Teaching Kids Soccer – A Parent’s Role

Soccer Champions Grow In Your Backyard

Have you ever watched youth soccer games and noticed a few players who really stood out as talented? Did you watch with amazement as they dribbled through the crowd of defenders and then finished with that perfect shot?  The fact is that all sports, not just soccer, have certain athletes that just seem to amaze us.  We as parents want out kids to develop as well, but how do we start? How do we get them to improve?  The answer may be right outside your window in your backyard.

The common thread among great soccer players….

First, let’s take a look at Tiger Woods. Wait a minute, why a golf player? Because his name is known world wide and we can all relate to his story. For most of his developing life who was his coach and trainer?  Who was his only putting coach as he progressed into the Pro years? The answer to both was his dad, Earl.
Was Earl Woods a professional golfer? Not at all, he was a career Army man that had a passion for the sport.  He loved golf and he loved his son.  He was able to blend time spent together and building a passion for the game, with learning and improving.  Much of this time was right in their backyard “messing around”, having fun and exposing a child to new skills and thoughts.  There were hours and hours of performing repetitive skills in the form of games and challenges. The same applies for so many great soccer players of our time and we as parents can learn from this example.

Parents are the key…

Ask any great soccer player who played a major role in their soccer growth and 90% of the time the answer will be “Mom or Dad”. When we developed the SoccerU series we specifically had this in mind.  Whether it was the level of support or the time at night and weekends spent in the back yard just “messing around”, parents are often the engine behind developing talent, not the coach.

Each night I drive by our local public fields and sure enough there is a parent and child on the field working on skills or just “messing around” together.  These small little sessions play such a major role in a youth player’s development, I can’t stress them enough. Last year I worked with several former Division One college players and the same was true. Their “parents” were the reason they were able to achieve such success.  None of these parents were “pro soccer players” so how did they help that struggling child?  I will explain.

Watch your next few soccer practices…

Let’s say that a young soccer player, over their development cycle, needs to learn and master 75 core skills. These will include everything from learning the difference between an offensive header and defensive header to receiving a pass under pressure and proper first touch. Whether the skill is basic like dribbling or advanced like performing a volley kick, each of these individual skills must be shown, taught and practiced repeatedly.  However, you’ll notice that over the course of a soccer season players may only learn one to four new skills. Often after learning them, they seldom return to practice them in a repetitive session.   At that pace they will hit the “competitive level” without ever really refining all the core skills.

Now, don’t go blaming the coach…

The first thing you realize when you become a soccer coach is that you are missing one thing, TIME.  Working in the “group” means that all the players must be trained together.  All their levels of skills, behavior and learning must be viewed as a whole, and one on one / individual training is almost never done.  One to three hours a week for few weeks in the spring and fall is simply not enough time.  You are also supposed to get this “motley crew” to play together as a team and hopefully win at least one game.

You will quickly see how many youth soccer players can hit the middle school and even high school level with very few refined technical skills.  As players get older the focus switches to “competing”. We often see less and less time spent on core technical training which is a huge mistake.

1000’s of touches and hours of repetition…

Charlie Cook, the director of Coerver Training US, emailed me last year.  He was reflecting on watching the national team and a player that received a long air pass. The player, with out any effort, gently touched the ball once and killed it into his path.  “An amazing sight to see.” However he quickly pointed out that this was not a god given talent.  This player was not born with this touch nor did he learn it by just “playing the game”.  He learned it by practicing it over and over.  Thousands of touches and repetition until this skill was a part of his nature, “instinctive”.  His point was clearly made. To have a skill become “natural or instinctive” it must be repeated over and over until we no longer have to “think about it”. It becomes a habit that the player performs without thought.

This is where the back yard begins…

We, as parents must become teachers. We must be able to identify skills in their raw form and learn how to perform them correctly ourselves. We then must be able to tell and show a child visually how to properly perform the skill. After many short repetitive sessions it will eventually allow them to feel it and let it become part of their nature.  Until we do this, it will never become an instinctive habit.

Parents however, sometimes feel “lost” and don’t know where to begin, how to progress or even how to teach these skills. You do not have to become a “professional soccer player”. You simply must learn to teach what your child will not be taught during the “normal development cycle” of their soccer career.  Hence the 10 hours of skills breakdown on SoccerU.

Watch out for the frustration…

A simple warning for parents is to be aware that younger players often become frustrated easily.  Our goal is to keep it fun and make sure the child feels like these are THEIR sessions and not forced on them.  Keep them short and mix them in with what the child wants to do.  Maybe they want to be goal keeper, maybe they want to take penalty shots on mom or dad. Whatever it is, keep the training divided in half.  Half learning and repetition and half fun and games.  Create challenges and even have fun goals to achieve. There is nothing better than a challenge between the child and parent.

There always is a parent…

In the US pickup games and free play soccer has almost become extinct. The extra hours of needed play and skill work now has to come from the parent.  Parents often search for the “perfect soccer camp” spending hundreds even thousands of dollars on camps that might only last 2 – 5 days.  These are great for social development but offer little improvement in what the players need.

When I meet a talented young soccer player I always ask them, “Who taught you how to play?” Every single player over the past two years has responded the same way, “My Mom / Dad.”

Make sure you realize the importance of “off program” training and make sure you understand the importance of the backyard.  Cherish this time as not only soccer training, but bonding as well.  Always remember that they are KIDS first, not soccer players, and nothing says “good work” like a stop for ice cream on the way home.

The Golden Years of Youth Soccer Technical Training

One might think this information is for the “little kids” or “inexperienced coaches”, but I hope to drive home a point that all will learn from, soccer technical training often ends too early.

soccer-thinkerLet me start by going to the “top” so I don’t lose many of you that think technical training doesn’t apply to advanced players.  I will start with two examples, one with a professional player and the second a college bound player.

It goes all the way to the top.

Last year, while working on Blast The Ball and SoccerU, I was fortunate enough to spend time working with several professional players from all over the world. I will use Mac as an example. Mac is now a professional player with the MLS. I spent a couple of afternoons with him and we covered several topics, mainly striking and kicking a soccer ball.  Mac played in college, went to the USL and now is playing in the MLS.  I read a recent interview with him and it was a breath of fresh air. He was humble and grateful for his opportunities. When asked about his transition from the USL to the MLS he stated that play at the USL level was more physical and the MLS was more technical. He was thrilled to be around great teachers and coaches that could work with him to refine many of his skills.

My point? There are many creative, aggressive and physical soccer players, but when you take a look at the very best in the world, you will see very refined technical skills combined with all their other attributes. Only those that continually refine, develop and learn technical skills continue to progress.

The high school and college soccer player.

This past year I worked with many college players and older high school players. Many of the college players played at Division 1 schools and some even had a stint with some pro teams. They were mixed of male and female players. One of the high school players I worked with for over 30 hours had a great comment about the technical training we covered. “If I had this training 4 years ago, I would be going to a different (better) school right now.”  Amazingly this kid was a fantastic player; fast, tall, great creativity, top goal scorer, and more. However, he was humble enough to realize that he has so much more to learn or at least refine.

The same applied to many of the college players. When taken through some of the technical skills many admitted that they never received a “true” technical training session on many skills, even the basics. They simply had to figure it out on their own. Once I showed them the true form and took them back to the basic steps and learning, they all had the same reaction. “I wish I had this training years ago.”

Unfortunately once we get to the higher competitive levels players are focused on conditioning, physical play and tactical work.  Failing to constantly return to basic core technical training is a problem that many upper level players have to deal with.

Technical training should be the core of youth soccer development.

Unfortunately, especially in the US, we start “playing for the team” or trying to “achieve results” too early. Nothing like the coach of a 10 year old team pacing on the sidelines screaming at his players that they “stink and are playing like a bunch of losers”.  (Yes, an actual quote I heard last year.)  This coach had one problem. He wanted to win like we all do, but he placed that trait of human nature above the needs of his players.

These kids desperately needed general ball handling, dribbling and passing skills work, but you just know that the coach was spending all the practice time on conditioning, set plays and tactical work. I guess his next intended step was to coach with the “premiere leagues”.

Understanding that we are developing “future competitors” is the first step in youth development.  The best training development clubs in the world strictly limit competitive matches and focus on the player’s overall development.  It is pretty widely accepted that once a player hits the age of 16, it is hard to return and teach the skills.

There are two key factors in developing youth players.

First, is a love for the game. Street soccer, pick up games and non-adult structured soccer games help kids be creative and develop a love for the game. This environment unfortunately no longer exists in the US.  We have to keep in mind that ending all “work sessions” with fun small sided games is critical to kids walking away from all practices thinking, “I want to come back next week.”

This also applies to older players. Just because a player is “advanced” you have to remember that they really are still just a “kid at heart”. 17 year olds love to “play” and have fun too.

Second, is constantly returning to repetitive exposure of all the core skills. Instead of running laps and conditioning for 20 minutes to begin our practices, we should have players touching the ball with basic skills. Dribbling, passing, moves, chesting, heading and all the skills they actually use in a game.

I can’t tell you the number of advancing soccer players I see that struggle to perform basic moves such as pull backs, cuts and feints. They learned them a long time ago, but never practice them. Start EVERY practice the same way. Core movement drills, repeating the basic and essential ball control skills. End every practice the same way; fun, small sided games where the coach is not controlling every move.

Our teachers (coaches) are often not players.

One critical point to training young soccer players is first making sure the “teacher” understands how to teach.  When you combine recreational soccer in with the academy programs the number of coaches that never really played competitive soccer is very high. Some of our surveys had the number at 70%.  (Dad got involved because his son decided to play and the club or program needed “volunteers”.)  However, I will tell you that some of the best youth coaches I have met were not “great players”. They became great coaches because they focused on youth development and core technical training. Their focus was on “what is best for my players” and not “how do I become winning and successful coach”.  It is critical that coaches not only learn how to be a better coach, but also how to teach each individual technical skill the RIGHT way. Forget about the “winning” and focus on the “development”.

Understand the difference between Immediate and Residual training.

Immediate training includes things that we can control rather quickly but often do not last a long time. For example, at any time a soccer player can get in condition. Working out for about 4 – 6 weeks will get us into playing shape. However, once that stops or the season ends, the conditioning level goes away and we have to return to build it back up.

Technical skills however, are slowly built and refined over several years. Once they are learned, they will continue to stay with us.

A great quote from former U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna, “It’s possible at any time during a player’s career to get into top physical shape or to try to win every game! But you can’t teach skills to an old player. Youth coaches should keep in mind that individual skills need to be nurtured at an early age. Players who haven’t mastered the fundamental skills become frustrated because the game gets too difficult for them as they move into higher levels.”

The golden years of soccer development only happen once. This is why the SoccerU training series was developed. Focus these years on development and make sure your player(s) are being trained for the long term with skills, not conditioned for the short term to win.