First of all, I get it—I’ve been there. Rushing straight from work to coach who knows how many players showing up at who knows what time. You’ve got the kid who moves like a cheetah and HAS to win every relay or 1v1 and the kid who hates recess and only smiles when you sub them off the field. There’s the kid with behavioral issues whose parents have run the numbers and figured out that recreational sports are a cost-effective form of childcare. There’s the kid who comes straggling up to the field five minutes after every game has kicked off, with the red-faced dad who sends angry emails to the league because his son has never been in the starting lineup. And there’s the kid with the polished first touch and passing skills who burned out on competitive soccer, and now it’s your responsibility to keep her from quitting the sport entirely.
These players are—or should be—the “grassroots” base of the developmental pyramid. There is no way of predicting at 7-8-9 years-old who will still be playing the game at 16-17-18, so that part of the base needs to be as wide and well-cared for as possible in order grow the game. But this crucial foundation tends to get forgotten when it comes to allocating time, coaching support, field space, equipment, and other resources. We consistently put the hardest coaching challenges in the hands of volunteers who have the best intentions but often limited experience.We consistently put the hardest coaching challenges in the hands of volunteers who have the best intentions but often limited experience, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
Kicking off the fall season this year, I helped lead a coaching clinic for coaches who stepped up and volunteered on the recreational side of our club’s program. After a few weeks of watching the teams practicing out on our local fields, I realized that while I may have adequately demonstrated how to organize and execute a routine practice, I had failed to communicate a few crucial dos and don’ts that can really make a difference. With that end in mind, here are seven suggestions that will immediately improve a grassroots or recreational soccer practice (and like most things in life, I learned each of these by first doing them wrong myself).
1. Begin Every Practice with a Game
I understand the desire to turn chaos into order and snap every practice into instant atten-SHUN with a show of military discipline. In the practice space to your left, the coach is fighting a losing battle with the telescoping arms of his pricey collapsible goals while the dozen boys on his team are throwing around a plastic water bottle and tackling each other in a game that’s equal parts rugby and Lord of the Flies. The coach in the space to your right hasn’t even showed up yet—a handful of players are there milling about on their phones while one teammate launches punts 50 feet straight up in the air, watching the kids on their phones scatter each time the ball hurtles back to earth.
In this moment, nothing shows you’re running a much tighter ship than your counterparts like organizing your players into lines for drills that are tightly choreographed, highly technical, or physically demanding, or maybe all three. That FIFA 11+ warm-up? That non-dominant-foot-only dribbling slalom? That “last-man-up” interval run around the field complex?
Trust me—let that temptation go.
Instead, start every practice in a way that lets your players know they’ve come to the right place—they’re going to play, have fun, and get better. Tony Holler has summed this up best: Make your practices the best part of a kid’s day.
Set up a large goal or opposing mini goals or just cones for goals and see what the players do as they arrive. If they start playing 2v1 or 3v2 or 4v4, amazing, stay out of their way for a bit. If they create a game shooting on goal, all good, let them play it. With younger players, they may not yet have the ability or imagination to start their own game and will need direction—help them organize a shooting challenge or a mini scrimmage, or you can take over entirely and start your practice right off the bat with Sharks and Minnows or Red Light Green Light or the Numbers Game or whatever game you usually use as the “fun” activity later in a practice.
This concept from the Play-Practice-Play model is brilliant in its simplicity, and it works—set the tone and energy of your practices by having the kids play the moment they get there. That 10-minute game will check most of the boxes of a proper warm-up—and all those players who perpetually show up 5–15 minutes late because, why not, they’re just missing laps or static stretches or cone dribbling? Now they’re motivated to get to the field on time because start time is game time.Set the tone and energy of your practices by having the kids PLAY the moment they get there…Ideally, instead of YOU turning chaos into order, your players will begin to be the ones doing it. Click To Tweet
This can require swallowing some ego, because to all outward appearances, this opening “play” phase may not look like you have the tightest handle on things. Ideally, however, instead of you turning chaos into order, your players will begin to be the ones doing it—which is what attacking sports are all about.
Here’s an example: my competitive team of sixth- and seventh-grade girls has developed its own pre-practice game where players blast shots from 18–25 yards out while others line the goal line and deflect the shots. This game began with zero input from me—naturally, those players more inclined to attacking roles generally self-select as the shooters and those more inclined to defensive roles choose to be the blockers. They crack off shots, make saves, talk trash, and actively play their way into each practice—the game usually gets underway 10 minutes before practice formally starts, and I tend to let it carry on five minutes into our set start time and then begin from there.
In a summer tournament match, our keeper got caught outside of the 18-yard box on a challenge and the opposing player crossed the ball centrally to their open striker and…what do you know? Several of our defenders posted up on the goal line just like in their pre-practice game. The first shot on frame was deflected with a knee, the rebound shot was deflected with a shin, and what would have been the decisive goal in tournament play was prevented thanks to a warm-up game I never would have created on my own.
2. Throw Away That Dry Erase Coaching Board (and the Whistle Too)
If you want your players to sit with rapt attention, shortly after that FIFA 11+ warm-up and complex set of drills, gather them in to sit while you draw up formations or indicate tactical movements with the teeny round magnets on your coaching whiteboard. During this strategic talk, all eyes will be on you, and it feels like this is where the magic happens: you’re Pep, you’re Pia, you’re Mourinho.
When kids get 75% of what you are saying, they will pepper you with comments and follow-up questions to get the final parts of the picture. Kids who get 0% of what you’re saying will nod seriously and sit in absolute silence, lest they let slip they haven’t understood a word.
Put yourself in their shoes—you’re drawing triangles and numbers and arrows or sliding those little M&M dots in ways that appear backward or upside down. Someone’s head is right in their way, or they may not be close enough to see in the first place, and by and large, they will not have the cognitive ability to appreciate a number or shape indicating a “player” and visualize themselves in those positions out in space.
The reason they are sitting so quietly is that they do not understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.
Sorry, Pep. Throw. That. Board. Away.
Disc cones are an effective tool to show your players your basic playing formation—even better if you have different colors to represent different position groups, so you can also describe the mindset and responsibilities of each role on the field. Unlike the coaching board, cones are interactive—you can have players move them based on shifts on the field, or you can spread the cones out and have the players stand at each position to see what their basic formation looks like.
Dowels or PVC pipes are useful with younger age groups to demonstrate connections between cones/players: you can use a dowel to show that your left back and left wing are connected and should be able to see each other at most points of the game without being in each other’s shadows. Meanwhile, your left back and right wing are not connected. If your right wing realizes they are in high-five distance of your left back, something has gone wrong.
On a similar topic, that whistle hanging around your neck has a fun, retro PE teacher vibe and you don’t need to actually trash it—keep it in your bag, because someday the ref won’t show up, and you’ll need a whistle as you simultaneously referee the game and coach it. That is what whistles are for—refereeing. Teach your players to play to the referee’s whistle while you coach with your voice.
3. Be Early and Make Your Space a Field
Yes, you’re coming straight from the office and your players should be grateful you sucked it up and volunteered in the first place—and, besides, when you do roll in, there’s that one team dogpiling each other while their coach wrestles with his portable goals and another team dragging through some type of Navy SEAL hell-week run. All things considered, you’re golden.
Still, however much time you’re volunteering, plan to volunteer 20 more minutes of it before each practice.
This is when you turn chaos into order. Being early allows you to set your space—most likely, you will not have a full, lined field all to yourself for your recreational practice, so create your field of play. Soccer is a game of space, and it lacks the more well-defined landmarks of sports like softball, basketball, and football—spatial relationships on the soccer pitch are even harder for young players to grasp if the playing space itself lacks boundaries.Set the rectangle that will be your practice field for the day. Spatial relationships on the soccer pitch are even harder for younger players to grasp if the playing space lacks boundaries. Click To Tweet
So, set the rectangle that will be your practice field for the day. Depending on the space provided to you, the age of your players, and what you’re planning to do in that day’s practice, your space may be 40 x 30, 60 x 45, 70 x 55… who knows. At a minimum, use large cones or poles for the four corners and a different color of cones for the two midlines and set all of your activities within that defined field.
As the players arrive, if the field setup looks different and purposefully designed each day, that sets their imagination going and makes them wonder what activities you have planned for the session. Plus, the earlier you are there, the earlier parents will realize they can safely drop off their players—so you can get them into the routine of playing their opening game before practice begins and then the full span of practice is yours to utilize.
4. If Your Drill Requires Lines of More Than 3 or 4, Do Something Else
For real. If you take nothing else away from this article, please, let it be this.
No matter how useful or valid the skill you are trying to teach, no matter how expertly designed your layout of cones or poles or obstacles… three is about the max number of players you ever want in any single-file line. One player doing the drill, one just about to do the drill, and one who knows that in a moment they will be the next one about to do the drill.
Beyond that, the fourth, fifth, sixth in line will need to occupy themselves with something else while waiting for their turn to be close to their turn, and that something else will inevitably set them up for failure once their time finally does arrive.
You want to teach the “give and go” to your team of a dozen exuberant 7-year-olds, but you’re the only one who can actually deliver that effective wall-pass back? Do not, do not, do not have your 12 players line up single file and pass you the ball for a give and go drill—calculate how many minutes it will take for each player to get through that line six times to perform the skill and think of how many touches on the ball they could be getting in those 15 minutes rather than standing in line cloud-watching or doing cartwheels.If the only way you can do the thing you want your players to do requires lines of 6-7-8 kids standing and waiting for a turn… Do something else. That something will be better, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
All lines are not the enemy. Some of your activities may be physically demanding and short lines are a good way for players to have a natural rest between repetitions. Also, from a modeling perspective, being next in line and watching their teammates perform a skill or drill may be the best way for some of your players to learn the skill or the flow of a pattern. But if the only way you can do the thing you want your players to do requires lines of 6-7-8 kids standing and waiting for a turn… Do something else. That something will be better.
5. Make Your Warm-Up Multi-Task (and 5-10 Minutes, Max)
If you start opening your practices with a game, ideally that will elevate your players’ heart rates and body temps, prep specific muscles and tissues that will be used during that training, and switch their mindset from school/home mode into active/athletic mode—which, in and of itself, should accomplish the goals of your warm-up in the first place.
There are, however, other valid goals you may want to achieve via a structured warm-up:
- Team bonding and self-organization.
- Introducing specific movements that you value (skips, backpedaling, hops and jumps, shuffling, etc.).
- Introducing foundational ball skills (toe-taps, bells, sole-rolls, and other skills that are great for both proprioception and basic conditioning).
- Preparing players for what an organized pre-game warm-up will entail should they continue to higher levels of the sport.
- Setting foundations for resilience and injury mitigation.
Personally, I happen to think every kid needs to be able to jump and land forward and backward on a single leg, alternate from a backpedal to a sprint, skip, shuffle, and change directions, so I add those movements to warm-ups. I also like to continue competing directly out of our opening game, so relay races are a game-based way to multi-task and perform those movements with intent.
And if you really want to do that 20-minute, FIFA 11+ warm-up? Sure, introduce it one week; there’s genuine value in teaching your young players the what, how, and why of an extensive warm-up. Just make sure that a warm-up routine isn’t a routine way to kill the first 15 minutes of every practice—the longer and more repetitive the warm-up, the sloppier the movements get over time. So, use variety and multi-task your goals—the next practice after your extensive warm-up, have your players do a five-minute warm-up with the ball at their feet combined with jumps and plyos:
- Toe-taps, then skater jumps over the ball.
- Bells, then four-corner jumps over the ball.
- Standing v’s, then bicycle jumps.
- Start/stops with the ball and without.
And so on. Keep the intent high. Soccer is a complicated game, and your players have a lot to learn.
6. Do Not Jog Laps (Not as Fitness, Not as Punishment)
Maybe someone forwarded you an article from Runner’s World or maybe it was a Trivial Pursuit question or maybe you ran a Google search and came across a fun fact stating that soccer players can run 7+ miles in a match. Consequently, conditioning may seem like an important place to start in terms of preparing your players for the sport.
I do unequivocally believe that any healthy athlete between 8 and 18 years old should be able to crank out a 3K without collapsing. The ability to jog 1–2 miles is a basic physical KPI that ought to be viewed as no less a foundation than the ability to perform a push-up, land a broad jump, hold a plank position, do a bodyweight squat, etc.
However, just because your kids should be able to run a mile doesn’t mean it’s a good use of your limited practice time to have them run a mile.Just because your kids should be able to run a mile doesn’t mean it’s a good use of your limited practice time to have them run a mile, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
Your more athletic players and those with a more advanced game understanding will run more during a game, and your less competitive players will run less. By and large, even if they are not “game fit,” that lack of fitness is not the limiting factor in their performance—if a player isn’t covering much ground, the issue is more likely they don’t know where to go, aren’t sure what they’d do if they got there, and may not be sure why they should care in the first place.
So, to have them cover more space, use your time to teach them where to go, what to do when they get there, and why they should care. Spending 12 minutes jogging around your field complex won’t help much with that, but your other practice activities will.
Though not time-effective in the context of a weekly practice, being able to run for longer stretches is helpful on the soccer field. Encourage your players to jog when those opportunities come up in school, whether it’s running instead of walking laps in PE, participating in running clubs or jogathons, or running a route at the park or around the neighborhood with their dog. That extra effort combined with purposeful warm-ups, races, activities with high repetitions, and the weekly game itself will improve their overall fitness.
And, if you have a need to discipline your players for any reason, find a way to do so that does not involve running. As mentioned, your better players will naturally run more on the field—“work rate” on the pitch is as much a key to the game as first touch, and you want your players to associate running with being better at the sport, not with being in trouble with their coach.
7. Always End with a Game
This is not a free license to spend the last 45 minutes of every practice scrimmaging just because those 45 minutes then require no planning or execution. Figure out how long your players can play their best version of the game and play that amount of time to wrap up every practice. The game teaches the game, that is and always will be.Figure out how long your players can play their best version of the game and play that amount of time to wrap up every practice. The game teaches the game, always, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
Most often, recreational players under 12 can play, really play, for a stretch of 15–20 minutes. Any longer than that and diminishing returns kick in. Fatigue strikes and the quality of play sinks. One side will be outplaying the other, because perfectly even teams cannot be set, and the side being outplayed will concede to being outplayed and lose intensity. Teammates who are friends will use that waning intensity to socialize.
As the game teaches the game, don’t let the game teach bad habits. Figure out how long your players can play their best version of the game and play that amount of time to wrap up every practice, so the players know that as they move through the activities of your practice plan, they are always building to the game itself.
Make Them Want to Come Back
The 10- to 12-week span of the average recreational season goes by fast, and young players have the potential to learn an incredible amount in that short time. The season will have highs and lows, and the final measure of the year won’t be based on which team happened to get the phenom who could dribble circles around everyone en route to a weekly hat trick, or even that satisfying, 6–0 spanking you put on the dogpile team with the coach who dropped a grand on his own set of full-size goals.
The success of this year will be measured in the next.
One year from now, are the majority of the players you coached still playing the game? Sure, some will move on to other sports, some will move away, and some will stop playing soccer for reasons independent of anything relating to your team or how you coached it. But, if you can make your practices the best part of your players’ day, if you can keep them excited and involved in the sport for another year, you will have given back more than your time and made a true difference.
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