This is a comprehensive peice (16 minutes). If you like shorter chunks you can check out the three main parts (4 steps to building a team, 7 tips for practices, and managing games) as it’s own article.
There are more experienced coaches in the world than me, but after a few years of reading, listening, and coaching I ‘ve put together some thoughts that I wished I had known sooner. These have helped me, and I hope will help other coaches. Outside of soccer, my professional experience is primarily in people and team leadership so some of that has found it way here too. I am still learning and if you have ideas (or disagreements) I would love to hear them.
Coaches should take the Canada Soccer training courses and search soccer drills online (none are included here since there are a million online). Neither resource will give you these tips to make you a better coach and make your coaching life easier, but both are helpful. Some of these ideas are my own, but most are straight stolen, or have seeped in through osmosis.
I hope they will help you.
The first and most important tip is to remember that your job as a youth soccer coach is not about coaching wins (even though they are nice to have).
The job of a youth soccer coach is to:
- Teach kids to be a part of a team
Showing up, being on time, helping, paying attention, competing, resilience, asking for help, working hard, including others, supporting, listening, engaging in community, and so much more.
- Developing core soccer skills
So they will love the sport more, progress, and yes (🤞) win a bit.
- Developing a life long love of sport and movement in kids/players
So that they have a happier full life.
The four parts of coaching
- Develop your team’s sense of team
- Develop dribbling skills
- Have practices that meet your coaching goals
- Manage Games
#1: Develop your team
Probably 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.
If you do this right they will have it for the rest of their lives. 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. It will also make for a better soccer season.
You build your team by:
a. Defining your team identity (Who are we?)
b. Grow individuals into a group (How do we behave?)
c. Praise constantly (It feels good to be here)
d. Be thoughtful and specific when redirecting behaviour (We understand what is asked of us)
A) 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 to 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 listening means: looking at the person speaking, not playing with the balls (a joke they love), 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.
B) 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 we often cheer 1–2–3 FISH! I have no idea where Fish came from, but they love 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 practicing 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
Outside of pandemics we bring the team 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).
C) 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 them 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 that support:
- Team identity ie. listening, resilience, helping;
- Specific current coaching points ie. moving into space, protecting the ball while dribbling, quality passing
- and/or a specific skill that individual is or should be working on ie. Amazing pass! I loved your confidence on that play! Good work staying strong on the ball!
The more specific you can be the better.
How to Praise
Praise the group as a group. Praise individuals individually (mostly).
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.
D) Be thoughtful and specific when redirecting 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 probably more than you know.
If you need a player to start listening in practice pull them aside and tell them. Be on their level, 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, so avoid it.
Pulling a kid aside to give them specific positive feedback has an even bigger impac. Do this 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. These 10 second interactions go a long long way.
When you want/need 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, start 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.
#2: Develop Dribbling Skills (comfort on the ball)
Dribbling is such a key skill that it gets its own section.
All other soccer skills flow from the ability to use your feet to get the ball to do what you want it to, so this is the most important skill. This is how players get, or keep space, it is how they pass, finish, shoot. It is the core of soccer.
There are a million dribbling games/drills. Especially at younger levels, your practice should basically just be versions of dribbling games and small sided soccer (1 v 1 up to 5 v 5).
Across all your drills/games (not just the dribbling ones) ask: how can I increase the number of players who have a ball, how can I increase touches? Maybe use smaller groups, maybe ad a ball to a drill that doesn’t have balls, whatever it is there is almost always a way to increase touches.
In younger kids you only just barely need to teach them to pass, and shoot¹. They will want to kick the ball. They will take shots before and after practice, they will shoot in the game, but few of them will make time to dribble with focus so make time for them, and keep it fun.
#3: Have Practices that Meet your Coaching Goals
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.
I believe this so deeply I’ve written whole other article about it.
#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.
1. Coach what they already know
Nothing new should be coached in a game.
If you see a new opportunity a) note it for practice, and b) try to use what you have already taught/are focusing on to correct it.
There might be simple things you can correct on the fly. ie. The opposition is kicking the ball over your heads so have midfield back up when the other team has the ball. But don’t try to fix everything in the game. Stick to the coaching points they have already heard from you.
2. One to three ideas per game maximum (just like practice)
Coach just two (ish) things during the game. Direct players on field as you can, but especially take time to coach the players who are off. Show them what you see, tell them what they need to do on their shift, and keep them aligned to the key coaching points.
3. Rotate positions every three games and track/balance playing time
Managing player positions, lines, and shift time can be a headache, but if managed properly it becomes super simple and a core tool in driving player development.
Kids should not specialize in positions. They think they will and some coaches will tell them they are a winger, Stricker, whatever. Don’t. Most kids will develop best by playing all positions (including goalie) and every time you have the same kid in the same position another player is not learning that role.
Kids really benefit from knowing what to expect. Setting them up to play the same position for three games helps them to be comfortable and to dramatically grow their understanding of roles. This system also helps to balance playing time in a way that makes sense to your players while developing them.
Having this set up also lets you play positions, not players. It is really tempting to put that kid who can do that thing in to win a game, but that means that the other kid didn’t learn anything, and your team just learns to rely on that kid instead of learning how to play. When your midfield needs a break or is breaking down play the next scheduled player, not your star.
I’ve written a detailed article about the benefits of this and how to execute it.
4. Focus on skills and building from the back, not winning
Don’t try (too hard) to win. ie. Don’t play the long ball over the opposition’s heads and run after it game.
Winning is helpful for engagement so win some games for sure, but younger players need some losses to develop resilience.
Games are how kids get better. They are not how they get fame, paid, or become stars. If you focus on getting your team to win you are likely to under develop their skills.
5. Play a slower game, do not try to use speed to your advantage
Kids do not know what is going on around them. Encouraging speed just confuses them. If you transition quickly maybe two of them know what is going on and the rest are out of position and not ready.
Calm it down, help them to focus on skills.
6. Have defence take all throw ins
This pulls them up the field and into forward play. The modern game requires keepers to be good with their feet and backs to give a scoring advantage.
It was said earlier, but let’s say it again: Praise the kids on your team.
Praise passes, assists, stops, positional play, good ideas, attitude, effort, saves, runs, and listening. Goals only need a tiny amount of praise because everyone on the field already wants to score, and everyone will be proud of a goal.
Praise individual players and the team all game to renforce behaviours and boost confidence.
If you remember only one thing, this is the one.
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 in a comment or shoot me an email, or send me a tweet.
¹Finishing is (arguably) a more important skill than shooting. So when you do shooting drills (which are fun and you’ll do them because you can’t just teach them to dribble) think about how to include finishing. This is a great skill to have and very different than blasting a penalty shot.
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.