Good planning is an essential part of coaching. As coaches, we want kids to be respectful of the people around them and come to practice ready to learn and give their all. But we owe them the same respect in return — and this means preparing well-organized practices that are captivating, educational, and tailored to their needs as both individuals and a team. Session planning often seems daunting for inexperienced coaches, but it’s something we can all improve if we’re willing to learn. Below, we’ll look at some of the key things to consider before planning your session.
In This Article
Arrival activities are a great way to get players active and engaged at the start of a session while we map our upcoming exercises out on the grass, especially if we’re using shared facilities that afford us limited set-up time. Activities can range from ball-mastery challenges, such as kick-ups or passing in pairs, to small-sided games or even ’invasion games’ where kids play different sports.
These kinds of quick games ensure that, instead of being bored while they wait for practice to start, kids are actively involved and having fun as soon as they arrive, and ready to participate as soon as our warm-up or main exercises begin.
Making Soccer Practice Fun
As coaches, our primary aim should be to help kids fall in love with the game of soccer and stay engaged in the sport for the rest of their lives. If we’re to be successful, we need to make practice fun.
This doesn’t mean neglecting the development of our players, but instead basing the development process on play. Positive early experiences help children to engage with training and be more attentive learners, and often make them more motivated to practice independently. Ultimately, exceptional learning environments emphasize love for the game, creating players that are passionate to play and learn no matter what their aspirations.
Putting Players First
Putting players first means getting to know them as people, not just young athletes, and taking a holistic approach to coaching that accounts for their personalities, emotions, and the wide array of socio-cultural factors that determine how they learn and feel. We must remember that every person we coach is different and tailor our methods to their individual needs.
From a developmental point of view, the player-centered approach means placing the individual at the center of our coaching environment in a way that prioritizes their development as a person and a player over results on the pitch. We can work with players to redefine success as improvement, helping them to identify the aspects of their game they want to develop and then adjusting our practices in order to help them work on those areas and achieve their goals.
Player-centered coaches see their team as an assortment of individuals, each with their own specific needs, and focus on meeting those needs while working with the team as a collective. Organizing practices that accommodate so many different players in a variety of different ways takes careful thought and planning, but can vastly improve their learning experience.
The Four Corner Model
The FA’s Four Corner Model provides a useful framework for session planning and player development. Helpfully underpinning the player-centered approach, the model encourages us to take a holistic view of soccer coaching by breaking it down into four categories:
- Technical and tactical
By planning training exercises that challenge all four of these components, we can make our coaching more balanced. And encouraging players to develop in each of these areas (avoiding the common temptation to focus primarily on developing technical skills) will help them to become more well-rounded as both people and athletes.
It’s important to understand that no corner operates in isolation; all four are interconnected and, by remembering to address each of them, we can design more complete practices, better suited to supporting players throughout their nonlinear journey of long-term development.
Giving Your Practice Plans a Theme
As coaches, we can also give our practices purpose by basing them on specific themes. For example, our club may have a curriculum or a desired playing philosophy around which we can develop topics of learning; we might use our session to focus on certain phases of play; or perhaps we have identified a potential area for improvement on a recent matchday and want to work on a particular moment in the game.
Common themes include:
- Switching play
- Defending deep
- Combination play
- Controlling possession
The array of potential themes at our disposal extends far beyond the list above, but we should remember to be purposeful in choosing which ones we incorporate into our sessions, accounting for our learning environment and the individuals we’re coaching. When used effectively, topics and themes can help us to identify precise learning objectives for our players, give our sessions structure, and even enable us to plan multiple sessions into the future.
Move Beyond Drills: Make Practice Resemble the Game
Creating practices that resemble scenarios they will experience within the game makes training sessions more enjoyable and more relevant,helping the kids we coach to become better players. One simple solution is to use the core elements of the game, like direction and goals to engage the players.
It’s also worth considering realistic pitch geography — i.e. situating it within the area of the pitch that it would likely occur on a matchday if possible. This may depend on the training facility and space you have available, but it makes it easier for them to relate what they’re doing to the game of soccer and often invites greater levels of enthusiasm.
Besides making training sessions more fun, this kind of representative design helps players to transfer their understanding from practice to matches, as training exercises provide realistic triggers that they can identify in similar situations on game day. Consequently, kids are left feeling more prepared and able to face new challenges with confidence.
Keep the Session Flowing
The key to keeping players engaged is to ensure they’re active throughout the session. As such, we should try to avoid activities that leave them standing in queues instead of participating, and keep our instructions between exercises simple and brief.
It helps to think about the ‘ball-rolling time’ in each of our practices. This is the percentage of time that the ball is in play and kids are active during a session; if the ball rolls for 45 minutes of a one-hour session, our ball-rolling time is 75%.
We can maximize ball-rolling time by keeping coaching interventions to one minute or less, designing simple sessions that don’t require too much explaining, and, where possible, using activities that our players are already familiar with.
This will help our sessions to flow while leaving us room to go into detail when addressing the individual needs of our players — and, most importantly, increase the time that kids have to play and learn.
Tailoring Your Plan to Your Team
There is no one-size fits all approach to coaching, and we should always remember to tailor our practices to suit the players we’re working with. Observing other coaches and taking inspiration from their sessions is a great way to learn, but we must remember that all players are different and that our team is composed of individuals with their own distinct needs.
When planning, we should consider a number of important details about the group we’re working with, including:
- The number of players we expect to attend practice (and keeping a ‘Plan B’ in mind)
- How they’ll match up against each other in opposed practices, and how we can manipulate those match-ups so that all players receive an appropriate challenge
- Each of our players’ developmental goals, and how we can help them work on those areas of their game within the context of the practice
- Which kids need to play in specific positions based on their development plan, and how we’ll give them those opportunities
- The many psych-social factors that determine the kind of learning environment our players need from us
Considering so many additional factors alongside which training exercises we’re going to use may seem complicated, but it gets easier with practice; over time, it becomes more natural to account for the many competing influences that affect our players and the type of learning environment they need. Learning to recognize these factors underpins the player-centered approach to coaching, and ultimately helps us to provide a better educational experience for our players.
The Key Points
- Use arrival activities to get kids active at the start of each practice. This will ensure players are engaged as soon as they arrive while giving you time to set up your session.
- Our primary objective is to make soccer fun and help kids to fall in love with the game. By placing an emphasis on enjoyment, we can help kids forge a path towards lifelong participation in the sport.
- Embrace player-centered coaching. We should get to know our players as people, tailor our coaching to their individual needs, and prioritize their long-term development.
- We can use the FA’s Four Corner Model as a framework for our coaching. By breaking up session design and player development into four components — technical and tactical, psychological, physical, and social — we can take a holistic approach that helps our players to become more well-rounded as people, not just athletes.
- Using themes and topics is an excellent way to give our practices purpose and structure. Individual themes may come from a curriculum, reflect a playing philosophy we wish to instil in our club, address specific phases of play, or respond to isolated moments in recent matches.
- We should try to make practice resemble the game wherever possible. Besides making sessions more engaging for kids, the use of representative design and appropriate pitch geography will give our players realistic triggers and cues, helping them to transfer their learning from training to matchdays.
- Strive to maximize ball-rolling time and keep sessions flowing as much as possible. Children don’t want to stand in queues or spend long periods of time listening to instructions. If we make our sessions flow, our players will be more engaged, have more fun, and be better learners.
- There is no one-size fits all approach to coaching. We can learn a lot by looking up practice plans and observing other coaches, but we must always remember to take an individual approach — one that accounts for all of our players and their needs, centered on giving them the optimal learning environment and the best possible experience.
Image Credits: Canva