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Nuts & Bolts of Holding Practices

Teaching young children takes lots of practice on the part of the coach, along with good humor and lots of patience. Here are some hints on things to do which will make it easier to teach your little charges.

  1. How to select drills

There are certain skills which every soccer player needs to acquire. One of the most important is the ability to receive and control the ball with the feet, as this skill is essential in order to be able to do almost anything else with the ball. In the Principles section, there is an outline of the skills which the players will need to acquire over the course of several seasons, along with suggestions on which skills to teach first - and an explanation of why. There are also discussions of some basic principles of positioning, attacking and defending, which may be useful to read in order to understand how everything will fit together.

In order to develop a season plan, the coach normally will want to take a look at the players for a session or two, unless the players are all first-time players. This allows the coach to get an idea of the average skill level of the players and to identify players who are exceptionally weak or strong (as these players will present challenges).

Once this assessment is done, the coach will set up the plans for the season by listing out the skills which need to be learned; looking at the available practice times; and deciding which skills to teach, in which order. Some flexibility should be built into the schedule, as practices have a way of getting rained out - or the whole team will come down with chickenpox - or there may be some event (such as a huge win by a team which has been having trouble) which may cause the coach to decide to have a "fun" practice instead.

Once the coach has decided on the skills to be taught, the next step is to pick drills or games which will be useful vehicles to teach those skills. Selection of drills can be tough for a new coach, especially if the coach has not spent a lot of time teaching children in this particular age group. It is not uncommon to pick drills which end up being too easy or too hard. Here are some good rules of thumb which can help in drill selection:

The important thing is to keep your eye on what your objective is. If your objective is to teach passing, then you need to be sure that you are giving plenty of practice to those who need the work the most (while still retaining some "consequences" for doing the skill poorly - at least after a decent time to experiment with no pressure has been given).

For instance, keepaway games can be changed so that the defender plays for 2 minutes and then switches out. Or, he can switch out after he has intercepted 3 bad passes. In other games (like Sharks, where balls are kicked out of the grid), the rules can be modified. For instance, Freeze Tag is a form of Sharks, but the player is merely frozen (not eliminated) if tagged, and can be reactivated when a non-frozen player touches him. Another modified form of Sharks allows the player to run to his ball; do a quick set of Round-The-World toe taps on his ball; and get right back in the game.

  • Making contingency plans
  • The two most common reasons that a coach must make adjustments in a drill are when there are not enough balls available or when there are the wrong number of players available (odd when he wants even, or vice versa). Here are some ideas to deal with these common problems.

    Not enough balls at practice

    You can guarantee that at least one kid will forget his ball at every practice. Others will have their balls stolen or have them go flat. So, if at all possible, get some spare balls which you can loan out (or even "rent" to a child - he "pays" by taking a jog around the field). Ask your parents if they have any spares at home which they can loan to you for the season (many kids get multiple balls at camps and are happy to loan one to you). Consider a fund-raiser to pick up some used balls. Don't reject flat balls. Many can be fixed by a product called "Ball Doctor" which injects a rubberized material into the ball.

    But, if everyone forgot to bring a ball, it is pretty clear that you cannot hold a dribbling practice (and probably cannot hold a shooting practice or pairs passing practice). So, come to every practice prepared with a backup plan for work with only the number of balls which you have in your ball sack. Some drills/practices which require only 1 ball to 3 players:

    Some drills/practices which require only 1 ball to 6 players:

    Adjusting for odd/even numbers of players

    Experienced coaches know that you will only have an even number of players on those days when you want to work in sets of odd numbers (3, 5, etc.). So, what do you do when you have odds when you want even, or vice versa?

    Scrimmage time at the end of practice and only 9 players:

  • Getting them ready to practice
  • Young children often arrive at practice full of energy. After a long day indoors, they are ready to run and play - and not ready to sit and listen. Therefore, it can make your drill go a lot better if you begin with some vigorous warm-ups. Once they have been running around for awhile, they will be begging for a water-break. Use the time when they are panting/drinking for your announcements and instructions - they tend to be MUCH less disruptive when pooped.

    The first thing to do in order to start getting rid of some of this excess energy is to get players working as soon as possible. Involve them in some game or fun activity as soon as they get there. There are plenty of activities that players can do alone or with 1 or 2 others. For instance, start juggling with the first arrival; include the second, then the third, etc. As the numbers get higher, start a new group. 1 v 1 keepaway games limited to a general area of the field is another good choice. You can adjust match-ups as necessary as more players arrive.

    Another fun game is soccer golf, where you have to hit some far off target, such as a ball. Soccer bowling is a fun game where individuals or teams try to knock down cones from some distance by passing. Another option is to play soccer volleyball over a neutral zone (ball can't touch the zone). Allow the ball to touch the ground in your zone, but you lose the point anytime it touches outside of your team's zone or you don't play it into the other team's zone. If you have several players arrive early, get a small sided game of knock down the cones.

  • How to select partners for drills
  • Factors which will influence how to select partners or teams for drills are varied. Common factors to be considered by the coach are: the need to divide by skill level or size to get success (or enough pressure, in the case of more skilled players); the number of players available (odd or even); the need to split up troublemakers or cliques and/or to allow players to get to know others on the team; the need to protect timid or shy players by putting them with players who are more kind-hearted; and the ability/willingness of a more seasoned player to assist a newer one in learning certain skills. Newer coaches probably will want to think about these factors ahead of time, so that they can make the necessary assignments without too much delay.

    Should friends be allowed to pair up for drills?

    Some coaches prefer to always assign partners from the very beginning, in order to avoid gripes when someone is split from his favorite partner (especially his partner in crime). Others think that camaraderie is developed by allowing the friendships, so they permit players to select their own partners unless the coach has particular reasons to want to split up the pairs.

    It is important to split up players who have personality conflicts; or who induce each other to fool around; or players who like to bully or boss around a particular player (often a new one). If more than 1 pair needs to be split up on a regular basis, the coach is often better off simply assigning partners, as kids can be counted on to make the complaint of "why does everybody else get to select their partners - and we don't? Of course, some coaches want the complaint to come, as this gives them a chance to explain why the players are being "punished". So, it is up to the coach whether to opt for peace, or use the selection process as a disciplinary tool.

    When choosing partners, this can be done very quickly, either by calling out names (John and Jim in that grid) or by counting off numbers (1,2,3 - this group goes to the first grid; 4,5,6 - this group goes to the next grid, etc.).

    When should size or skill be a factor?

    Even in a harmonious group, there are times when it makes sense to put the strongest with the strongest (especially in attacking/defending work). A very good (or very big) defender will destroy the confidence of a budding tiny attacker, so there are times when it makes sense to pair them up by body size and/or skill - with body size being quite important in things like teaching shoulder charges or tackles to beginners (even though, once confident, it makes sense to mix them up again). The whole idea is to set the kids up to succeed by controlling as many variables as you can which would tend to make success less likely.

    How to handle very skilled players?

    Often, a very good player who has been playing almost since birth will end up on a team with a bunch of teammates who have never seen a soccer ball before. This is tough on the coach and on the good player, but it is not an insurmountable hurdle. Here are some ideas of ways to keep this player challenged:

    By being creative, the coach can provide for challenges for the better player, while keeping the better player from being so dominant that the rest of the group do not get to participate.

    How to handle weak or ADHD players?

    The very weak player also presents significant challenges for the coach, which are very similar to the issues presented in dealing with ADHD players (even though many ADHD players often have substantial skill), because both types of players require extra attention by the coach or an assistant. Soccer is the type of sport which allows ADHD players to use their ultra-high energy levels to run around at top speed during games, so it is a sport to which many such children (or their parents) are drawn. As a result, many coaches will have at least one of these players on their teams. Dealing with the special challenges presented by these players, as well as weaker players, is addressed in the Management & Discipline Section.

  • Factors to consider in choosing teams
  • While the coach occasionally may allow the players to choose up sides (simply to get a feel for friendships or the assessments by players of relative skill levels), this should not be done this on a regular basis, because of the likelihood that these selections will hurt the feelings of the weakest kids. So, here are some other options for ways to choose up sides:

    Once the teams are selected, consider having a captain who is responsible for each team. Kids need to develop leadership skills, and to learn to take responsibility by observing what is happening on the field. If the player is a "captain", consider letting the player pick the positions for his team - and put him in charge of watching to make sure that his team marks up, recovers back, and pushes up and supports. Try to let everyone act as captain from time to time - but announce who is to be captain on that particular day based upon hard work, performance in the last game, or some other criteria which serves as an "atta boy" or "atta girl" to the player. Pay attention to which kids do a good job as captain, so that you can put them in charge of certain areas of the field in games (e.g., a sweeper who is observant and confident enough to give clear instructions to his/her teammates is a jewel to have on the field).

  • How to introduce the lesson for the day
  • In your very first practice, you may want to adopt a Rule about what you want players to do when you are talking. Many adults don't know this - but kids love rules - so if you want them to line up or sit down or put one foot on the ball or cross their arms in front of their chests or put one hand over their mouths - just tell them. Then, if a player is being disruptive, you can simply say "What is our Rule about what you are supposed to do when coach is talking?" Players hate for everyone else to think that they cannot follow the Rules, or don't know what the Rules are, so this can be very effective in getting them to display non-disruptive behaviors. And, if you have a Rule, then a simple announcement that it is "Time to line up" will cause them to assemble for the lesson.

    The younger the age group, the shorter the time that you should be talking in any single burst. And, the younger the players, the more it is necessary to get them mentally involved in the lesson. The best way to get their attention is to introduce the topic through a series of questions, which allows them to show how smart they are - and gets them thinking. Here is an example of the "right way" and the "wrong way" to introduce a new skill.

    Wrong Way:

    "Okay, kids, today we are going to learn how to do a push pass. I need everyone to come over here and form a line in front of me (hint: make this a rule - and you save time). No, Johnny - I said in front of me - not behind me. Now, here is how you do a push pass. You point the toe of the support leg in the direction that you want the ball to go; you bend the knee of the support leg; you turn your passing leg outwards; lock the foot; and hit the ball in the middle and allow your leg to swing through the pass. Kyle, stop pushing Andrew. Okay, let me go through those points again. You point the toe of the support leg in the direction that you want the ball to go; you bend the knee of the support leg; you turn your passing leg outwards; lock the foot; and hit the ball in the middle and allow your leg to swing through the pass. Now, I need everybody to find a partner; get into one of the grids; and work on passing. Who doesn't have a partner? No, James, the grids run the other way. Andrew, stop throwing the balls against Steven. Robert, I need you to stand at the end of the grid, with Alex at the other end. No, Freddie, you hit the ball with the inside of your foot. Kevin, where is your ball? Now, doggone it, I want everybody in a grid right now. Didn't any one of you listen to me?

    Right Way:

    "Okay, kids, time to line up for a demonstration. Bring your balls with you. Kyle, I need you here beside me, please.

    Today, we are going to learn to do passing. Can anybody tell me why we would want to do passing in a game?

    How many types of passes do you guys think that there are?

    Okay, now the pass that we are going to work on today is called the push pass, because you use the inside of the foot to push the ball in the direction that you want it to go.

    Johnny and Andrew, I've been watching and somebody already taught you how to do push pass, so would you come up here and help demonstrate the proper way to do it? Now, guys, let's watch them to see what they are doing. See, to connect with the ball, Johnny is turning his foot out and locking his foot to make it stiff, because it is hard to pass with a wobbly foot. Does that make sense?

    Okay, the next thing that Johnny is doing is pointing the toe of his supporting foot at Andrew. Why do you suppose that this might help to make the pass better?

    Now, Andrew, next time that the ball comes to you, I want you to show everybody what happens if you hit the ball at the bottom instead of in the middle. Okay, guys, see that hitting the ball at the bottom makes it fly up in the air? Who can tell me why we don't usually want the ball to fly up in the air when we are passing? That's right - because it makes it lots harder for your teammate to receive it.

    Okay, does everybody think that they understand how to do a push pass? What are the main 3 things that we need to know? What do we do with our passing foot? What do we do with our supporting foot? Where do we connect with the ball? Good, now get your balls and come over with me to the grids and I will show you what we are going to do.

    Everybody stand at the end of this first grid. Now, Johnny, go to the far end of the grid between the cones. Take your ball with you and just put it to the side of the grid. Alex, come stand between the cones on this end. Now, put your ball on the ground, and pass it to Johnny. Johnny, I want you to receive it and pass it back to Alex.

    Now, I need two players in each grid, lined up just like Andrew and Johnny. After everybody has worked on this for a little while, we are going to have a contest - so be sure to practice hard."

    It is easy to see that the coach is talking LOTS more in the "right" way - and that the whole explanation is takes lots more time. So, why does this approach go over better with the kids? Three reasons.

    First, the coach almost never says more than about 15 words at any one stretch (so it doesn't seem to the kids that the coach is saying very much). Secondly, the coach is allowing the kids to feel that they are smart and that they can figure out the answers themselves - because the coach is consulting them and asking for their feedback. Third, the coach is using demonstrators from the team who already know how to do the skill - which helps to convince them that they really can learn how to do this (and challenges the competitive ones to try to beat the demonstrators).

    Note how the coach in the "right" example explained why passing was important before going into teaching the skill itself. By making the skill relevant, the players are more likely to want to actually try to learn to do it. Also note that the coach does a demonstration of the drill at the grids, by positioning one pair into a grid and showing what he wants to have accomplished. Most smaller players learn much better by watching and imitating, so the demonstration helps them to know exactly what is expected during the drill. Also note that the coach is promising that we aren't going to do this one exercise forever - and that a "contest" is coming up soon. This helps to keep the players working and focused, because they know that they are going to have to use this same skill later - so they won't be able to "win" if they don't work now.

    Once most coaches learn to use the Q & A technique, they will solve most of their problems in introducing the drills and getting the players started on what they want them to work on. The bulk of any remaining problems will disappear with use of the 3 Rs. These are:

  • How to correct errors
  • All beginners make mistakes. This is a normal part of learning. When players make mistakes, the very first thing which you need to decide is whether to correct the error. If, and only if, you decide that the error must be corrected at this stage will you then decide what method to use to correct the error.

    Not every error needs immediate correction. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes that a coach can make is to try to get absolute perfection on the first few tries. If a player is corrected, and corrected, and corrected, it won't be long before he concludes that he cannot do ANYTHING right. And, it won't be much longer before he gives up and quits trying.

    How do you decide whether to step in? The first clue is that the player is absolutely lost - and clearly doesn't understand what you wanted - so he is having zero success. Before you step in to correct one player, however, look around. Sometimes everybody is having trouble, which means one of two things: your instructions weren't clear or the skill is too difficult. If this happens, you need to stop the drill immediately; demonstrate again (don't use words - use actions); and start over. If they still don't get it with a full demonstration, the odds are very good that the skill is just too difficult - and that you need to go to your fall-back plan.

    If most of your players are having some success, but are struggling with one or two elements of the skill (for instance, most are turning the foot correctly for the push pass, but accuracy is poor or the balls are often airborne), do a group correction. Young players often are very sensitive about being called aside (they think that this is a suggestion that they are stupid or slow - even though, in truth, most young players are so self-centered that they pay no attention at all to anyone else). As a result, a general statement that you noticed that a bunch of the players were having trouble with X is the better approach, followed by a quick demonstration. Then, as you go around the grids, you can simply issue reminders about "remember to hit the ball in the middle, not at the bottom".

    Another option is to find the one or two players who are doing it right, and use them as your new demonstrators by praising them. For example "Okay, everybody, look at Michael He is doing the push pass exactly right. Michael, have you ever done a push pass before? No? Wow, you are doing really well. Look, everybody, see how he is turning his pass foot out and making his foot stiff, then hitting the ball in the middle. And, look at his plant foot, which is pointed right at Johnny. Way to go, Michael!" Because all of the other kids will want some praise too, this method can work very well (although the coach must be careful to spread these good examples around, to avoid looking like he has a "pet" player).

    In the early stages of learning a skill, the coach must remember to praise, praise and praise. The player must feel that the coach is positive that the player CAN do it. Thus, as the coach makes the rounds, constant comments should be made to reinforce successes. Even if a player has messed up 3 out of the 4 elements of a skill, he still got one right. The coach needs to grasp onto this one right element, and build from there in order to get the player to keep on trying even when the skill is difficult for him.

    How is this done? By pointing out what he did right, then pointing out a SINGLE correction which needs to be made, then getting him to try to make this correction, and praising the dickens out of his effort. Older players may be able to take multiple corrections at once, but young players do better with one step at a time if they are having trouble. So, using the example of the push pass, let's say that the only thing that the player is doing correctly is getting his plant foot pointed at the other player - but he is not turning his pass foot outward; he isn't locking his foot; and he is hitting the ball underneath with a floppy foot, so it is going airborne and flying wildly into the next grid. Overall, not having much success, right?

    In this situation, with this many problems, the coach may decide that it is important enough to get success to do some individual corrections (as the player already feels like an idiot anyway, so coach really cannot make it much worse for the poor dear). The first thing to do is to offer encouragement, especially if the player is starting to get upset. It can help to remind the player of earlier successes ("well, you didn't think that you could do pull-backs either - but you learned how, didn't you?"). It also can help to mention the one right thing which they are doing (although the coach should be careful about making too big a deal of this, especially if this is a fairly small accomplishment, as the player may end up feeling worse).

    If the coach is fairly sure that the player will be able to "get it" with a fairly short demonstration, then this is the way to go. The first thing to try usually is to get the player to stand beside the coach, and watch while the coach demonstrates, then to give it another try. Then, if this doesn't work, the coach may want to get down and show the player what is needed by turning the foot outward. Sometimes, the player may simply be confused by some word used by the coach. For example, many coaches will tell a player to "lock the ankle". Often, the little ones have no idea what this means - but will immediately understand if you tell them to "make your foot stiff".

    The objective of the coach in making the correction is to get the player to show the coach a "good one" before the coach moves on. There may be some interim steps to this stage, with the coach saying "better" or "almost" - but the coach wants to be fairly sure that the player really does understand the concept (even if short on the execution) before the coach moves along. The idea is to build a praise or PNP sandwich (giving praise, followed by the negative, followed by more praise). Thus, in most cases, the coach will want to say "Good, Johnny, I really like the way that you are turning your foot out and striking the ball right in the middle. You might get more accuracy if you paid more attention to your plant foot, though. Remember that you want to aim your toe at your partner. Let's try that. Better. Show me another one. Good, see how much more accurate that it. You are almost there. Another 3 minutes and I think you will have it."

    However, what do you do if the poor little thing is just not catching on? The coach cannot spend more than a minute or so with the player, or he risks losing track of the others. Besides, the poor partner is going to be bored to death if you take this extra time with one player. So, what does the coach do then? There are several possibilities. One is to recruit a willing parent to help out - and just send the child off to the side for awhile to work, while putting his partner into another group. Another is to pull over your best player at this particular skill, and ask him to work with this player (with the partner switching places with him). Often, this works terrifically, because the better player gets a chance to develop leadership skills (and also tends to "own" the player whom he has helped - which promotes teamwork), while the newer player gets the chance to see that somebody who is his own age really can do this stuff.

    If you don't have any available assistants, or willing/able players, then you need to figure out a way to combine this group with another group so that the partner of the weak player does not suffer (or rotate partners fairly often, for the same reason). Then, you need to hold a separate session with the player to work on the skill (before or after practice, or even on the weekend for an hour or so). On occasion, if the skill is relatively easy, a simple demo for the parent right after practice is enough, with a request that they work with the player at home later. And, finally, if you still are getting no success, it may make sense to suggest some private coaching with a different coach. This often can help, especially with technique issues like kicking, because another coach may notice something which you have missed - or be able to explain things in just enough of a different way that it will finally "click" with the player. But, don't overlook your responsibilities to the entire team - and get so bogged down in the problems of this one player that you ignore the rest. Simply do your best to help, and accept that there are times when you may not succeed. By the same token, remember that players are growing and changing constantly, and that the problem could arise from temporary coordination problems or some developmental lag. Thus, keep encouraging the player to work on the problem, and keep your fingers crossed (for him and for yourself).

  • How to adjust the drill to fix common problems
  • Work-rate seems too low/players are bored

    Turn the drill into a contest. The work-rate, especially for boys, goes up dramatically if there is a race to see which pair is the first to, say, get 20 good passes in a row. So, if they are acting bored and aren't working hard, consider turning the drill into a contest. No idea how to do this? Just ask the kids - they are the "fun" experts (and invent games all of the time in normal play). They will be delighted that you asked - and that you truly don't want practices to be boring. So, this is an occasion where everyone wins.

    Too many players are idle

    One common mistake is to have line drills( which are drills where all of the players are lined up in a row, waiting to take a turn at doing something). These drills are a recipe for disaster, as the kids are bound to get bored and will start pushing/shoving/bickering, instead of paying attention. If you have to have lines for some reason (such as shooting drills), have multiple lines and turn whatever you are doing into a competition between the groups in the lines. Another option is relay races, which force the next in line to pay attention - and forces things to move much more quickly.

    Not enough success (pressure too high)

    The basic rule of thumb in soccer is: More Space = More Time = Less Pressure on Attackers. By the same token, to get less pressure for defenders, you use the equation Less Space = Less Time (for the attackers) = Less Pressure on Defenders.

    It obviously is important to let players have success. Generally, an offensive drill/activity will first be done with very little pressure. Pressure on the attackers can be adjusted in two ways - by increasing the space to the point where the attackers can move fairly easily around any defenders or by having the defenders move in slow-motion. Then, as the concept is learned, pressure is slowly increased. When defensive pressure is first applied on beginning attackers, it often may be better if the coach does it. Teammates will, even when instructed not to, may apply too much pressure to begin with.

    Why? Defending is easier for younger players than attacking. Moreover, younger players like to move and run, so it can be hard to get them to act in slow-motion. However, it is essential to be able to restrict your defenders in the early stages of training attackers, so that your attackers don't get rattled and are able to gain confidence. Here are some ways to harness these over-eager defenders:

    Look for all sorts of ways to reduce pressure on the attacker, by giving the attacker more space or more time. You can do this by making the grid bigger, or giving the attacker a head start, or giving the defender a handicap. Be creative. For example, you can put a defender at a corner flag, and let him come out as soon as you serve a ball into an attacker coming straight at goal from around the 30 - or you can leave him by the goal post and not allow him to start until the attacker crosses the penalty arc. Or, you can put a defender 3-5 yards behind the attacker, and let them both go at once. And, all of these situations will arise in games (even the anchored defender, who is equivalent to somebody who has just twisted an ankle or knee), so don't be shy about using them.

    New defenders also will need some help (although probably not as much as new attackers). A defensive drill/activity for newer players should be structured so that the space is relatively tight, which reduces the pressure on the defenders - and promotes their success . However, because defensive skills come somewhat more "naturally" to younger players than dribbling skills, the space which they are defending (and, hence, the pressure on them) typically can be increased more rapidly.

  • Special problems in teaching goalkeepers
  • Many coaches are not sure how to train a goalkeeper, so they overlook this training. In addition, even if they want to work with their keeper, they have a hard time finding practice time where they can devote attention to this specialized training.

    For beginners, it is not a bad idea to hold 1-2 practices on basic goalkeeping, so that they can try their hands at the task and see if they like it. Just simple stuff on hand position to catch the ball high/middle/low; footwork to move around the goal; the basic rules on when the ball can be picked up (so they can help the keeper to remember if the ball is passed back or if the keeper is close to the edge of the box); and basic punting. When teaching angles, you will need strikers anyway, and this is an excellent time to teach everyone about common keeper/striker mistakes in finishing.

    If you have an older team, and only have 2-3 players who will play in goal, some ideas/options include:

    Updated 7 April 1999
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