Coaching soccer can be complex. It requires knowledge, preparation, open-mindedness, willingness to learn, and, perhaps most importantly, an ability to understand, relate to, and work with people. The best soccer coaches take a principle-driven approach to teaching, get to know their players as human beings in order to help them develop as athletes, and are proficient communicators, adept in both session design and delivery. The need for such a vast skill set may seem daunting to new coaches, but it’s something that can be developed and honed with practice. For anybody wondering how to become a soccer coach, the first step is always simple: be prepared to learn.
In this Article
The Fundamental Principles of Coaching Youth Soccer
At PDP, we advocate a principle-led approach to coaching. We should always be prepared to adapt according to our environment and the needs of our players, but a foundation of guiding principles can provide helpful direction when it comes to session design and player development.
PDP’s four fundamental coaching principles are:
- Fun first
- Embrace player-centered coaching
- Encourage learning through play
- Keep players active
As soccer coaches, our primary aim is to help kids fall in love with soccer, igniting a passion that will hopefully lead to a lifetime of participation in the game. This means creating stimulating, high-energy practices where they can enjoy interacting with their peers, learn without fear of failing, and have fun.
Of course, we also want to help our players learn and develop, but this is only possible if we give them an environment in which they can enjoy playing soccer. After all, the levels of resilience and hard work required to drive long-term development will only be possible if a child loves the game.
Key to this approach is the understanding that our players come first. We may be tempted to fixate on winning matches or want to deliver precisely-drilled practices that look impressive to onlookers, but that isn’t what’s best for the kids we coach. Instead, we should put our egos aside and concentrate on delivering sessions that our players will find engaging and fun.
Embrace Player-Centered Coaching
Player-centered coaching means getting to know every player on our team and tailoring our approach to give them the best possible experience. All kids are different; they have different aims, ambitions, and motivations, experience different rates of physical and psychological growth, are affected by different socio-cultural constraints, and require different kinds of support in order to learn effectively, feel comfortable in their training environment, and maximize their potential. As coaches, our job is to identify these needs and build our coaching around them.
By appreciating the contrasting developmental needs and goals of our players, we can identify the best ways to motivate them, work with them to establish personalized targets and create individual development plans, and design sessions that enable them to focus on specific aspects of their game within broader training exercises.
The player-centered approach may seem challenging at first, but it gets easier with practice. Individual targets don’t need to be overly complicated in order to be effective, and players will often feel empowered when given ownership over their own learning experience, thereby increasing their engagement and aiding their overall development.
Encourage Learning Through Play
Helping kids to learn through play goes beyond the principle of making practice fun. Children use play to experiment, take risks, experience failure and adversity, and develop through exploration. In addition to making training more enjoyable, a game-based learning environment that utilizes play as an educational tool is often the most propitious setting in which players can develop.
Games offer more variability than regimented drills, forcing players to think quickly and adapt in a way that, over time, makes them more skillful, better decision-makers, and more prepared for the demands of matches. A game-based learning environment doesn’t mean turning every training session into one hour of free play, but rather incorporating play into our sessions and weaving it into training exercises that look like moments of the game. It’s important to provide our players with challenges that captivate and excite them.
Keep Players Active
A cornerstone of effective coaching is the ability to keep players engaged — especially when working with children. Kids don’t want to hear us shouting instructions at length or stand in queues waiting for their turn to participate, so it’s important that we maximize ‘ball-rolling time’ and deliver sessions that flow.
We can think of ball-rolling time as the percentage of time in which the ball is in play and kids are actively participating during a training session. For example, if we conduct a 60-minute practice and the ball rolls for 45 minutes, our practice has a ball-rolling time of 75%. We can then use the remaining 15 minutes for things like coach interventions, moving between exercises, drinks breaks, and talking to our playing group.
The key is intelligent session design, centered on exercises that require little explaining, have short set-up times, and maximize player engagement. Once we’ve learned to plan sessions that flow, and deliver them with clear and concise communication, we’ll be able to keep players active for the majority of each practice.
Creative Session Design
Planning is an essential part of coaching. It enables us to maximize the time that players are active during a session, tailor each practice to the individual needs of our players, build practices around specific topics or themes, and, if we wish, place each training session within the context of a wider curriculum or grouping of sessions.
Good session design will account for a wide array of factors, including:
- The number of players expected to attend a session
- Their individual needs and developmental goals
- The different match-ups that will be created during opposed exercises
- How pitch geography will be used to recreate the feeling of match situations
- And how each of these components can be addressed within a specific area of learning
To use pitch geography, we must situate exercises in the area of the field most relevant to what our team is working on. For instance, if our players are practicing defending deep, we should try to set up our exercise in the defensive third of the pitch. This ensures that information and cues learned in practice resemble the things they experience in a game, enabling them to transfer their learning to matchday scenarios more easily.
Topics may be based upon patterns of play, such as counter-attacking or controlling possession; focus on isolated moments in games (for instance, if we observed our team struggling to defend outnumbered in the previous match); fall within a curriculum; or reflect the playing philosophy we wish to instil within our club, whether at a professional academy or in a grassroots setting.
Learning to develop these kinds of topics and themes, and interweave them within the other aspects of session planning, can improve our coaching considerably, and help us to approach each session with confidence.
Good communication underpins all of the most important aspects of coaching. How we interact with our players has a huge impact on our ability to build a connection with them, which is, in turn, essential to adopting a player-centered approach.
There is a range of communication and intervention techniques, both traditional and contemporary, that we can use in our coaching, including:
- Question and answer
- Guided discovery
- Trial and error
- Drive-by coaching
There is no ‘right’ communication technique; the best way to communicate with a player or group of players depends upon a variety of factors, such as the individual(s) we’re talking to, the information we’re trying to learn or convey, and what else is happening in the session at that moment. Research has also found that the most successful soccer coaches are not only excellent communicators, but that their leadership styles exhibit empathy and care for their players.
By learning about a range of different communication and intervention techniques, and the psychology behind how and when to use them, we can become better coaches and significantly enhance the learning environment we provide for our players.
More Than Just Qualifications: Becoming a Better Coach
Even after becoming a soccer coach, there is always more to learn. The very best coaches maintain an open mind, embrace new research and scientific studies, and constantly review their coaching with a view to their own development and self-improvement. A recent study by the University of Queensland found that the most successful elite-level coaches are avid readers, actively consuming the latest evidence-based developments in the worlds of coaching and sports science.
No matter what level we’re coaching at, we should be equally willing to reflect, improve, embrace new ideas, and learn about how we can become better soccer coaches and provide a better experience for the kids we coach.
Developing as a coach doesn’t have to mean delving into academic journals or working in a professional coaching environment. There are many accessible ways we can discover new ideas, receive feedback on our approach, and try new coaching experiences:
- Seek out high-quality, evidence-based content produced by professional coaches, academics, sports psychologists, and other industry experts (such as the wide array of videos and articles on PDP).
- Get to know yourself as a person and appreciate your own areas of proficiency. Ask yourself what attributes or experiences — for example, communication or organizational skills, or a background working in other sports — you can transfer to coaching soccer.
- Look for a range of different learning opportunities, from practice, observation, and reading, to formal courses, both online and in person.
- Network with other coaches; meet with people from your club or a nearby team for a coffee, or find an online community of engaged, like-minded coaches.
- Observe more experienced soccer coaches and see how they deliver their sessions.
- Ask fellow coaches to observe your sessions and provide feedback.
- If possible, coach different age groups and teams at different levels. The need to adapt your coaching to the requirements of different environments and players will be great for your development as a coach.
How to Become a Youth Soccer Coach: A Course for Aspiring Coaches
In collaboration with world-class coach educator Rob Sherman, PDP has created an online course that takes an in-depth look at the topics discussed in this article and expands on them, covering all of the essential components of coaching youth soccer.
Sherman has coached at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, U20 Men’s World Cup, 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Beijing Olympics, and was Assistant Coach of the Canadian Bronze-medal-winning Women’s National Team at the London Olympics. He has also helped develop multiple national coach education programs up to the Pro Licence level.
Working alongside PDP’s network of professional coaches and utilizing the research of industry experts, Sherman delivers a course that’s accessible to all and will help even the most inexperienced coaches get out on the grass.
The topics and learning materials in An Introduction to Coaching Kids Soccer include:
- An introduction to coaching youth soccer
- In-depth exploration of PDP’s fundamental coaching principles
- Taking on a team
- Pre-season preparation
- Session planning
- How to deliver a session
- Communication in a youth soccer environment
- Evaluating yourself, your session, and your players
- Over 50 practices and exercises to use immediately
- Regular quizzes to track progress
- Support and feedback from PDP’s professional coaches
An Introduction to Coaching Kids Soccer was created to give coaches a high-quality, professional education in a format that’s accessible. By providing world-class resources and professional insights, we aim to help coaches learn and develop, and ultimately improve the experiences of future generations of young soccer players.
How to Become a Soccer Coach: The Key Points
- Remember the fundamental principles of coaching youth soccer: put fun first, embrace player-centered coaching, encourage learning through play, and keep players active.
- Good session design is key to great coaching. Consider the theme(s) you want to work on, how you’ll make them relate to your players’ individual development goals, and create sessions that flow and maximize ‘ball-rolling time’.
- Communication skills are arguably the most important part of coaching. We must use a range of communication and intervention techniques to connect with our players, help them to feel comfortable in their learning environment, and deliver sessions that flow smoothly. We should also remember to show empathy and support to everyone we coach.
- The best coaches embrace new ideas and constantly seek to learn and develop. We should also be open-minded and look for new ways to improve.
- There is a huge array of resources we can access in order to improve our own coaching, from online content and courses to informal meet-ups with other coaches.
- By improving as coaches, we can improve the education we provide our players, helping to create future generations of soccer players who’ll maximize their potential and fall in love with the game.
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