1 – Keep the set-up simple
Ever hear that less is more. If you think your practice may be in danger of an airplane mistaking your setup for a landing pad you are probably using too many cones. Why does a soccer coach use cones in a practice? Cones are simply one tool used by coaches to communicate to the players different sets of expectations. For example; “Steve, go jog around that cone and come back.” The cones are used as a tool to communicate exactly how far Steve should run before turning around. A coach of a u7 team often outlines the perimeter of a 40y x30y grid to communicate where the field of play ends. Less cones means more decisions being made by the young players,
Inexperience often leads to over coaching and an over elaborate set-up is often a first wrong step an inexperience coach tries to make. Have you ever spent 30 minutes setting up 200 color coded cones in an elaborate star shape only to find out the young players cannot conceptualize how your set-up relates to passing and receiving. What now? The coach has to scratch the idea and start over wasting critical time that could be spent on training or gaming. For u-7 players keep the exercises and the set-up simple.
2 – Maximize the time each player is involved
At the u7 age the best coaches can regularly get 45 minutes of productive practice time out of the young players. After 45 minutes many youth players will tune out; their attention span is short, and if you have a handful that tune out of your practice the session is usually finished for all practical purposes.
So what is the best way to keep the players involved for 90% to 100% of practice? Keep a ball at everyone’s feet as long as possible. If a player has a ball at their feet they are involved. This is the critical component of the developmental process for youth. Coaches often try to imply complex tactics before youth players can handle the ball, this is a huge mistake in the developmental process.
Coaches who can keep their youth players engaged and active for 45 minutes always with a ball on their feet are really moving in the right direction.
3 – Always show a clear example of the expectation
Not all children process information the exact same way. Some can translate audio sensory cues into a clear picture in their head and then execute the coach’s wishes; but at the age of 7 visual representations is the number one way in which children interpret data. By simply telling young students what is expected, many times important pieces can be lost in translation. Ex. Coach says- “In this exercise every time a player is challenged for a ball you must change direction with the outside of your foot to get away; Go!” As the coach looks around it’s clear that the key technical component of using the “outside” of the foot was brushed under the rug and the exercise has to be stopped and the expectation reset. A clear visual example highlighting the technical component helps alleviate this problem. Follow your example by having a student demonstrate the technical component to really make an impact!
4 – Put yourself in the head of a 7 year old
This is very difficult for some coaches to do. Often time coaches who have years of soccer experience but no young siblings or children can really make a potentially great experience for a child a really poor one. Get inside the head of a seven year old, ask them some simple questions about what they enjoy to do when they are not at practice, take those ideas and simply incorporate them as a fun theme to any activity your running.
Mimic their language and be careful not to use soccer Jargon! Ex. A coach who says, “knock the ball to the flank into the wide midfielder’s feet” probably will not get a positive response from many young players. It might not sound as flashy but how about?, “kick the ball towards the sidelines so Johny G can chase the ball”.
A huge mistake I see inexperienced coaches make is having the belief that the learning process is a one way street from coach to youth. Open up to the idea of a two way street while communicating to the youth and your practices will experience an immediate boost.
5 – Have a strong technical component
At the youth ages, learning technique is crucial. When teaching ensures that every technical application fits into a progressive development plan.
Before a student can learn technique for ball mastery, a baseline of body awareness, balance, center of gravity and rhythm in movement is critical. This is simply the precursor in the developmental progression that leads into u7 technique. In your technical training these physiological benchmarks should be recognized and reinforced as a critical stepping stool to hard-line technical training. At the age of 7, dribbling, passing and receiving should all be paramount topics. In this framework the youth must always considering how the player with the ball is connected to their teammates when dribbling through passing and receiving.
6 – Change the name; Change the game
Most youth soccer players have interests outside of soccer. Whether they are interested in popular cartoons; animals or current events remember that young children have interest other than the game of soccer. Try to figure a way to align your soccer exercise/expertise with the youth’s imagination. Change the name change the game. Ex. A simple game of tag can be called “Bunnies and Kittens” and another can be called “Robots and Monsters”. Same game different name; appeals in full to different types of children. Find themes that work for your groups and use it as motivation in your exercises!
Repetition is a great tool for technical training but without imagination young players can get bored easily. The trick is to find a technical exercise and play it as a game. When the game works well, keep the same set up and change the name; keep the game. Youth will stay engaged and working on critical skills.
7 – Maximize your potential 1 on 1 coaching interactions
1 on 1 coaching ratios are most effective. If a 7 year old child goes to 3 practices in a row and the coach never once directly addresses the child or uses their name then the chances of that player coming back on the fourth day significantly decreases.
Note: the parent may force the child to finish their commitment to the team but in that case retention back for next season is almost completely lost. Exercises or games where the coach can manipulate his role to where the youth are consistently seeking him/her out while working on critical skills are very effective and offer great 1 on 1 coaching opportunities.
8 – Let the Kids Play
It is as simple as it sounds. They are kids they play for fun. If the game is fun let them go. The game is a great teacher, less experienced coaches make sure your coaching style mirrors your ability and knowledge base. We all have had great and less than great practice sessions; if you are experiencing some difficulty in getting your practice to be great; Let the Kids Play
Donovan Kron is the Director of Coaching at Superstruct Soccer. He has 17 years of professional coaching experience which includes experience at the international, national, regional, and local levels. As a Head Coach he has lead college, high school and club soccer programs.