Practices can be structured in many ways. In general, for youth players, practices should include five aspects. These include:
- Skill warm-ups – 5 to 10 minutes of mentally preparing for what’s to come.
- Skill trainings in which you implement the purpose of your session – this is usually the longest part of the practice
- Team training and game like drills – try to have the skills that were taught incorporated into a real competitive situation.
- Fun games – players are in game situations, have fewer restrictions, but should still focus on the main topic.
- Cool-down period during which players slow down their pace. A cool-down can include light games but doesn’t have to include a specific drill goal.
When designing a practice, decide on the purpose of the session. The theme of the practice might be to improve a particular weakness, introduce a concept, or just to have fun. It’s up to you, the coach, to decide the focus of each practice. Factors that might influence your choices could be the time you have available, an evaluation of a previous performance, an upcoming game, or the current mental state of your players. Some examples of practice themes include shooting, crossing, dribbling, and defending.
Early in the season you’ll introduce new topics. Later, as the players have improved their skills, you can challenge them with new things. After the team has played a game or two, you can structure your practices towards a specific weakness you noticed during the game. In this case, help players build from whatever they did well. Sometimes players will simply need a break from their daily grind. This is a good time to have a session or two of fun drills only.
As you choose a specific theme for your practice, try to be realistic about how much information young players can handle. Choose two to three key points that you want to make, and pick activities that reinforce these points. For example, if you choose passing as your practice theme, you might emphasize using the inside of the foot, pointing the plan foot towards the target, and following through after kicking the ball.
Your practices will be most meaningful if players repeatedly hear the same few points. When their parents ask them what they learned, they’ll be able to repeat your points. If players want to work on something before the next practice, they’ll be able to easily remember the main concepts you covered.
Your team’s practice should include a wide range of positive aspects. Experiences on the field should be more than just “academic” theory. Players at your practice are learning a lot about the game and becoming more aware of their own abilities, even when you have a specific set of coaching points for a given session. Most important, you should always work to see that they’re having fun.