How I found out I wasn’t a good coach

“Successful coaching is getting people to believe it’s in their best interest to help achieve someone’s goal.” I read the first sentence and thought Wow that’s good and then I don’t think I’ve done that in two years.

Maybe a handful of the 100+ kids I coached in the past two years understood the concept of team. The rest wanted to score goals. And scrimmage. And not do soccer drills. But that’s the whole point of my blog: I’m reading these books to find out what I’m doing wrong. To find tips for youth soccer coaching as it pertains to the U8s, U9s, and U10s I see weekly.

I’m starting with The Soccer Coaching Bible, recommended by our Director of Coaching and the NSCAA. Articles written by their top 30 coaches layered in one comprehensive book covering coaching priorities, progression activities, program building, etc. It’s not geared towards youth soccer, but there’s enough in here to make me cringe at my coaching behaviors. Here are 4 of my worst offenses.

Always maintain class

Not what I thought I would learn first. I started coaching soccer for several reasons 1) I was bored in small town USA. 2) I wanted to hang out with kids because they’re fun. 3) I play soccer. I certainly behaved myself in front of the kids, but never considered being their role model. I come to practice right on time, run through the activities, and high five the kids at the end of practice. The only role model-esque thing I did was riding my bike to practice to show the town that people can get around in vehicles that aren’t cars. But the first thing the book said was to hold yourself with dignity.

Coaches should be an inspiring presence – respectful, confident but not cocky, authentic, void of excuses, has a sense of humor, and cultivates good manners. The definition of class. If you’re sloppy the kids get sloppy, and once you start goofing off, you’ll lose their attention for the rest of practice. Coaches, we establish the atmosphere for the team’s standard of conduct. Let’s be a positive example and maintain class in our coaching styles.

I like imagining myself to be a quiet, mysterious coach who’s every word the kids strain to hear. Whose every ‘request’ the kids try their best to fulfill. My plan is to act more maturely during practice and set the standard of behavior I want to see from the kids.

Look at the details

Before practice, our head coach emails the day’s main topic and activity suggestions. This week the topic is attack dribbling – teaching feints for 1 v 1 situations. I picked these activities for the U8 and U9s.

-Warm up with everyone dribbling in the penalty box without crashing into each other. Call out moves.
-With them on the sidelines, teach them one fake (scissors, the inside-out, and kick feint) and have them dribble to the other side of the field with it
-Disperse cones – kids to dribble to them and do a fake
-Split the field vertically in 3 sections and do 1 v 1s.
-Scrimmage
Pretty solid I thought.

But the book wanted more detail. It wanted attention to every detail – the activity, the size of the game, how you would divide up the teams, bib placement, length of activity, and length of rest periods. Bib placement? To quicken the transition between activities. But it’s not saying be a robot and stick to the plan. Detailed plans plus flexibility to tweak sessions based on observations lead to great practices. We have a finite time to coach players, maybe 3-5 hours a week. Assuming they don’t play soccer outside practice, we can’t waste a single minute setting up the field or haphazardly dividing the kids up.

This could be the big difference between regular and top coaches. I heard Pep and Mourinho were neurotically detail driven. (Anyone ever heard of Mourinho’s legendary scouting reports?) Part of me had been lazy, thinking I could wing it. Time to change.

Create a flow

The previous section had a list of soccer activities, which by chance had some flow to it. Warm up -> Technical instruction -> Small games -> Complex Games -> Match. But it needs improvement.

The book’s examples went so seamlessly from warm up to game, it left me breathless. Here is an example focusing on counter attacks.

  • Warm up – In a 30×40 area, split your team in two, and only one half has soccer balls. In the grid, have the team with soccer balls find open teammates and do combination plays with them. Wall pass, takeovers, overlaps, etc. This starts the practice with precision passes and movements in tight areas. Players increase awareness and start communicating.  
  • Transition game – Make two adjacent grids, 20×20. Play 4v2 keep-away in one grid, giving points for splitting the defense. If defenders intercept the ball, they pass it to the other grid where two teammates are waiting. Again play 4v2. Players are forced to quickly transition from offense to defense when they lose the ball. Defenders are also always thinking about a ‘counterattack’: get the ball forward quickly upon interception.
  • Small game – 4v4 with goals. Only 3 people on your team can play defense, and one forward stays up front. Ideally the defenders form a triangle. Upon interception, counter immediately by targeting the forward. This mimics a game situation. Forwards can receive the ball at feet, receive a through ball to the space behind the defender, or receive into space diagonally away from the defender.
  • Game – 5v5 with goals. When defending, everyone has to drop back. Attacking team has to push up as high as possible.This creates space in the back for counterattacks.

Brilliant. Soccer exercises moving from warm up to a game, all centered on one theme. Luckily, you don’t need to invent activities since many coaching books are available. You can take activity ideas, tweak them to work for your group and topic, and test them out. If you record your results, pretty soon you’ll have a folder of practical activities that you know work well.

Enjoy it

Finally, have fun with it. That’s what soccer is: an escape, where I too can be Zizou or Ronaldo. The players don’t want to stand still and listen to us “coach” – they do that all day in school. They want to joke with their friends, get praised by coaches, and be excited. Be there cheering for teammates or chase the ball down and do that move you just taught them. In my best session so far I had the players and assistant coaches yelling and the surrounding fields peering over, because everyone was genuinely excited with the competition and the goals that the players slammed in. I couldn’t pull them off the field. That’s the passion I want to see every day.

Stay tuned on how I start implementing this! Any other coaching principles I missed?

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