How do you set up a practice that allows players to “do”? How can a coach pull together the various games into an organized practice? First, keep things simple. Include no more than three or four exercises. For example, begin with a warm up that incorporates players moving with the ball. Then move to a game, but introduce a particular challenge or set of challenges for the players to solve (4 v 4 game with four goals; 4 v 4 game with no goalkeepers, where the players must hit the net on the fly to score a goal; 4 v 4 dribbling game; 4 v 4 with neutral players; etc.). Each of these games differs slightly in the challenges that are highlighted. However, the games still retain the essential qualities of soccer: attacking, defending, dribbling, passing, dealing with teammates and opponents, and scoring goals. Finally, let them play a game, 3 v 3, 4 v 4, 5 v 5, or 6 v 6 etc., (depending on their age and ability to deal with these numbers), where there are no particular twists to the game, but where you can verbally emphasize and encourage players to experiment and take risks confronting some of these challenges your practice has been addressing. To help ensure that your practice will add to your players’ development, consider the following principles, questions and examples.
- Do your players have repeated opportunities to have the ball at their feet?
- Do they have repeated chances to score goals?
- Are they asked to dribble and score in soccer situations? A soccer situation is one that includes the ball, opponents, teammates, space, pressure, rules, time and goals.
- Are your players having fun? Generally speaking, if players have a lot of opportunities to play with the ball at their feet, and to score goals in games that replicate soccer, they will have fun.
- How many players are involved? 4 v 4 is the smallest way of playing soccer without losing any of the ingredients that make up soccer. There are always opportunities to play deep, wide or backwards because of the numbers. Players are always confronted with match situations. Also, due to the limited numbers, it is easier for children (and coaches) to recognize the different moments in soccer that are constantly repeated. Some of the variations of the 4 v 4 game have already been introduced. The basic 4 v 4 game is set up on a field that is small enough to keep everyone involved, and big enough to give players room to be successful with the ball. There is one ball and two small goals, one on each end line. The elements of soccer the coach chooses to encourage will color the game somewhat. The power of 4 v 4, however, is that even with little or no involvement by the coach, these small games offer the players countless valuable soccer lessons. Adding players and increasing the field space accordingly will both increase options for the players as well as present new challenges.
- How big is the field? Are the players able to stay connected in your game/exercise? Does the size of the field lend itself to what you are working on? Again, the field should be small enough to keep everyone involved yet big enough to give players room to be successful with the ball. You may find that your first try at setting up the field dimension does not work. It may be either too small and the kids can’t get anything going, or it may be so big that the game seems to be played in pockets of two or three players while everyone else watches from a distance. Go ahead and experiment with the field size until you are comfortable. With coaches, as it is with players, learning occurs through trial and error.
- Are there enough balls/goals so that many players are able to get touches on the ball and chances at goal? Go ahead and experiment: add/remove ball/goals, increase/decrease the field size to help replicate the soccer environment you want. For example, an exercise designed to give your players lots of opportunities to run with the ball at their feet may result in the same few players dominating ball touches because of uneven talent levels. Instead of telling them they should pass to a less talented teammate, add some more balls and maybe some more goals to your game. This allows more players to experience the soccer situation you want replicated. Do not worry that it may look somewhat chaotic, or that it is difficult to keep score. Just focus on whether or not your players are getting repeated chances to run with the ball, deal with opponents and score goals. If this is happening, then you have successfully added to your players’ soccer experience.
- How long is your exercise? Can the players maintain their focus and discipline throughout? If not, make adjustments. Something that can help the coach anytime an exercise is not working is to give the kids a quick water break. It will give you an opportunity to make the needed adjustments, or to move on to the next exercise. Perhaps the exercise is not the problem. Maybe it is a short attention span day for your team of 10- year-olds. Don’t fight it. Use your breaks wisely. Keep things moving and stay alert for waning concentration.
- How long is your practice? Do your players finish practice wishing to play longer, or does your practice seem to unravel in the last 20 minutes or so? Make the practice as fun as possible. This means a lot of playing soccer, some water breaks when necessary, and little or no talking. Many times players are less than interested in a lecture about the finer points of the game. Keep in mind that young players have shorter attention spans than adults; do not treat them like adults. Forty-five minutes is a good length of time for six and seven year olds to be playing soccer in an organized practice. One hour to seventy-five minutes is best for players up to twelve years old. Anything longer and you are setting yourself up for aggravation that neither you nor your players deserve.
Goals for Practice, Games And Season
At these ages, ball skills, enjoyment and insight into the game, with a gradual introduction to fitness, mental toughness, and results are the keys. Success in winning matches should begin to be the product of a consistent and systematic approach to the game that focuses more on player development than on team building. The players should be developing an understanding and familiarity with each other on the field, but the desire to get a result on Saturday should not hamper their instincts for the game, or their desire to experiment and explore the game. These players are a long way from being “complete.” Encourage them to play in different positions. Don’t pigeonhole players based only on what is best for getting the result. Balance your players match experiences so that some games will allow you to experiment without necessarily sacrificing the result.
General Description of What Should be Happening During Practice
At this point, most of the exercises and games that the players play in practice should be competitive, with a winning and losing team(s). Their focus should be on how their decisions and their ball skill help or hinder their team’s ability to win at whatever game or exercise that they play. Two critical and interrelated themes in every practice should be recognizing when and how to get the ball out of pressure with the goal of getting forward and recognizing when and how to win the ball back, both as an individual and as a group. Games and exercises should be set up that encourage players to make decisions based on the cues and clues that exist in the game. Players should experience a variety of games, from 4 v 4 to 8 v 8: some with and some without goalkeepers, some to small goals, some to large goals, some with 2 goals and some with 4 to 6 small goals. Each set up will encourage different challenges for the players to address – all within the basic framework of keeping the ball and winning the ball back – and going to goal, and winning the game. The coach needs to consider the players’ technical development because without sound technique, good ideas on the field are useless. Putting players in small-sided games where they have to solve a problem by application of their technique is a critical part of training this age. At times, success or failure in these games and this environment are the direct result of the players’ ability with the ball. An important theme for this age, therefore, is to address the player’s accountability for his or her decisions and ball skill as he or she and their team look to find ways to win their game. Figuring out how and when to keep the ball or when to go forward, as well as how and when to win the ball back are basic themes where this accountability can be addressed. Within each game that the coach sets up for the players, this can be accomplished by focusing on speed of play and the ability to solve problems in competitive situations. In general, most players this age who are playing at a competitive club level are technically good and can solve problems well in slower games or isolated situations. When the demands of the game and the speed of play increase, many have a hard time mastering the ball, staying tuned in, seeing enough, and making sense of their plays. By placing players in competitive situations i.e., faster games, these aspects improve dramatically over time. If the players are not held accountable for their decisions or if the environment is not challenging or competitive enough to punish players for their mistakes, then the players run the risk of developing bad habits that may hinder their long-term development. In training sessions play small-sided games with different demands and challenges. The games should be fast. To keep up with the speed of play, good technical ability and habits on and off the ball are necessary. The players need to stay tuned in mentally, to read the game, deal with the demands of the game, and to make decisions that help their team win. The goal is to help their personalities to grow and for them to begin to solve problems as a group. Therefore, give the players some freedom to make decisions, to solve problems, and to experiment with the game. Be more concerned with them developing into better players who can figure out how to win than with telling them exactly what to do.