What are some of the key considerations for coaching youth soccer players? The teenage years in particular are a crucial time for our players’ development as both soccer players and people. As their coaches, we can play a decisive role in that process.
Between the ages of 12 and 18, youth players will experience significant physical, psychological, and emotional growth. Social dynamics and the pressures placed upon them will change. And they’ll make repeated leaps between different game formats, transitioning from small-sided games to 11v11.
Getting the best out of them requires more than great soccer coaching drills. There are complexities to coaching teenagers that create a different challenge from coaching juniors or adults. By understanding players comprehensively, we can ensure they continue to enjoy soccer and carry on learning to the best of their ability.
In this article
Things to Remember When Coaching Youth Soccer Players: Tips to Make You a Better Soccer Coach
New Educational Pressures
In many countries, the move to Under-12s soccer coincides with the step-up to secondary school. This is a highly transitional time in a child’s life; teenagers experience pressures they’ve never encountered before as they learn to balance schoolwork, a social life, and sport.
In the UK, the Youth Development Phase (YDP) in academy soccer runs from the ages 12-16. Academy players may train 4 times per week, play a game on the weekend, and still need to study and ensure they have time for family, friends, extracurricular activities, and balance in their life.
Helping them achieve this balance is vital. We regularly see kids with daily routines starting at 7.00am and finishing over 12 hours later. In contemporary society, the demands on children to train in organised sporting environments (whether they are grassroots or academy settings) across one or many sports can be high. Try to ensure they have at least a day or two per week where they’re not waking up early and finishing late. Young people feel pressure too, even if they don’t always show it.
The Importance of Peers
Players in the youngest age groups often want the attention of their parents and soccer coach and are eager to please. As they become teenagers, they tend to seek the approval of their peers more frequently.
Teenage players become more aware of social standings within a group and start to care about what’s ‘cool’. So, as PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright would say, “we need to make learning cool.” Even if it isn’t cool in school, remember that, at training, learning makes you better at soccer.
We also need to promote good behaviour. The FA’s Advanced Youth Award aims for all young players to develop the following character traits:
- Good learner
- Recognises the importance of teams
- Can manage relationships
- Able to show independence
By encouraging these characteristics, we can help our players develop in ways that will benefit them in all aspects of life. As coaches, we often focus on the technical and tactical aspects of their development. But the values we want our teams to show are probably more important in developing young humans. But are these values documented in an individual learning plan? Or are they tracked over a period of time to support the development of self-reflection? And importantly, do we discuss them with our players?
Teenagers are at an age where they’ll naturally challenge us, push boundaries, and take more risks. As an adult, our relationship with them must be positive, frequent, consistent, and unconditional. When a kid makes a mistake, we shouldn’t treat them like an adult; we should explain why that mistake was a bad choice and give them a chance to correct it.
We all made mistakes at their age. Avoid falling into the trap of thinking a kid is difficult or ‘uncoachable’ simply because, at that moment, their behaviour is poor. Invest time with them and try to seek more understanding of their context.
In fact, these challenges are great opportunities for advancing social development. Sport is an excellent tool for developing life skills when delivered well and coaches ensure consistent messaging. Whether that’s educating players on the consequences of poor behaviour, lack of attendance, or other off-field issues, or supporting them in understanding that mistakes on the field are opportunities to learn, these are all moments for coaches to leverage with young players.
Similarly, creating a positive culture in our team may require our players to speak out and hold each other to account. For teenagers, this can mean overcoming huge social pressures. This in turn encourages bravery and enables them to develop leadership skills.
Creating this kind of learning environment is essential to a team’s development, both collectively and as individuals. And the setting of standards can be driven by both coaches and players.
The Teenage Brain
For some people, the brain continues to develop until they reach their mid-20s. And technical, physical, and emotional development all happen at different rates. Some teenagers may grow so quickly that they look like adults, but their emotional development might not have occurred at the same pace.
The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that affects functions like focus, ability to plan, impulse control, and anticipating consequences — generally develops later. This means kids regularly find it hard to juggle tasks like learning, homework, sports, being on time, and remembering equipment.
Teenage players may also be more sensitive to criticism. We must be measured in how we communicate with our players, providing them with a helpful and supportive environment where they can enjoy playing soccer.
We (usually) think as rational adults, but their minds don’t necessarily work the same way. We should guide them on the correct behaviour but remember to give them some slack. Empathy and patience go a long way.
Moreover, brain development, like physical and technical development, is different for everyone; remember to treat your players as individuals, recognising and accounting for players’ individual progression within the group.
We should invest time getting to know our players. Ask them questions, engage with them, and find out what they’re like as people outside of soccer. Maximise your opportunities for informal discussions with your players, whether it’s in the car park before or after a session, walking out to training, or between soccer drills, all of these moments are opportunities to build a stronger relationship.
Changing Game Formats
Our teams will transition through multiple game formats as they progress from Under-12s to Under-18s soccer.
In the UK, teams step up to 11-a-side games at Under-13s, playing on smaller pitches, with smaller goals and size 4 soccer balls. At Under-14s, they move to full-size pitches, full-size goals, and size 5 balls.
This may look like the adult game but it’s still a long way off. Some kids will have the body of a 13-year-old while others playing on the same pitch will be almost fully developed. It can be fascinating to observe as players learn to adapt their games accordingly. But we must appreciate these differences and adjust our expectations.
As an aside, moving through different ages and game formats is also great for our development as coaches. If you can, working with teams of different age groups is an excellent way to improve as a youth soccer coach.
Rapid Growth and Maturation
Their teenage years are the second-fastest period of growth in a child’s life (the first being when they’re toddlers). With significant physical growth, often occurring very rapidly, players can suffer a loss of coordination, reduced stamina, and become more susceptible to injury.
If someone grows 20cm in a few months, their legs may be a couple of inches longer than their brain is telling them. This can in turn make controlling or striking a ball harder than it was before. Stamina can be affected by growing pains as kids who look and feel fit start to experience discomfort after short periods of exercise. And injuries, particularly to the knees, ankles, and heels, are commonly caused by different parts of the body growing at different times.
This can impact players’ confidence, especially if they don’t understand why it’s happening to them. They may suddenly feel smaller relative to their peers or wonder why they’re struggling to do things with a ball that they could easily do before. And this can have a profound effect on a young person’s sense of identity.
It’s important to appreciate what’s happening and guide our players through it. Having a strong relationship with the players’ parents can also be valuable during these rapid changes. There’s much to be said for getting them to practice the basics — things like hopping, jumping, passing the ball against different surfaces — almost as if they were juniors again. If players are having mobility or coordination challenges, this is an opportunity to manipulate the practice spectrum and perhaps dial down pressure and ramp up repetition in order for a player to regain confidence on the ball.
This is where the mental and physical aspects of coaching teenagers are linked. If a kid’s performance levels start to drop, it doesn’t mean they’ve become a bad soccer player. We need to be careful not to write them off and harm their long-term development because of a short-term blip.
Steve Lawrence, consultant to Cruyff Football and Ajax, covers the perils of reinforcing the ability gap between young players in more detail in his work on the relative age effect.
The Pitfalls of Talent Identification
Given the huge discrepancies in rates of physical development, it’s natural that the biggest kids will often look the best. They may be significantly taller, stronger, or faster than their peers, enabling them to power their way to success. But when it comes to talent identification, we need to consider more than just physicality and effective performance now — we need to have an eye on the future and understand what characteristics or behaviours (on or off the pitch) that players are demonstrating.
We should ask ourselves if what we’re seeing now is what we’ll see at the end of that journey. Teenagers tend to catch up to one another in physical development around the age of 16. But at, for example, Under-14s, are we picking players based on technical ability or physical presence?
A player who was brilliant aged 11 may look average for a while, then become the player we expected as they physically develop, get used to their new body, and regain coordination and confidence. “Whispering talents” (for instance, the players in your team who might be in the “middle of the pack” now) regularly emerge as the best by the end of their journey. We only need to read the story of Premier League star Harry Kane to appreciate this.
We should always try to think about the long-term development of our team and players and avoid making snap judgements. Repeatedly selecting and cutting players as they progress through the age groups will harm their development and can hinder their enjoyment of soccer, lose their trust, and negatively impact their behaviour.
Nick Levett, former Talent ID Manager at The FA and Head of Talent at UK Sport, has spoken at length about talent identification. He emphasises the importance of character-building and ensuring that players continue to enjoy playing soccer rather than fixating upon success during these crucial years of development.
The words ‘product’ and ‘produce’ are very dangerous in youth sport. We’re not developing products, but people. And much research suggests that youth success is a poor forecaster of adult success.
By not focusing on results, we can make it more fun for the kids at younger ages and keep the funnel into youth soccer open for longer, leaving opportunities for other talents to enter the game later. The goal of grassroots coaches and community clubs must be to provide opportunities for players to stay in the game.
We should also remember that players who get identified early aren’t always the ones who become professional players. We should be focussed on the 99% of participants who won’t be professional players, for whom we can still create an environment where they can explore, learn new skills, socialise, love the soccer game, and hopefully stay involved in it for life.
The Emergence of Roles Within the Sports Team
When we reach 11-a-side games, players are more likely to play in a unit and have an idea of where they want to play on the pitch. Players should be encouraged to experience a variety of different positions during the foundation phase (U9-U12), but as they get older, this positional focus may start to narrow down to one or two roles (for some, this may be later than others). It’s important to balance the number of roles a player plays in a single game so they get a chance to get into a state of flow and aren’t constantly having to readjust.
But we can still get them playing multiple positions, and it’s a great way for players to develop certain attributes or improve deficiencies. For example, you could help a centre-back improve their passing, receiving, and protection of the ball under pressure by playing them in midfield for a few weeks. You may select a player in all three central midfield positions. Or play a winger one both the left and right side of the pitch so they get the repetition of winning 1v1 duels on the outside or cutting inside to create opportunities for teammates.
As players head towards the later stages of their teenage years, it’s likely they may have a clear idea of where they would like to play, and you can support them in this with an open dialogue and clear individual plan.
We should also be careful not to pigeonhole players. We might create profiles for certain positions, but there are many different players who’ll display different attributes while successfully fulfilling the same role. Maintaining flexibility allows us to match-up attributes with a role as players develop.
There’s sometimes a pressure to rush tactical development when the technical base hasn’t been adequately laid yet. Even in full-size games, we’re not expected to deliver a tactical masterclass; the priority is still to teach and develop individuals. After all, coaching is about creating an environment without fear, where mistakes can happen, and learning and enjoyment are a constant focus.
Key points for youth soccer coaching
When it comes to coaching teenagers, there are some subtle differences. Appreciating these distinctions can be the difference between simply coaching a team, or truly developing the individuals in your group.
To recap, here are the keys to helping your players learn to the best of their ability:
- Teenage years come with lots of pressure. Patience and empathy with your players can go a long way.
- Try not to make snap judgements when it comes to ability or behaviour. What you see on a particular day isn’t what you’ll see forever.
- Be mindful and less emotional if you lose a game or a player isn’t performing as well as you’d hope. The 14-year-old in front of you isn’t Mo Salah (although he might aspire to be) and players can be sensitive. Pause and take a step back before vocalising disappointment.
- Creating a positive culture is fundamental to the individual and collective development of your players.
- Teenagers grow at different times and speeds. Avoid the temptation to fixate upon physicality when identifying talent.
- The number one priority in youth soccer is development, not results. Encourage players to experience different roles within the team and develop a full range of technical attributes.
- It helps to go through a cycle with players, coaching them from ages 12-18 and learning from those experiences. If you can coach different age groups within your club, you’ll gain brilliant insights.
- Only a minute fraction of kids will make it as professional soccer players. But with the right coaching, we can ensure that all of them enjoy it, learn, stay in the game, and develop as both players and people.
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