11 Tips for Coaching the Little Ones

(With the fall season upon us, we reprint this article from 2014. Updated are the resource links at the end of the piece, including the online U.S. Soccer National F License course, for coaches and parents of players ages 5 to 8, which I highly recommend.)

By Mike Woitalla

“I got recruited to coach my kid’s soccer team. Any advice?” The most recent time I heard this question, it came from a parent of a 6-year-old. It prompted me to put an answer in writing, based on some of the best insight I’ve gotten from coaches and players I’ve interviewed and observed over the years.

11 Tips for Coaching the Little Ones
1. If all you do is set up goals and have them play as much soccer as possible during that hour of practice -- you’re doing a good job.

2. Familiarize yourself with the various age-appropriate games/exercises to facilitate individual skills -- but don’t use ones that bore the kids. And if it takes more than a minute for 6-year-olds to comprehend the activity -- it’s the wrong one. (In other words, plan your practice but be ready to improvise.)

3. No lines, no laps, no lectures.

4. Enjoy yourself! If for some reason you’re grumpy, act like you’re enjoying yourself. Kids pick up on body language and you’ll get the best out of them if they sense you like being their coach.

5. Greet each player when they arrive in a way that lets them know you’re happy to see them.

6. Always end practice on an upbeat, happy note. (Even if they drove you absolutely crazy).

7. See the game through the children's eyes. This will remind you that your main objective is helping them discover the joys of soccer. And not to expect a 6-year-old to play like a 16-year-old!

8. Do not yell instructions at them! Do not coach from the sidelines during games! This interferes severely in their learning process. It also makes you look rather silly -- an adult screaming at 6-year-olds while they’re playing.

9. Sit down during games, instead of prowling the sidelines, which only creates tension that unnerves your players.

10. Always have a first-aid kit (including ice-packs) with you.

11. Keep plastic bags in your coaching bag in case you need to pick up dog poo.

U.S. Soccer National F License
This well-produced online (iPad-friendly) course, for coaches and parents of players ages 5 to 8, costs $25. It takes about 2 hours, but you don't have to do it in one sitting, as one can stop, rewind, and restart the webinars. The information is concisely conveyed by 11 instructors -- Dave Chesler, Lewis Atkinson, John Cone, Heather Dyche, Dan Freigang, Vince Ganzberg, Carlos Juarez, Shannon MacMillan, Rene Miramontes, Deb Ognar, Christopher Winter -- and complemented by video clips of practices sessions. U.S. Soccer Digital Coaching Center.

U.S. Soccer's "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States”

US Youth Soccer Player Development Model

U.S. Youth Soccer Coaching Education

AYSO Lesson Plans

NSCAA eLearning Center


(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla refs youth soccer in Northern California and coaches at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)

Soccer America on Twitter: Follow Soccer America | Mike Woitalla

12 comments about "11 Tips for Coaching the Little Ones".
  1. Wesley Hunt, August 27, 2015 at 10:29 a.m.

    This age group is my favorite to coach but it took me awhile to figure the little suckers out. Helps to have a good memory of what it was like to be 6 chasing a ball. Once you the fun factor dialed in it is all about figuring out games to get the movements and actions you want. Then be amazed at how fast they learn. What you have to throw out of your head is that they learn like an older person one slow boring step at a time with lots of thinking in between. Not happening with a normal 6 year old who is all about movement, action, and imitation. They love stories and pretend games and monsters and being chased and chasing. That is where they live. You just need to figure out how to get a a soccer ball figured into it. Team work....not happening, forget about it. Lectures longer than 30 seconds and you lose them. Yelling and expecting stand around in positions watching the ball move around the field until comes to them is criminal. At this stage it is me and the ball so take advantage of that enthusiasm to teach dribbling and shooting. But keep it fun!!

  2. don Lamb replied, August 27, 2015 at 2:19 p.m.

    Your description is exactly why 2v2 should be the model for this age group. 4v4, as US Soccer just put out, is ridiculous to expect anything good to come out of. In 2v2, they can actually comprehend the variables around them a little bit. 4v4 is chaos to them.

  3. don Lamb replied, August 27, 2015 at 2:20 p.m.

    "this age group" meaning 6 year olds...

  4. cisco martinez, August 27, 2015 at 11:04 a.m.

    Make sure they have fun and they like soccer. You can introduce basic things like learning to head, passing, etc. Make it fun, play scrimmages where they can name there own team.

  5. aaron dutch, August 27, 2015 at 3:50 p.m.

    4 V4 is fine just do lots of el rondo games 2v1, 3v1, 4v1, juggle for fun

  6. James Madison, August 27, 2015 at 7:26 p.m.

    Bravo, Mike!!! I wold only add:

    1. Sit down or kneel down with them when talking.

    2. Ge nuine ice is a zip lock bag with water to spread the temperature across the surface is cheaper than ice packs. Bring it is a lunch cooler.

    3. Heading comes later than 6-year-olds.

  7. Kent James, August 27, 2015 at 11:02 p.m.

    While this is generally excellent advice, I would add that a few minutes of each player touching a ball (a few simple dribbling moves, e.g.), even if it is rote learning, as long as it is kept short (less than 2 mins), helps improve ball skills (something like the Coerver skills). There are also some good games that are lots of fun (deer hunter, sharks & minnows are my favorites), that also teach ball skills better than a conventional game (because there are more balls, so each kid gets more time on the ball), and the kids love them (they are fast paced and intense). I also prefer 3 v 3 at U6 (4 v 4 at U8) for the same reason. Lastly, if you get a chance to take the Youth National License course offered by US Soccer, someone in your club should take it (preferably as many coaches as possible). It teaches you that at the youngest ages, soccer development needs to take more from child development than from high-level soccer. If you've ever coached younger ages, you'll recognize the wisdom in that approach.

  8. Kent James, August 27, 2015 at 11:06 p.m.

    Once you recognize that to a 6 year old child, the ball is a toy, and he'd rather not share it, and accept that instead of fighting that tendency, life makes sense. And soccer programs for kids younger than 6 should not pretend to be soccer programs, but simply be called "playing with a ball" (not that there's anything wrong with that!). Parents who want to get their 4 yr old enrolled in soccer before it's too late need to be told to take a deep breath, there's plenty of time....and enrolling kids too early may burn 'em out (or bore them) before they hit the golden years (10-12 or so), so they move to other sports thinking they'd already tried soccer, when they never had a chance to play at a meaningful level of skill.

  9. Wesley Hunt replied, August 30, 2015 at 1:48 p.m.

    I start practices one kid one ball. Teach dribbling moves sure. They love to imitate and show off so teaching moves is no problem. If they think you think those moves are cool they will do them all over the place wether the move is needed or not but that is how they put it in their nervous system. Expect it.
    We do races. Follow the leader games. Treasure island with monsters chasing them anything that keeps them excited with a ball at their foot. Also a lot of 1v1 with all kids playing at the same time. Practices often look chaotic but their is a plan to the madness and I always have a goal in mind.

  10. Miguel Dedo, August 28, 2015 at 9:31 a.m.

    Excellent. Cut down to numbers 1, 5, 2 and 3, even better.

  11. Wesley Hunt, August 30, 2015 at 2:20 p.m.

    It really helps if you have the parents on board with what is going on and to follow up at home. What I am after more than anything is for kids to begin to develop ball obsession thus beginning a long love affair with our beautiful game. The more the home atmosphere supports that the quicker it happens. But quite often the parents are expecting the kids to be reading novels when they are just learning the letters and sounds. The want their kids to work at their game. Kids that age do not work, they play!! And truly it is me and the ball. You cannot fight that. However, it is that drive that becomes the ball obsession that I want and is at the heart of every great players desire to play. Everything else will come as the child matures but parents and many volunteer coaches are often impatient wanting to teach team work and passing before they are ready for it.

  12. Wesley Hunt, August 30, 2015 at 2:34 p.m.

    Game day I give out patches. They go for things like Assists, defense, attitude, doing the move of the day, everything I am looking for outside of scoring. Scoring is its own reward. When little Johnny who scores 20 goals every game wants an assist patch I park little Susie, who normally would rather pick Dandelions, by the pug goal and tell Johnny to dribble it down there and pass the ball to her so she can score. Assist patch is then given out at the end of the game to the applause of all the parents. All kids get patches and I have to keep track of what they did well during the game that I can reward. That keeps me focused on what is going on with pencil in hand so I can record it. Makes it so I am a little less focused on the ball. I almost never know what the score is but the kids keep track of that. If all is going well and the parents are on board the kids are showing off their moves and having a blast and it is off to ice cream after the game. Can't get much better than that if you are U6 kid.

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