When I first agreed to coach my daughter’s soccer team (U7), I was desperate for a quick guide on “How to Not Suck at Coaching Soccer.” I had no previous experience with soccer, so I put myself through a crash course on soccer basics. I scoured the internet for tips, techniques, videos, and advice. I attended coaches’ orientation, and I also visited the local library to read everything about coaching soccer. I made it through that first season, and I’ve since followed up with two additional seasons of coaching at the U5 level (for my son). Along the way, I absorbed mountains of suggestions from fellow coaches, parents, and fans. I also had the opportunity to observe the coaching styles of over 20 youth soccer coaches. I distilled all of those experiences into this quick guide; the guide that I wish I had at the beginning. I hope that you find it useful.
Take Charge. This item might seem obvious, but I have seen several coaches fail at this most basic task. Players and parents both want a coach who appears to be in charge. Being “in charge” means that it is your responsibility to initiate the action – both on and off the practice field.
As soon as you get your team roster, you need to contact the parents to introduce yourself and share your contact information. At the first practice, you need to be early and initiate introductions. I always great the parents first, and then I use a Supernanny-style greeting when greeting the children for the first time. That is, I take a knee so that I am at eye level to the kids and say, “Hi, my name is Aaron, I’ll be your coach. You can call me Coach or Coach Aaron.” Please note, being “in charge” does not mean being a jerk. A coach who yells, criticizes, and talks trash to the kids is not in charge; he is just a jerk.
Have a Plan. This item might also seem obvious, but notice that I did not say to follow the plan. For the first practice, and every subsequent practice, I write a long list of every activity or drill that we might do. My plan for every practice is about 25 items long, far too long to complete in a single practice. I think through the steps of each activity, make sure that I have any necessary equipment to run the drill, and then – I wing it. That’s right; I ignore my plan unless I get stumped on what to do next. For older children, a regimented schedule would probably work better – but young kids are just too unpredictable.
I usually start with some standard warm up activity and then let practice flow very naturally from one activity to the next. When the kids get bored with a task, we change tasks. When the kids get tired, we take a water break. When the kids do something unsafe, we sit down for team talk. The point is that your plan should not be rigid; practice should not be regimented. However, you, as the coach, must prepare in advance if you expect to have a productive practice.
Keep It Simple. If you coach U7 or younger, you can expect at least one of your players to have no previous soccer experience. Even if your kids are experienced, they are still kids. I have witnessed several coaches who set up offensive and defensive plays for 5-year-olds. Really? My entire U5 coaching strategy fits on an index card. I share the strategy with parents by e-mail. I ask parents to use the same language when they play with their kids at home or cheer from the sidelines as a way to reinforce what we do in practice. Here it is:
For defense, I emphasize:
- 1. Go take it
- 2. Get in front of the ball (i.e., get between the ball and your goal)
- 3. Meet the ball (i.e., run where it is going, not where it is at)
For offense, I emphasize:
- 1. Control the ball
- 2. Go fast
- 3. Shoot (i.e., kick through the ball as you watch it into the goal)
- 4. Keep going (i.e., follow your shots to get another chance)
For goaltending, I emphasize:
- 1. Watch the ball (i.e., pay attention even when the ball is at the other end)
- 2. Pick it up
- 3. Throw it to your friends
Show and Tell Actively. Young children interpret the simplest directions in the weirdest ways. When you say “go” they’ll hear “stop.” When you say “stop” they’ll hear “run.” The best way to teach them is to participate actively in demonstrating your expectations. Telling them to use two hands over the head for a throw in will not work. Telling them to use two hands over the head while you demonstrate the technique wins every time.
Active show and tell means that sometimes you might even have to join in the game to keep the practice under control. And practice will get out of control periodically. When it does, that fastest way to get it back is to take the lead in silliness, take the silliness up a notch, and then redirect the attention toward a productive task.
Have Fun or Stop. On my teams, when the kids stop having fun, we stop. This last season, I made the decision to forfeit a game with only a few minutes left to play. We were far ahead of the other team. All three of my kids on the field were dead tired. I didn’t have any substitutes, because several players were on vacation. My kids were tired to the point that one stopped playing; he was just standing on the field. I really wanted to win, but the game was not about me. It wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about the parents. We stopped because the kids weren’t having fun anymore.
Hyper-competitive coaches and parents will hate this idea, but games are supposed to be fun. It is common to see young children crying on the soccer field as adult men try to coerce performance. To me, winning (especially at such a young age) is secondary to having fun. Most of the kids on my team do not want to be elite athletes. They want to have fun and make friends. Competition is only part of the fun. Winning is a bonus, not the focus.
Relax and Smile. Much of the advice on coaching is geared toward making professional athletes. The universal theme of coaching guides is that you should focus on improve shooting accuracy, increasing endurance, increasing speed, increasing strength, and improving decision making. Most of this coaching advice is absolutely wrong when applied to younger players.
The truth is that even elite professional athletes, at one time, started out as young children playing youth sports. Like millions of other children, these elite athletes had to learn the basic skills of the game from a volunteer coach. The primary purpose of a coach for young children is to make them want to play again next season. If you take charge, have a practice plan, keep your game strategy simple, show and tell actively, and stop when the fun stops – you will be better than 50 percent of the volunteers who coach youth soccer. That is, you will not suck.