We have them on our fields, in our parks, and even in our houses!
Parents bring them from all over. Even after a long car ride they run from the parking lot with an excitement that puts a smile on my face. That’s when it hits me – I’m here to teach them, but they are here to PLAY! Not play soccer specifically, they are here to play a game. Just like the games that 1st graders make up at recess. They add all these crazy rules and call them out religiously. Their faces say it all, let’s play!
These days, there is not much debate on how to go about coaching them. The associations around the world have turned towards a player-centered approach. The focus is on the player. Who is the little person in front of me and how can I make him/her a better player? This approach takes the pressure away from your players, and moves it all to you! Surprise!
No worries, take a deep breath. It’s not the world cup. The nation is not depending on you, but you should strive to see them off better than when they started with you. By now you should have some small sided games and a bunch of technical drills in your repertoire. Below are a few threats to success, and solutions that are less talked about. You will have more talented players that will perform better in certain assignments than others. Each of the suggested solutions should be adjusted for each player.
Pushing to Strive
Some kids arrive at the practice and just do the bare minimum. We’ve all seen them. Head down, barely jogging. Is it time to push? I would ask a few questions first: ‘How are you feeling? Did you have a practice before this? When was the last time you ate? What did you eat?’ If this kid had a 2-hour piano lesson just before practice, she is going to be mentally drained. Focus will be out the window. You will need to lay off today.
There is that one kid. When she arrives at practice all the focus is gone from the practice and is now on her. She sucks it all up with his energy and charisma. I choose to look at this in a positive light. If you can take that enthusiasm and focus it on the task at hand, boom, you just taught the kid to focus! ‘Hey Sara, wow! You are excited about soccer today! How about a challenge: whoever can do this task without mistakes gets to be goalie/striker first.’ The prize must be something your focus magnet really likes. Everyone will fall in line after your magnet is focused. Later, the prizes can be varied.
You see a kid making the same mistake week in and week out, despite numerous corrections from you. You must catch it and correct it when it’s happening. Replay the situation. Point out the visual queues that tell the player what to do. Rewire those visual queues in to the desired decision. Often, they will take on an idea if they see someone else do it, so it can be helpful to suggest an online video of a pro doing it over and over in a game setting. Another great tool is shouting out bonus points when a player does a desired action in a scrimmage.
Remember that they are there to play. They are not doing it wrong to spite you, they are playing. Keep your ego in check and play with them. You are here to make them more successful at playing. If they are not getting it, break the drill down, take out a rule, add a neutral player, make the space bigger. Your feedback approach must vary with each kid. Positive reinforcement like a bonus point for each time they do something right works wonders.
There you are, yet again jotting down another drill. You are doing your best to isolate an issue, but all that’s on a paper is a drill with two lines and a bunch of unmotivated kids. Unless you are in a technical practice, it’s always best to make a game out of it, because they want to play! The easiest is to make the desired movement/pass/shot be the objective. One point per desired outcome. There is no doubt that they want goals, but competition is the next best thing. If you have too many players, make short games, and rotate teams in and out. If you still have too many, make a king’s court – have multiple fields, after 3-5 minute games, winners move to the next field up to the winner’s field, the others go to the next loser’s field. If you don’t have enough players, you can do short games of similar lengths, with 1-2 minute breaks to keep intensity up. After a few games, the losing team sings a song to the other team (something fun).
Creativity mostly comes from unstructured play. Leave space in your routine for unstructured creativity. From letting them make their own teams, to picking their own formation to letting them play with minimal input from the coach. Throw in a couple of extra nets. Put two nets in the middle of the field facing away from each other. Put the nets at the top of the 16m box facing the other way. Throw in a penalty shoot out at the end of practice.
Make sure it’s fun and teach them what you can. It’s all fine and dandy while they are having fun. But how do you consolidate fun with losses of 9-3! The confusion and mayhem that goes on in a game in which your squad makes the simplest mistakes which you thought you got rid of last season. The type of game that makes you want to eat your hat, vs. fun. I offer you my deepest sympathy for your losses, and wholehearted thanks for all the time you spend planning and running your sessions. I don’t know you, but you need to hear those words.
We are going to take a deep breath and step back a little. We need to go back to the center of our attention: the little players. How do they think and learn? Do you know which of your kids area visual learners? Which ones are audio learners?...
They use every single free moment for something they love – horse around, tease, make up a song, make up something silly to say – they are plain having fun. While they are having fun, they are following your instructions and completing their assignments. All good!