Getting the best out of kids has always been a challenge. Most readers of this blog will, if they are honest, admit that maybe they didn’t always try their hardest at school; sometimes (at the very least) homework would be rushed off so the latest episode of Friends could be watched guilt free; that chemistry piece would go on the back burner so we could get to the cinema to be the first to view the latest Star Wars movie, or Jurassic adventure with uppity dinosaurs. Most kids, or adults for that matter, do not have the habit of cultivating hunger in themselves or others.
So seeking to get the youngsters in our teams to fulfill their potential is little different to the work of teachers aiming to turn their pupils into A grade students. We, as coaches, do have one significant advantage, however. That is that our kids have chosen to play soccer – they want to be there, which is something that is far from always the case with school. One key is cultivating hunger in younger players.
Nevertheless, the skills and knowledge of the best teachers will serve us well as we look to improve our players’ performances. Here is our guide to helping our youngsters to achieve the best that they can.
Step One: Recognize the Era
Times are different. Kids know their rights, and a sense of entitlement is the norm. Many of we older citizens can find this difficult to deal with. The notion of an inherent respect for age and experience; a requirement to do as the adult instructs are behaviors we expect, but increasingly fail, to see.
Nevertheless, the fundamental nature of children is little changed. They will do as they are asked; they will put in their best efforts if the environment in which they work is one in which they feel comfortable and motivated.
Thus, to get the best from our young players, we need to ensure that both our philosophy and our sessions follow the three ‘F’s. That they are:
The modern child expects to enjoy training; they expect to have the same opportunities and receive the same attention as their teammates and they expect to taught well. Actually, those are all quite reasonable expectations, for any era but they hold coaches up to scrutiny. If we make the grade in those three F’s, we are well on the way to getting the best from our youngsters.
Step Two – Plan Sessions Thoroughly
When we do this, we have to take into account the age and ability of our squad, the resources (including staffing) that we have and the space we can use. Let us take, for example, an Under Ten one hour and thirty minute training session.
Warm Up – Traditional stretches are out, and so is a long jog. At least, other than for occasional use. Work on small sided drills with a competitive edge. Rondo style activities work really well; these are drills where one side is heavily weighted, so a four v one keep ball type session is good.
The session should be fast paced with lots of changes. Kids enjoy doing, not listening. The best coaches use warm-ups with which kids are familiar, perhaps introducing a variation to keep them fresh. Ten to fifteen minutes is ideal.
Main Focus of the Session
The best coaches plan their sessions based on effective assessment. So, although the coaching manual might state that week six requires work on corners, the good coach will think back to the last match or session and use evidence from that to determine this week’s focus.
So, let us imagine that in the last game, our passing was wayward. This week we put a focus on this particular skill. For under tens, three to four fifteen to twenty minute drills is ideal. It is fine to use the same focus for different drills, but the activity needs to change.
Although it is tempting to stop the session because our center forward is shooting wildly at the end of our practiced passing drill, that is not the aim we are seeking to achieve, so the coach focuses entirely on points connected to the aim.
Kids need to be active. So, no more than two minutes explanation, then let them go. If they haven’t got the idea work with a group for a while until they understand what is required. Children learn very quickly from their mistakes – our job is to steer them towards a solution, not present it on a plate for them.
Keep everybody active and use helpers or assistants to work with individuals if required. Ensure every player gets continuous involvement. Not taking part is viewed as unfair, leads to boredom and resentment (these are kids, they don’t always see the bigger picture) and then behavior can begin to go awry.
After fifteen to twenty minutes stop the drill, and move on to the next, which should ideally take the skill being worked on to the next level. Perhaps the third (and fourth) drills will look at a different aspect of play, and there is no problem practicing something at which the team is already good. Improvement is always achievable.
With all drills, we should keep in mind that most kids love competition (those that do not will most probably not be playing soccer) and they also love working as a team.
The Fun Bit – A Game
Kids love a game. It is what they take away from a session. Even if the drills have not gone to plan, if we can engineer an exciting match at the end, the players will remember their practice with enthusiasm. And that is most of the battle won. The last twenty to thirty minutes should be the highlight of their work out. It might not be the bit where they learn most, but it will be where they have most fun.
The good coach will subtly control the game, adapting it to work on the skills that formed the focus of the session, getting individuals to work on their own weaknesses. This will happen during the course of the game, with little comments and asides rather than a lengthy team meeting before the match. When every ten-year-old in front of us just wants to get playing, they will not be very alert to coaching points.
Dealing With Parents
It is a sad fact that while kids want to enjoy themselves, and view their soccer as a chance to have fun (incidentally improving thanks to good coaching) parents often are unable to take a balanced view. Inevitably, they see their own child as the center of their world, and some are simply not able to understand that the coach must work with all kids equally.
These parents are often out of touch with current coaching techniques. Their coach used to bawl at them, so they do the same to their own child; they were win at all costs in their outlook (and still are) so why is little Johnny happy and smiling after a defeat?
Such parents are difficult; most often, in their misguided way, they do have good intentions. With these people our coaching goes beyond the soccer field and we become a counselor. If we have the time to listen, to sympathize but firmly put our point across, mostly people come on board. Sometimes, more formal agreements are needed. For example, a document stating that parents are welcome must not criticize any aspect of training or performance. This document can only encourage and applaud.
Ultimately, if all else fails and for the good of the club and every other person associated with it, these parents might have to be moved on. Sadly, that often means their long suffering child loses out.
Today’s kids might like to spend hours on their laptops rather than running out in the park; more time might be given over to Facebook friends than real ones. However, fundamentally kids are little different to how they have always been.
If we remember the three Fs – to be fun, fair and (in)formed about our coaching, our kids will thrive. They will have a great time, look forward to training as well as matches, steadily improve and begin cultivating hunger to succeed. And that, surely, is what we, their coaches, want most of all?
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