Best Soccer Practice Games and Tactics
Recommendations from U-12 Soccer Coach
He went from losing most soccer games to
winning a multi-city tournament

Hi David,

I hope this letter might be beneficial to other soccer coaches. It describes my U-12 soccer team and the Practice Games and tactics I found most beneficial. We went from losing most of our games to winning the end-of-season Multi-City Tournament, giving up no goals. It was a huge turnaround.

I coached two teams. One was 3rd and 4th grade girls and the other was 5th and 6th grade girls. The younger team did well, although getting these girls to play aggressive soccer was difficult and in hindsight I should have played more games that helped them to be aggressive.

My older team is the one I will talk about in this email because it is the one that experienced the most dramatic improvement.

We started the season with a very unique set of girls. Only a few had meaningful experience. Others had some experience but no real ability to play the game. Some of our players were larger players who found it difficult to even run. It was a very difficult group and we started the season losing most of our games. We ended the season by winning the multi-city tournament, as a lower seed, without a single goal scored against us the entire tournament while scoring 3-4 goals per game! It was a huge turnaround.

Here are the things we did that I feel made the biggest impact:

Before practice waiting for everyone to arrive - I would sit on the ground in front of a backstop, the girls would line up 30 feet out and, one at a time, I would roll a ball to them and they would just try to get a solid foot on it with their laces.

Dribble across a square Practice Game - When it was time to start practice, this is the first thing we did. I said it was part of warming up so the girls didn't complain having to play it every single practice. Sometimes I would require them to do a pull back on each side, or to do a hook turn in the middle, things like that, so they could learn how to stop and turn the ball in various ways.

Tap on tops, tick tocks, steparounds Practice Games - This was also considered part of "warming up" and we did it every practice. It does not take very long to run through dribble across a square and these three games a couple of times as part of warming up.

Push and blast off Practice Game - We added this to warm-ups late in the season. This helped them to understand how to get around a defender and to be quick by pushing off hard.

Shoulder tackle and strength on the ball Practice Game - We did this first thing after warm-ups for the first half of the season until I was satisfied the girls weren't going to be afraid of contact. I do recall doing this a few times late in the season just to remind them of the importance of this.

Each of the above things were considered part of warming up. I think the girls accepted the fact we played most of these games every practice because they were part of "warming up."

The following is a list of the games I found to be the most useful in developing skill and having fun:

Win the 50/50 ball practice game - The girls loved this game. This was one of their two favorites and I found this game brought out their competitive side more than any other. Nobody wanted to lose 1 on 1 against another, so they were driven to be successful. We found the way points were scored and the need to actually control the ball to be critical to this game's success. Before I required the girls to control the ball to get a point and so forth, there was a lot of running hard at the ball and kicking as hard as possible. While this teaches aggressive play, it wasn't exactly what I was looking for. So getting control of the ball and getting across the opposing line with control were important. The girls begged to play this game more than I let them (after all, we had to practice other things). Also, it was surprising to see some girls who I mistakenly thought weren't aggressive being some of the best at this game. I think this game would be a good one to play in the first practice or two to evaluate who should play in what soccer positions on the field (although some girls may start out not being very aggressive and end the season as some of the most aggressive, so adjustments might need to be made to soccer positions depending on how this plays out).

Dribble around a cone and pass relay - This was the girls' second favorite game. They loved this one almost as much as the 50/50 game. We mixed this up a bit. We would play this once with right foot only, then with left foot only. Then we would play with right foot once, left foot once, right foot once, etc. We would play this game maybe four or five consecutive times during practice. After each time, I would give them a hint or two on how to win. For example, I would tell them to make their last touch after the cone a good one so that the ball was headed the other way and out in front of them so they could make a good, long pass to their teammate. I would show them how hooking the ball would get it turned the other way more quickly. I found it better to have teams of two or three rather than teams of four or five. I ran the girls as much as I could on this one.

Pass to space, run with ball and shoot game - The girls enjoyed this game and it was a good game to teach passing to space. I tried hard to emphasize passing to space rather than to feet. The girls weren't good enough at passing and trapping to pass to feet. But they were aggressive and could push the other team off the ball (because they had learned this playing the shoulder tackle game every single practice as a warm-up). But also I felt this taught them to just take a shot quick after getting a pass into space from a teammate. I wanted to reduce the amount of time before taking a shot because the defense tended to close in quick if shots weren't quick.

Passing race Practice Game - The girls were paired, so each pair was a team. The girls would start 15 feet part at a starting line and the finish line would be 40 feet away, and they would need to run and pass back and forth to the finish line, then turn around and come back. No dribbling, just passing ahead of the receiver so the receiver had to run onto the ball and one-time pass it back. The girls enjoyed this game. We rotated pairs quite a bit. It was a struggle at first because the girls weren't very skilled at passing but they caught on quickly.

We played various other games throughout the season and the girls enjoyed them, but the games above I thought were the most effective and most enjoyed. I also recall playing a game where we'd have 3 attackers on 2 defenders with no goalie. I would have the center attacker start off by passing to a right or left attacker and they would head down the field a bit and then play would continue until the defense had either cleared the ball or the attackers had scored.

One of the things that greatly helped out before the tournament started was to put our offense up against our defense. By that time I had dialed in exactly where each player would start. We started the season with a 3-1-4-2, then towards the middle of the season switched to a 3-2-3-2, and finally by the last regular season game and then for the tournament we switched to a 3-2-2-3 soccer formation. I will say that for me a 3-2-2-3 soccer formation was the easiest to teach and most successful soccer formation, and the formation that left the least number of girls out of the action as possible since the midfielder and stopper that were on the opposite side of the field from the ball actually shifted to the center of the field.

With a 3-2-2-3 it was easy to put our offense (3 forwards, 2 midfielders) against our defense (3 fullbacks, 2 stoppers). I played goalie so I could closely watch defensive rotations and so I could blow the whistle when a defender was found out of position, to show how the stoppers should position themselves (stopper away from the ball at the center top of the penalty box, stopper on ball as first defender). And I could quickly throw a ball out to have the offense start again.

I think the girls need to actually experience proper positioning to know what it means. For example, the center fullback does not quite know what it feels like to be off the near post during a game without actually being shown what it is like to be there in a practice game with a coach blowing the whistle and showing them exactly where to be (and them seeing where the ball and other teammates are relative to where they should be). Same goes for the offside fullback (who I had position themselves at the top of the goalie box, centered on goal). Once they got it though, they got it.

We played this for an entire practice on an actual game field a few days before the tournament and I think it helped. We had 0 goals scored against us in the tournament. I recall several instances during the tournament where balls would get through and the offside fullback would boot it out right before the other team's forward would get to it. That's not possible without being positioned correctly no matter how good of a defensive player you are. Then it was easy for the offside stopper (at the top of the penalty box) to complete the clear out and that was it for the other team's attack.

One of the things I emphasized greatly was the stopper and midfielder on the opposite side of the field from the ball shifting to the center of the field. I *always* wanted a midfielder or stopper right in the center of the field (center meaning an imaginary line drawn between centers of goals) because the ball very often squirted out from the side towards the center. They were right there to swipe it up and push it forward.

I am utterly convinced shifting and sagging and proper positioning are critical to winning a game. I would say that a team that is effective at shifting and sagging, and a defense that properly positions itself depending on where the ball is and so forth, has an even greater advantage than a team that has faster and stronger players in the rec league. I'm not sure that my team ever had the faster and stronger players. But we won the tournament and I really believe it was because the players became disciplined at positioning themselves properly on the field to win 50/50 balls. My players were also more aggressive and we had a few newer players become pretty skilled by the end that it was enough for us to score goals. It also helped that our best, fastest player played center forward and could really make things happen at that position. But this was only possible because the midfielders and stoppers shifted and sagged so well.

My midfielders were not allowed to go into penalty boxes. This helped us clear the ball from the defensive end. It also helped us to stay on the attack on the offensive end.

Anyway, I'm sure this is a lot more info than you were looking for but I would suggest the following:

  1. Those games I listed above, from my perspective, were the best.
  2. I would like to see some organization to the site so that it is easier to learn, step by step, how to teach a Rec team. A lot of the things I did as a coach I had to learn through asking questions on the message board.
  3. Some things are more important to teach than other things. It would be nice if some of the material on the site were organized in this way. For example, your " Most Important Things to Teach" article has a lot of good information on it, but it can't all be taught in a single practice or even throughout the course of a season. So prioritizing those based on importance (e.g. "Absolutely teach the following three things before your first game:") would be great. (Note from David: I'm revising the article to do that).

Anyway, I love the site and, quite frankly, it would have not been possible for us to win the tournament without your help and the help presented on SoccerHelp Premium. Thank you again!!

Corey, Premium Member