Thoughts from a U11 soccer coach
4 Steps to Grow a Group (of Kids) Into aTeam
For U6-U11 Soccer coaching these 4 steps apply equally across multiple age groups and sports.
This article is an excerpt from a more comprehensive piece covering the core jobs of a coach (this article), tips for practices , and managing games.
A Coach’s Core Job Is To Build Individuals Into A Team
If you are coaching kids the reality is that close to none of your players are going to play professional soccer, but all of them will work in groups, play on other teams, and be members of our society.
Because of this the most important skill you can develop in your players is how to successfully be a part of a team.
Being skilled in making a team work is key to winning, to doing better at work, and just being a better person to be around. This life long skill will also make for a better soccer season.
You build your team by:
- Defining your team identity (who are we?)
- Grow individuals into a group (how do we behave?)
- Praise constantly (it feels good to be here)
- Be thoughtful and specific when requesting a change in behaviour (we understand what is asked of us)
Define your team identity (who are we?)
Ask your team: What does it mean to be a on a team? Who are we? What does it mean to be a Boomer, an Avenger, a (insert your team name here). You can do this even with little kids.
Let the conversation be fun, while you guide it. Especially for kids, do not let them define the team as winners because then a loss breaks the definition of the team. Instead, guide them to choose identities that will help your practices and team. Things like: we have fun, we help each other, we listen, we work hard, we never give up, we pass, we practice dribbling. Choose one or two to focus on.
Remember to be specific. Ten year olds (especially boys) do not know what it means to listen. So once you define a focus be clear about what the behaviours (the things you can see and hear) are. For example, listening means: looking at the person speaking, not playing with their balls (giggles), we are not moving, we are quiet when someone else is speaking, etc.
Check in on your team’s definition periodically and us it to bring to centre them when you need to.
Grow individuals into a team (how do we behave?)
Connect your team through routine, team cheers, trust games, and things that are not soccer.
Start practice and games the same way every time. The kids gain comfort in understanding what to expect, and it gives you a way to teach them to self organize/hold each other accountable. Be patient, even in 10 year olds learning to self-organize can take most of a season.
Younger kids do not really need a warm up, but having a unified team movement activity (ie. dribbling/jogging together to a line and back) forces the kids to pay attention to each other and you (which is an important skill to develop). When first introduced it is painful, because they just want to shoot penalty shots (useless practice).
Depending on their age, what we need to teach, and their general ability to pay attention that day, we will stop and re-do the warm up until they are doing it in unison. This takes way more time than anyone wants, but eventually they learn to work together.
Note that for little kids you will want the simplest versions of a warm up possible (dribbling to a line and back).
Team cheers and celebration
Before the game, at the start of the half, at the end of the game, and at the end of practice we come together as a team and have our team cheer. Everyone’s hands in the middle and then 1–2–3 Boom! or Avengers Assemble! or 1–2–3 Pirates! It’s whatever you like. Let the team help decide. For friendly matches one year we often cheered 1–2–3 FISH! I have no idea where Fish came from, but they loved it.
After any goal (for or against) we ask the players to come together, give each other five to celebrate or shake it off. We practice this in training sessions (in a circle clapping and giving high fives), and along with a lot of other instruction it semi-translates. In training we focus on coming together when the goal is against us, as that is the most important time to bring the team together. This is often referred to as the Brazilian Celebration and (along with most everything else here) we straight stole this idea (if i remembered who from I would attribute). It has been one of the most helpful things we’ve done.
Play trust games
Kids seem to join teams in packs with a few loners sprinkled in. You are likely to have three who go to school together, two who have played together, three from the neighbourhood, one who hasn’t met anyone, and so on. You have to bring them together, and since they are kids, and kids only think of themselves, this can be hard.
Play some trust games at the start of your early practices. One that is always fun (and often a total mess) is the Human Knot. There are hundreds of trust games so find the ones that work for you and your age group.
Do things that are not soccer
When there is not a pandemic we bring the kids together off the field a few times a year (going for pizza, watching a soccer game, that sort of thing). It is a small effort that really pays off and reminds us of the importance of connection, people, and our team (also often there is a parent or manager who can organize this).
Praise your (whole) team constantly (it feels good to be here)
What you praise, tells your team which behaviours are important; that you praise often, reminds the team that they are important.
You generally do not have to praise for goal scoring (there are exceptions). Kids will praise themselves and each other all season about goals. Instead focus praise on behaviours around team identity (listening, resilience, helping), on the specific current coaching points (moving into space, protecting the ball while dribbling, passing) and a specific thing you know that individual is working on, or should be, (Amazing pass! I loved your confidence on that play! Good work staying strong on the ball!).
The more specific you can be the better. Praise the group as a group. Give individual praise to individuals mostly outside of the group.
Praise individuals in front of the group selectively because a) you’ve probably missed someone else also doing the praised behaviour, and kids will call you out/be hurt for being missed; b)kids do not pay attention to each other so probably no one else (except the kid you missed) saw the behaviour and have no reference so they cannot replicate it; c) your main job is to build the team as a unit group praise helps do that, individual praise might not (it depends).
A way to keep it simple is that during a game/drill individual praise/coaching works. When you have pulled the team together praise/coach the group.
Be thoughtful and specific about your request when you need a behaviour from a player (we understand what is asked of us)
There are entire books on feedback and generally the SBI (specific behaviour impact) model combined with situational leadership work best. If all of that is new to you just remember that a coach’s words matter.
If you need a player to start listening in practice pull them aside and tell them. Be on their level (literally crouch if you need to), be gentle, firm, clear, and specific, do not be loud, or frustrated, or angry. An adult doing this is a huge thing for a kid. Use this sparingly.
Pulling a kid aside to give them specific positive feedback because they are doing something helpful or well (especially something they don’t know they are doing), or to encourage them to do more of something, or to tell them that you believe in them, also has a huge impact. This you can, and should do frequently.
When you want a behaviour change think about if you should do that for the group, or the individual. Next consider carefully if you need to tell someone to stop doing something, or if you need to praise the good thing they are doing instead.
Remember your words carry weight -even if if it feels like no one is listening.
At the end of the day remember that winning is fun, but a successful year develops kids into a team, grows their skills, and teaches them so much more than ways to beat U-whatever soccer teams.
Coaching is not easy. It takes time out of life, it takes learning, it seems to happen in the cold and the rain more often than we want, but coaching is also a privilege. We have this unique opportunity to have a different kind of relationship with a group of kids and that is a special thing. Hopefully these four focuses will help you, and your team, to get the most out of that opportunity.
I would love to hear what you think about these ideas. Where am I wrong? Do you do this or something similar? Let me know your thoughts.
If you found this interesting you might also like this article about how to use rotations to develop players or maybe this one about how to better use competition in practices.
Keep coaching and thank you for reading.
If you have a comment, feedback, or idea add it below, shoot me an email, or send me a tweet. I mostly write about leadership. A popular article is this one about Getting Comfortable with Conflict.