Thoughts from a U11 soccer coach
How over use of competition in practice ruins (youth) teams and what to do about it
Competition is built in to almost every part of the soccer experience. This often runs counter to our goals as coaches, but we do it anyway.
A coach’s job vs competition in practice
If you are coaching soccer for kids 12 and under, outside of an academy, then you have three jobs: Build a team (ie. teach kids what it means to make a team work), develop soccer skills (so that players improve and enjoy the game more), develop a life long love of sport and movement. Winning is not on the list.
The use of competition in youth soccer practices is way over indexed. Probably this is because of a lack of clarity of the role of the coach at the grass roots level, and because we mostly teach what we know (who’s teaching the parent coaches?).
Search for soccer drills and you will see that almost every soccer drill is about creating a competition. Sometimes the winner is a player and sometimes part of your team. Often this is beacuse the drill is incredibly boring, but helpful, and competition is the (weak) way to drive engagement. Sometimes this is great, but it often works against the jobs of a coach (also just pick more engaging drills).
Kids are already competitive
Kids know that soccer is about scoring goals. Even in friendly games in leagues that say they are not about winning kids count every single goal, win, and loss. They are shockingly aware of who passes and who doesn’t (especially when the ball isn’t being passed to them). They can rank the best dribbler to the worst. The only thing they are likely to be wrong about is their own personal abilities. They are learning to win and lose, and so generally pretty bad at both. Many are easily disengaged, and often across 12 kids they have very different wants (need to win, need positive enforcement, oblivious, etc).
Use competition thoughtfully (not as a default) to develop individual skills or to unify the team. Do not use it to give more attention to your already great players, or accidentally reduce time on the ball/pitch for your weaker players (who need more time on the ball/pitch).
How competition often works against coaching goals and how to change it
Example — Dribbling Games
A classic practice session is some version of: kids dribbling until there is just one left. Maybe they are kicking away each other’s balls, maybe they have to perform a skill, but somehow it is a competition and we end with just one.
Dribbling is the most important skill (maybe not universally agreed on, but most internet searchs will agree that at least the first touch is the most important or the top of a list of 7 key skills). To get better at dribbling kids (anyone) needs to… dribble. Lots and lots of touches, that’s how you get better.
If we set up a game where the best dribbler is left standing at the end, then we’ve set up a game where by design the person who is strongest at the skill gets the most time to pratice it. Those who are weakest and need the most time will have the fewest touches (by design).In most of these situations your team could tell you with a high degree of accuracy who was going to win before the drill even started. If your job as a coach is to develop your players you have failed.
Competition has broken the session.
How to fix the problem
In this example there are a ton of ways to fix the problem. The similest one is to have kids continue to play even when they “fail” or “lose” ie. If their ball is kicked away, they get another one and just keep playing. Do not have them all start chasing the one kid who still has a ball. A bunch of kids running around chasing the ball to try to take it away from one person is exactly what you do not want to develop.
Example — Passing Drills
Another classic example is to place the kids in pairs and have them pass for points. Who can be the first to do five passes on the ground?! Who can pass 10 times from this distance? Etc.
Points can work well to movitate kids in what can be a boring drill. Where I see coaches break this is by adding consequences to the points. Ie. Whoever loses has to do push ups, run a lap. First off, kids are terrible at keeping track of things and overrate their skills so who knows if the winner even actually won. More importantly you are reinforcing with the kids who need the most help that they suck.
So if the drill is boring and you need points to make it “matter” to the kids, get them to yell out their points, get excited when they do the right thing (not score a point), or make it about “how many points can the team get?!”, encourage them to work together or mix up pairs to drive up points, and as soon as the drill is over move on.
The objective was to get them to be engaged who cares who won? Oh, the kids do. Kids take winning and losing seriously. Since the losers are probably already the least engaged pointing out they lost (they already know) does… what? (other than further deflate them). The winners are probably always engaged and know they won, so telling them they won a drill accomplishes…. what?
Think carefully about when to use competition, and when not to.
When you are using competition consider how you use it and why. Like cones and bibs it should be used as appropriate to accomplish something specific within a drill, not as a default necessity of practice. So think about when to have and when not to have winners and losers.
Remember your first goal is to build a team, your second is to develop soccer (dribbling) skills, your third is to develop a life long love of sport. To do this you need a unified vision, team comradery, resilliance, and a lot o time for each person to have their feet on a ball.
Make sure your practice plans achieves these goals, and that competition is helping, not hurting.
I would love to hear what you think about competition in practice, am I wrong? Do you do this or something similar? Let me know your thoughts.
If you found this interesting I have a longer piece that covers how to do the our jobs of a youth soccer coach, or you might also like this article about how to use rotations to develop players and make your life easier.
Keep coaching and thank you for reading.