There is no “right way” to teach football to children.
Youth football coaches come from a wide variety of backgrounds, coach football for different reasons and have different personalities. So it would be unreasonable to expect all coaches to conform to one particular style.
However, there are a number of tried and tested best practices that all coaches should consider when planning their coaching sessions and when deciding on their personal “coaching philosophy”.
1. Set up situations where the players can learn by playing the game
“The game is the teacher” is a bit of a coaching cliche but it’s also true – children won’t learn how to play football if you put them in lines and make them share a ball.
They learn by being given the freedom to play, to experiment and make mistakes. The coach’s job is not to instruct. It is to set up games that create the situations that she wants her players to experience and then help them find the answers to the problems they encounter.
2. Encourage creativity and ball skills, not tactics
For children aged from four to about nine, football is not a team sport. It is the time when they should be developing their individual relationship with the ball. The fact that younger children are made to play in a “team” is not their fault so don’t demand that the more confident players share the ball. Encourage them to be creative, dribble at defenders and to take on the world!
Enjoy watching your players express themselves without fear of failure and work at getting the rest of your players to the same level of confidence and comfort with the ball that your “best” players enjoy.
3. Never say “never”
Coaches should not tell their young players to “hold their positions” or to “never” do something.
Children should be encouraged to dribble the ball out of their penalty area, to pass across their six-yard box or throw the ball backwards instead of “down the line!”
If they try something that results in the opposition scoring a goal, great. Talk about what happened at your next coaching session and see if they can learn from the experience.
4. Set age appropriate goals
Most of the discipline problems coaches experience stem from expecting their players to master particular skills that are not appropriate for their age.
For example, children up to the age of about 10 may lack the physical ability to lock their ankle, a skill that is necessary to strike a ball with power and accuracy so there’s not much point to get frustrated with an eight-year-old who can’t hoof the ball from one end of the pitch to the other.
Coaches who coach six or seven-year-olds should also bear in mind their players are very egocentric; they see the world only from their perspective. As a result, they are not going to want to pass the ball to their team mates. They’re worried they might never get it back!
Also, very young children lack the ability to “look ahead” and see what is about to happen. This is a limiting factor that coaches need to bear in mind when teaching how to attack the ball at corner kicks, for example.
5. Get feedback
No matter how good a coach you think you are, it’s important to find out what your customers – the players and their parents – think about you.
Players should be asked occasionally what they like and don’t like about your coaching sessions and parents should be given feedback forms to fill at the end of every season.
Ask questions like these:
- Does your child enjoy coaching sessions?
- Do you feel your child has progressed as a player?
- Did your child get a fair amount of playing time on match days?
Leave spaces for parents to explain their answers and act on what they tell you!
6. Walk away
If you have been coaching your team for more than three years (or if you have a child on the team) you should consider passing the team on to a different coach.
“Oh no”, I hear you say, “I can’t leave my team”.
But they are not “your” team and they never will be. Players and parents have their own expectations and needs and it is very likely that they have less confidence in you than you think.
Staying with a team for too long also leads to a coach developing a sentimental or overly optimistic view of the players’ abilities and the prospects of the team.
This can lead to the coach excusing poor performances and settling for less than 100% effort which, in turn, can result in coaching sessions that lack drive and energy. And if the coach doesn’t set challenging objectives, players will often lose interest, misbehave or simply leave the team.
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