Thoughts from a U11 soccer coach
7 Tips for Great Soccer Practice
7 Tips For Practices That Meet Your Coaching Goals
Dribbling is the most important soccer skill. Your main job especially in the younger years (and one I sometimes missed) is to get your players comfortable on the ball. Controlling the ball with your feet is almost the entire game of soccer. This skill leads to significantly improved confidence and play. Insert dribbling drills regularly, and make sure other drills create as much time as possible for every player to have a ball on their foot.
If you design or choose a drill that has only one player touching the ball ask yourself how you can modify it to get as many other players on the ball as possible, ie. maybe you split into multiple groups.
#2 Competition in practice
Before automatically making a drill or game into a competition think about why and how you are using competition in practice. How does making it a competition drive your goals as a coach?
Almost every soccer drill is about creating a competition with one winner, sometimes a player and sometimes a team. Sometimes this is great. Competitions in practice can be really exciting and elevate a drill. Players do need to learn resilience and losing in practice (while gutting for many six though ten year olds) is a slightly better place to learn than at a game.
But often competition works against the goal of developing teamwork and soccer skills. You need to read the room and modify accordingly. Will the same kid win again? Will the weaker kids just be demotivated? Why are we introducing competition?
You can often better achieve your goals (build team, develop soccer skills -aka dribbling- and love of sport) by minimizing and choosing selectively how and when to use competition in practice. One easy way to minimize competition is to set it up, but then do a bad job of keeping score. Ie. Which pair can get the most passes in one minute? Then they all yell out their random numbers, and you lose track and move on instead of celebrating a winner or focusing on the outcome. The real outcome is practicing the skill.
#3 Unfair sessions
Make sessions unfair and tell your players that is what your are doing.
Soccer is a game of uneven sides, bad/missed calls from refs, and more. Make that clear and have practice reflect that truth.
Do this with uneven sides, defenders to run to a cone before defending, five passes until scoring, be a bad ref when running scrimmages, and anything else you can think of that creates an unfair advantage or obstacle.
Be open with your team about this and it will be fun while it builds their resilience. Some of our most fun sessions are our unfair sessions.
#4 One or Two Ideas Per Practice or Game
Kids will only be able to take in one idea per practice (older kids might take in up to two ideas) and they will be confused if ideas are similar.
If you have multiple ideas keep them different, but complimentary. Maybe one idea is about teamwork and one is about a skill; or one idea is about attacking and one about defence; but be careful about having two important things about dribbling.
As kids get older you can layer in complexity, but at all ages a few simple ideas is always better than a bunch of complex ones.
#5 Practice Planning
As you will read everywhere make sure to:
- Plan your practices to reduce the amount of time you need to move cones around.
- Do not have running laps or “fitness” built into practice. Instead have games that make them run until they can’t anymore. They need fitness, but make it engaging, not a punishment (remember we want them to move for life).
- Design drills to have as many kids with a ball on their feet as possible.
A packed practice has three parts:
- Warm up
ie. rondo/dribbling in an area
- Lesson Game/Drill
Either relates to what you need to do in games or is specifically focused on skill development (ie. an obstacle course)
- Game or scrimmage that enforces lesson game
Maybe this is a scrimmage, maybe something else. Coach or structure it to re-enforce the skill. Ie. Working on passing play a pass to score game.
- Unstructured scrimmage
Okay they love to just play so sometimes you have a fourth part that is a scrimmage because parts 2 and 3 were fast or they just need it. In our best scrimmages the coaches play and coach. At a minimum we referee and start/stop the game to make specific coaching points related to the session. Scrimmage with more than three a side is basically a waste, unless the coaches are also playing, controlling, and coaching.
#6 The power of Rondo and building routines
We start every practice with a rondo then do a quick physical and mental movement warm up (staying in a line as they jog, open the gate/close the gate kind of a thing). Starting the same way every practice has really helped to build team unity, help them to pay attention, and minimizes risk of injury.
We should have started playing rondo at the start of practice years ago. Thank goodness our assistant coach Jan suggested this this year. All kids want to do is practice shooting penalties at a goalie, which is one of the most useless skills (especially in youth soccer as there are not even direct kicks until they are 10 or so). Standing around kicking the ball at the net is also dangerous because kids don’t pay attention to anything, kick balls at each other by accident, run in front/behind the net, and more. It’s dumb, but they love it.
Having rondo at the start of practice gives us a way to get them warm and organized. The younger they are the more coaching involvement you will need. As a bonus it also highlights first touch (a super important skill). To develop skill through lots of touches use small groups (4 outside, one in the middle)), if you want to focus on bringing the team together as a group use the whole team (with two in the middle). It is great to play as a coach too.
When the kids are too excite or wacky for rondo we mix it up by making a circle having the player with the ball dribble to the middle pass to another player and follow the ball. This can help focus and calm them, and keep passes on the ground.
Movement warm up
Kids are not just small adults. The younger ones do not have to warm up to play safely. They just go, go, go.
We use our “fitness” warm up to get our 10 year olds warm, but just as importantly we use it to get them to move as a team and be aware of the humans around them. The key here is to make them move together ie. in a line. This gets them looking up and around, and develops skills they need to be aware on the field of play.
For little kids a simple way to start would be to get them to dribble to a line/cone stop with their foot on the ball until all players are all there, then dribble back as a team. Simple. Over time you can build from that.
For older kids this minimizes injury during practice by being warm. For all kids it minimizes injury by stopping them from randomly kicking balls at each other’s heads by accident.
#7 Small sided games are the most helpful learning tools
It’s called playing soccer, not doing soccer, or working soccer.
Kids learn the most from playing, so set up small sided games. This is way better than large scrimmages. These can be 1 v1 up to 5 v5. If you also mix in uneven teams and other advantages/disadvantages kids will learn skills, how to solve soccer problems, and honestly just have a lot of fun.
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. I mostly write about leadership. A popular article is this one about Getting Comfortable with Conflict.