How To Win at Youth Soccer
Youth soccer in the United States has created a setting where players of all abilities get the opportunity to be active and have fun. Parents with and without soccer experience are being asked to coach their own kids. While the other coaches naively pamper the kids, provide equal access for all players, and encourage a love of the game, below is a guide to how you can consistently embarrass and demoralize the other teams by winning every game.
We all want our kids to have fun, and the key to making that happen is to win. As a coach, there is a lot that you can do, especially with younger players, to ensure that happens.
Practicing to Win In a recreational soccer program with kids under eight-years-old, soccer skill doesn’t really translate to winning. Sure, there are bound to be a few Peles in every community, but even the most skilled players at this age can be beat with physicality and speed. With that in mind, practices should be designed to maximize your players’ physicality and speed while actual soccer skill can be addressed later.
Before jumping to practice plans, though, it is important to address practice frequency. Settle for nothing less than at least three practices per week. Other coaches will be running one or maybe two practices each week, so right off the bat you will have an advantage.
For the first few practices, it may be easiest to leave the soccer balls at home, as they will just be a distraction from the fitness training. Running laps may have been what you grew up with, but bursts of speed will be more important in youth soccer, so a focus on sprinting and shuttle-like running should dominate your first few practices. Races in tight spaces can be effective for identifying the fast players as well as identifying which players are willing to push and shove a bit to get ahead. An effective coaching point in these races will be to show the players how to use their bodies to gain an advantage over the weaker opponents.
After a few weeks of fitness training at practices, it may be acceptable to bring a ball. If you have made the practices hard enough over at the beginning, some of your smaller and weaker players have likely quit the team, which leaves you with a better ratio of fast and strong players that can field each game. As you add a ball into your practices, be sure not to stop the fitness regimens as they should still take up the majority of your practice time.
The first ball skill that your players should master is how to kick the ball hard. Developmentally, younger players aren’t able to kick the ball as hard when they use their laces or the inside of their foot, so it is easiest and most effective to focus on kicking the ball with the toe. The kicks may not be as accurate, but that’s okay because if the ball sails far away, even if it is away from the intended target, your players should be faster and more physical and can still get to the ball first.
Adding in drills to work on the ‘toe-punch’ in practices is simple. Players can be lined up around the half-line, and each player should run with the ball as fast as they can and then use their toe to kick it toward the net. By striking the ball on its lower half, the player should also be able to get the ball off of the ground, and opponents at this age will likely shy away from balls flying at their heads.
The drill allows you as a coach another chance to see which players are going to be the ones who score the most goals, and which players should focus their time on practicing kicking the ball to the top players instead of trying to score on their own.
Lastly, it is important to review a few key strategies that should be implemented during the games that will get you the coveted win.
Game-Time Strategies Your players should know what you expect of them when they get to the game. Specifically, they should know how to handle three common game situations.
First, they should know what to expect from you during normal play of the game, or basically whenever the ball is ‘in-bounds.’ There are a few rules that all players should know prior to stepping on the field, but they only one likely to be enforced is the ‘hand-ball.’ Easy enough.
Beyond that, most of the games will be played either without referees or with a young referee who likely does not have the confidence to blow their whistle and stop the game for pushing, shoving, and other physical ‘fouls’ that your players should have been practicing.
You should take full advantage of this by showing your players how to use their elbows to gain positional advantages against other players. In the rare case that you have a young referee willing to call fouls against your team, they can, in most cases, be intimidated enough to stop making the calls if you attack them verbally.
With the majority of the game covered by having the fastest and most physical players, there are a few other situations that will come up several times in every game and that you should be prepped for.
The second of your game-time strategies should be to focus on throw-ins. When the ball crosses over a sideline, the team that did not last touch the ball is awarded a throw-in to restart play. Other teams often are disorganized, so you will need your players to know how to use that to their advantage. Your players should be taught to sprint to the out-of-bounds ball and throw it in as quickly as possible in the direction of the opponent’s goal. When everyone on your team knows the plan, you should be able to catch other teams off guard and likely get a goal or two from this. The beauty of teaching your players to throw in the ball as quickly as possible is that it doesn’t give the referee time to rule which team the throw-in actually belongs to, which keeps your team with the ball. Remember, youth referees are easy to intimidate and likely not bold enough to stop play once the ball is moving.
The third and maybe most important game-time strategy happens during goal kicks, which are awarded when the offensive team kicks the ball out past the end-line. If you have taught your players properly how to toe-punch the ball, goal kicks should be frequent. Here’s the key to scoring when the opposing team has a goal kick: line up all of your players at the top of the goal box, or if a play-out line is marked on the field, then at the edge of the line.
Basically, get them as close to the ball as possible. When the ball is kicked, have them sprint after the ball and kick it as hard as they can back toward the goal.
This is effective for two main reasons. First, the other teams likely haven’t practiced their toe-punches enough, and will struggle to get the ball past your line of players. Combined with the fear of seeing all of your players lined up, this should induce enough stress in the opposing player to fail. Secondly, this tactic is effective because your players don’t need to be able to actually control the ball, but instead just prevent it from getting past them and then kick it as hard as they can. The ball will either go toward the goal, or it misses. If it’s a miss, then there is another goal kick. It’s a recurring event until a goal is scored.
The nice thing is that when you work on this in practice you can involve some of your weaker players (if you haven’t gotten them to quit yet) by having them take the goal kicks.
Managing the Game from the Sidelines It probably goes without saying, but the slowest and weakest kids shouldn’t start the game, and in most cases they probably should remain on the bench for the entire game.
Remember, soccer skills aren’t the key to winning at this age, so even if there is a kid on your team with above-average soccer abilities, if they aren’t as fast as the other kids on the team then they probably won’t help you win.
Your goal as a coach should be to get your top player as many goals as possible. The more they score, the more they will learn how to score. Even if you get to a double-digit lead, you will want your top players to get as much game-time as possible so they can be ready for the next team. You may be tempted to let some of the weaker players get on the field once you are sure that your team will win, but be careful not to let them negatively affect the score of the game. Soccer is a game of confidence, and your players will be much more confident if they can win a game 19-0 then if they were to give up a shame-inducing goal because you let some schmuck play and only win 19-1. Your best players will just blame the weaker player, and it could hamper your team’s confidence in the next game.
Misconceptions About Youth Soccer Recreation happens in back-yards and on school playgrounds, and has no place on the soccer field. Parents have this feeling of entitlement that their kid should be allowed the opportunity to learn a new game. This can be an important learning moment for parents, especially if they try to voice their concern with you.
In these cases, it is important to encourage the parent to get their kids to work on their fitness outside of practice. This is especially effective if the child is slightly overweight as their parents can now persistently deride their child whenever they make unfavorable dietary choices or don’t finish their daily fitness regimen. In many cases this can be enough to get the child to quit, which should make your job as a coach easier.
The grand take-away is for players and parent to forget the notion that soccer on its own is supposed to be fun. It’s not. Winning is fun, and now you have the guidance needed to make that happen. And when your kids grow up to resent you, well that can be part of the fun too.