How adults can 'teach' kids by playing along

By Mike Woitalla

One of the best ways for adults to coach children is to play along with them.

It’s certainly no secret that children learn more from what they see than from what they are told. Just try explaining how to strike a ball without demonstrating.

Whether it’s at a practice scrimmage or a casual kickaround, children playing with and against adults pick up all sorts of soccer skill and knowledge.

But, of course, there are risks when children play a sport with persons three times as big, and the adults must play without causing injuries or invading on the children’s playtime.

From my own experiences and a survey of several longtime youth coaches on the subject, here are some key points to consider when taking part in children’s soccer-playing:

* DON’T JUMP. Leaving your feet – whether to head the ball or lunge for a loose ball – means you're going to land, and coming down on a little one can hurt them.

* BE CAREFUL WITH HIGH BALLS. It’s tempting to chip the ball across the field to an open player, but when you’re on the field with a 4-foot-5 players, a mis-hit can strike a face. Obviously, an adult playing with little kids shouldn’t be blasting the ball at full force.

* USE A ‘SOFTER’ BALL. With young children, play with a ball that is slightly less than fully inflated. This will reduce pain if an adult’s shot does smack a kid.

* CONSIDER YOUR SKILL LEVEL. Adults who aren’t experienced players must be especially careful when playing with children. It’s very easy to kick a foot instead of the ball if you’re not a skilled player. Besides, if you’re not a good player, there’s not much the children will learn from you.

But the inexperienced adult can learn the game with the kids by playing pass-back or juggling together. If adult soccer-novices play in games, they should avoid one-on-one battles or getting into the middle of the action.

If a youngster is trying to dribble past you, create one obstacle. Preventing them from dribbling to the left of you, for example, and if they try to beat you to the right, let them go past you. Against more mature players, it’s OK to make the challenge more difficult. A kid who easily dribbles past all his peers needs the challenge. But you’re not out there to win anything.

* DON’T BE A ‘GOALKEEPER.’ For some reason, adults in pickup games often park themselves in front of the goal. That serves no purpose but to frustrate the children.

* BE A TEAMMATE. Don’t micromanage the play and positioning of young children. Speak to the players as a teammate would, not a coach. With older children during a practice session, playing along does provide a good opportunity to make quick concise comments.

* PASS, PASS, PASS. One of the biggest benefits of playing along with young children is that the adult can deliver passes to the players who haven’t seen much of the ball and get them involved in the play.

Young children simply don’t comprehend a passing game. They aren’t inclined to sharing the ball and they shouldn’t be forced to while they’re exploring the game in their introductory stages.

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.

* BE A NEUTRAL PLAYER. A great option for a coach, or an older player invited to take part in practice, is to play a neutral role in games. The neutral player doesn't defend or score, but provides a passing option and helps his or her team keep possession.

* DON’T BE THE STAR. It’s OK to show off a flashy move now and then, because the kids learn by seeing good skills, but they’re the ones who should be scoring the goals and preventing them.

* ADJUST TO THE AGE. As always, appreciate the stage of development the children are in. The younger and smaller they are, the more cautious the adult must be, while adults can play a more active role in a game with older, bigger players.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Rockridge SC in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

What's been your experience with playing along with children? Any more advice? Let us know in the comments below ...

7 comments about "How adults can 'teach' kids by playing along".
  1. Ted Hartwell, July 28, 2010 at 9:55 p.m.

    Thanks for the pointers...this is a very timely article for me! I just signed my daughter up for a U5 league, which will be her first "team" experience (3 v 3, no keeper), though she did participate in some basic skills classes when she was a toddler. I got an initial call from the league which I thought was going to be information about a first practice, but *surprise*---they asked if I would be willing to coach my daughter's team. I have no experience coaching, almost none playing (I didn't know soccer existed until the 1994 World Cup, when I fell in love with the sport and started playing occasionally with a local university soccer PE class with "kids" almost half my age), but I do *watch* a lot of soccer....

    In any case, I was told that many of the coaches had little or no experience at that level (just like the kids!), and if I could get all the kids to the point of not using their hands, that was a great goal for a first practice. Most of the kids' matches at this age that I've seen look more like a rugby scrum, with all members of both teams clustered tightly around the ball, which occasionally materializes out of the group only to be swallowed again. An occasional intentional pass seems like a good goal to shoot for by season's end....wish me luck!

  2. Georges Edeline, July 29, 2010 at 12:27 p.m.

    Great suggestions!

    My soccer school specializes in toddler soccer in the metro Atlanta ares.

    Our boys & girls are between 1.5 - 4.5 years old. We focus on FUN activities, touching on ball control & individual skills.

    Parents actively participate, w/ specific guidelines & limitations, of course.

    The goal for the adults, parents, grand-parents, coaches, older siblings, is to act as facilitators.

    We spend the majority of playing time, providing opportunities for the kids to experience as many contacts w/ the ball as possible, learning to receive & release it, with full awareness of ever-present multiple options!

    We want to improve their ball control while building their confidence & self-esteem!

    Positive reinforcement is a big part of every session!
    Watching the kids grow, and develop a passion for the sport, along with their young parents, provides us, coaches, with plenty of instant gratification!

    Parents learn enough to be able to help their kids, grand kids, in their own back yards.
    Older siblings can be of assistance, as well, as demonstrators, CIT's, etc.

    It can so easily be a family affair!

    In soccer & Youth Development! Coach Georges

  3. John h Borja, July 29, 2010 at 9:46 p.m.

    What a lie! The best teachers are the children in their own age group from age 4 to age 14. Adults cannot play "along" with the kids. Grow up! That's all I saw,as a coach, at tournaments and watching other coach's practices. I saw adults juggling soccer balls and, well, basically, showing off. Their "time" is "up". Demonstrating a skill solo, or demonstrating with another adult a skill is one thing. Playing with the kids is an absolute no, no. Having a little older children demonstrating and "playing" with the younger children under very controlled circumstances is fine. What is forgotten is the force differential between an adult and a child. It's huge. It is the main reason most elementary schools have a staggered recess schedule. The power of a third grader's(8 to 9 years old)kick to a soccer ball is,perhaps, 30 times more than for a 1st grader(5 to 6 years old).
    Instant gratification by an adult has no place in the development of a child.
    Age appropriate socialization is the determinant factor in positive achievement by little athletes. Constant positive reinforcement and profuse and sincere encouragement is the role of adults and coaches. Back off adults! Go pick on someone your own size. Oh, by the way, the feelings are mutual between children and adults, you both think each is clumsy.

  4. James Madison, July 29, 2010 at 11:12 p.m.

    Good thoughts, Mike. Use with younger children when you want a controlled scrimmage. A U8 girls team that I coached several years back got a big kick out of my playing with them occasionally and, as you say, passing to players I wanted to be involved.

    With older teams, like U16s and U19s, it may be challenging, but it will stimulate your own play while making fun out of a fitness activity.

    Nike makes (or at least made) a "learning to head" ball that, even when fully inflated, is much softer than normal. I believe it is a better option than an underinflated ball.

    Jim Madison

  5. Brian Something, August 2, 2010 at 10:14 a.m.

    Good pointers. This is something the people I coach with have been doing for years. Unfortunately, there's an additional issue in some places where kids and coaches can't play together because of legal/liability issues. It's very frustrating because you're right, over the years our kids have learned a ton via this method. But now the state says we can't.

  6. Bob Scott, August 3, 2010 at 9:32 a.m.

    Sounds great. I did it many times. In addition, when I wanted to teach a position, I would play the position and have the player hold on to me, so he or she could feel the flow. Then we reversed and they played, while I gently guided and instructed from behind. It worked great.

  7. Will Reeve, August 20, 2010 at 2:33 p.m.

    When I first read the title of this article I immediately thought of playing 1v1 or 2v1 with my kids in the yard. This has been a great tool to help encourage their ball handling and their ability to beat the defender and it is a bonding experience. I also occasionally "play" with the teams I coach but I am really participating as a way to facilitate learning. I am not competing or even coming close to full out effort. If you can do this without getting carried away it can be a great tool. The kids love to beat dad or coach and it needs to be that way... you must allow them some success or the play becomes frustrating and no longer benefitial. If you get carried away kids can get hurt. I learned this first hand when my middle school PE teacher decided to play flag football with the class. I ended up unconscious on the field.... not the right way to go about it. Good topic.

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