(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 second in a series, offers tips on coaching players aged eight to 10. The first, on four- to six-year-olds, is here. — Editor)
This is where it all starts: eight- to 10-year-olds. Where the wheels come spinning off, the volume gets turned up, and for one reason and one reason alone, results matter. Yep — parents.
If you coach in most parts of our country, you're safe. The youth soccer player is supposed to grow up and play a real sport eventually, you know — like American football, baseball, wrestling, and so forth. If you coach in the Golden State, you are in for it. Your team has a mix of kids that recently graduated from the tiny tykes group and are still picking flowers, others who have transferred in from a fabulous program in Portland, and some, according to their parents, who also coached the team, who scored 57 goals in 11 league games last season and have AC Milan flying in to have a look but he can't be at training on Tuesdays due to a conflict with his private soccer lessons. Throw in a kid whose father claims he played for Coritiba in Brazil, wears green exclusively, and only speaks to his child in Portuguese. Well, you get the idea.
Coaching this age group requires thick skin and a great deal of patience. The Dutch, primarily the famous soccer club Ajax, created a youth coaching pyramid that serves our purposes well here. At the bottom and largest part of the pyramid are the words "Ball Comfort." This is everything a coach needs to know teaching at this level.
Just like with the "young uns," teach skills, tricks, dribbling, and juggling — anything and everything to help your players become comfortable with a ball at their feet. Every training session should start with individual juggling and it doesn't have to be structured. Get them trying stuff, flicking the ball up in the air. How many ways can they get a ball off the ground without using their hands? When I was with the Earthquakes back in the dark ages, I used to do one or two clinics a week with another player, Timmie Schulz. He could lift the ball off the ground a dozen ways. I just handed out the refrigerator magnet schedules. The kids loved it. He was like a seal balancing the ball with his forehead, on his neck, even in his eye socket. (I know — weird.) Get your kids trying everything, no rules. It is OK to count and have personal records, but make sure you tell them that some of the best players in the world don't juggle all that well.
Another skill to introduce is running with the ball. Set up two flat lines, facing each other, 15 to 20 yards apart. In groups of three, one child dribbles over to the other side and stops the ball, and the next guy takes it over to the third player. Have the players work through small touches, big long ones, some at speed, some slow, maybe with as many touches as they can fit in the 20 yards of work. Stop start, rolls, forwards, backwards, just keep 'em going. Dribbling relays are great at this age. There are no real rules to worry about — there is no wrong way here. Just get them running with the ball.
If I could introduce one specific move here, I would choose what I call the Stanley Matthews. Stanley played for Blackpool and England in the fifties. He had one move that allowed him continued success until he retired from football at 50. Running with the ball, Stanley would take just the slightest touch inside and then, with the outside of his boot, push the ball out wide with a longer touch. Most of my youth players probably couldn't sleep at night as my commands were undoubtedly ringing in their ears, "Little in, BIG Out. Little in, BIG out." Have 'em start to drop a shoulder on the 'little' and burst out on the 'Big.' George Best had a sublime twist in his "Stanley" that we'll cover in my next coaching column for 12-14 year old players. Teach this move. If it is the only trick/skill/technique they get all season, you've done a great job.
Back to our pyramid. The next level up from ball comfort is passing and receiving, followed up the scale by tactics. As a coach, your goal in passing instruction should include first touch, followed by delivery. Paired up ten yards apart, ball delivered on the floor (my hated block pass is OK here) and get the player receiving the ball to apply his first touch like a broom, sweeping the ball slightly to the side just in front. Sweep sweep sweep. I cannot begin to explain the importance of this. Do not let your players stop the ball at their feet. We are looking for a first touch that allows the player to then step, find his partner (head up), and pass the ball immediately back to his partner. I like to have the players start at ten yards and then as they move farther apart we use our laces and drive the ball.
Do not, I repeat, do not get overly involved with tactics and schemes. Passing can be a form of tactics and should be the only form of tactics one should expect these players to absorb. Show the team that the ball travels faster than a dribbling player for starters. Simply have a player run with the ball and see if he can beat your pass to a teammate.
So we know the ball travels faster when released — how can I get the players to actually apply this? Here are my thoughts. Show players that the green grass known as space is wide. There always seems to be open areas out there and if a ball is played into those spaces there are good opportunities to get forward. (This is one example of how passing can be a tactic.) Dribbling in our end or defensive third is usually not a good idea. Clear the ball wide and chase. Encourage dribbling in the wide areas as well as the attacking third. Do not get too caught up in the fact that passing will be a rarity. This doesn't mean you are not doing a good job — it is the nature of the beast called kids.
My ideal session would include the following:
• 5-10 minutes juggling/tricks
• 10 minutes running with the ball, dribbling, relays, our cool moves!
• 10 minutes passing
• A 10-20 minute game. That's why they came to practice so don't disappoint! Every session, play a game.
No fitness work, and limit your work on finishing. At this level, most goals are sort of passed in or hit high over a keeper's head. Finishing is at the top of our pyramid for a reason.
In closing, if your team is winning every game, you may not be doing a great job coaching — it could just be that this season, your team is stacked. Recently, when my son's high school coach claimed his U9's were undefeated after 11 games, my first thought was, "You are playing in the wrong league." You want to end the year 6-5 or 5-6. That is competition!
The above referenced lessons are not result oriented. There are two types of youth coaches: talent gathering, win-at-all-costs guys, and good coaches. Be the latter. My prodigy's parents may not be all that happy with my teachings as we don't win every time out of the gates. But boy oh boy, in a few years time I have some artists that can run circles around those previously undefeated lumbering kickball robots.
And one more thing, if you want to be really loved as a coach do what I did: ban snacks.