Don't waste time at practice, let them play!

By Mike Woitalla

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.

34 comments about "Don't waste time at practice, let them play! ".
  1. Malcolm Brown, August 23, 2017 at 4:45 p.m.

    Great article. Those who are skillful and creative in soccer, achieved that by playing, not listening. Too many youth coaches perceive coaching to be commanding and controlling the environment. On top of that, they like to talk tactics and organize.

  2. Nick Daverese replied, August 23, 2017 at 10:58 p.m.

    Well if your going to start and play with the first kid that arrives. Then the coach better not be late for practice. I have seen a lot of coaches show up after the kids arrived. Then the kids are doing nothing until he shows up. On talking tactics that is what new coaches love to do when they have no skill of their own. How can you coach kids when you have no skills to teach them.

  3. Mark Zylker, August 23, 2017 at 4:45 p.m.

    I agree 100% with setting up goals and let them play as soon as they arrive. The only thing I would add is that this should be for ALL ages. It is a form of street soccer which we don't rally have in the USA. Players learn to be "creative" with street soccer. No level of coaching can bring out much of this if any. Christian Pulisic is a great example of what creativity can do for the American player. Dempsey was another.

  4. frank schoon, August 23, 2017 at 5:01 p.m.

    WOW what a gem ,a good suggestion though, but finally coming after 50 years of youth soccer. Another simple ABC's from street soccer from my days. Why doesn't the USSF get it in to their heads to study what the various elements that made up street soccer were and apply it to the development of today's youth; instead of these simple truisms that seem to come out in drips...

  5. uffe gustafsson, August 23, 2017 at 6:27 p.m.

    I call it commen sense, if that's what you call street soccer then I'm all in.
    Think we just had an article of the dad that had 6 year old kids and what to do at his practice.
    I believe it was mike Woitalla article as well.
    So proof again that 6 year old don't need drills but just have fun playing. Drills can come later as they get used to the ball, and they will naturally start to do moves that they see older players do or watching games on tv.
    Slowly implement foot skills when they start to show that they can do it.

  6. stewart hayes, August 23, 2017 at 7:05 p.m.

    Common sense for a player, turned coach and great advice for everyone else. You won't find me sitting around if there is a ball another person to play with. Too many coaches don't know what 'play' means. In Costa Rica metal barriers are put in front of goals on public field because players shoot if there is a goal. So the only thing I would ad to the article is that the first players to arrive get to shoot first.

  7. Kent James, August 23, 2017 at 9:12 p.m.

    One advantage of doing it this way is that it rewards kids that come to practice early, because they get to start with the most fun part of practice. It should inspire them to get there early...

  8. frank schoon replied, August 24, 2017 at 7:39 a.m.

    Kent, in my street soccer days , parents would come out and yell at you "Get your butt home". They literally had to get a tow truck to drag us home from playing.

  9. Nick Daverese, August 23, 2017 at 11:06 p.m.

    Have you guys ever seen what a lot of so called good adult players do in the warm up when they start push passing to each other when they are told to alternate feet on their passing. Most of the times you see one player moving a little to his left or right when all they are doing is passing to each other alternating the passes first using one foot then the other. It means they can't even do that right.

  10. frank schoon replied, August 24, 2017 at 7:19 a.m.

    Nick. Good true

  11. Nick Daverese, August 23, 2017 at 11:10 p.m.

    When you coach little kids it is best to start the practice around 8 am. Why, because there are less distractions early in the morning then later. Things happen later to break their concentration when a lot of other things are going on at the same time.

  12. Bob Ashpole, August 24, 2017 at 1:09 a.m.

    The only thing I disagree with is an adult coach participating as a player with young players. Serving balls is one thing but going 1v1 with a little kid is counterproductive. Invariably the adult does not move naturally and uses his longer reach to advantage. This provides no useful experience for the child playing against other children. A lesser problem is that it confuses the coach role and teammate role (teacher vs competitor), making it harder to maintain an authority image.

  13. Nick Daverese, August 24, 2017 at 6:12 a.m.

    Agree if the adult is stupid he would take on a kid one v one. But a trainer can play with older kids and not take them on. He could be on both teams which ever team has the ball he can be in their attack. The older player should be able to think faster then his players. So playing with them at a faster pace should increase their speed of play.

  14. frank schoon replied, August 24, 2017 at 7:27 a.m.

    Nick, exactly. I use myself as example what you can do with the ball for these kids, like in the street soccer days ,need to see better and older players play and play against, but don't use it as a way to prove your the best out there but purely as an example of what you can do. Remember so much for these kids at this stage is learning in the visual sense. How else can a kid become familiar with a pullback move ,how it is done and when you do it, if you show it in game competition

  15. Jay Wall, August 24, 2017 at 7:30 a.m.

    Among the many quotes on learning to play the game are several based on how the game has been taught in some countries around the world in the past. In England, just after WWII soccer was taught in PE in school in the same way spelling and math tables were, by rote, constant repetition until you learned the skills or quit out of complete boredom. Rote training created generations of coaches who take the fun out of playing the game by training skills by rote instead of using teaching games players love to play and enjoy. Quotes about 10,000 hours and 10,000 touches were used to convince players they must master skills before learning the shear joy of playing. And because players got bored most did poor repetitions and created bad habits instead of good ones. >> Among the best quotes, from German National Team star Franz Beckenbauer, was "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Games and practice exercises that demand "perfect focus" are faster, more match like and done properly can even demand the attention of ADHD players for periods of time ranging from 5 to 10 minutes. The goal if to focus on doing everything perfectly for brief periods, creating perfect habits, instead of rote training which leads to boredom and bad habits that are very difficult and according to studies take up to 8 months to correct. >> And focused practices start when players arrive and last until after a cool down. In 1982 a U17 National team coach from Columbia ran a session for American players and he started with and demanded players raised their alternate heels ever second they were not in a game or exercise, even when drinking water, just to develop the habit of always being focused and ready to play. It was a small mental thing and there are others to keep practices active and to engage players.

  16. Kent James replied, August 24, 2017 at 3:12 p.m.

    While I agree with much of what you say, for me, the rote learning is still a gray area. Certainly, rote repetition is boring, and doing too much of it will kill desire to practice. On the other hand, to be a really good player, most of what you do must be instinctual, relying on muscle memory, and rote repetition can create the ability to do that. And repetitions in a practice can allow a coach to see technique (and correct it if it's bad), as well as provide a lot of repetitions in a short time. And unless you've played every day your entire life, it's hard to develop great technique for things that don't occur a lot in a game (finishing, for example). Players need repetition to master skills, and rote repetition can do that in a short time period (so it can be an efficient route to mastery). That being said, I agree that doing too much of it at a time is clearly counterproductive, and certainly, it must be used sparingly with young kids (a few minutes at a time, maybe once a practice). But incorporating it into competitive activities can maintain the focus and intensity (I've used a drill for HS players where you have two even groups, and one group is finishing as many crosses as they can in the time it takes the other group to dribble a set of cones a set number of times, and then they switch). In a world where most kids had a ball at their feet hours a day as they grew up, rote repetition might not be necessary. But when you only have kids a limited amount of time, a little repetition can be an efficient way to raise the level of skill so that when they play, the quality of the game is not limited so much by poor technique.

  17. Jay Wall replied, August 24, 2017 at 6:04 p.m.

    Kent - A coach who had been at Santos, pointed out young players have feet that turn in, legs that are bowed and inmature hip joints so they lack the developmental maturity to do skills well, so let them run behind the ball pushing it with the front rim of the shoe while developing a love of the game. > Look at any player on the sideline, the foot that points out more is the manipulative foot used to touch the ball, the other the dominant plant foot used to balance when touching the ball. > The foundation of ball handling excellence is a training progression that uses balance exercises to develope both as dominant plant feet; then dribbling the ball with micro touches with their dominant manipulative foot first and then an equal amount of time with their other foot . . . until they touch the ball equally well with either foot. > Use 3 players with #3 & #1 at cone A with #2 at cone B (cones 5 yards apart). 1 dribbles with micro touches to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 1 using the right foot only for half the time and then the left foot only for half the time. > Next practice have two lines of 3 players setup to cross each others paths at right angles to force players to get their head up when dribbling. > Next practice have 3 lines crossing. >> Next practice have player with the ball call out the color of a cone the coach is holding over their head. > Players learn to manipulate the ball with micro touches using 8 to 10 points on each foot, including the sole and heel, they are better prepared to handle other skills.

  18. Kent James replied, August 25, 2017 at 9:19 a.m.

    Jay, I agree that ball touches are key, but isn't what you described the kind of rote repetition your first comment was criticizing? The ambivalence about rote training for me comes from watching the Coerver videos, where all those little dutch kids do these complicated sequences of dribbling moves as one (like little robots), but their touches seem silky smooth (and very creative) in game like situations. So I tend to have some moves we do by rote (for short periods, but consistently) and encourage them to incorporate them into their game.

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, August 25, 2017 at 12:01 p.m.

    Kent, you would probably get more mileage out of the ball mastery exercises which are the pieces that put together create moves. I used them as technical exercises during warm up. Cruyff never practiced the Cruyff turn before he used it. He just improvised with a fake cross followed by a turn during a match. Pieces.

  20. frank schoon replied, August 25, 2017 at 1:57 p.m.

    Kent, every day playing street soccer is rote too. Wiel Coerver exercises are good as exercises and yes they are rote , but they serve a purpose. I have never employed Wiel Coerver exercises on my kids. I did buy the video back in '82 when no one around here ever heard of him. But I bought it just to see what he had. The problem lies with not only Wiel Coerver but all the moves that are taught is "WHEN" is the best time to execute. In other words as I let my players play, there are going to be situations that I want my players to recognize, the right moment this is where this particular move should is best employed. That element of teaching the "WHEN" was automatically taught too players during street soccer days for you learned when you watch the older players do it and you immediately recognize the situation as well. Today that is not taught too players but only the execution of the move. Wiel Coervers moves miss that element and how many coaches really have a feel to teach the WHEN.

  21. Jay Wall, August 24, 2017 at 7:50 a.m.

    Injury prevention exercises are mentioned in the article with the expressed opinion only for older players. Actually the habit of doing something on arrival can begin earlier with simple agility, balance and movement exercises. Also with players new to the game a basic lesson on tumbling and rolling when you fall helps reduce injuries by teaching players to roll instead of trying to catch themselves as they fall. >> With respect to girls a comprehensive warm-up should start at age 12 to prevent non-contant ACL blow outs and non-contact inversion sprains. Both the ACL and inversion sprain exercises are on FIFA's website PDF for female players, take 15 minutes a day, 3 days a week and over a couple decades several hundred girls used them and there were no non-contact ACL blow outs and only 2 inversion sprains, both on rips in turf field carpet.

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, August 24, 2017 at 10:55 a.m.

    While it is true that very young children are limber and don't need to stretch to become limber, there are 2 other purposes of a warmup which children still need (raising body temperature and preparing physically and mentally for high intensity play).

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, August 24, 2017 at 10:59 a.m.

    Jay, I am familiar with the FIFA 11+ program. Is that what you are talking about?

  24. Jay Wall replied, August 24, 2017 at 1:14 p.m.

    FIFA's Health and Fitness Guide for female players, with contributions by Don Kirkendall of Duke and U.S. Medical staff, has been around for a while, but is a fairly clean and clear presentation. The additional recommendation would be one of two very good videos on YouTube done by female players showing all the PEP program exercises. The video presentation is easier for the girls to start to pickup the subtle movements because they see female players doing what they should be doing. Also a study in Europe documented men and boys learning better from male illustrations and videos; while girls and women learn far better viewing videos and illustrations with females. The additional advantage is that men and women do skills somewhat differently based on strength, height, agility, etc. so a comprehensive set of videos of females doing skills is always a plus. The FIFA document is at and covers almost all aspects of health for female players. Have rarely had female players with breast bruising and discomfort from hard physical contact that is not covered in the FIFA document but there is a solution used in other sports.

  25. Bob Ashpole replied, August 25, 2017 at 6:04 a.m.

    Thanks Jay. FIFA has apparently taken down any reference to the FIFA 11 plus program. Originally it was recommended to reduce the risk of ACL injury. Later after studies, FIFA no longer claimed the program reduced the risk of ACL injury, but claimed it generally reduced the risk on injury. The PDF they now have in place (that you linked) is a program that FIFA 11 and later 11 plus had replaced. I don't see any claims of actual success for injury prevention. I wonder, if the FIFA 11 plus program specifically aimed at ACL injury prevention was later found not to decrease ACL injuries, whether the anecdotal evidence you reference has any validity. This all seems like a step backward for FIFA rejecting years of medical research. If I remember correctly from reading years ago, the PEP program was a North American precursor to European FIFA 11 program.

  26. Nick Daverese, August 24, 2017 at 11:18 a.m.

    Jay a lot of good information on both of your posts.

    I will say this on repition it is boring. But once you can do a skill perfectly. Then the game becomes a lot more fun. I also think agility exercises are important to prevent injuries. Like learn how to do a shoulder roll and back up on your feet. On Acl there is a test you can do to find out if you maybe in danger of have the problem. The knee test is simple: sit on the floor with your leg straight, and pull up on your foot. If you can lift your foot off the floor WITH the back of your knee still touching the ground, you've reached hyper-extension. This is good if you're a swimmer, but not good if you want to play soccer

  27. Nick Daverese, August 24, 2017 at 11:22 a.m.

    Bob the warm up for kids promotes good habits for when they get older. It also makes the team look more professional before the start of the game. I have seen teams that look like a bunch of rag tag mis nanceys. I have no idea what that means but heard it in the movie Gangs of New York, :)

  28. metro metro, August 24, 2017 at 3:35 p.m.

    Good points. Get them PLAYING immediately instead of sending crappy aimless passing back and forth.

    Street soccer may teach a few but it does not teach consistently or reproducibly. Also, sometime players need help to jumpstart their technique and to help figure out.

  29. frank schoon, August 25, 2017 at 7:28 a.m.

    Ryan, Street soccer entails all the necessary elements of skill building and it has build in JUMPSTART, which is represented in the form of playing against older or better players

  30. Bob Ashpole replied, August 25, 2017 at 10:14 a.m.

    And it is fun!

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  33. frank schoon, August 26, 2017 at 12:10 p.m.

    This stuff is annoying....

  34. Ray Lindenberg , August 28, 2017 at 5:06 p.m.

    "Just let them play"... what great advice -- and what terrible advice at the same time! First of all, any coach that let's a player, from 2 years old to 52, touch a soccer ball at a practice session or a game without first warming up properly (even if the player does so on their own out of habit and good coaching) is performing an act of malfeasance. The body needs at least 5 minutes of effective stretching to get the blood flow with oxygen circulating properly, and to wake up the muscles to make them more responsive and supple, to prevent many injuries injury, or more serious injuries...even toddlers. Teach them right, and to respect their bodies, and the demands of the body from the sport from day one -- at any age and in any sport. The oversight and laziness of not demanding proper stretching and warm-up amounts to unprofessional coaching...or non-coaching.

    On the lighter side, if the coach is not prepared to teach and nurture to improve a player or team's performance, then by all means, after the warm-ups, let them play, especially the younger players that need to fatten up on their instincts, improvisational footwork, plus their team play & game condition recognition knowledge bank.

    But the purpose of having a coach -- and the essence of coaching is to save time ... to come prepared to teach the players so that they improve quicker. Otherwise, what the players are doing much of the time is reinforcing bad technique and play. A coach is there to have players fully understand and appreciate all the nuances that makes them better players and gives them the upper hand on their competitors. Anything short of that is not much more than sanctioned spectating or baby-sitting in a coach's uniform.

    The moral of the story is that, coach's need ...and if they have nothing to add, then by all means, let the players figure out on their own their encyclopedic knowledge, at a slower pace, the better way to play -- hopefully without letting their lack of coaching reinforce inadequate, ineffective or bad play and techniques that will derail their progress too much.

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