Allocating playing time

be fairThis is a subject many youth football coaches often struggle with. The head coach is either a win-at-all-costs coach who cares little about getting all the kids in the game or he’s a guy that lets the soccer mom Nazi parents pressure him into playing all the kids the same amount.

I don’t think either approach is right. This is youth football, if a player comes to practice, pays attention and does his best, he should get some playing time in every game regardless of what the score is. However playing all the kids the same amount, makes no sense to me either. If Tommy comes to all the practices, pays attention to the coaches and tries his best, and Joey misses practice, is inattentive and rarely tries very hard, the two should not play the same amount of time. What message do you send to Tommy?: That excelling is not rewarded. What message does Joey get?: That slacking off has zero consequences. In this example, neither player is being done any favours, they are both being set up to fail in life, thanks to the soccer mom Nazis.

I’ve coached in youth football leagues that had minimum play rules and those that didn’t. The minimum play rule is set to require coaches to play kids a certain amount in every game. As a youth football coach I have always had a minimum play standard, whether there was a rule or not. I’m a firm believer in getting kids into the game regardless of their ability. Now we are going to play to win, as I have both an offence and defence that can accommodate the minimum play player and not significantly impact the scheme in a negative way. But the weaker kids are going to get in and I strategically sub from the opening gun.

The way we address this with the parents and players is through a mandatory parents meeting the first day of practice. We let the parents know that each player will play X plays per week if they attend practice, listen to the coaches and hustle in football practice. But we also stress that just like in life, we will reward those that are paying better attention, playing harder and excelling, by playing them more than those that do not. We also stress previous years statistics that show we play our kids more than any other youth football team in our league and that we spread the scoring around quite a bit as well. We also stress the playing time will vary based on the game, and the players effort for the week and some weeks they will play more than others. But everyone knows they will always get the minimum standard we set, regardless of the score and that our best players will start.

I let the parents know this policy is not negotiable and if they feel uncomfortable with it that there is nothing wrong with that, but maybe we aren’t the right “fit” for their child. I always have pieces of paper in my pocket with the names and phone numbers of competing youth football programs in my pocket. I let the parents know if they are looking for better “fit” options, to come and get the phone numbers of other programs from me before football practice starts.

Coaching youth football well means setting proper expectations with your coaches, parents and players. Don’t be ambiguous, don’t surprise anyone week three of your season with your playing time policy. Let the parents know how it will be day one. That way the parents have no legs to stand on if they decide to stay. It will make your life SO MUCH EASIER getting it out of the way right in this fashion right off the bat. It’s kind of like taking that band-aid off in one quick swipe. It’s always much less painful doing it that way.

They’re all bunched up!

youth soccer - young children

youth soccer - young children

That’s what I hear at every U-8 youth soccer coaching course I teach. My reply is always the same: “That’s OK!”

Then I get the puzzled looks from nearly every coach or coach-to-be.

The kids know what they’re doing, it’s the parents and the new coaches who are confused.

Adults see the bunch of players as unorganized — not as a team. That’s the first problem. Because, at this point, it’s really not a team.

The players at this age don’t understand what being a “team” means. At their age, they are selfish in their game. Me, my ball, my game. Most kids can’t even remember the name of their team or their coach. They won’t even practice with any one else’s ball! How can you expect them to understand or embrace teamwork or fixed positions?

The ball is their magnet, so let them try to get it. In doing so, they’re actually building good instincts that they’ll use in the game when they are older and “team” actually begins to mean something.

For example, many good coaches struggle to “re-teach” 14 to 17 year olds the working concept of zonal defending and zonal pressure defense. Two concepts that they knew instinctively when they were 5. What happened? It was drilled out of them by a youth coach who kept telling them to spread out.

When they’re 5-plus years old, they already have a natural instinct for this kind of defending. They’re already figured out that five of us versus one of them means that we’ll probably get the ball.

To parents, this is a mess on the field. They want the kids to spread out — so that the one player with any skill can have the space to dribble around every one else like cones. Not a very good defense.

A good coach will definitely have to adjust these players’ instincts as they get older, but surprisingly not much. The game itself makes them smarter as they continue to play more and more.

Another reason why “bunching up” is OK for young players: the kid in the center of that bunch is learning early on how to play in tight spaces and not to be afraid of traffic or contact — invaluable skills that will be second-nature to him by the time he’s older and able to play in fixed positions.

So, as hard as it is for parents to believe, young players learn how to solve problems and be creative while bunched up. These skills actually help them with their game when they’re older and that game is more structured.

As a coach, I’ll want on my older team the youth player who consistently came out of the pack with the ball. He might be my striker because he’s not afraid of crowds in the box, or of being marked by two players. He’s been getting through the traffic and scoring in those situations since he was 5. Playing in “the bunch” has made him tough, technical and smart.

My advice to new youth coaches and to parents is to stop worrying about the kids being bunched up. At U-8, just let them play.

You’re role at this point is to teach them some basic ball touches, point them in the right direction and let them go!

Let the game teach them for now. Let them teach themselves. And most of all, let them enjoy the game. Seems simple? It is. But that’s OK, too. That’s the beauty of soccer.

Four Goal Scramble

This fun and simple game will keep your young soccer players alert as they look to score in three other goals while defending their own.


To practise shooting, vision, communication and support play.

Skill level:


Number of players:

The whole squad.

Set up:

Create a 40 yards by 40 yards playing area with a goal on each side (four goals). Divide your squad into four teams.
How to play:

Each team defends one goal and attacks the other three. You have no goalkeepers in this game. Play first to five goals wins the game, or play for a set amount of time.

Coaching points:

Encourage quick, positive play. Emphasise the need for the players to keep their heads up and switch play to unguarded goals.


Play with two balls.

Have five teams. Play the game as described above but, when one team concedes two goals, they are replaced by the fifth team. Play does not stop, so the fifth team has to be observant and prepared to enter the game quickly. This improves transition.

86 ways to say ‘well done!’

  1. Good for you!
  2. That’s really nice
  3. Superb
  4. That’s the best ever
  5. You did that very well
  6. That’s great!
  7. You’ve got it made
  8. Way to go!
  9. Terrific
  10. That’s the way to do it!
  11. That’s not bad!
  12. That’s quite an improvement
  13. Couldn’t have done it better myself
  14. Good thinking
  15. Marvelous
  16. You really are going to town
  17. You’re doing fine
  18. Keep up the good work
  19. You’re really improving
  20. That’s it!
  21. You’re on the right track now!
  22. That’s better
  23. Now you’ve got it figured out
  24. You haven’t missed a thing
  25. Outstanding!
  26. Fantastic!
  27. That’s coming along nicely
  28. You outdid yourself today
  29. I know you can do it
  30. You’re doing a good job
  31. Good work
  32. That’s the right way to do it
  33. You figured that out fast
  34. That’s better
  35. I think you’ve got it now
  36. Right on!
  37. I’m proud of the way you worked today
  38. Well, look at you go!
  39. Tremendous!
  40. That’s the best you’ve ever done!
  41. You certainly did well today
  42. That’s RIGHT!
  43. Perfect!
  44. You must have been practicing!
  45. Nice going
  46. Great!
  47. You’ve got your brain in gear today
  48. Keep working on it…You’re getting better
  49. Now you’ve got the hang of it
  50. You remembered!
  51. WOW!
  52. That kind of work makes me very happy.
  53. Wonderful!
  54. You’re really working hard today
  55. You’re getting better every day
  56. That’s what I call a fine job!
  57. You’re learning fast
  58. I knew you could do it!
  59. You make it look easy
  60. I’m very proud of you
  61. That’s a good boy/girl
  62. One more time an you’ll have it
  63. That’s very much better
  64. Fine!
  65. Super!
  66. That’s good
  67. You did lot of work today
  68. Good job
  69. Keep it up!
  70. You really make this fun
  71. You’ve got that down pat
  72. Good remembering
  73. Congratulations
  74. Nothing can stop you now
  75. Exactly right!
  76. You are doing much better today
  77. Nice going
  78. Keep on trying
  79. Excellent!
  80. You are really learning a lot
  81. Sensational!
  82. You’ve jut about got it!
  83. You’re doing beautifully
  84. I’ve never seen anyone do it better
  85. You’ve just mastered that!
  86. You are very good at that.

25 key messages for young soccer players

  1. Always play fairly, according to the spirit and letter of the rules.
  2. Stay calm under difficult conditions. It’s easy to maintain composure when things go right; when they don’t real athletes step forward and stand up to the test.
  3. Support and encourage your teammates at all times. All of us make mistakes at times and they are not done on purpose. Encourage your teammates to be the best they can be.
  4. Play as hard as you can in practice and in games. Never be beaten because of lack of effort. Even opponents who are bigger or more skilled than you can be beaten if you out-hustle them.
  5. Show respect to your coaches, referees, and your opponents; win or lose.
  6. A good soccer player must have conditioning, skills and tactical knowledge. A player must work on all three to be the best they can be.
  7. When your team has the football, everyone is an attacker; when your opponent has the ball everyone is a defender.
  1. No matter what position you are in, you are first a soccer player and you will have to be able to receive, shoot, pass, dribble, head, make space, etc., regardless of your position.
  2. Do not just “kick” the ball unless it is in a dangerous position in front of your goal. Instead take a ” picture ” of the situation before you get the ball. In this way you can perceive the situation, determine the best solution, and act accordingly when the ball arrives. Develop Field Vision. Always send the ball to someplace or someone.
  3. Always maintain your position. Don’t run following the movement of the ball. Know where you are on the field in relation to where the other players and positions are on the field.
  4. Don’t run forward when your team has the ball unless you are willing to run back when the other team has the ball.
  5. If you lose the ball, you should be the first person to defend. Giving immediate chase is the first rule of defence.
  6. When changing from attack to defence, sprint to get between your opponent and the goal you are defending.
  7. When defending close to your goal, the player closest to the ball should attack the ball. The other defenders should “mark” other opponents who could receive and shoot the ball. In “marking up” your opponent, you should position yourself between the ball and your opponent and prevent them from receiving the ball. A common error on defence is to have too many defenders move to the ball  leaving opponents open to receive a pass and score an unopposed goal.
  8. On the defensive side of the field, always move the ball toward the touchlines and away from the middle of the field. On the offensive side of the field move the ball toward the centre, where your teammates can take a good shot on goal. This is “centering” the ball.
  9. Good ball handlers pass the ball before they get into trouble not after they are in trouble.
  10. Make no small strikes on the ball. Whether clearing, passing or shooting MOVE the ball. Proper technique on striking the ball will enable even small players to effectively move the ball a good distance.
  11. Take your shot! Don’t hesitate  to fire a shot if you feel an opportunity. Shoot into the back of the net. Shoot where the keeper isn’t.
  12. Don’t limit yourself to shots taken only near the goal line. Good opportunities for goals are hard shots taken further out from the goal. Keep your head down, strike and follow through the ball for the goal.
  13. Most players are right-footed. At this level, when playing defence against an opponent with the ball especially watch and attack against the right foot.
  14. When playing offence with possession of the ball, anticipate your defender attacking your right foot. Use your left foot. It is imperative that you develop your passing, dribbling, and shooting skills with both your left and right foot.
  15. Always be aware of protecting possession of the ball. Resist  “kicking” the ball directly into the shin guards of the defender in front of you. Passing or dribbling the ball laterally or even backwards can be a better choice if it maintains possession of the ball.
  16. When on offence always “support” your teammate with the ball. Supporting your teammate means being in a position where they can pass the ball to you. Stay far enough away so the pass effectively neutralizes the defender. Stay close enough so they can make a good pass. If you are too far to make a good pass to your teammate, then you are too far for your teammate to make a good pass to you, and you are not supporting.
  17. Win, lose or tie; if you have given 100%, when you walk off the field you have nothing to regret and no reason to be ashamed.
  1. Don’t be afraid to be a hero. YOU CAN DO IT!


Basic small sided soccer tactics

7v7 illustrates exactly how to build a small sided game that addresses a specific problem.

The problem is “What is the best competitive form to develop the attacking qualities of wingers, what are the minimum requirements?”

1) We want to have both wings involved and wingers, by definition, play on either side of a central player. This requires three top players.

2) The attacking qualities of wingers will include crossing the ball. A common result of crosses is the goalkeeper making a save, so a goalkeeper is necessary.

3) Since we are concerned with the attacking qualities the wingers will need someone behind them to defend. This will require three back players which also leaves the wingers with an immediate opponent that they will have to beat. (If you use two defenders against three forwards, 6v6, at least one of the top players will have to come back in order to establish a balance.)

From this assessment the minimum number of players needed for a competitive game that encourages attacking wing play is seven, three top players, three back players and a goalkeeper. Since this concerns the competitive phase of the game the opponents will play with equal numbers, 7v7. Since there are goalkeepers there must be goals and the field must be small enough to allow a lot of attacking opportunities but large enough for building up play.
7v7 – Counter attacking.


The examples above work well when the two teams are evenly balanced or you are coaching the team that can dominate the opponent. However, when you are faced with an opponent that is clearly superior then a different approach to the game might be necessary.

When you are sure that the opponents will have a lot of possession and can dictate play the counter attacking game can offer the best chance for success. In this game the probabilities are, 1) you cannot hold the opponents in their own half, 2) you will have little success building up the play from deep in your own half, 3) you will have very little time for any buildup, 4) much of the action will be in front of your own goal.

Instead of thinking in terms of a 3-3, using wingers and trying to spread the field, think how a 4-2, with the center forward withdrawn into a primarily defensive role, can help to answer some of the problems. In this example the number 7’s primary task is defensive, he becomes a center midfielder. When in possession he will support the top players from behind the ball. He will avoid runs out to the wings and ahead of the top players because these will take him too far away from the center of the field and hinder his basic task. (Remember, you won’t have much of the ball.) When not in possession he will take up a position very close to the back three to try to make up in numbers what you may lack in quality. While the number 2 and 4 can move up on the wings chances are they will be too far back to be of any real use.

The attacking strength will lay in the abilities of the two top players to quickly combine and exploit any mistakes by the opponents. They will need to have a good understanding between each other and communicate effectively. The attacks will be characterized by being over very quickly and coming primarily through the center. Speed of thought and action is critical.

This picture shows how important it is for children to learn how to play in all of the small forms of soccer. 2v2 for the two top players, 3v3 when the center midfielder becomes involved, 4v4 for the back four and 5v5 when you include the goalkeeper. This also demonstrates how when one players task is changed, the number 7 in this case, it can effect the rest of the team. Go to KNVB’s counter attacking game for a practice.

6 goal game

Develop team tactical awareness while practicing defending and attacking skills.


The Game

2 even teams. Each team defends their 3 goals, and tries to score in the opponents 3 goals. The team with most goals wins.

Coaching Points


  • Vision, recognizing where pressure is coming from.
  • Possession / penetration decisions.
  • Switching the point of attack.


  • Pressure , cover, balance.
  • Defending zonally since the 3 goals force a team to defend ‘numbers down’.
  • Immediate counter attack when ball is won.

Try These Variations

Dribble through the goals instead of passing. (Make goals 10 yds.wide)

Goals must come off a ‘one touch’

Limit attackers to ‘2 touches’

5 pass game

Improves passing and receiving skills while encouraging players to find space.

  • Split players into 2 even teams (play 4 vs 4 up to 7 vs 7)
  • Mark a large grid with cones (approximately 40 yards x 30 yards)
  • A neutral player is placed at each end of the field.
  • To score a goal, a team must make 5 or more consecutive passes to teammates and then must make the 6th pass to one of the neutral players without the ball being touched by the opposition.
  • After 5 consecutive passes are completed, the players from that team may pass to either neutral player to score, no need to alternate between neutral players.
  • A player (team) does not get credit for a pass if the ball is passed back to the player
    from which it came. (But they still keep possession and play continues)
  • Any time a team is dispossessed of the ball before completing 5 passes, the opposition starts at pass #1.
  • Once the neutral player receives the pass that counts as the goal he/she must pass
    the ball first time (one touch pass) to the same team that scored the goal and that
    team begins play again at pass #1.


Coaching Points

Players keep their heads up, know where your teammates are and pass to the open player.

Play quickly

Teammates must support the player receiving the pass

  • A minimum of 2 players give close support options
  • A minimum of 1 player gives long support
  • Thus spreading the defenders and opening the field

Players make runs to open space to receive passes

Make quick (change of speed) runs to get open to receive a pass.

(Don’t be a Johnny Jogger) who always jogs the same speed and is easy to defend.

Competition, Variations & Restrictions:

Play games to 5 and losing team does 5 jumping jacks

Restrict players in the grid to 2 touches … if a player touches the ball 3 times they lose possession of the ball.

Restrict players to 1 touch soccer.