After many years of coaching youth soccer teams, I’m convinced that there are a small number of sure-fire tips that will lead to a winning team. Basically, if you practice right, position your players right, and push-up in games, your chances are good. It all starts in practice.
A good practice is all about the touches.
No, that doesn’t mean high fives or group hugs. It simply means that you need to plan your practices to maximize the number of ball touches each player has. There’s nothing more boring at any age level than having 10 players stand around watching 2 players dribble a ball between a long line of cones, or having 1 line of players lined up to each take a single shot before chasing their wayward ball. Worse than boring, these drills are ineffective. There are countless resources available for a rookie coach – both on-line and in bookstores, but the best drills are ones that maximize touches. For example, instead of setting up 2 long lines of cones and having players take turns dribbling through them, set up a 20-by-20 square, put an equal number of players with a ball on each of the 4 sides, and have them dribble to the opposite side and back a dozen times, all at the same time. Each player is engaged, each player quickly learns they need to dribble with their head up to avoid collisions, and you can teach the same dribbling techniques in traffic, which is the way they’ll be dribbling in games.
A good practice is also fun.
Kids at all ages enjoy games and competition, and better yet, the lessons they learn in competitions are understood better than those learned from a repetitive drill. So instead of a solo dribbling drill followed by a passing drill between two players, make it a single competition. Set up a relay race among teams of two players each, with only two cones for each team. Each player will dribble from their first cone to their second cone, perform a specific turn or move around the cone, followed by a pass back to their teammate. Each player will soon learn that a bad pass will put them behind in the race, and that a bad “reception” will do the same. They police each other to do better at the fundamentals so that they will do better in the race. Recognize the teams that do well. Then mix up the teams and do it again. But choose games that work on multiple skills at once.
A winning team is positioned well.
In basketball, no matter what level, you never see the most awkward kid dribbling the ball up as point guard, or the shortest kid playing center. In football, you don’t develop your offensive line by putting your five smallest guys in to block at the same time. It just doesn’t make sense. Yet in soccer, I see it all the time.
So the tip to soccer coaches is simple – learn the attributes of good players at each position, and then position your players with a purpose. So what are these attributes? Well, a defender doesn’t have to have the best ball skills and he doesn’t have to be fast. He does, however, have to be brave and aggressive. If you put ball-shy, passive players at defense, your goalie is in for a long day. A goalie, meanwhile, needs to have decent hands and not be afraid of the ball. A center midfielder needs to be able to run and get to the ball. A forward should have ball skills and be able to shoot.
Now that you know the basic attributes, you need to match them up with your players, and as usual, you can do this in targeted games and competitions. For example, you can identify your brave, aggressive kids by playing a few games of Sharks and Minnows, where 1 “shark” enters a circle filled with all your other players (the “minnows”) and tries to knock as many balls out of the circle within 45 seconds. Keep track of how the sharks do, and you’ll get a good feel for the kids who naturally will be able to attack the ball on defense. Do the same thing for the other positions and their attributes, and keep running those games and drills from practice-to-practice, looking for development.
For development, depending on the age, you’ll want to move the players from position to position in games, but always try to pair up the less-experienced player at a position with an experienced “mentor”. For example, if you want to develop a defender, pair him/her up with a good defender and play them together. That gives the new defender a chance to learn in game situations, while also giving your team a chance to be successful. Similarly, put your inexperienced goalie behind your more experienced defenders, who will limit the quantity and quality of shots that the new goalie will have to face.
The bottom line is, if you want to be successful in your games, you need a single line of strength all the way up the field … 1 solid defender, 1 solid mid-fielder, and 1 solid forward. You can mix and match players around them, but if you have at least one solid player from goalie all the way to forward on game day, you have a chance to make a save and advance the ball up the field on an attack without hitting a “dead zone”. If you have all weak players at even one of those levels, then you will often lose momentum (and the ball) in that dead zone area.
And finally, on game day, push up.
That simply means that when your forwards and midfielders are on the attack, push your defenders to the midfield line to compete for the ball when the other team tries to clear it out of their zone. Any defender who isn’t competing for that ball can retreat in case the ball isn’t won. If you leave your defenders back by your goal, you may feel safer, but it’s a false sense of security – you’re really just increasing the other team’s scoring chances. Why? Because if your defenders are not pushed-up, then any clearing kick to midfield will lead to an attack on your side of the field. In addition, you’ll never force an off-sides pass with your defenders back. Since most successful teams tend to keep the ball on the opponent’s side of the field, pushing up on defense is often a key strategy to their success.
So that’s it. Make practices all about the touches, make practices fun, position players correctly, and push-up on defense. You’ll be well on your way to coaching a winning team.