By Mike Woitalla
No one denies that children who want to excel at soccer should play the game in addition to their team's practices and games, but today's children have less unscheduled time than previous generations and more diversions. Getting them to choose soccer over other options -- whether it be Guitar Hero or Webkinz - can require prodding from the parents.
Here are some methods that parents and coaches can use to encourage children to play on their own, and games they'll enjoy while improving their skills:
ALWAYS HAVE A BALL AROUND. Take a ball everywhere when you're with your child. It doesn't have to be a soccer ball, in fact, those red, bouncy ones used for schoolyard dodge ball are perfect. At the playground, kick around with your child whenever she feels like it. She may want to kick for a few minutes, then hit the swings. Over time, you're likely to find her enjoying the ball more and more. And chances are other kids will migrate to the ball, and you'll have started a little soccer game.
BOUNCEY PASS BACK. Pass the ball back and forth with your child while keeping it bouncing. Count how many passes you can hit before it stops bouncing or you lose control, turning it into a contest.
KICK AND CATCH. Play kick and catch with your child. Kick it so he can catch it. Then he drops and kicks it back.
SOCCER TENNIS. Take your child to a tennis court with a bouncy ball. Try and kick it back and forth over the net. You can bring tennis rackets, too, and mix things up. A little tennis, a little soccer tennis.
'INDOOR SOCCER.' There are many balls on the market that are soft enough so they won't do too much damage to the house. If you have a den or a hallway, let your children kick around in the house.
BALL NET. Get your child a ball net. It's virtually guaranteed that a child holding a ball in a net on a string will kick it about, which means she's developing a feel for striking the ball.
INCENTIVES TO JUGGLE. To tap the ball in the air over and over means you're learning to hit the sweet spot. Juggling with feet and thighs trains players to be comfortable with the ball and develops striking and trapping skills. Besides helping with foot-eye coordination, juggling is a great way to work on balance. It also develops the weak foot.
Coaches and parents can motivate players to juggle on their own by offering small rewards when they reach certain levels, for example, soccer-ball stickers for 5; soccer-ball key chain for 10, etc.
It's difficult at first, so have them let the ball bounce in between. Ask them to drop it on their thigh or foot once, then catch it. Then go for two, and so on. The more they advance, the more fun it gets, and the more they juggle.
Even if you don't have a soccer background, learning how to juggle will help motivate your child when you do it together and compare each other's progress. Try team juggling - keeping the ball off the ground as long as possible, and count how many times you and your child can do it. She'll soon be wanting to aim for more and more.
MINI-GOALS. Nothing's as exciting as shooting a ball into the net, so set up some small goals in the backyard.
ORGANIZE 'UNORGANIZED' PLAY. Find a field on a Sunday morning, set up a couple of goals, and gather children of all ages. You're setting up the pickup game that kids of yesteryear created on their own. Don't coach! If adults play along, do so as teammates, not as instructors.
CREATE SOCCER CULTURE. Getting young children to watch a 90-minute game on TV may be too ambitious, but with digital recording it's easy to show them some spectacular plays and goals. Rent age-appropriate soccer-themed movies - there's a bunch out there.
Research star players, like Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan, show your child their photos and highlight clips, and tell them stories about the stars' childhood soccer. When Ronaldinho was a boy, he played soccer with his dog, Bombom!
You don't want to force children to practice their soccer, but you can create an environment that entices them to play, especially when you're willing to play along. If they lose interest after a few minutes, no big deal. Just keep the opportunities coming, and chances are the amount of time a child wants to play will keep increasing.
(This was excerpted from an article that first appeared in PLAYSOCCER, the Magazine of the American Youth Soccer Organization, courtesy of AYSO. Mike Woitalla, who coaches youth soccer in Northern California, is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)