Find space!

How often do you see your players watching a team-mate with the ball as they struggle to get away from pressure? I see it most weeks!

It’s frustrating – you just want to pick them up and move them a few feet to where they can provide a passing option for their team-mate.

But of course we can’t do that so try using a soccer drill to work on support play instead and help your players form good habits.

Before we can get young soccer players to take up supporting positions instead of trying to get a foot on the ball all the time, we have to introduce them to the concept of space.

For you and me, it’s easy to ‘see’ space on the soccer field. But it’s not easy for seven and eight year olds.

They are still very self-centered and find it hard to consider abstract concepts such as space – espcially when all they really want to do is kick the ball!

So let’s show them what space means.

Set up the space drill

Set up a very small soccer field, about 20 yards by 15 yards, complete with goals for this soccer drill. Then ask your players to play 5v5 or 6v6 in that area. After five minutes or so, ask them if it was hard or easy. They will say it was hard. Ask them why. Someone should say ‘it was too crowded’, if they don’t give them a few hints.

Great, we’re sowing some seeds!

Now stand your players around a small circle marked by cones, about 10 yards across, and put one player (the defender) in the middle. Ask your outside players to pass to each other, keeping the ball away from the ‘defender’.

After a minute or two ask the defender if it was easy to intercept the ball. He or she should say it was easy. Now ask the other players how they could make it harder for the defender and with a bit of luck they will say ‘make the circle bigger’. Get them to do that by moving the cones back three or four yards and play the game again.

Now it will be easier for the ‘attackers’ to keep the ball away from the ‘defender’. Get your players to recognise that (it’s important that they say it’s easier with more space), make the circle a bit bigger and play again. Keep doing that until they reach the point where they are so far apart from each other that the defender can easily intercept the attackers’ passes.

Stop the game and ask your players to show you the size circle that worked best for the attackers. This is the ‘perfect distance’.

Ask your players to remember that.

Finish off by playing a ‘match’ and stopping play when they bunch. Tell them to move apart so they are at the ‘perfect distance’ from each other.

Repeat, praising them when they keep a good distance from each other.

Well done, you’ve taught your players a very valuable lesson!

Defending corners

1. Zonal defending

The theory behind these tactics for defending corners is that there are a number of key areas (zones) that goals are scored from at corner kicks.

These are the front and back post and about six yards out from the center of the goal line (the middle of the six yard box). You can probably think of other areas too.

With zonal marking you assign key players to these zones. You might want to get your two tallest players to cover the six yard box and put your smallest players on the posts.

The main drawback to this system – at least as far as youth soccer is concerned – is that it encourages static defending. Children told to guard a single point on the pitch will do it but are often reluctant to move away from their area, even if there is clear and imminent danger in another, unguarded, area.

The advantage of zonal marking is that you can make sure your best defenders are stationed in the areas that you know most goals are scored from.

2. Man marking

Man marking is the traditional method of defending corners. A big advantage of man marking over zonal defence is that being told to stay with a player is easier for children to understand than being told ‘I want you to defend this zone’.

The main drawback of man (or woman:) marking is that children are easily distracted, lose their mark and end up doing nothing in non-vital areas of the pitch.

So you see there are advantages and disadvantages to both defending tactics. My teams man mark at corners.

Should we put a player on the goalposts?

The purpose of “marking” the goal posts is to make the goal smaller. This is a sensible move when playing 11-a-side as the goalkeeper can’t reach both posts from the middle of the goal. But in youth football the goals are small and putting players on the posts is a waste of resources.

In any case, your goalkeeper should be intercepting any ball that comes into the “hot area” just in front of the goal and the sooner they learn to do that, the better.

A good way to practise this is to use two goals, one in a normal position and the second touching the far post and at right angles to it. The goal should look like the letter ‘L’.

Now take some corners. The goalkeeper has to protect both goals and is encouraged to come off their line to get the ball.

Use a “blocker”

Putting one of your taller players on the line between the goal and the corner flag will often put the player taking the corner kick off their job completely. They should also be able to block any low, fast corners that are directed straight at your goal.

Don’t forget the short corner!

A short corner – where the ball is passed to a player standing close to the corner flag who either plays it back to the corner taker or crosses/shoots themselves – is a very effective tactic in youth soccer and your defenders need to stay alert to the threat posed by them.

If an opposition player runs to receive a short corner, your players need to close them down quickly. This may mean leaving players unmarked in the box but it’s essential that the short corner is neutralised.

Leave at least one player upfield

It’s important to have at least one player (and preferably two) waiting upfield to receive the ball from your defenders. If you get everyone back to defend the corner, counter attacking becomes virtually impossible.

How to stop the “duckers” and the “swing and miss”

It’s no use teaching your players how to defend corners if they are afraid or unable to deal with the ball when it comes to them.

Defenders who duck out of the way as a well-taken corner comes across the box are a common sight at U9 and U10 level. They are scared that the ball might hurt them. So you need to show them that the ball (“it’s only a bag of air!”) won’t hurt… providing they use their heads properly.

So as soon as your players are old enough to strike a corner into the box at head height, they need to learn how to head it safely.

Side supports

Objective: To improve possession play and to use the full width of the pitch.

Age groups: U10s and upwards (but can be used with better-than-average younger players).

Set up: Use a 60×40 yards playing area with normal-sized goals on the end lines. Divide your squad into three equally matched teams, wearing bibs.

How to play: Two teams play “normal” football. The third team acts as side supports. Players of the third team spread along both side lines and can receive passes from the teams on the pitch. When they do receive a pass, they cannot be tackled and must pass back to the team that passed them the ball. They should move up and down the line, calling for the ball if the player in possession is running out of options.

You can encourage wall passes by restricting side supports to one touch.

Switch the teams around regularly or play “one goal, winner stays on”.


  • Side support players must return passes in less than four seconds.
  • Restrict players on the pitch to two or three touches.
  • Goals only count if the move that leads up to them includes a pass to a side support player

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.

Inside out

Objective: To encourage your players to use the whole width of the pitch.

Age range: U9s and older.

Number of players: Nine (but can be easily adapted for a different number of players)

Equipment required: Flat cones, training vests, six small goals (or traffic cones/poles as goal posts), one ball.

Set up: Place three goals at each end of 30×20 yards playing area.

Divide your players into two teams of four, plus one neutral player.

How to play: Both teams defend and attack three goals.

  • They score one point for scoring in the centre goal and three points for scoring in one of the outside goals.
  • The neutral player plays for the team in possession.
  • Play for 10 minutes or until a set score is reached.
  • When the ball goes out of play, the game is restarted with a kick-in from the line.


1. Points are scored by dribbling the ball through a goal instead of shooting.

2. The neutral player is restricted to two or three touches.

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.

Throw in races

Age range: U7s to U10s.

Equipment required: Flat cones, a ball for each player.

Set-up: Use the sideline of an existing pitch or make a line with flat cones.

Place a number of cones three yards away and parallel to the line.

Make a second line of cones three yards further back and a third line three yards way from the second line.

Divide your players into teams of three or four.

How to play: The first player in each team takes a throw-in from the sideline and tries to hit the first cone.

If they miss, the next player in line has a go.

If a player hits the cone they aimed for, they retrieve their ball and place the cone they hit on top of the next one. The next player in the team now tries to hit the new target.

The first team to hit all three cones wins.

Progression: Add more cones or space the cones further apart.

Coaching note: Throw-ins must be taken correctly. See: how to take a throw-in

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.

How to win a penalty shoot out

People who fail to prepare, prepare to fail. People who prepare, prepare to win.

No coach goes into a cup match expecting to be involved in a penalty shoot-out. But many cup ties end up that way and it is sensible to get your players as prepared as they can be for the “lottery” of a shoot-out.

In this article, I’ll look at ways you can help your penalty takers have the confidence to put away their spot kicks. The next newsletter will look at penalty shoot-outs from the goalkeeper’s point of view.

The format of a penalty shoot-out

Penalty shoot-outs usually involve five outfield players from each team taking it in turns to take penalties.

When both teams have taken their allotted five spot kicks, the team that scored the most goals wins.

If the scores are still level after five spot kicks each, the penalties continue in a sudden-death format until one team misses and the other scores.

The rules

The shoot-out begins with the referee tossing a coin. The winning captain decides which end the penalties will be taken at or which team takes the first penalty.

Five players from each team are nominated to take the spot kicks and the rest of the players wait in the or near the centre circle.

The penalties themselves are taken in the same way as in normal play. See FIFA Law 14 for details.

Notes: Only players who are on the field of play at the end of the match can take the penalties. You can’t bring on a specialist penalty taker!

And no player can take more than one penalty unless every player on his team has taken one.

The penalty taker can feint during but not at end of her run-up. If a player does stop when she gets to the ball in an attempt to deceive the keeper and she scores, she will be cautioned and the kick will be retaken. If the shot is saved anyway, the kick won’t be retaken but the player will still be cautioned.

Taking a penalty – the technique

  • Choose the surface – young players can kick the ball powerfully with their instep but often find it hard to be accurate. A firm side-foot shot, on the other hand, should be powerful enough from just eight or 12 yards and it is much more accurate.
  • Aim just inside the post – while it is easier to shoot into the bottom corners of the goal, if the goalkeeper guesses correctly, she could pull off a save. But if your players shoot into the top corner, the shot is virtually unstoppable.
  • Make your mind up – wherever your players are going to try to place the ball, make sure they know where they are going to shoot before they start their run-up and tell them not to change their minds as they approach the ball.
  • Ignore the goalkeeper – imagine the keeper is not there. It’s just you, the ball and an empty net.
  • You’ve scored! – visualising the ball smashing into the back of the net may also help.

Practice by playing a small-sided game (SSG) in which players take penalty kicks in place of corner kicks. Alternatively, play three corners = one penalty.

To encourage shooting into the corners of the goal, place small cones one yard inside the posts. A penalty scored between the cone and the post counts double.

You could also hang a target in the top corners. My girls (bless them!) like to shoot at stuffed teddy bears that are strung up in the corners of the goal.

Taking a penalty – the psychology

Effective preparation is important but there are also some key psychological issues involved in successful penalty taking.

Clwyd Jones, a lecturer at Southampton Solent’s Lawrie McMenemy Centre for Football Research says that it is vital to forget about occasions in the past when you’ve missed a spot kick or failed to save one.

It is also important your players don’t think about the future either.

Thoughts such as: “What will the coach/my parents/my team mates say if I miss?” will cause them to tense up and make a miss much more likely.

So no thinking about what happened in the past or what might happen if they fail to convert their spot kick.

Players have to stay in the present and focus on the task in hand to the exclusion of everything else.

What to say to your players before the shoot-out

The final whistle blows. It’s a tied game and you’re going to penalties.

Your players are looking to you for guidance and reassurance. What do you say to them?

Tell them how well they’ve played during the match, how well they’ve played all season and how the outcome of the penalty shoot-out won’t change any of that.

Remind your five volunteers to pick their spot before they approach the ball and imagine that the keeper isn’t there.


Your team’s chances of winning a penalty shoot-out are, to a great extent, dependent on how well you’ve prepared your players.

But there are some things you can’t control. Goalkeepers can make wonder saves, spot kick takers can stumble during their run-up and you never really know what’s going on in your players’ minds.

So if you lose, be proud of what your team has achieved. If you win, just breathe a big sigh of relief…

For more soccer coaching tips and products visit Soccer Coaching Club.

Attacking corners

When your team has a corner it should result in a goal scoring opportunity. But very often it can result in frustration instead as a great ball comes flying in across the box and everyone ducks or swings and misses.

If your team find it hard to connect with a traditional corner kick why not try this simple tactic.

Have a player stand on the corner of the 18-yard box. He should be a player who can just appear in that position without the opposition picking him up, but often he will be left unmarked anyway because he doesn’t look as though he is threatening the goal.

But, he is threatening the goal. He should be ready for a quick pass from the corner-taker. He can then open himself up so he is facing the goal and play the ball left, right or even shoot.

This soccer tactic also gives your team more options when the penalty area is crowded as a simple pass out to a player on the edge of the box will pull the defenders out and create space for a pass across the box to an attacker who now has a clear sight of goal.

The job of a midfielder

In youth soccer, midfielders are usually just that, a player who plays in the middle of the field. But as their ball skills improve (and especially as they move into eleven-a-side soccer) they can fall into one of three different types:

Outside midfielder

When his team is defending, the left or right midfielder marks the opposition winger on his side of the field. If he has no-one to mark when his team is defending, he should concentrate on keeping the team shape compact by moving in towards the middle of the field.

In attack, the outside midfielder stays wide and makes supporting runs up the line. Even if he doesn’t have the ball, his presence on the flank will stretch the opposition defence and thus provide space in the centre for his team’s attackers to exploit.

So the outside midfielder has to be fit, have excellent ball skills and be confident in taking on the opposition 1v1.

Defensive midfielder

The defensive midfielder holds the team together. He operates between the attackers and the central defender or sweeper. His job is to put pressure on the opposition ball carrier and provide cover for any of his team mates who lose the ball in his ‘patch’ – the midfield.

When your team is attacking, the defensive midfielder stays behind the attackers, ready to pressurise the opposition and grab any loose balls. He should be in position to provide the attackers with the option to pass back.

Offensive midfielder

Offensive midfielders are the playmakers of the team and are often the fittest as they are involved in every attack.

Their job is to move the ball quickly from defence and join the attackers to create a numbers up position.

All midfielders need to have sufficient ball skills so they don’t have to think about the mechanics of controlling the ball but can concentrate on how best to distribute it instead. They also need to be able to anticipate what is about to happen next. All these skills require experience, so don’t try to introduce specialist midfield positions until your players are ready.