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Organizing Your Practices

Before a coach steps onto the practice field, he or she must know two things: the goal of the training session and the method and activities that will be used to achieve that goal. The less experience a coach has, the more the coach needs to be prepared. Start preparing for the next practice the instant a training session or game ends. Writing down your thoughts is highly recommended.

  1. Benefits of Organizing Practices Around a Single Theme
  2. A common (and highly recommended) coaching tool is organizing your practice session around a single theme such as dribbling or 1v1 defending. For new players, most of the practice themes should be skill-based. In other words, most of your practices should focus on passing, shooting, trapping, etc. rather than on tactical issues such as formations and set plays. Repetition is very important to building skills as "muscle memory" comes into play, so single-theme practices are very effective for player development.

    A single-theme practice does not mean that a coach can never introduce other topics or include other skills during a practice session. methods that include multiple components of the game will be explained later. A single-theme practice does mean that the coaches will focus primarily on a particular aspect of the game for the majority of the practice session.

  3. The Basic Components of any Practice
  4. No matter what your practice theme turns out to be, a coach should structure the session in a logical manner, taking into consideration both the mental and physical demands on the players. The most widely used format includes the following elements in the following order: warmup, individual work, small group work, large group work, scrimmage/free play, cool-down. This sequence allows you to develop a skill under low-pressure conditions, gradually increasing the pressure to the levels found in a typical match.

    Special Notes

    1. Water breaks: These can be formal time-out activities where you explain rules to new players or informal sip-on-the-run/as needed breaks. Simply be sure your players know what will happen. Should they take their water bottles on the field with them or will they get to jog back to a shady tree for regular breaks? Under no circumstances should water be denied as a punishment.
    2. Stretching: A common mistake is making players go through stretching exercises before the warmup activity. Muscles must be warmed through activity before stretching, so postpone your stretches until the end of the warmup or during individual work. Although very young players do not physically need to stretch, many coaches will develop the habit by doing a short period of stretches anyway.


    Now that you understand the purpose of the warmup activity (getting muscles ready for action), you should plan a warmup activity that gently prepares the body for the rugged work ahead. This is not the time for power kicks and full-speed sprinting. Light passing, jogging with the ball, dribbling games all work well to loosen up muscles while the players are still getting many touches on the ball.

    The warmup period should also mentally prepare your players for the practice. Be clear about the purpose of the day's training session and the key points to be covered. However, this is not the time to make many corrections. Positive reinforcement where appropriate (e.g. That's what we're looking for today, Suzy!) and some friendly socializing is about all that's needed at this point.

    NOTE: ALL players need to go through a warmup, so make sure any late arrivals warm up individually before joining the main group.

    Individual work

    One-on-one teaching is wonderfully effective, and this phase of the practice is crucial to developing proper technique and building confidence in your players. Plan activities here that require many repetitions. This helps your players, but also provides time for coaches to move around and make corrections individually. Watch carefully before making a correction, pinpointing each player's key mistakes. If a mistake is common to a large group of players, stop the activity and demonstrate again for the whole team before resuming.

    Repetition can become boring, so building in a competitive element helps to keep players focused. For example, you could have pairs of players competing to see how many passes they can complete in a minute. Then, switch the activity slightly (e.g. use your left foot now) to add some variety.

    Small group work

    Once players are comfortable executing a particular move or skill, it's time to put the skill into action in a more competitive environment. Pressure comes in several forms. There is the pressure of limited time, the pressure of limited space, and the pressure of defenders. Plan activities here that gradually increase the pressure on the players while they're executing the skill. Force them to make the same decisions (pass? shoot? delay? tackle?) in practice that they'll have to make during a match.

    2v2 activities and 3v3 small-sided games work very well here. For example, during a dribbling session, you play 3v3 games and require goals to be scored only when players dribble past a line instead of shooting through cone goals. When appropriate (e.g. practicing corner kicks), use the real field markings or spaces to reinforce the match-like conditions. Again, limit your corrections to the key technical points related to that practice's theme.

    Large group work

    Whether you're playing 4v4 or 11v11 in league, eventually, the team needs to work in a larger group. This reduces the number of touches each player gets on the ball (an important reason to maximize touches early in the session); however, it simulates actual match conditions much more accurately. Typically, you will plan a half-field scrimmage with certain restrictions that emphasize the theme of that day's practice. For example, when practicing throw-ins, you can make every re-start a throw-in instead of doing free kicks.

    Use the "Freeze" method to make corrections. Stop play after a mistake. Ask your players what happened. Demonstrate the right technique or tactic, and restart play right where it stopped. The freeze method is most effective when used sparingly.

    Scrimmage/Free play

    The players come to play, so make sure you include time for scrimmaging without restrictions and without many interuptions. No matter how tough the practice, players always seem to find the energy for a spirited scrimmage at the end of a training session. You can join in as a player or ref if you want, but if you do, don't revert to your role as a coach. You can only be one person at a time.

    Free play is a condition where individuals play without restriction on time or space. Minimal directions are given on what to do. Exploring self and ball allows players to develop natural abilities. The absence of lines avoids wasting time and forces the coach to increase his/her observational powers. Free play can be incorporated in the warmup period as well.


    This is probably the most frequently forgotten or ignored part of a practice plan. Players need to stretch again and cool down after strenuous exercise. With younger players, you can probably limit this phase to a few minutes of stretching, water-sipping and final coaching comments (lots of positive reinforcement), but it is important to have some logical conclusion to your session. Don't let your players simply wander off to Mom and Dad when the scrimmage is done.

  5. Techniques and Communication During Practices
    1. State the objective: Regardless of WHAT is taught or HOW they are taught, players need to be provided the reason WHY they are practicing certain things. How many times do we start to set up something and run it forgetting to tell why we are going it? Sounds simple, but test yourself at the next practice. Keep it short and less than 30 seconds.
    2. Demonstrate: Use age-appropriate words "Hit the ball with the shoe laces" for younger ages vs "Keep the ankle locked down and hit the ball with the top of the instep" for older ages.
    3. Involve a player: Repeat the demonstration with your player(s). If several are required, build up the positions with specific instructions.
    4. Involve remaining players: Do this specifically, particularly for younger players. Don't say "Split into groups of three," for U-12s. Instead say "Johnny, Jimmy, and Patricia, you three go there, and do ... (it)".
    5. Circulate and correct.

  6. The Principles of "Economical Training"
  7. There are four major components to soccer: technical, tactical, physical/fitness, and psychological. Economical training is training which is organized to include more than one component of the game in a single activity or practice session. Standing in a line of 10 players to take a shot on goal is not economical. Running laps around the field five times without a ball is not economical.

    Although the concept of economical training might appear to be contradictory to the notion of , it really is not. Using dribbling relay races or "knock-out" games will improve fitness and provide a competitive psychological component while developing dribbling techniques. The key is focusing your corrections on the technical aspects, not the other components.

    Economical training allows you to make the most of your training sessions, given the typical limits on practice fields and practice times in most areas. It also requires a little more preparation. Take the time to look over your practice plan and find ways to make it more efficient. You'll get much better results, and your players will be grateful they don't have so many laps to run.

  8. Selecting Games/Alternates For Your Practice
  9. There are sample practice plans available on this Web site as well as lists of , but as an individual, you will probably want to tailor those games and plans to meet the needs of your particular players. Within your practice plan, you can include variations or alternate games for the times when the planned activity/drill bombs. Once you have your basic outline, review it to make sure it is reasonable given your time and space limitations on the field. See if it follows a logical structure and includes the of a good practice session. A practice plan should not be a laundry list of your favorite games or drills.

    Keep your practice plans stored in a common place to compare from week to week. If you compress your notes to a 3x5 index card, it's convenient to carry around at practice, but also makes the basis for a filing system. This makes it easy to adjust and plan ahead to make sure you're covering the basics consistently. For example, you might discover you spent three weeks on dribbling and shooting without ever working on tackling and trapping. You can also highlight your notes to indicate which activities worked well and which need to be modified or eliminated from your repertoire.

  10. Making Lists of What You Need for the Games/Drills
  11. If you've done your , you should already have the equipment necessary for your practices. Simply indicate on your practice plans what will be needed for each portion of the practice. This will help you finalize your practice session to eliminate long delays while cones are re-arranged and pinneys are distributed.

  12. Laying out Grids/Areas to Save Time
  13. A convenient way to save time is to use multiple cones to set out several grids in advance of the practice or during water breaks. By planning ahead, you might even find ways to turn two small grids into one large grid quickly as you move from small group to large group activities. You can also use different color or different style cones to indicate different areas to be used at different times during the practice.

  14. What to do if you cannot demonstrate well
  15. New coaches frequently get concerned because they have never played soccer and aren't sure how to demonstrate a particular skill or technique. There are several ways around this.

    1. Many times you can find a former player among your parents who is willing to help demonstrate or an older sibling with good skill. If you go this route, make sure you know ahead of time the actual skill level of the individual. There's nothing worse than perpetuating bad technique.
    2. Use your most skilled player to demonstrate for you. This will typically be a different player for each skill. Your best dribbler might not be your best shooter for example.
    3. Most soccer associations have access to coaching libraries which often include videotapes and books. Videotapes with slow motion usually work better than a single photo in a book when learning a technique. You can watch these videos, practice the move at slow speed, then demonstrate for your players. Since you're moving at half-speed for your demonstration, you can usually demonstrate quite effectively this way.
    4. Attend coaching or player clinics where moves are demonstrated. If your child goes to a soccer camp, for example, you will see proper technique demonstrated over and over and might even pick up a few new games/activities to teach that skill.
    5. Play more of the game yourself. Whether it's a formal indoor league or your own backyard, there's nothing like practice and experience to make you more confident of your skill level and ability to demonstrate.

Match-related conditions

If we are to develop good players there should be a duplication of match conditions. The KEY characteristics of a soccer match that we strive to duplicate in practice are:

  1. Scoring: Like most games, scoring is the end objective. It's also fun for the players.
  2. Transition from offense to defense: As in basketball, ice hockey, etc., teams are constantly switching from offense to defense, and vice versa.
  3. Combinations of short and long play: Somewhat unique to soccer because of the large field, but you see some of it in basketball. A rebound is won, followed by a short pass to an outside man who can see the full court, followed by the full court pass.
  4. Risk/Reward Ratio: Shooting or advancing the ball vs the safety of maintaining possession. In American football you can do short runs to maintain possession or air it out. It's the same in soccer, but there are no stoppages to regroup. You think and make decisions on the run.
  5. Deception: This is what makes the game exciting. Getting defenders to move one way, then attacking from another direction.

In your practice sessions, scrimmages generally have all of the above elements. At the start of practice there may be none. So one of your challenges as a coach is to constantly work toward building the practice up so these match conditions are included.

Updated 6 April 1999
Overview | Principles | Resources | Guidelines | Practices | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading