By Mike Woitalla
The youth coach faces many formidable tasks.
Carrying a net full of soccer balls, a big duffle bag, the fold-out bench and pop-up goals from the parking lot to the field - that's no mean feat.
But probably the most critical challenge for the youth coach is how to use the limited practice time in the most productive manner.
For sure, letting the children play games-to-goal covers much of what they need to learn - dribbling, passing, shooting, positioning. And one can't go wrong by letting them play as much real soccer as possible during training sessions.
But as they get older, there are specific areas of the game that require repetition to master.
When faced with the standard two practices a week - what should you emphasize?
It's a question I posed to Wilmer Cabrera, the coach of the U.S. U-17 boys national team.
Cabrera played nearly two decades of pro ball and is a two-time World Cup veteran for Colombia. He became the U.S. U-17 head coach two years ago, overseeing the residency program in Bradenton, Fla. He had moved to the USA in 2003 and became heavily involved in youth soccer. He coached at New York club BW Gottschee, and worked in the Region I ODP program and with the U.S. Under-18 men's national team.
Cabrera and his staff scout thousands of players to select the elite for the national team program. So I asked him what kind of players the country was lacking.
"It's hard to find players with the offensive mentality," Cabrera said. "Especially players who are thinking to score goals."
So why would that be?
"Because most of the kids, they go to practice, and most of the drills are focused on possession," said Cabrera. "They need more finishing drills. We need more kids with a forward mentality. Who know how to strike the ball to score goals. If all the kids are made to play possession, possession, possession, they're not learning how to score goals."
"Yes, we have to possess the ball, but most important in soccer is scoring goals."
The challenge is setting up shooting drills that don't require waiting in line for a long time. This can be solved - even when there's only one goal available. For example, split the team up in two groups, so that two players are always shooting on goal. (The coach serves as keeper/ball fetcher).
If there are 12 players, you have two groups of six on either side of the goal. Each group of six is split between players who pass the ball from behind the goal line or from the wing, to players on the field who receive the ball, shoot, and then jog over to the passers' line. The passer joins the shooters' line after passing.
They're passing, shooting, and only waiting for a turn for a few seconds.
"You want to keep everybody busy," says Cabrera. "Not only shooting, but passing, moving."
Getting players to shoot on goal as much as possible isn't only beneficial because they're learning how to score. They're also improving their overall ability to strike the ball, which will make them better passers.
Kids love shooting on goal, so giving them as many opportunities to do that makes practice fun. And it helps creates the kind of players our national teams need.
"Goals are what make you win," said Cabrera. "You have to score goals. Everybody has to know how to score goals."
(Mike Woitalla, who coaches youth soccer in Northern California at Rockridge SC, is the executive editor of Soccer America. His youth articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)