How adults can 'teach' kids by playing along

(Because the holidays provide a chance to kick around with the kids, the Youth Soccer Insider republishes this article, which first appeared in July 2010.)

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 East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and More Than Goals with Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at 

6 comments about "How adults can 'teach' kids by playing along".
  1. Scott Haywood, December 15, 2011 at 10:08 a.m.

    The rest of the world, which kicks our butt in soccer, the children just go out and play soccer in the streets, yards, and vacant lots. I was recently in El Salvador and I saw no coaches playing soccer with kids. I lived in Brazil getting my Brazilian Coaching Badge for 2 years and I saw no coaches playing with the the kids on the corner or on the streets. As an adult playing with the kids at a practice they learn to rely on you as a player. The don't develop creativity and imagination for the game because the adult is there to guide them, even in subtle ways through the game. The best way to coach kids is not to play with them. You've missed the boat on this one Mike

  2. Mark Grody, December 15, 2011 at 10:45 a.m.

    A little bit goes a long way.

    Also, especially with the older kids, if your not very good, one should refrain from playing with the kids because they often equate the quality of your playing ability with the quality of your coaching.

  3. Kent James, December 15, 2011 at 11:04 a.m.

    Playing with the kids is very helpful, and all of your advice is excellent. I would add that you should adjust your play to the individuals involved; giving a simple pass to a lesser skilled player, for example, or especially defensively, playing more token defense on weaker players, more challenging defense against more skilled players. I would also recommend avoiding physical contact as much as possible when playing defense, and focusing on positioning and quickness (and having a strong enough ego to let that kid beat you instead of risking a physical challenge that might stop them, but also risks injuring them). I think Scott raises some valid concerns (about a coach "taking over" a game, for example), but I think a good coach would adjust their coaching to suit the situation. Very young players don't listen to the coach when they play anyway, they're just focused on the ball, so as long as the coach can make the ball go in places that facilitate better play, it's not too much of an issue. Older kids should play with adults as soon as they are physically able to hold their own (assuming they have the desire, the technique, and psychological fortitude to do so), because they will learn a lot by being involved with more savvy players. As you said, players learn more by watching and doing than having a coach explain things to them.

  4. tim francis, December 15, 2011 at 11:58 a.m.

    I whole heartedly agree with and thank Mike and Kent, and want to add an important related thing or two: Players at even the youngest ages must see models of moves and use of body to body contact (gentler for younger kids!). After all, these are the fundamental/mega-imoportant mostly MISSING parts of the US game. A magic striker/midfielder who's mastered these is one all coaches, particularly US ones, are begging for, and he/she usually starts using these skills at an early age. In Brazil, Scot, and all soccer-rich cultures, these moves are modeled/glorified/reinforced by older boys and regular GOOD televised games. Not so, here, so the modeling must be DONE (by older child or adult), not told, or shown out of the game situation. Having said that, Scot, creating one's own moves is important too, but it doesn't happen without lots of modeling/seeding first. to create get the ideas from.

  5. Bill Horvath II, January 4, 2012 at 5:16 p.m.

    I like these suggestions! They seem spot-on to me. Respectfully Scott, you're talking about the rest of the world; in the US, the vast majority of kids only play organized soccer, and for limited amounts of time at that. This seems like a reasonable compromise.

    The trick is to get non-coach parents to read this before roping them into a game.

  6. Andy Grainger, February 3, 2012 at 5:21 p.m.


    If you are coaching maybe you could try using delayed feedback, or as the adult playing with the players you could possibly think about something called bandwidth feedback in order to guide the players better (and empower them to become more autonomous).

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