When former U.S. World Cup captain and Hall of Famer Claudio Reyna was U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director, he made what I thought was a crucial point about youth coaching: Don’t waste time.
“If you have 12 one-hour sessions in a month, and you waste 10 minutes each session, you can waste two sessions in a month,” Reyna said.
Reyna’s advice, back in 2011 in an address to coaches from elite clubs from around the nation, was about keeping “players focused and active” throughout the practice.
But it’s advice that applies to all levels.
Top pro players whom I’ve interviewed have an affinity for coaches who run efficient, intense practices, without lulls and lectures.
Young children, they get bored, and possibly disruptive, if they show up to practice and there’s no action.
For the grassroots coaches, especially the volunteers charged with running practice for 6-year-olds with pent-up energy after sitting in school all day, the key to getting them to “focus” is allowing them to be “active.”
That starts at the beginning of practice.
And I’m convinced that the best way to begin a practice is by letting kids play soccer.
There are various ways to start a practice at the older ages. I was raised with rondo, back when we called it keepaway, or 5v2 (no matter what the exact numbers were). But rondo doesn’t work well for novice players. At the older ages, injury-prevention warm-ups are requisite and coaches can sense whatever pre-practice socializing might suit their players.
But for the little ones, set up goals and let them play as soon as they arrive.
I wrote about this a few years ago, when Coach Nick Lusson described it:
"When the first kid shows up, it’s 1v1 with the coach. Then the second kid shows up and it's 2v1 against the coach. The third kid makes it 2v2 and then with the fourth kid arriving, the coach steps out and they play 2v2.
"With each additional arrival, the game grows until everyone is there at practice. The coaches let the game go for a while and that is the first phase of their training session -- sometimes using it to check in with the parents or talk with the other coaches a bit as they watched.”
Ian Plenderleith: "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."
Anybody who has been recruited to coach today is deluged with curricula and practice plans that recommend all sorts of drills and individual exercises that are supposed to create a great player. But the chances of the kids being able to “focus” when you introduce the more complicated stuff are likely to increase if they burn off some energy at the start of practice.
Most importantly, instead of having to wait around until they’re told to navigate a configuration of cones, they get to play soccer.