Article Published in the March/April 2012 Issue of NSCAA Soccer Journal

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The article below was published in the March/April 2012 issue of the NSCAA Soccer Journal on pages 24 and 25. The Soccer Journal is published by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America ("NSCAA"), which has over 30,000 members. David has been a member for years, and we encourage all coaches to join the NSCAA. A special membership is available for youth coaches at a low price. Members receive the Soccer Journal magazine and liability insurance that covers most soccer-related activities. David found the liability insurance alone to be worth the cost. Go to for more information. Prior issues of the Soccer Journal are available for viewing at I have added links for easier navigation.

11 Practice Tips for Youth Soccer Coaches

By David Huddleston,

In 2010 had 2.4 million visitors and 43 million hits from 150 countries. SoccerHelp is for youth soccer coaches and I receive a lot of emails from recreational coaches of ages 3 to 16. Based on feedback from these coaches, I have compiled 11 practice tips that I think can make the biggest difference for youth soccer players and teams. All 11 tips are things every youth coach can easily do.

SoccerHelp works well for recreational coaches because it provides a training program that is based on the use of self-teaching practice games. This training approach is described in the article titled "Practice Games Beat drills" which was published in the September/October 2003 Soccer Journal (available in the archived issues at Some of these practice games, such as Dribble Across a Square, work for all ages and all skill levels. These aren't silly games - they are designed to efficiently teach real skills, to minimize lines, there are no elimination games, and most have a ball ratio of 50% to 100%. There are over 500 pages of free information and a subscription site that has over 1,500 pages. I have been a NSCAA member for 15 years and have set up a free subscription for NSCAA members that goes through August 1, 2012. The username and password are "nscaa".

The SoccerHelp program emphasizes fun, skill development and positive motivation. I receive lots of feedback and ideas from youth coaches and some of the things I have learned are listed in this article. I believe the ideas listed below are applicable to most youth soccer. The tips relate to skills, ways of thinking about playing (such as one-touch, aggressive receiving and passing to space), motivation, training in a way that prepares players to play fast while under pressure, and practices that are fun, efficient and effective.

Most of the tips below only apply to ages 8 to 16. Only the first 4 also apply to U6.

1. Youth soccer practices should be fun. This is especially true for ages 3-12. If soccer isn't fun, many youth will stop playing. Also, attendance will be better if practices are fun, or at least not boring. I'm not talking about playing silly games like Crab Soccer. I'm talking about minimizing lines and dead time, maximizing touches on the ball, a high ball ratio, positive motivation, and drills or practice games that keep score. (The SoccerHelp games for U6 do not involve keeping score, but most do for U8 and older). For an example of a very effective and fun game, go to SoccerHelp to "Soccer Drills" and read about the "Dribble Across a Square" game. You will see that it is easy to set up, easy to explain, self-teaching, has a 100% ball ratio, involves competition, and is a great warm up. It teaches control dribbling, speed dribbling, to look up while dribbling, turning, peripheral vision, instinctive reactions, composure and shielding the ball in traffic, to naturally dribble with both feet, and to recognize and accelerate into open space. Try it - you will be surprised. It is for U8 to adult and all skill levels.

2. Emphasize skill development. In 2005 I interviewed the great April Heinrichs and she said "youth coaches should have a ball for every player and spend at least 80% of practice time on activities that have a high ball ratio such as dribbling, passing, shooting and small sided attacking and defending". Like Anson Dorrance, she believes that practices should involve competition because it is more fun and better prepares players for real matches.

3. Positive motivation is important. Motivation is critical to success. Motivation is what makes us want to do things. It is the difference between a 100% effort with a good attitude and just doing the minimum with a bad attitude. There is a lot of information on SoccerHelp about positive motivation and how to develop a motivation plan.

4. Have efficient, effective practices. Plan your practices, maximize the number of touches, have at least one ball per player, and minimize lines and dead time. Recruit assistants to help.

5. Train players to be able to play fast, while under pressure, instinctively, in chaotic conditions. We all know that it is best to train players in a way that simulates match conditions, and we know that there aren't any line drills in real matches. There is a better way than line drills. Keeping score creates competition which causes players to try hard and play fast. If there is a drill you like to practice skills, try to turn it into a game where score is kept and where the ball ratio is at least 25% and lines are minimized. The Dribble Across a Square game is an example of a perfect game for ages 7 and older. The SoccerHelp "Hit the Coach™" game is an example of a perfect game for U6 - easy to set up, great fun and a 100% ball ratio (there is a video on SoccerHelp). Both games are 100% onball and chaotic, but that is good because they train players to maintain composure in chaotic conditions. Like in a real match, players don't have time to think when playing these 2 games, so they learn to react instinctively.

6. Do not teach young players that a "good pass" is a pass to feet. I think this is a major problem with youth soccer. It limits attacking creativity and understanding of how to use space. If you teach a young player that the only good pass is a pass to feet and that a pass that doesn't hit the receiver's feet is a "bad pass", you are teaching them a way of thinking about how to play soccer that limits how they play. You are also unintentionally teaching receivers that if a pass doesn't come to their feet, it is a "bad pass". The result is that receivers will stand there and watch a pass go by because it was a "bad pass" when they could have stopped it. See "Teach Aggressive Receiving" below.

7. Teach Aggressive Receiving. I think it is important to teach young players Aggressive Receiving. What that means is to teach young players NOT to expect a pass to come to their feet. Instead, teach them that most passes WON'T be to their feet, that they MUST stay on their toes and be ready to move in either direction to stop the ball, and that their top priority must be to stop a pass from going past them, because if that happens in a real match the opponent might get the ball. An easy and effective way to teach this is by playing the SoccerHelp "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race" game. This game will teach the receiver to stop passes and to move to the pass when it is safe to do so. The receiver will learn that he or she can't just rush at the ball because if the pass isn't accurate it will go past him, and if one pass isn't stopped his team will probably lose the game. It teaches the receiver to watch the ball's "line" and not to wait for the ball to come to his feet. The teams that move to the ball the most will usually win this game because they play faster and don't allow bad passes to slow their play, so players will clearly see the advantages of Aggressive Receiving and want to learn to play this way. The games are fast (about 3 minutes per game) so players quickly see the results of their style of play and have a chance to improve in the next game. That makes it easy for the coach to teach and players learn at a fast pace. Players will want the coach's advice because it will help them win the game. The players who listen to the coach will win and those who don't will lose.

8. A simple way to teach one-touch play. I think one-touch play should be taught as soon as possible because it is a way of thinking about how to receive a pass and it is a much superior, faster way to play as opposed to always stopping the ball at feet. By "one-touch play", I don't mean to start with one-touch passing, what I mean is to teach kids that when they receive a pass they can move faster by one-touching the ball into open space either away from a defender or in the direction they are moving so they can accelerate faster. The best way to teach one-touch play is by playing the "Dribble Around Cone & Pass Relay Race" practice game (see tips 6 and 7 above). It is an effective way to teach the concept of one-touch because the receivers who one-touch the pass into open space in front of them and run onto the ball will probably win (because they are able to play faster) and those who stop the ball at their feet will probably lose, so the game makes it obvious to the players why one-touch play is better. One-touch play also helps teach the use of open space and allows players to play more creatively.

9. Teach bravery, strength on the ball and a legal shoulder tackle. The youth coaches who contact me have found that it is greatly beneficial to teach young players that soccer is a physical game and not to be afraid of contact or being bumped or pushed. Instead of talking about being aggressive, I find it is more motivational to talk about being brave because heroes are brave and youth want to be brave. The SoccerHelp "Shoulder Tackle & Strength On The Ball Game" is an easy way to teach players not to be afraid of contact, strength on the ball to maintain possession while dribbling, shielding, how to challenge for the ball to slow the attack, and how to legally push a player off the ball.

10. The best way to teach dribbling. I think the best way to teach dribbling is by playing games such as Dribble Across a Square (age 7 or older) and Hit the Coach™ (for U6). These games are self-teaching, 100% onball, and involve traffic. By playing these games players learn to dribble while looking up, to use both feet, and composure in traffic. Hit the Coach™ does not keep score, but all the players are trying at the same time to hit the coach with their ball, so there is traffic and competition. Note that these games do NOT use cones to teach dribbling. Cones are not at all game-realistic.

11. Teach players how to mark up on throw ins, goal kicks, punts and free kicks. It is important to teach the idea of marking up, when to mark up, and how to mark up. In recreational youth soccer, marking opponents is important when they take throw ins, goal kicks, punts and free kicks. Marking up in those situations is a good way to be sure defenders are in position to either steal the ball or at least to slow down the attack. Many youth players intuitively mark up in front of an opposing attacker so they are between the opponent and the ball, but I have found it better to teach players to mark up behind an opponent so they can see what is happening in front of them and can step in front and steal the ball if there is an opportunity. Marking behind also makes it hard for the opponents to get a breakaway on their throw ins, goal kicks, punts and free kicks.

David Huddleston has been a NSCAA member for 15 years. He started his soccer journey like many in the U.S.; he never played and didn't begin coaching until he was talked into assisting with his 6 year old son's team 19 years ago. He helped develop a coaching manual for his league and that evolved into in 2001.