11 Tips for Coaching the Little Ones

“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.

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(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.)

23 comments about "11 Tips for Coaching the Little Ones".
  1. Gary Allen, August 18, 2017 at 3:48 p.m.

    Good insights Mike.The best resource for coaches of these ages is the National Youth Coaching Certificate course offered by US Youth Soccer. Unlike other courses, it is educationally grounded and developed by some of the finest youth coaches this country has ever produced. There is still a good book that one can get on line called The Baffled Parents' Guide to Great Soccer Drills by Tom Fleck and Ron Quinn. It provides many fun age-appropriate activities for the young ones.

  2. Kent James replied, August 18, 2017 at 5:38 p.m.

    I agree about the national youth coaching course; completely different from every other coaching course I've taken (and it needs to be). Coaching kids (especially young ones) is very different than coaching adults. The course bases its ideas on age-appropriate development. For example, for a 6 year old, the ball is a toy, and they don't want to share it, so trying to get them to play one-touch ain't gonna happen. But if you go with the forces of nature, you can get them to love having the ball which will help them to develop the skills they'll need later.

  3. uffe gustafsson, August 18, 2017 at 5:06 p.m.
  4. Kent James replied, August 18, 2017 at 5:39 p.m.

    Uffe, I have to say, I can't disagree with anything you said... (:-)

  5. Kent James, August 18, 2017 at 5:34 p.m.

    The only thing I would add to this good advice is try to do things that maximize ball touches by each kid (so keep the games as small sided as you can). But as you said, be happy, keep it short and keep it fun. And don't expect them to act like small adults, they're kids and it's a game.

  6. Bob Ashpole, August 18, 2017 at 6:49 p.m.

    Regarding age appropriate, the youngest I ever coached was U10G (8 and 9 year olds). They were very coachable, probably the easiest age group to work with. The best exercises for them was the same as the best exercises for adult novices. I am apprehensive about working with younger ages. I have said in the past that you don't coach 5 and 6 year olds--you babysit them while they play. I have seen some evidence to the contrary, and I have worked with my own kids as soon as they could sit up and roll a ball. But in a team situation, I don't see how you can effectively do much group training. I guess I am going to find out, because I will be coaching young kids again this fall. Good article, Mike. Good advice.

  7. Kent James replied, August 19, 2017 at 1:06 p.m.

    Big differences between 6 yr olds and 9 yr olds. You're right, you can't "coach" the young ones (positions, tactics, etc.), but if you do it right, you can set up games that they enjoy while learning skills (mainly either general coordination and movement or skill with the ball), and you can create a spark in them that makes them want to learn more. But it's got to be fun. Good luck, I'm sure you'll be fine.

  8. frank schoon, August 18, 2017 at 7:59 p.m.

    Number 12. Just disappear figuratively and let the kids have fun,show them a cute move with the ball that makes their eyes open up and let them realize what you are capable of doing once you get better at it. Don't worry about boundaries, make up two little goals 30yards apart or whatever and let them go at it. They can play or go behind the goal but the only way they can score is in front. The reason to have no boundaries is to allow them to keep moving and running thus no stoppages for at this stage it all about getting a rhythm and timing with the ball. Coach should play for both sides, not to score but to show what can do with the ball, since at this stage it is all about visuality. One of the first moves you can teach after they are have established a timing with ball is the pullback move. Show them why and for what reason you do it. Whichever player does a pullback that team is rewarded a point.

  9. frank schoon replied, August 18, 2017 at 8:22 p.m.

    Once they have established some rhythm and control make them dribble medium size figure 8's with the ball. Figure 8 dribble contains all the necessary motions, other than a pullback ,a player should need to master in dribbling,for it contains changing directions ,turning inwards and outwards all while going forwards. As they become a little more sophisticated ,you can explain why and when (do it visually)you want to turn inwards or outwards. You explain that you don't have to out run an opponent to beat him but turn away from him can also be effective. Show them if the opponent is on his right side you turn inwards and away (if dribbling with right foot), if left side turn away to the right....again give the team a point if this move is executed. I would even stop the game for a second to congratulate the player and tell the players what he just is all about imprinting ,showing that the coach appreciates nice ball movement. Even if the kid does the move at wrong time or place or it wasn't necessary, acknowledge the execution for that is more important.

  10. Nick Daverese replied, August 19, 2017 at 7:36 a.m.

    Love the pullback for older players it's great when you are under pressure it will give you more time to see the field without the help of a team mate. I think the half scissor is good to have to beat a defender . The full scissors also gives the player more time not to beat someone. A horizontal takeover simple move you can do with another player to reverse the attack or to use to get the second player a shot in congested space. Lastly the cryuff a move a player can use to reverse his field by himself and you can shoot of it. Donadoni was an expert shooting off it. Those are not a lot of moves to own, but it is enough if you can do them well. You don't need 30 moves just 4 or 5 if you are great at them and mixed them up in the time and space that best suits their use. I loved making the practice plan. It was how I relaxed I would always try to improve the plan right up until the day of the practice. You can't greet all the players and make small talk with them if your late getting to and setting up the practice field before they arrive.

  11. frank schoon replied, August 19, 2017 at 8:08 a.m.

    Nick, love the pullback. It is so funny when you see the whole crowd run after the ball and some one pulls the ball back with the crowd reacting 3 steps later to the change in direction.

  12. James Madison, August 18, 2017 at 8:22 p.m.

    US Soccer and AYSO both have good on-line courses for coaching U-8s, and Fleck and Quinn borrowed their title from another fine book, "Baffled Parent's Guide to Coaching Youth Soccer" by Notre Dame's Bobby Clark.

  13. uffe gustafsson, August 18, 2017 at 9:58 p.m.

    Omg frank.
    Have you ever seen a 6 year old play.
    You might just forgot it.
    It's a ball of kids running as a big unite and chasing the ball. There is no real moves.
    I remember boys doing karate kicks away from the ball, and if a gopher stuck up his head they all stopped to check it out.
    We are not talking about Messi as a kid, but a dad that never coached a kid in soccer.
    So your long randed comment is just not real for these kids. Only comment would be let em play and have fun, the technical part comes later.
    You kind of sound like that over bearing parent that want his kid to be next Messi instead of letting them have a good time for hour and half.
    My daughter parent coach just let em play and today she is still playing as a senior HS and most left years ago because of not enough fun for time putting in. Remember that. That's why we loose kids, fun is gone.

  14. frank schoon replied, August 18, 2017 at 11 p.m.

    Uffe,I did not state any age specific. It is up to the coach to sense when kids are ready to teach a move. I would assume the reader of my comments would have enough common sense to understand that. For example where I stated let them have fun and you disappear figuratively would apply to your 6 year old. My long rant as you state basically from the age from 6-10. Like I stated use your own common sense when to apply what I mentioned.

  15. Nick Daverese, August 18, 2017 at 11 p.m.

    I don't like that number eleven. When I had a dog you did not have to pick up after him. I think if you never played or coached before my advice to you would be start playing yourself some where. Two reasons so you actually see and feel what the player sees and feels. You can see it unless you played yourself. When the kids are starting to learn and you have then each with a ball dribbling. You stand away and keep telling them to dribble to you and keep asking them where are you so they get there head up while they dribble. Then put the group in a big circle then tell them to dribble. There banging into each other. Then tell them to dribble where they saw a player leave. What they are actually doing is dribbling into open space they just don't know it yet. Then finally do it and try to know another players ball out of the circle. Last ones left with a ball is the winner.

  16. Nick Daverese, August 18, 2017 at 11:08 p.m.

    Oh there are always some kids who would rather dig holes in the grass then play. Can't get them to play. Give the team to your helper and go dig with the digger. Good for the kid to enjoy himself and the parent so they stop worrying about there little guy. It's good for you to remind the coach the kids having a good time is always what is the most important thing. Eventually hopefully they will enjoy playing when they are ready. Your a failure if you do something to get the little guy to not want to play any more.

  17. Malcolm Brown, August 18, 2017 at 11:48 p.m.

    Excellent advice when working with young ones. Have experienced many of the challenges mentioned.

  18. frank schoon, August 19, 2017 at 9:07 a.m.

    Reading some of the tips which are good, but so much is just plain COMMON SENSE. That after 50 years of youth soccer we have to come with tips like this. I can understand reading this article found in the archives of SA 40years ago..but today...WOW! It pains me to read ,anytime ,an article whenever adults have to interfere in the natural of process of youths learning soccer which happens in such a natural beautiful way in street soccer, where there are no helicopter parents or for that matter helicopter coaches to be found. It is so refreshing seeing a kid 7 years old begin to enter the street soccer competition because he wants to try and play soccer for he sees so many of his peers and older ones playing. And fortunately for him he will never experience the swarms of young kids running after a ball and who have no clue other than there is a ball we got to chase down. No , he instead he ,right away, is introduced to better type of game, which visually is impressed upon him. He sees players who can do things with a ball that he can't and it is all new to him. Yes, ,right away, he is introduced already to a more sophisticated game,in a natural manner where his peers ,today, in America who are stuck playing with their own age group having no clue but chase after a stupid ball. This is why it is so important to have these young ones mingle with better and older types, for the older types introduce structure to the game that you just can't explain or teach to a kid. He automatically is placed in an environment where there is more control and structure to the game, which this kid if he likes what he sees will begin to adhere to, and if not he'll choose something else to play.

  19. R2 Dad, August 19, 2017 at 1:10 p.m.

    Good stuff, Mike. Herding cats isn't for everyone. "9. Sit down during games, instead of prowling the sidelines..." Coaches always forget to bring a chair for themselves and believe it or not parents notice if you're calm or a screamer. The chair makes it more difficult to scream at your kids. I also like "10. Always have a first-aid kit..." Bag of frozen peas does wonders to stop the crying.

  20. stewart hayes, August 21, 2017 at 10:29 a.m.

    12. Schedule practice on BB court or baseball infield or dead end street or city park where there are many surface options.(message: you can play wherever.
    13. Use garbage cans, soda cans, shoes etc to mark goals or play two trees.(message: the goal is what you make it)

  21. frank schoon, August 21, 2017 at 10:35 a.m.

    STEWART,Right on!!! I always try to make sure there is a basketball court where the soccer field is or employ the parking lot. This way half my practice in on grass the other on concrete. Or where there is a school where there is a wall with no windows where you can pass against the wall

  22. Nick Daverese, August 21, 2017 at 6:44 p.m.

    There is nothing better then just using a handball court to try things just need a ball and your imagination.

  23. Gary Allen, August 23, 2017 at 8:54 a.m.

    James Madison, you are mistaken. Tom Fleck and Rob Quinn did not borrow anything from Bobby Clark. It was McGraw Hill that came up with the series of "Baffled Parents' Guide" titles for soccer and other sports. Furthermore, while Bobby was a great goalkeeper in his day, and he has coached many college players (Stanford and Notre Dame), he has never coached really young players.

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