Practices That Produce Winners

By Doug Pillsbury

“Practice makes perfect” is a common saying in sports but it takes the correct type of practice to make perfect. In soccer, to develop great players, each practice you need to incorporate the proper technical, tactical, physical, and psychological teaching to produce the desired results. This article provides some tips and insight into how to create consistently great practices.

Let’s start with what NOT to do.

  1. Lines – avoid any drills or activities where you have one ball in play and players standing in one or more lines. Children do not learn by standing and watching, they learn by touching the ball. Go through your practice plan and eliminate all parts of the practices where you have several players standing around, waiting for their turn. Instead, seek to incorporate as many activities as possible where every child has a ball or at least there is one ball for two players.
  2. Lectures – as coaches, we often have a lot of knowledge and feel that telling the child what we know will produce a learning experience for the child. However, children learn by experiencing the game, so minimize the amount of time you talk in practice. At the most, you should take one or two minutes to move to the next activity. You can teach and correct your players while they are involved in the exercise but don’t take a lot of time explaining or breaking down a new activity.
  3. Laps – there are many reasons coaches have their players do laps. It could be to warm up, as a form of punishment, or as a condition element to their practice. However, you should look to minimize the time your players are taking to run laps. There are more game related and realistic activities that can be incorporated in a practice that will produce a better result than having players run laps. If you do believe in having players run laps, have them take a ball and work on their dribbling moves, changing the pace of their running and work on beating defenders while they run.
  4. Drills – this may surprise many coaches but there are significant downsides with running too many drills in your practice. Soccer is a game of creativity and decision making. If most of your practice is taken but by running drills where players are taught to do things the same way every time, that is not realistic to the game of soccer and does not improve your players’ decision making skills. Let’s look at some better ways to develop skills.

What TO do in Your Practices:

  1. Focus on ONLY ONE Skill Each Practice – start the practice out by teaching ONE fundamental technical skill and develop activities throughout the practice that reinforce the ONE concept you are teaching. Often, coaches attempt to cover several fundamentals each practice. They will move from a dribbling drill to a shooting drill, and attempt to teach and correct several things they see their players doing incorrectly throughout the practice. For your next practice, just focus on ONE thing. Let’s say you want to focus on dribbling. You can further zero in on that area but emphasizing “dribbling away from pressure.” That is the ONLY thing you comment and teach the entire practice. Even when you go to short-sided games, your comments and focus is on encouraging dribbling away from pressure.
  2. Start the Practice by Teaching Technique – After you have chosen your area of focus, start your practice with a short demonstration of the proper technique to become a better technical player in that specific area. Let’s stick with “dribbling away from pressure” for a moment. You could set up your initial activity where you have a large box outlined in cones. Each player has a ball and must perform various dribbling moves in the box. As they approach another player, they need to treat that player as a defender and make a move to dribble away from pressure. Briefly demonstrate some of the techniques they need to master to perform the skill:
    1. keep on balance when making a move,
    2. using deception to create space from the defender,
    3. keep their head up so they can see the field,
    4. protect the ball,
    5. And basic body mechanics of how to dribble.

    These are the areas where you will be monitoring as a coach throughout the practice.

    For this first exercise, there is no pressure from an actual opponent but they are forced to keep their head up, see the field, and react when another player is in close proximity. During the activity, they may execute a poor dribbling move while making moves in open space, but you would only correct them when they don’t recognize pressure and don’t make a dribbling move away from that pressure.

  3. Increase Pressure – after the initial technical exercise above where they are learning the move with no pressure from an opponent and are just concentrating on form and execution, now add defensive pressure. You could set up a smaller box with small cone goals on each side of the box (four goals total). Have one player pass the ball to the offensive player and then close out to defend. The offensive player has to control the pass and then dribble away from the oncoming pressure and dribble through one of the four cones. Now, you have a 1 v 1 situation where the defenders are playing full-out so are working on closing out and defending, but the offensive player is focused and rewarded for dribbling away from that pressure by scoring on one of the four goals.
  4. Add Tactical Decision Making Component to the Drill – To keep with this example, you could then modify the size of the box and add additional players. You could go 2 v 2, 3 v 2, and finally 3 v 3. Players could then dribble away from pressure to either score, or use their dribble to create space to make a pass to a teammate. Now the players have to make more decisions, both on offense and defense. As a coach, you will be tempted to comment on poor passes, standing around, not making runs, or other issues, but stay focused and only make related to the skill being developed for that practice.
  5. Replicate Match Conditions – Finally, end the practice on a larger field shooting into two large goals. You may modify the scoring rules where if a player dribbles away from pressure to make a completed pass the team gets one point. Goals are one point, as well. Then, because of the scoring system put in place, the players will continue to focus on the area you are teaching them but the play will be a normal game condition small sided game.

If you can develop practices with this type of progression, you will see your players improve in both their technical abilities, as well as in their tactical (making the right decisions) abilities. Each of these activities also will improve their conditioning, as well. Depending on the age of your team, you may allocate 10 minutes or so for each step in the progression. With water breaks, this template could easily be a 1 ½ practice.

For some additional insight into how to run a great practice, please click on the link below to see how legendary coach Dave Brandt runs his practices. 

Creating Dynamic Soccer Practices

Let us know what you think about the article by leaving your questions, comments, and suggestions below…

3 Responses to Practices That Produce Winners

  1. Frank Mazzella June 9, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    Hi guys and thanks for the really interesting ideas for my team that I coach. Are there tecniques that you can offer that help our players dribble from pressure?


  2. KELECHI June 9, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    pls can u send me this article in box i love is thanks keep it up

  3. Masauso Moonga June 12, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    the material is good and educative my guys have improved and are doing well in the league. is there a way that you can help in some training materials or any other sopport you can give?

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