by accident. Knowing someone on the field made it a whole more interesting to him.

Imagine if all the kids could make that kind of connection.

Consider how far it sets us back that our system doesn’t foster such connections, while countries with strong soccer cultures do.

How school soccer hurts soccer culture in the U.S.

This 3Four3 podcast with Jordan Ferrell as guest is a good listen with some key reasons why soccer languishes in the U.S.

One of those reasons is found just past the 38 minute mark and comes just after host, John Pranjic, describes his visit to a sports club in Europe where sports fields surround an athletic club where parents can do spin classes, lift weights or play basketball while or grab a bite or drink at the club’s restaurant while their kids are at soccer training.

Pranjic says:

It felt like a community. It felt like those people had ownership in the club. That’s something we could replicate in the United States, and nobody’s doing it.

Ferrell adds on (emphasis mine):

honestly, we’ve just moved the sport club into the academic world and that’s killed it because once you finish from an institution, you’re an alum, and alum move in different places and the ones from the community who aren’t alum aren’t as invested.

I described how the fragmentation of school sports hurts the soccer culture in the U.S. in this post. Here’s a snippet:

In the Netherlands, the youth teams in their clubs play on Saturdays and the adult teams play on Sundays. The youth players often attend the adult games. They know the adults because they practice near them and are coached by them, so they want to see how they do.

In the U.S., clubs and school sports fragments this experience. Eight-year-old’s in the U.S. aren’t coached by 15-year-old’s who play for the high school team and they aren’t interested in watching the high school games to be like them someday, because they don’t know them.

In the U.S., the players’ bubble is their individual team, or maybe the club’s top team at their age level, not a senior team.

So, high achievers are content with being ‘best on their team’ and not having a good role model to demonstrate what a complete player looks like.

I’d add that in the Netherlands the player’s bubble is the adult senior team. Rather than being content to beat players of their own age, they set their sites on how players on the senior teams play.

More in the next post…

Winning doesn’t mean much if you aren’t any good…

…and a big problem with soccer in the U.S. is that there are many ways to win without being any good.

That’s true from top to bottom.

The MLS limits the number of good players on a team to even out the competition. It thinks close games attracts more fans.

Youth are separated into age and like skill groups where they can feel successful. The thinking is that winning keeps more kids interested longer.

The downside is that too many people win without being any good. That doesn’t help them get better because it isn’t clear that they need to get better.

Imagine watching a basketball game where players dribble the ball high and away from their body and turn the ball over frequently. Most of the passes they make get intercepted, and they can’t catch a pass. Players with the ball dribble past them easily.

This is what soccer in the U.S. looks like to me: too many players don’t even have the basics. I think a reason is that there’s a lot of winning and incentive to learn the basics.

The point of sports should be to win. But, it should be about winning by being good, not by watering down the competition.

One small example of this is juggling. Players and coaches alike have pleaded their case to me that practicing juggling is unnecessary. “It’s just for show,” they say, because you don’t use it in a game. “Work on the stuff that you actually use,” they say.

It is true that you don’t need to practice juggling, if you only play against others who also don’t know how to juggle.

But, when a juggler and non-juggler go into a 1v1 or 50/50, I’ll put my money on the juggler coming away with the ball.

“Coaches are overrated”

The following is from a recent 3Four3 podcast with guest Mike Woitalla of Soccer America.

Here Mike discusses an observation from working with kids in a Soccer Without Borders program, which helps children of immigrants to the U.S. participate in soccer (from about the 30th minute).

What I really enjoy about these Soccer Without Borders kids is that their skill level is incredible. They’re from all over the world. A lot of them are from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, a lot of them came from Central American countries.

And very few of them were ever coached and their skill level was just absolutely incredible, simply from playing, which kind of confirmed what my belief has always been, that coaches are overrated when it comes to the technical part of soccer. Brilliant soccer comes from kids playing and exploring on their own terms.

I agree.

This is Tom Byer’s point of what culture, and only culture, can do.

But, what we consider to be incredible technical skill is as normal for folks from soccer cultures as throwing and catching baseballs and shooting hoops is to us.

I made this point to a fellow coach and friend. He played HS basketball.

We were coaching a group of soccer players who did nothing with the ball on their own outside of practice, making progress on basics, like receiving the ball, very slow.

I said to him, “Basketball coaches have it much easier.”

He asked, “How so?”

I responded, “Did your basketball coach have to take up so much time in practice working on basics like this?”

He thought about it for a bit.

“No. I learned on the driveway with my brothers. I had the basics before I joined the team. The coach just ran our asses off to get us in game shape and taught us X’s and O’s. If we didn’t know how to play, we wouldn’t have made the team. He wasn’t there to develop our individual skills. That was on us.”

I could see the veil lift and he asked, “What are we doing?”

After that, he texted me photos of kids he saw playing soccer on their own near where he worked, in a part of town that brought soccer culture from other countries.

He saw several groups of kids playing daily and it was a constant reminder of why our players struggled to complete more than a handful of passes in a game.

Winning matters

This tweet from Gary Kleiban got me thinking about winning…

While most people in the thread after that focus on the importance of winning and how to balance player development with that, I was more interested in this part (emphasis added):

…if one wants to develop competitors (in game and in life).

Is a winning drive developed or innate?

I think it’s mostly innate.

Coaches build teams with a competitive drive primarily by selecting players that already have that drive already and then using that to their advantage.

This is the same in education with efforts to measure and reward teacher quality. Teachers that do best on these measures tend to fall into two categories:

  1. Those who game the system to get the students best-suited to help the teacher achieve the quality measure in their classrooms.
  2. Those who happen to get a classroom full of the best suited set of kids for the quality measure randomly.

Like #1, winning coaches become good at recruiting players with a competitive drive and desire to win. These players also tend to put in the most effort off the field to get better.

Not to say that good coaches won’t help these kids get even better. But, probably not as much of it has to do with the coach as we all think.

A-students tend to be A-students no matter who their teachers are. Same goes with B, C, D and F students.

I encourage coaches who think they can develop the winning mindset to take over their club’s lower level teams.

I generally see coaches who try to keep their reputation up, keep a safe distance from these teams. Or, if they do need to take over those teams they will bring seed the team with a few of their higher level players to help the results.

That being said, I think coaches can help players learn how to process wins and losses, while having winning as the objective.

More to come on that.