The latest coaching recipe

By Mike Woitalla

For the second time in six years, the U.S. Soccer Federation has produced a handbook designed to improve youth coaching in America.

Claudio Reyna, the USSF’s Youth Technical Director, unveiled the “U.S. Soccer Curriculum” last week. It offers specific, age-appropriate guidelines on how to run practice sessions throughout a season. The aim -- besides turning the USA into the soccer world power it certainly has the resources to become – is to coach children in a way that helps create an American style of play.

The first sentence of the “Curriculum” addresses what we’re shooting for: "All teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”

And Reyna remarked in his presentation that our nation should strive to play soccer that is enjoyable to watch. Amen.

The key to achieving these goals is how our players are coached at the youngest ages. This too was addressed in U.S. Soccer's "Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States." That document was produced during Bob Jenkins’ tenure as Director of Coaching Education and Youth Development and complements the “Curriculum” perfectly.

The “Curriculum” is full of color-coded graphs explaining how much emphasis to put on which components -- technical, tactical, physical, psychosocial -- at each age group. And includes exercise diagrams and practice plans.

“Best Practices” explains in detail the coaches’ relationship to the young players and the perils of overcoaching:

“Coaches can often be more helpful to a young player’s development by organizing less, saying less and allowing the players to do more. Set up a game and let the kids play.”

This should be a mantra for youth coaches, especially in a country in which so many children are coached by soccer novices so heavily influenced by coach-dominated American sports.

The “Curriculum” includes the statements, “Players must learn to find solutions without constant coaching” and “Keep the essence of the game in the majority of the practices.”

The diagrams in the “Tactical Terminology” section and the “Technical Terminology” glossary should serve the novice and intermediate coach well.

Indeed, the “Curriculum” is supposed to serve newcomers to the sport as well as the elite coach and director of coaching. But when it comes to the novice coach, it’s important to realize how difficult it can be for volunteers with little coaching, teaching or soccer experience to run a practice.

Just imagine this situation. After a day of sitting in a classroom and obeying adults, a bunch of 6-year-olds arrive at soccer practice full of energy. The novice coach is placing the 16 cones for exercise No. 1 -- but these cones soon turn into hats and Frisbees. And that’s before coach has divided the players into four groups to put on their bibs. So the coach -- being watched by the parents -- gets nervous and starts barking, which makes it worse.

Novice coaches should strive to run practices such as the ones outlined in the “Curriculum” -- but they shouldn’t be discouraged if they can’t orchestrate a Barcelona- or Ajax-like training session on their first tries. So I would like to see one more statement made to the newcomer coach to preface all coaching handbooks, clinics and courses …

“If all you do is set up goals and let them play, you’ll be doing a good job. As you build up the confidence and skill to incorporate more sophisticated facets into a training session and still keep the kids engaged and active, here's what you can do ..."

“U.S. Soccer Curriculum” is available for download HERE.

“Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States” is available HERE.

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

7 comments about "The latest coaching recipe".
  1. David Delk, April 29, 2011 at 10:37 a.m.

    I wish the next thing the USSF would do is create the "U.S. Soccer Curriculum -- FOR PARENTS." Parents are so used to overcoaching in other sports that they think a coach should be constantly barking, instructing and stopping play that they do not see the long term beneift of "organizing less, saying less and allowing the players to do more. Set up a game and let the kids play.” I've read both handbooks, and I find them extremely useful and beneficial.

  2. Tyler Dennis, April 29, 2011 at 1:05 p.m.

    Novice coaches won't even see this curriculum. I hand out a practice plan (developed by our executive director) for my volunteer coaches, they use it for one, maybe two sessions and then it's just anarchy and they do whatever they "think."

    Why? Not because the activities aren't simple for an experienced coach, but because the parents don't have an interest and they want to do what is easy. It is very difficult to shepherd kids through 3-4 activities (warmup, technical game, other technical game, 3v3 freeplay). I watch and see that it is frustrating because they are teaching the drills, rather than the kids doing the activity.

    I believe the key for these young kids U5-U7, is to have a couple of warmups that rotate, a couple fun games (sharks and minnows, etc.) and then free play. You teach them once in a season and the rest of the time they PLAY, but get skills based on the warm-up and fun game and then just play.

  3. Joe Hamm, April 29, 2011 at 1:07 p.m.

    I searched both documents for the word 'wall', and could not find it.
    So I guess there are no benefits to going to a park or school with your friends, or by yourself, and simply kicking a ball against a wall. Surprising, because it's such a simple way to improve 1 or 2 touch skills, and also to improve receiving the ball. No parents or coaches are needed, only a ball.

  4. Tyler Dennis, April 29, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.

    Very true Joe, but our kids aren't allowed to do anything that isn't supervised.

  5. Leland Price, April 29, 2011 at 1:36 p.m.

    One problem I noticed with the guidelines is that very few 8 year-olds have the attention span to practice for over an hour.

    I highly recommend that novice coaches take a page from how John Wooden runs a basketball practice. Write your drills on a 3x5 card before practice. Keep it moving - say one drill every 5 to 10 minutes. Run a pickup game for the last 20 to 30 minutes. Think of yourself as a teacher, not a coach.

    And for the young ones... practice should last as long as the game at that age level. Otherwise, the kids just don't have the attention span.

  6. Al Micucci, April 29, 2011 at 2:01 p.m.

    I applaud Claudio's efforts but I am struggling to understand how this is to be implemented. Just here on Long Island we have 90 some odd clubs. That means 90 different ways to instruct the young ones. Multiply that by the country and it is obvious that this would be nothing short of miraculous if it ever came to fruition. I agree with all of the above contributors especially David. When trying to implement a plan for 5 year olds, the parents were up set because it wasn't "real soccer". They then left to a neighboring club. We tried to maintain our principles but a club doesn't function very well with only a Director of Coaching (a well respected member of the NSCAA coaching staff) and a Board.

  7. Joseph Stewart, May 2, 2011 at 9:29 a.m.

    I couldn't agree more with many of the comments above. Encourage the use of a wall. Play. Shut your own mouth.

    Another I'd add is to use races - I like the "Race Around the Cone" because it's easy to add individual complexity. i.e. Do a stop-turn at the cone, do a hook turn, do a Cruyff turn, speed dribble, Scissors on the way out, active first touch on the receive, trap on the receive, push pass using the weak foot / strong foot. All of these can be down with 2-person teams and it's done at close to game speed because they're racing each other.

    From there you can go with pairs of 2-person teams in adjacent lanes - instead of passing to your own partner you have to pass diagonally to your adjacent partner.

    My points are:

    Pick a small number of games that the children can learn (and you can quickly setup and they quickly recognize), then once a week add another skill to the same game. Pretty soon they'll be asking for the next skill. And, you'll deliver players that have picked up ball handling skills without knowing it!

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