Successful youth soccer coaching

successful youth soccer coaching

“Kids’ football (soccer) is all about the individual loving the game: dribbling and shooting, playing games and scoring goals, experimenting and copying. It is very simple and lots of fun.

Adult football is all about the team and results. It is physical, tactical, complicated and very serious.”

Tom Statham of Manchester United Academy

Perhaps the most important ‘key’ to successful youth soccer coaching is this:

successful youth soccer coachingAlways aim to make the training sessions fun for everyone – including you!

But…you can only do this with the aid of careful planning. Always think about what you want your team to achieve in the long term as well as today. Have a plan.

It is important that your training sessions take the ages and capabilities of your children into account but most soccer coaching sessions follow this pattern:

  • a warm up to raise the heart rate of your children, stretch their muscles and get them focused on the session;
  • a quick and simple demonstration of the skill/technique that you want them to learn**

**Don’t forget to ASK them what they think is the best way to pass or shoot or keep the ball etc. rather than TELL them why you think they should do it that way.

  • some fun games that will allow them to practice what you’ve just shown them. Play lots of SSGs – small sided games are better than 6 or 7 a side;
  • a small sided game (scrimmage) with no intervention from you to finish the session.
Don’t be tempted to adopt a ‘P.E’ style of coaching – while it’s important to plan your sessions be careful not to make them too rigid. Be prepared to adapt according to what you see and hear on the practice field. Above all, don’t be afraid to let your children play!

Don’t try to pack too much in – remember to allow time for discussion, setting up, drinks, arguments etc!

Don’t persevere with a plan that obviously isn’t working. Have a couple of tried and tested alternatives up your sleeve and work out what went wrong afterwards.

Don’t use drills that involve children standing in lines for more than a few seconds – they’ll soon get bored and bored children are trouble!

Don’t train children on your own. Always have at least one assistant, even if all they do is tie laces and fetch balls. There is also an important health and safety consideration here: who will look after your children if you have to take one of them to hospital?

Do treat your players with respect. They like you to listen and take notice of their feelings and opinions. Find out what they want from you and agree some clear ground rules. If you still have have trouble with discipline issues, read this.

Also, you must consider child protection issues, especially if you’re training a mixed group of boys and girls. I always have a female assistant if I’m training girls.

Coaching U8 soccer players

It is the dream of every inexperienced coach to have a manual handed to him or her with all the answers to their problems. This coaching manual does have a section which includes simple drills and games for your practices, but it is intended to make you think, and understand exactly what you are getting into. We will therefore start with a list of characteristics of U8 football (soccer) players.

They are:

  • Still self-focused and individualistic (me, mine, my) but many are willing to share.
  • Able to pay attention a bit longer than U-6 players but still not the same as the “competitive” stage.
  • Still very honest but most will tell a “white lie” on things that are embarrassing, they cannot do, or they haven’t done. For instance if you ask them at practice, kids did you practice at home this week? They will all scream back yeeeaaahhh. But if you ask them again and make eye contact to one in particular, they will tell you the truth.
  • Easily bruised psychologically. They will remember negative comments for a long time! Praise often. Give “hints”, don’t criticize.
  • Inclined towards small group activities.
  • Always in motion: scratching; blinking; jerking; rocking. Hand-eye coordination is better, while most will still struggle with eye-foot coordination. Note that this is the exact opposite of children in Italy (for instance) where you will find few U-8 kids who can dribble a basketball yet most of them can begin to juggle a soccer ball.
  • Starting to imitate older players or sports heroes. Want the same “gear” as them.
  • Developing physical confidence. (Most are able to ride a two-wheeler.)


  • Understand simple rules that are explained briefly and demonstrated.
  • Better at recognizing when the ball is out of play, and remembering what goal they are going for… but, in the heat of battle, they will sometimes still forget. They still find it difficult to really be aware of more than one thing at a time.
  • Lack sense of pace. They go flat out until they drop.
  • Want everybody to like them.
  • Respond well to positive reinforcement
  • Have limited understanding of personal evaluations. “If they try hard, they performed well” regardless of the actual performance. Thus, they need to be encouraged constantly, and asked “Now, can you do this?”
  • Will still want to wear a training bib, even when the colour is identical to their shirt.

And, moreover,

  • Skeletal system growing rapidly. Often results in apparent lack of coordination.
  • Cardiovascular and temperature regulation system is not developed. Their heart rate peaks quickly and they overheat quickly. make sure that they get adequate water breaks
  • If you are not energetic and fun you will easily bore them.
  • Respond well to positive reinforcement.


It is imperative that coaches get the parents involved. Not only are they a major resource for your team, but the U-8 player still views their parents as the most significant people in their lives. A pre-season meeting should be held with the parents so that objectives and team policies can be addressed. Some topics that you may want to address at this meeting are:

  • A means of contacting everyone without one person doing all of the calling. (Phone chains and e-mail lists are great).
  • Choosing a team administrator-someone to handle all of the details. At the U8 level, the team administrator and fund-raiser should probably be the same person, since the administration job is very simple with so few players.
  • Complete all paperwork required by your league or club.
  • Discuss the laws of the game.
  • Carpool needs and treat list.
  • Training and game schedules. How you feel about starting and ending on time, what your attendance expectations are etc.
  • What each player should bring to training: inflated ball, filled water bottle, soccer attire, shin guards (Cleats are not mandatory.) Also go over what they should bring to games and when they should arrive.
  • Most importantly, your philosophy about coaching U-8 players. Let them know that everyone will have equal playing time; that the game does not look like the older player’s games; that you are there to ensure that their player is safe and has a good time, as well as learn about soccer, that we are hear to have fun, enjoy some fresh air, and make new friends.
  • What your expectations for them is during game time. How do you want them to cheer? Do they know that they should not coach from the sidelines? It is hard for many parents to understand that it is best if they do not give specific instructions (e.g., Kick it hard, Johnny!) from the sidelines; now is the time to explain this to them.
  • Try your best to get an assistant coach and parent referee lined up.  At this level they can be the same person, though it is nice to have more than one parent referee.  You can accomplish a lot with a 8:1 player to coach ratio, but you can accomplish a lot MORE with an assistant.  Let the assistant know that all he or she has to do is show up and help you out, or let you know in advance he or she won’t be there.

Coaching mentality

“Small sided games, while no guarantee, are the best way to get children interested in soccer…”

“Over and over again during matches and training sessions, situations occur that are suitable for “mental training”. This is because these situations have emotional ballast and it concerns a hobby they enjoy. That and playing in a team make it possible for coaches to tactfully mould talented (and not-so-talented) players” Rinus Michels

Small sided games provide an excellent tool for this “mental training.” In fact this is the biggest element that separates them from football drills and exercises. These are useful for developing technique in a clinical sense and insight in an academic form. Important details for advanced players. Small sided games can also be useful in developing technique and insight into the game but they also add the extra dimension of developing mental qualities in an efficient and effective manner. Taken together this is the most practical way to mould the basics of the game at the earliest possible age.

What is Coaching Mentality?

Enjoyment. The most important consideration is that the practices and games are enjoyable. This is harder then it sounds because in any group what is “enjoyable” is going to be different for everyone involved. This is the hardest job for the youth coach, catering to all of the different demands, expectations and agendas inside of the team. It can create win-lose situations for the coach where he/she appears to favour one person/group over another and usually centres on the disparity between the levels and agendas inside of the team. The bigger the gap the greater the friction, miscommunication and mistrust. The bottom line is, if the players do not enjoy the activity they will not invest much effort in it, and they are the one’s playing the game. The best advice for adults involved in youth soccer is to remember that it is a hobby that centres around playing the game of soccer. When the expectations are anything more or less then this enjoyment for enjoyments sake is jeopardized. Children “perform out of a sense of duty instead of passion” and this base line mentality stifles growth. (It’s interesting to note that the number one reason given for dropping out of the game is “it’s not fun anymore.”)

Hobbies are activities that fill leisure time, are an individual’s choice and can be easily replaced. For most children their introduction to the game is not voluntary. They are signed up to a team and placed in a league before they even know what the game is, let alone if they like it. New coaches find this out quickly. Children come to ‘practice’ and immediately practice on the swings, playing tag or just hanging out with their friends. Usually it takes an adult to call them in and begin the activity. An indication that the children have embraced soccer as a serious hobby is in how quickly they start practice on their own. Children who need 30 minutes of an hour practice simply to take the field are demonstrating their level of commitment to the game. Their interest in the game is low and this is a big problem for any youth coach. If the game doesn’t hold significant appeal it won’t hold their attention. If it won’t hold their attention they’ll be easily distracted. If they’re easily distracted they’ll become interested in other things. These other things can begin to fill their leisure time and soon become their new hobby. Small sided games, while no guarantee, are the best way to get children interested in soccer as a hobby. Essentially, they offer soccer for soccer’s sake and children can get as much out of the game, and invest as much into it, as they like.

Games involve problem solving, competition and a result. These provide motivation, a goal, and feedback. Even a game of solitaire includes all of these elements. A game of soccer includes all of the elements of soccer. So, if the children value soccer as a hobby and they are offered the opportunity to play a soccer game the motivation is intrinsic, the coach doesn’t need to invest any effort in getting the children engaged. It will contain a clear goal and then provide feedback to the children as to how they did. Not only do the children learn about solving the problem but this also reinforces soccer as a hobby creating a positive feedback loop. Playing better soccer is more fun which makes you want to play more soccer which provides more opportunities to play better soccer and so on. This can lead to an individual investing free time and doing homework because they value the activity. Soccer strange activities and games serve a useful purpose after players are engaged in soccer as a hobby. These activities are good for children who can differentiate between the activity and the objective, they are secure in their relationship to the game. When dealing with children who aren’t as committed the best advice is to concentrate on, and offer what is being advertised, playing a game of soccer. Let each individual choose their own level of commitment. Get them into the game before concentrating on the finer points.

Concentration. See the concentration page for some key ideas. In coaching mentality the focus is on lengthening the time that the players can concentrate and the resistance they can work against. While age plays a big role in this, experience is another key factor. Many adult ‘occasional golfers’ can only maintain their concentration for short periods, i.e. the front nine while professionals can play 36 holes a day three days in a row and be as sharp at the end as they were at the beginning. Think of the resistance as the amount of distractions that a player can handle before it interferes with his focus on the task. It’s learning how to minimize or ignore the interference that’s important. (Bring an eight week old puppy to a 10 year olds soccer practice and watch how fast soccer is forgotten.)

Small sided games address both elements in developing concentration. The more children engage in continuous play the longer they can play both physically and mentally. Free form games just keep going, the game never stops for long and this helps to develop ‘mental stamina.’ The best way to increase mental capacity to resist distractions is to decrease the amount of time that players have to think and act. Making the field smaller, having a new ball played in as soon as the ball is out of play, giving players 5 seconds to get the ball back into play are ways to increase the speed of play, therefore the resistance. This helps children to maintain focus, to rapidly determine what is important and what isn’t by not allowing them to simply dwell on things.

Transition. Soccer is a game with two different mind sets. Attacking and defending change rapidly and often yet most youth players only function in one mode or the other. Timing some youth players while they mentally switch gears can require a calendar instead of a stop watch! Drills that only go one way, i.e. dribble and shoot at goal, or technical training, i.e. dribble in a grid and avoid other players, never address this change in mentality, in fact they reinforce the opposite. That the players job is over at the change of possession. To stop playing is acceptable. Considering the amount of time that young players spend in drills like this and it isn’t surprising that speed of thought and play is a big problem in many teams. Small sided soccer games address the change in possession and both ways. They provide abundant opportunities for mental training simply in the run of play. See four main moments.

Fear of failure. The biggest fear of failure is the fear of losing the game. “What if I make THE mistake?” When winning and losing is restricted to game day it takes on even greater significance. There is no middle ground. Practice is meant to prepare the players for the match. When winning and losing has no place in training then arguably the most important element of the game is being neglected, the result. Children need to learn how to deal with both sides of this. That winning or losing today doesn’t mean much tomorrow, that both are necessary for growth. Small sided games end with a result and with several small sided games in any practice every player will have several opportunities to experience both sides. This helps children to lower their fear of failure and leads to a more stable appreciation of what the results really mean.

Styles of play. As children get older they begin to encounter a more sophisticated game. Tactics begin to play a bigger role. The most basic tactical decision is what style the team will adopt, the playmaking or counter attacking style. These styles incorporate different mentalities, they approach the game differently. Even games like 2v2 or 3v3 allow children to learn some of the basic elements of these styles. With early and simplified exposure children can begin to understand how, when and why a particular style is appropriate and what to do in order to use each one. This makes for more adaptable players and helps to prepare them for the more complex levels of soccer.

Supercharge your team and win more matches

A lot of youth soccer coaches complain that their young players start slowly in matches and take at least five or ten minutes before they start to play, so these soccer coaching tips are designed to help combat this problem.

To deal with this, I suggest changing the pre-match routine and using a simple tactic that will supercharge the way your players start their game.

Having used these soccer coaching tactics with my team, I know they work. The girls don’t always finish up winning the match but at least I can relax a bit more when the whistle blows to start the game!

1. Warm up effectively

The pre-match warm-up is key. Your team is not going to be in the right frame of mind when the match starts if you allow your players to turn up five minutes before kick off and your warm-up consists of a few lazy kicks into the goal.

Make it clear to your parents that you need their sons or daughters at the pitch no later than 30 minutes before kick off.

When your players arrive, keep the balls in the bag. If you allow them to kick a ball about before you’ve had a chance to warm them up, don’t be surprised if they come back to you complaining of aches and pulled muscles.

A simple warm-up routine

Set up two parallel lines of 10 cones about five yards apart. Line your players up in pairs in between the lines of cones.

All these exercises are done in pairs.

  • Slow jog to end cones and return (a bit quicker) down the outside. Three repetitions.
  • Jog with knees up high and return. Two repetitions.
  • Jog with heels up and return. Two repetitions.
  • Jog forwards to third cone, jog backwards to second cone then forwards to the end cone and return. Two repetitions.
  • Jog to first cone. Jump shoulder to shoulder with your partner. Repeat at second cone and continue to the end of the line. Return.

You can add a number of other exercises and stretches (such as hip rotations) to these but as useful as this sort of warm-up is, don’t spend too long on it. Your players need to get some touches on the ball as soon as possible.

But I always play keepaway for at least 10 minutes. Play 4v1, 6v2 or 7v3, depending on how many players you have. Put the defenders in bibs and challenge the rest of the players to string at least 10, 15, 20 passes together before they lose possession.

Make sure they pass and move immediately. I tell my players to move to a new patch of grass each time they pass the ball.

Start in a large space (the width of the pitch) then increase the pressure by moving your players into a smaller space marked out with cones.

Set up a couple of cone goals and finish the warm-up with a short match between your outfield players. If they are old enough, limit them to two or three touches and play without anyone in goal.

If you see a good touch or pass during the warm-up, compliment your players. Always tell them how well they are doing. Have a quiet word with individuals while they are playing. Listen to them. Join in the warm-up yourself. Have fun, smile and look confident.

Timing is very important. You should aim to finish the warm-up a minute or so before your players are due on the pitch. You only need enough time for them to have a quick drink and listen to your final few words of encouragement.

If you finish too soon, all the energy you’ve generated in your players will dissipate and you’ll be back to square one.

2. A little psychology

One of the reasons youth soccer teams start their matches slowly is often the pressure players feel from their parents. Parents often don’t realise the effect they can have if young players hear them saying such things as “another win today and we’ll be second in the league” or “you’re much better than the other team – get out there and score me five goals!”.

Explain to your players’ parents that their children will play better on match days – and have a bigger smile on their faces – if they just let them play without the “encouragement”. When parental comments are confined to “where shall we go for lunch today?” instead of “you need to get stuck in more, you’re not playing tough enough”, you’ll see a big difference in your players’ approach to the game.

3. Tactics

If you want your team to score an early goal you have to put your opponents under pressure straight from the kick off.

A simple way to do this is for one of your wide midfielders to run down the line as soon as the whistle blows. The players taking the kick off should then kick the ball hard in the direction of the running player and immediately run towards the goal.

If the midfielder manages to control the ball, great, she is in a good position to cross the ball towards the two players who are now arriving in the box.

If she fails to control the ball and it goes out for a throw in, that’s a good result too. Your opponents will have a throw near to their goal line and they may well find it difficult to get the ball away.

It’s a tactic that has worked for me on more than one occasion. Give it a try!


Plan your pre-match warm-up routine carefully, explain to your parents how their well-meaning comments can stop their child from playing to their potential and practise putting the opposition on the back foot as soon as the ref blows the whistle.

Your supercharged team will soon be racing around the field!

How to help new or weaker players

One problem that often causes problems for youth soccer coaches is pitching the session at the right level, so that it has something for everyone – the new or weaker players, the “average” players and the most skilful players.

If your coaching sessions follow the traditional pattern of technical instruction/demonstration, followed by unopposed or 1v1 practice, then a small-sided game (SSG) and finally a scrimmage (match), there are some things you can do to keep all your players – no matter what their level of skill – fully engaged.

The technical instruction phase should be as short as possible. All children will soon get bored with being told what to do (they get enough of that at school all day!) and the more skilled players will get bored and switch off very quickly indeed.

When you practise a skill, pair your players up according to their ability, for example, weaker v weaker, stronger v stronger. This will enable all the players to achieve some success and it won’t allow the better players to relax. You could also play 2v1 instead of 1v1 with two average players pitted against one stronger player.

Small-sided games are the best way to provide something for everyone. If you have some players that are naturally more gifted, these children will come to life when presented with a football-like game to use their skills in, while all the players will enjoy the game itself.

You just need to be careful how you pick the teams when you are concentrating on keeping children of varying abilities equally happy. Don’t allow all the better players to play together and if your team selection for the small-sided games causes arguments, add the condition that whoever scores a goal, immediately changes sides.

Analysing performance

I was asked recently by a fellow soccer coach whether it is worthwhile getting your young soccer players to go away after a match and analyse their performance in the match. The idea is that they would then deliver their analysis at the following training session. It’s common practice for academy players to write a short critique of the way they played in matches.

Their coaches also make notes and together they decide what to do about any areas of their game that need working on. It’s also a good opportunity for coaches to congratulate players for what they do well.

If you have the time to do it properly (it takes about 10 minutes per player at the training session following the match), it’s good practice to ask your players to do this two or three times a season. If you do it any more, it can become repetitive and a bit of a chore, and rushing the process makes it meaningless.

If you decide to give it a go, just make sure you keep the focus on what players do well rather than what they don’t do so well. Feedback should be given as a sandwich – criticism should be a thin filling, surrounded by plenty of praise.

Be honest (don’t give too much praise) and if there’s something that the player can do better, make sure you tell them exactly what they need to do to improve.

How to coach a youth soccer team

One of the delights of youth football coaching is taking on a team of youngsters and watching them develop during a number of years.

It’s great to see how children, who were as timid or didn’t know where to kick the ball, grow in confidence and learn new skills.

But staying with the same team for any length of time has its drawbacks too. You will get to know your players quite well and while we all try not to have favourite players there will always be some children who try harder than others and some who have a better attitude. As a result, it may become difficult to make objective decisions about these individuals.

Training routines can also become stale over time. It is easy for a coach to stick to the same format and even play the same games week in, week out. This rather lazy approach to coaching can be justified by saying: “My players like doing it this way and they like these games”, but beware – you might be boring the pants off them.

Boredom at coaching sessions manifests itself by misbehaviour and, eventually, absenteeism. If your players are getting harder to control and some are not turning up regularly without good reason, it’s time for a spring clean!

Very young children

Four to six year olds have relatively short attention spans at the best of times. If they find a task interesting and are enjoying some success at it, you can expect a young child to stay focused on it for up to 10 minutes.

On the other hand, a four year old who finds an activity uninteresting or difficult will stay “on task” for as little as 30 seconds before looking for something more satisfying to do. Picking daisies or playing with mud, for example.

So if you have team of four to six year olds you should plan to change activities every 10 minutes at most. This means having lots of different, fun and easy to explain coaching games in your “back pocket”.

Older children

As I mentioned above, the first sign that your coaching sessions are getting stale and uninteresting is an ever increasing amount of “undesirable” behaviour among your players.

Squabbles, continual chatting and players “not trying” are clear indicators that you need to take a close look at your coaching sessions. Are they designed to be child friendly? Do you spend too much time on technical training and not enough time playing the game?

The quickest way to find out what you need to do to get your sessions back on track is to ask your customers – the players.

Simply sit them down, explain that you are concerned about their lack of focus and ask them if they are bored. If they are, ask them which activities they find boring (and why) and which activities they enjoy (and why).

I can almost guarantee that they will tell you that they want to spend more time on scrimmages and less time practising techniques. If so, you need to consider your priorities and decide if the interests of your players would be best served by doing what they want to do. Or do you know best? Only you can answer that one.

Regardless of what your players tell you, there are a couple of simple ways to blow the cobwebs from your coaching sessions.

1. Invite other coaches to take some of your sessions.

Asking a colleague to take one or more of your sessions is a great way to see how your players react to a different approach.

You may be surprised to see how compliant your most “difficult” players become when they’re in front of a coach who doesn’t know them and you’ll probably pick up some useful tips and tricks, especially if the guest coach is more experienced than you.

2. Hand over the reins.

It’s good to let your players plan and run their own practice session at least once or twice every season.

The week before you want them to do the hard work for you, ask your players what you think they need to be better at and seek one or two volunteers to plan a session to address their shortcomings. This could be a good job for your captain and vice-captain.

If nothing else, the experience will show your players that coaching football is not simply a case of turning up at the field with a bag of balls, some cones and an empty mind.

While you’re in the mood for spring cleaning, make sure that your sessions tick all the right boxes:

3. Make sure your coaching sessions are progressive and challenging.

Boredom will soon set in if you don’t challenge your players to improve so don’t spend lots of time practicing skills that were first introduced weeks or months ago.

You also need to be realistic in your expectations. For example, most seven year olds lack the physical ability to lock their ankle so don’t expect them to be able to be able to kick a ball from one end of the pitch to the other.

To get an understanding of what children between the ages of five and 10 should be able to do on a football field, click here. And to find out where your players are in terms of their mental development, click here.

4. Use games, not drills.

Children come to coaching sessions to play football, not to stand around waiting. It’s a youth football golden rule that you shouldn’t use drills that involve children standing in lines. However, many coaches still think that static drills are the best way to practise basic techniques. They’re not.

Children can and should practise passing, receiving, shooting, shielding the ball, tackling etc. within the context of a small-sided football match and not just in a drill.

5. Competition is the key.

Your coaching sessions should reflect the fact that football, whether we like it or not, is about winning and losing.

Coaching games for children over the age of five or six should have clear winners and (can I say this word without offending someone?) losers.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t reward effort too. Make a fuss of players who strive to succeed but don’t quite cross the line first.

Mix up teams regularly so that everyone gets a chance to be on the winning team. Stress the importance of winning and losing gracefully. But always try to satisfy the natural competitive instinct of your players. If you don’t, they will compete among themselves in ways that you might find inappropriate.

Finally, don’t be afraid to be unconventional in your approach. A good spring clean might simply involve a change to the way you order your coaching activities. Try having the traditional end-of-session scrimmage at the beginning of the session instead. Or try a “sandwich” session: scrimmage, technical, scrimmage.

Freshening up your coaching once a year is like spring cleaning your home – the thought of having to do it is a bit depressing but when it’s done… boy, do you feel good!

Let the game be the teacher!

To make your coaching effective with a team of youngsters (U10s), my advice is, ‘Let the game be the teacher’.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that young players come to football training sessions to play football, not to be coached. So we should let them play.

That doesn’t mean you can’t coach them – it just means you have to be bit clever about it.

A few do’s and dont’s:

Don’t play boring, static drills – play SSGs (small-sided games) instead. Games like the 1-0 game are brilliant for teaching possession, ball control and communication in a fun way.

Don’t spend more than 30 seconds explaining a game – if it takes longer than that, it’s not a good game!

Once in a while ask your players want they want to do and let them run a football training session while you watch.

Do what you feel is right for the kids, not what you think you ought to do.

Remember, football coaching sessions are meant to be fun for the players AND the coach! If you’re not having fun then they won’t be.

So relax. Enjoy it. Your players won’t be U10s forever (thank goodness!)