The article A Great Start to Practice: Free play!, which questions the traditional training formula of saving scrimmage for the end, received some feedback worth sharing.
On simulating a pickup game at the beginning of practice, at the ages when injury prevention warm-ups aren't necessary, Ian Plenderleith, youth coach, ref and author, wrote:
"This is especially good for teams when kids all show up at different times, often the case in busy cities at rush hour. As soon as four players are there, I start with a two-touch game and gradually build it up until everyone's there, usually about 15-20 minutes into practice."
Treating free play as a right rather than a reward can make it easier to implement more coach-driven training later in the session.
"Studies show that learning happens best when there is a release of dopamine/happiness before the instruction," commented Tyler Dennis, who coaches at Tijuana Xolos’ female academy. "No better way than to get everyone engaged and smiling."
Eric Sippel of East Bay United Bay Oaks has his players arrive 15 minutes early:
"That is the time that they get to greet other players and put on their shoes and shin guards. There is a pickup game (or games) going on from the time that the first two players arrive until when practice starts. I don't want more than 4 v 4, so we form new games.
"Coaches are not allowed to have anything to do with the pickup games. This is the kids' unstructured time. Players are added to teams in the order that they arrive (not based on ability). We don't care if one team has an extra player.
“The best part is watching the kids run from the parking lot to get in the games.”
Karsten Roy is the director of Team Elmhurst FC in the Greater Chicago area and says the club has used this method of starting with games to goal at the younger ages for a few years.
Roy, a USSF B license coach, says the amount of fun young players have tends to correlate with how quickly they improve. Frequently including goals in activities is something that children really enjoy. It’s how his father, U.S. Hall of Famer Willy Roy, coached his teams. And when Elmhurst FC invited an instructor from the Dutch federation (KNVB) to offer coaching education, he recommended getting the kids playing with goals as quickly as possible.
“It made me think about watching kids having a blast playing pickup basketball at the park,” Roy said. “If you get rid of the hoops, would they really enjoy playing keepaway on the court? It probably wouldn’t last that long.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif and is a Grade 8 referee. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)