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. “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 to get players started on the right foot.

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

Or, it was all over the board. I discovered, strangely, that 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, met Albert Einstein’s definition of genius — they made the complex 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.

Kids cannot learn the skills needed to succeed at practice alone. And, they aren’t likely to do soccer drills at home. So, igniting a love for the ball that gets kids playing with the ball on their own can do wonders.

Build the basics 

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

I wish I would have discoveredTom 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 episodes are required listening for new coaches — with and without a soccer background.

I love the simple phrases he uses to coach the basics. For example, instead of “receive across your body” like many coaches say, he 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 (how to build from back, break, get the ball to midfield and attacking patterns), but the whole thing is too much for beginning coaches with a young team.

The one activity you can and should get kids started on day one, and repeat every time, is 3Four3’s version of the 4v1 monkey-in-the-middle game (or start with 4v0 until kids can pass). They call it a 4v1 rondo (‘rondo’ means little game).

This activity can go 10 coaching points deep builds the the basis for keeping the ball, communicating with teammates, moving off the ball to create passing opportunities and defending.

Here’s another post that goes into more detail on the activity, coaching points and links to a short podcast that demonstrates how to coach it.

This is also a fun activity that kids enjoy.

Less is more

Another thing the folks above taught me is that less is more. You don’t need a new activity every practice.That wastes time and energy to set up and for the kids to learn.

You only need a handful of activities with a few variations that allow you to go deeper and progress as kids get the hang of it.

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.

What I wish I would have done more from the start

I wish I would have started with 4v0 progressing to 4v1 instead of partner passing.

I wish I would have done more dribbling around a small area where they have to look around to avoid colliding with each other, make lots of changes of direction and worked on specific surfaces and movements in this drill (inside, outside, cut, pullback, shoulder fake).

I wish I would have done more 1v1’s and 2v2’s. A trick I learned from a local club is to have a mini 1v1 tournament, where winners move one direction down the line to face more winners and the losers move another direction down the line to face other losers. Games are short, maybe 2-3 minutes. This gets them appropriate level of competition quickly, while also giving them some feedback on where they stand in the team.

I wish I would spent more time inspiring a love for the ball and teaching kids how to have fun with the ball at home and more subtly teaching them how to play pickup. That last one is tricky. You have to let the kids figure out the rules, and when you correct them, you have to let them know why, so they might think to repeat that adjustment when they are playing on their own.

One example: In practice, the stronger kids always wanted to team up so they could dominate the others. That might work in the practice where the other kids are captive. But, in the yard, the other kids will simply not play. So, if the stronger kids want to encourage the others to play, they have to learn to make the balancing adjustments to keep everyone interested.

I wish I would have instilled the value that practice is where you come to learn to play as a team and that learning basics like trapping, dribbling, passing and shooting is their responsibility and if they don’t fulfill their responsibility, there will come a time that they will not make the cut.

I wish I would have instilled from day one that the point is to keep the ball with the team and turnovers aren’t good. I see way too many older soccer players that still don’t seem to grasp that idea.

A good session

A good session for young kids is 10 minutes of progressives dribbling using the area activity I mention above.

Another 10-15 minutes of 4v0 or 4v1 rondos.

10 minutes of 1v1s or 2v2s

20 minutes of team scrimmage, reinforcing game principles and referring back to coaching points in the previous activities

“No Kicking”: my informal title to Tom Byer’s “Soccer Starts at Home”

Keeping with Tom Byer’s advice, I gave small soccer balls to family members with small children for Christmas with the following instructions:

  • These are for inside use, so you can work with the ball year round no matter what the weather is like outside.
  • No Kicking.

When I said, “No Kicking,” the response from adults and kids was the same, “What? Isn’t that was soccer is?”

Then, as Tom recommends, I showed the kids what that meant. I showed them pullbacks, turns, moving the ball in all directions and playing nutmeg 1v1 to learn how to protect the ball.

The kids started trying to do that stuff.

Time will tell if they keep it up.

I thought I’d report on the response I got from saying “No Kicking.” It got their attention and made them think.

Attn: Soccer clubs/leagues — Simple alternative to participation trophy

I found this on Twitter recently and really like the idea. This is something ALL soccer clubs can start copying NOW!

In 2014, I wrote some thoughts about participation trophies. I still agree with that.

I would add a few things, now.

Participation trophies were meant to build self-esteem and keep kids playing sports whether they won or lost.

The intentions are good.

But, the best way to build self-esteem is to encourage players to build competency and mastery in the skills needed to play.

The best way to keep kids playing, whether they win or lose, is to teach them how to deal with wins and losses, while maintaining a competitive spirit, and use the feedback to improve.

Participation trophies have the unintended consequences of rewarding bare minimum effort and ignore the feedback provided by winning and losing.

When the time comes that winning and losing matters, they will be far behind and won’t know how to to deal well with winning or losing.

Here are a few more thoughts on what to do when giving out the Size 2 balls:

Give the balls out on the first day, not the last.

Set expectations with parents.

  • Tell parents how much time and effort it takes for the kids to gain skills. Consistency over the whole year is important. Be thinking in terms of months and years, not days.
  • Convince them to let their children play with the ball in the house.
  • Show them what their children can work on that’s fun, builds good skills and won’t break things — basic dribbling movements like Tom Byer suggests, 1v1 take-away, etc.
  • Sell them more balls. The more the better. Tennis balls are good, too.

A girl, her ball and a wall

From Be Like Ronaldinho by Lieke Martens (current Best FIFA Women’s Player):

My first memory in life is of my mum taking me to see my older brothers play. I couldn’t wait to run out onto the pitch myself, but I had to wait until I was 4 years old. So I’d take a small ball with me to play on my own. That’s how people in the village came to recognize me: the little girl who was always running around kicking the ball.

And when I say always, I mean always. When we got home from school at three o’clock, and my friends would go play with their Barbies, I’d play football with my brothers and their friends. They were all older than me, but they always let me join in. We just practiced and had fun. Even when I had nobody to play with, I still had my beloved ball — and a special companion.

A wall.

Good advice. HT: Tom Byer.

Kicking and Screaming

“Get the ball to the Italians!”

The writers of the 2005 soccer movie Kicking and Screaming, starring Will Farrell and Mike Ditka, understood what Tom Byer says in his book Soccer Starts at Home.

To improve the last place team, the coaches (Farrell and Ditka) recruit the nephews of the guy who owns the Italian deli.

When they walk into the deli, their kids are in the back room juggling the ball, which is a perfect example of Soccer Starts at Home.

The Italian kids carry the team to the championship game. The team’s strategy was, “Get the ball to the Italians.”

In my early days of learning soccer as adult, I was on a last place adult league team.

One season two French guys joined our team and carried us to within a goal of being champions.

Much like the movie, our strategy was, “Get the ball to the French guys!”

After one of the games, we were chatting. We asked, “How’d you get so good?”

Their answer, “We’re not. We’re average in France. That’s how bad you guys are — even the ones you think are good here! But, we grew up playing football with our pals all the time. We’d make you look like NBA All-Stars if we played basketball with you, because we didn’t play that.”

Why wait for a program? Get started NOW

On Twitter, Tom Byer recently posted a message thanking all the people for the direct messages he has received about starting programs with their local soccer associations.

What program do you need?

Read his book.

If you are a parent of a young one, he says get some small balls in the house. Show your kids how to move the ball in every direction while keeping it close. Play some ‘take the ball’ 1v1 with them, so they learn how to shield it with their body. Discourage just kicking it. Discourage using hands. Keep the ball at their feet and move with it.

Just do that.

If you run a Bitty soccer program, stop doing shooting and passing stations. Start doing the above and teach parents to do it at home.

I’ll add, if your child is older than 6 or 8, it’s not too late! I’ve seen kids of all ages improve once they start practicing with the ball consistently. I’ve improved, myself, at a much more advanced age.

What to expect

Be patient. In my experience, it takes 3-5 years of consistent effort to become decent, no matter what age you are when you start.

That fits Tom’s experience with his own kids and fits with the acquisition time of similar motor skills needed in other sports.

You will see some noticeable improvements in as little as a few weeks and improvements along the way, but don’t lose sight of the 3-5 year time frame.

It’s too easy to get complacent after making some progress and let months or a year go by without touching the ball.

It’s also easy to get frustrated during long plateau periods where you are touching the ball, but the progress isn’t noticeable like during your ‘quickening’ periods. Keep at it.

After the first 3-6 months of improvement, progress gets choppier, but still happens.

What Tom describes above is a soccer equivalent to playing catch with baseballs and footballs or playing OUT and 1-on-1 in driveway basketball.

These basic and fun activities help people of all ages learn basic motor and coordination skills they need to compete in all these sports.

Players in these sports who don’t do these activities outside of team practice will not be playing these sports much past 10 years old, just as Tom says that many kids quit soccer when they realize they don’t have the technical competence to compete.

What is technical competence?

I’d like to put some concrete on that. I’ve seen Twitter posts attacking Tom along the lines of…”How do you measure technical competence??”

If it were baseball, I doubt many people would expect a 10-year-old who can’t catch a ball to make it onto a competitive team. That player’s technical deficiency is obvious to everyone. We all know the cure. Go play catch!

Yet, I’ve seen competitive DIVISIONS of soccer filled with players who can’t trap the ball and few seem to notice.

That’s the cultural problem Tom highlights.

We know baseball well enough to know that catching is a basic skill needed by all players.

We don’t know soccer well enough to know that trapping the ball is a basic skill needed by all players. People who don’t know soccer don’t know what a good trap looks like.

“Soccer Starts at Home” III

I agree with what Tom Byer says about getting kids started early and in the home to develop their technical soccer skills.

But…

It’s good to keep in mind that doing this won’t turn everyone into World Cup/Premier League players, just like playing catch doesn’t turn all kids into pro baseball players.

But, it will result in a larger pool of players that can make it that level and more and better competition among those players, just like playing catch does for baseball.

Also, I hope Tom’s simple advice won’t be warped into activities for those younger than 5 years old like ‘2- a-week technical training camps led by UEFA licensed coaches’ and ‘elite competitive leagues’.

It doesn’t take a former Yankees coach to play catch with a four year old nor does it take a former Manchester United player to teach a 3 year-old how to pull the ball back. I’ve seen this taught by 5 year-old’s.