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U12 soccer encompasses the crucial final years of the Foundation Phase. As coaches, our priority remains technical development, individual ball mastery, and helping our players to acquire a love of soccer that will make them want to continue into the Youth Development Phase and beyond. Even as we progress to larger game formats and edge slightly closer to the adult game, creating an environment where kids can learn and enjoy themselves is still paramount. With the right guidance, our players will emerge from this stage of their development with confidence and enthusiasm.
Things to consider when coaching U12 soccer
Make soccer training fun
When coaching U12 soccer and choosing the best U12 soccer drills, our primary aim should still be to make training fun. Even as kids get older, we must remember that their continued development is dependent upon them staying in the game — and the surest route to lifelong participation is having love for the sport.
“Coaches need to treat children like children, not just young soccer players,” explains USA National Instructor and US Soccer National Coaching Committee member Tom Turner. “Youth soccer needs to base the development process on ‘play’… With enough positive experiences early on, there is a good chance young players will become motivated to engage in training… and be motivated enough to self-train.”
“We need to remember they are still kids,” adds Stuart English, Assistant Academy Manager at Sunderland AFC, emphasizing the need to create an inclusive, challenging environment that remains as positive as possible, “where players are keeping their love for football at the forefront of everything.”
Take a holistic approach to soccer coaching
As with younger age groups, we want to take a holistic approach to coaching that develops children as people, not just players. This means considering all aspects of their development — supporting them through their physical growth and psychological and social maturation in addition to improving the technical and tactical aspects of their game. We should endeavor to create sessions that account for every component of our players’ developmental needs and aim to work on them simultaneously.
Understanding the key areas of technical and tactical development
According to Fulham FC coach Gabriel Flores, the Foundation Phase (U6-U12) encompasses the “golden years of learning”. We must use this time to help players develop the core skills that will underpin more advanced technical and tactical development as they get older.
Ball mastery remains key. “You want players, by the end of the Foundation Phase, to be passing off both feet… and receiving in a way where it’s [both] static and dynamic, using the different parts of the feet,” says Nathan Philip, former academy coach at clubs including Chelsea FC and West Ham United.
Over the course of U12 soccer, we should help children use their skills to exercise better decision-making, feel comfortable playing in a variety of positions, appreciate their ability and how it can help their team, and be assured in possession of the ball.
Preparing for the growth and maturation phase
No matter what sport children play, these years are crucial for improving their physical literacy. It may also be beneficial for kids to play a range of different sports in order to help them build a varied, wide-ranging movement vocabulary.
We should be mindful that, as children start to enter the growth and maturation phase of their physical development, we’ll begin to see the difference between early and late maturers. In the context of soccer, we want to help players become more comfortable using their body in game situations — where possible, learning to control the ball with different body parts, starting to use their body to manipulate their opponent and create space for themselves, and reacting calmly when receiving contact from opposition players — but we must moderate our expectations for each individual based on where they are in their physical development.
“Early maturers tend to compete quite easily, use their body, and be able to move people,” explains Megan Hill, a PhD Researcher in a Growth and Maturation at the University of Bath. “[But] late maturers often struggle in big areas and get pushed off the ball.” This presents coaches with distinct challenges: we must ensure that smaller players, who may not yet feel comfortable using their body, are still able to be involved and feel comfortable in practice and game situations, and stay in the game until they reach their own maturation phase; and we have to stop bigger players from neglecting their technical development because they’re able to to get success with a physical advantage that will disappear as their peers catch them up.
We should also continue to use a variety of drills that encourage different patterns of movement; games and practices that require children to jump and turn, accelerate and decelerate, evade, escape and quickly change direction; games that are more random (as opposed to sprints in straight lines or leaps over stationary hurdles) and will challenge children to move in different ways and help them to improve their coordination, balance and agility. This is essential to helping players develop the fundamental movement skills that will provide the basis for learning more sophisticated tactical and technical elements of the game as they get older.
Supporting the social and psychological development of our players
When coaching kids of any age, we must remember that this is a transitional time in their lives; they’re experiencing significant psychological changes and still developing things like self-esteem, emotional control, and their sense of identity. Therefore it’s vital that we strive to be patient, empathetic and supportive, and provide our players with a positive learning environment.
As we prepare our players for the Youth Development Phase (U13-U16), we might encourage them to start considering the consequences of their actions and take greater ownership of their decision-making, assess their own performances, and identify areas they could improve. Supporting this kind of reflection will place kids at the center of the learning process and help to develop players who can self-manage and make decisions in game situations without relying on a coach.
By helping children take on more personal responsibility, we can guide them to becoming independent thinkers and decision-makers. And this will benefit them in both soccer and the world beyond sport.
On the social side of things, we can still use soccer training to teach important social skills, even in the latter stages of the Foundation Phase. As Mark Lyons, Pre-Academy Coordinator and Lead Coach at Leicester City FC, explains, things like listening skills (whether that’s listening to a coach or to teammates), ability to follow instructions, willingness to share, and being able to work as part of a team are all important life skills that will benefit our players beyond soccer.
We should help our players to appreciate their teammates and recognize their contribution to the team, consider opinions and experiences that differ from their own, and understand their own contribution within the team.
This ability to engage with, and appreciate, others will not only provide a foundation for learning more advanced team principles in the Youth Development Phase, but it will also benefit their overall social development.
Pick the right activity: Use a range of soccer drills alongside new game formats
U12 soccer can mean another step-up in game formats as players progress to 9-a-side matches on bigger pitches. But this doesn’t mean we should abandon small-sided games in our training sessions.
“There is inherent value in establishing SSCG [small-sided and conditioned game] practices to increase the amount of time players experience the playfulness and joy of conditioned competition,” writes Professor William Harper of Purdue University. In PDP’s Research Review into the benefits of small-sided games, Harper explains their value in giving players more time on the ball and increased opportunities to support teammates, helping them to develop the skills that they’ll need in more pressurized game situations.
“One key component is your language as a coach,” advises PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “Using language like ‘making it big’, ‘making it small’ is really important — making sure you’re clear and they understand what you’re talking about… Look at praising players who go against the grain and get themselves into space, those players who keep width or give height and depth. If you see players doing that, make sure you reinforce it with positive sentiments.”
By using a variety of small-sided and constraints-based games, we can help kids gain the understanding of concepts like space and movement they’ll need as they progress through different game formats and still maximize their time on the ball.
More than a drill: Use games to create dynamic training sessions
During the Foundation Phase, we want our players to develop their decision-making skills and become confident, independent problem-solvers. According to Stuart English, this requires us to incorporate some chaos into our practices, giving kids practices that are less structured and more random, where they encounter problems and find the solutions themselves. We may make U12 soccer drills more complex than the drills we use with younger age groups, reflecting our players’ ability to enjoy more complex challenges.
“Our aim should be to stop stripping the environmental complexity away, stop creating unrealistic, overly simplistic drills,” explains PDP Lead Researcher James Vaughan. “The coach’s job is to produce realistic football problems and then assist players to discover the solution by guiding their attention towards key information.”
“For skill acquisition, you’ve got to be comfortable with the ball, comfortable with the ball under pressure, and comfortable knowing when to release it and when to combine and use your teammates,” adds PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright. Opposed, game-based drills that challenge kids’ decision-making ability as well as their technical skills are key to helping them develop this confidence.
Maintain clear and positive communication
Our effectiveness as coaches depends upon how well we can communicate with our players. When coaching children, it’s vital that we keep our message positive and use language that they understand.
This means getting to know our players as people. Take time to talk to the kids you coach about things that aren’t soccer, in between drills or before and after training. By understanding the things they like and what’s going on in their lives, it will be easier to engage them. This connection is essential to creating an environment where they can have fun, play without fear, and enjoy learning.
U12 soccer training: The key points and development goals
- We should coach the person, not just the player. By using The Four Corner Model as a framework, we can take a well-rounded approach to player development and session design.
- We must strive to make training fun. Children who enjoy playing soccer are more likely to continue into the Youth Development Phase, engage in solo practice, and stay involved in the game for life.
- Small-sided and constraints-based games are great ways to teach kids about concepts like space and movement while giving them time on the ball. This will prepare them for the progression through different game formats.
- Embrace the chaos. U12 soccer drills with more randomness, that require players to solve problems, are especially effective in developing creativity and improving decision-making skills.
- Concise, positive communication is key to engaging the children we coach. Learn about the things your players like, use language they can relate to, and keep the message upbeat.
- We want to create the optimal learning environment. That means somewhere kids can feel safe, have fun, experiment, play without fear, and be excited to come back to.
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