One of the biggest mistakes youth coaches can make is to force a passing game on children too early.
Discouraging dribbling in the early years is like telling toddlers to shut up when they're learning to speak. Young players should dribble as much as possible -- because dribbling is the first step to mastering all ball skills.
Coaches should resist temptation to shout at young players to pass the ball. U.S. Soccer's Best Practices Player Development Guidelines stress that coaches should "Encourage the dribbler at the younger ages ... Dribbling, at the younger ages, is the child's attempt to gain control over the ball. Controlling the ball is the primary skill that every other skill in soccer depends on. ... Do not expect him or her to look to the pass or to pass with any level of competence or awareness, until he or she has mastered this skill."
Of course, passing is an integral part of soccer. So how can coaches encourage passing without impeding their players' development?
BE PATIENT. Children will naturally, but slowly, begin to comprehend the benefits of sharing the ball. Even if the adults do nothing to encourage passing, players will begin to ask each other for the ball. They will learn from each other and from the game.
PLAYING ALONG. When coaches play along with their teams at practice, they can constantly demonstrate passing. And when coaches pass the ball back to the player they got it from, they send the message that sharing pays off. A coach, or an older player invited to take part in practice, can play a neutral role in games. The neutral player doesn't defend or score, but gives his or her team a better chance of keeping the ball.
POINTS FOR PASSING. Scrimmaging and small-sided games should be the main part of practice sessions. Demonstrate the wall pass - or give-and-go - and tell the children that whenever they complete a wall pass, it counts as a goal.
TEAM HANDBALL. Now and then during scrimmages, switch from soccer to team handball, which is like basketball with soccer goals.
It is very difficult for novice players, while they're trying to control the ball with their feet, to see where their teammates are. In team handball, they can look around when they have the ball in their hands for a teammate to throw it to. The player with the ball and those who wish to receive a pass start becoming aware of positioning.
The rules can vary. It can be that players are allowed three seconds and three steps whenever they get the ball. You can let them throw the ball into the goal when they have a scoring opportunity, or require that they drop it and shoot.
For older kids, it can be that when players in possession are tagged, they must turn the ball over to the opponent.
5-v-2. One of the standard warm-up games is the 5-v-2, or some variation of numbers in a loose circle playing keepaway from the players in the middle. When this is too difficult for novice players -- one sign is that players want to be in middle because it's so easy to get the ball -- use a variation in which it is "Keepaway from the Coaches." The coaches make half-hearted efforts to cut off a possible avenue for the player with the ball so that he looks for a passing option. "Keepaway from the Coaches" can be played without the circle but in the confines of the penalty area or a cone grid.
TWO-TOUCH IN MODERATION. Limiting players to two touches during scrimmages or small-sided games might be the most popular method of encouraging passing and has its benefits. But don't incorporate it in practices when your players aren't skillful enough to cope with just two touches. It is extremely difficult to make a good first touch, see where teammates are, and execute a well-struck pass. Just as teachers don't teach children algebra before they can add and subtract, coaches should always consider their players' stage of development.
If a couple of minutes go by and the players struggle to complete passes, you know it's too early.
And when it seems the right time to introduce some two-touch play, don't overdo it.
You don't want to discourage individual creativity or risk-taking. Imagine how many thousands of times Lionel Messi or Marta tried to dribble past other kids and lost the ball before mastering their amazing dribbling moves.
Also, remember that you want the majority of your practices to simulate game situations. It's unreasonable to restrict a player from using a few extra touches if it's effective.
Two-touch serves some valuable purposes. It forces players to focus on their first touch. It's crucial for players learn that trapping a ball dead is not as effective as a first touch that positions the ball so that they can pass, shoot, or embark on a dribble with the second touch.
But two-touch should be used sparingly and not at all before the players master the ball skills to cope with its challenges.
(Mike Woitalla, who coaches youth soccer in Northern California, is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com. U.S. Soccer's "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States" is available HERE.)