(Center Line Soccer's Tim Hanley, a former assistant coach with the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy, is preparing a series of columns on coaching youth teams. Today's story, the first in a series, offers tips on coaching players aged 4 to 6. — Editor)
I first started working in youth soccer during my time as a player during the late 70's and early 80's, but had not dealt with the "youngins" until, like a lot of parents, our children drove us into the age group. Around 1994 I volunteered with AYSO and ran the local Region's K-League when my youngest son was four or five.
On Saturdays, late in the day when everyone else had completed their games, we had about 60 to 80 kids turn out.
I preferred to work alone, so to speak, and had all of the kids for the first hour, and after that the parents, who'd been setting up the small fields, took on the 5 v 5 game portion of our session.
I ran what I would later call a Pied Piper training session. We moved from one exercise to another at an alarming rate. I made changes quickly based on what I believed my attention span to be when I was four or five — all of 30 seconds. I had the group follow me around the park. Each kid with a ball, only stopping to describe a ball exercise. Everything revolved around the ball. There was no passing. Just kick, roll, touch in and out, using every part of our boots and bodies! I loved the "cabesa" drill, where one calls out a body part and the player must stop and touch the ball with their knee, head, butt, tongue... they loved that one; parents, not so much. I would also start shouting parts in foreign languages. Hilarious! Well, I was laughing. We did all the standard stuff, too: dribble and change direction on my whistle, always decreasing the time between blowing up. Tricks tricks tricks. And again no passing. I knew these guys weren't going to pass during their 5 v 5, as well they shouldn't, so why waste all of our time.
My theory is that coaches teaching young players to pass, specifically the block or side of the foot pass, do a disservice to all youth players. When I get them later on in their soccer life, I have do undo this bad habit. It's sort of like handing a putter to a nine year old and telling her to go play eighteen. The block pass is a technique reserved for a time when a player has the strength to move the ball over a larger distance and is aware of his or her time on the ball. By the time a younger player squares around and lets everyone on the planet know which way he intends to pass the ball, it has probably already been stripped. In addition, when they do attempt to drive the ball with laces like the pros, they cannot do it.
Questions? Go to the driving range and hit a putter as hard as you can, you'll have your answer. So teach players to strike the ball with their laces. Drive the ball!
Back to passing in general. Passing requires an awareness of time and space, in addition to their own feet and waving arms. More importantly, passing in soccer requires a selfless attitude. How many 5 year olds do you know that have completely absorbed the "sharing" concept? So forget passing or you'll start pulling your hair out and that will only accomplish one thing: no hair.
Game time! Keep it small: small fields, small numbers, small goals, small balls, you get the idea. (Did you ever notice the smaller the ball the harder it is? And this age group always seems to trap the ball with their faces.) Change goalies often so everyone runs. One of the greatest coaching gifts one can provide parents is a worn out child who after dinner wants to go to bed.
Everyone plays forward. They'll all ask, so tell 'em "You are a forward! But I need you to score from just behind Jimmy, so make sure you can tell me what number he is wearing when we are playing, OK Sally?" "Yes, what's that Mikey? Oh yeah, you're a forward too, just make sure Sally's number 7 is right in front of you."
That works for about five minutes so then I tell everyone, run like crazy and score but when they got the ball run like crazy and get back! Bunch ball is great, it really is. Soccer is a game of numbers. If you are really into winning, what are the odds your team will get the ball when you out number the opponent 4 to 1? When your team gets the ball they won't pass anyway so don't bother yelling. I did have one theory I did use to help move a few out of the pack. The "Popcorn" theory involves the thought that at some point the ball like a piece of popcorn will 'pop' out and for those wise enough to stand just outside the mix, the ball will come out and you'll have all kinds of room to run without having to pass to anyone!
A few years back Dominic Kinnear and I were asked to do a clinic for very young players. On the way over to the clinic, I remember thinking, "How is Dominic going to approach this?," and I wondered if our theories regarding young players would be the same. After working together for years we had never really discussed soccer's youngest students. Funny enough our methods matched up to the letter. Ball ball ball, toe pokes, dribbling, juggling, smashing the ball. How fun is that? Your job as a coach of young players is to make training so fun they want to come back for the next session.
Lastly, there are always going to be those whose interest in the landscape — flowers, weeds, dirt clods — exceeds their interest in the world's most popular game. Let 'em enjoy the outdoors, and who knows? Maybe they were listening when you described the popcorn theory and are waiting for their proverbial moment in the sun.