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!