Planning and running a practice session for youth soccer players can be daunting. There are a million sessions out there on the Internet, but none of them will ever be as good as the ones you create yourself for your team. This is because you know your players, what space and equipment you have available, and what ability levels you have. [As an aside, every team has a range of abilities. Even on the German national team there is a top group, a middle group and a bottom group!]
Having a plan is essential. You don’t have to follow it to the letter, but you simply must have an idea of what you want to get out of the session and how you plan to achieve those objectives. For example, the objective may simply be to improve your players’ dribbling ability in 1v1 situations.
According to the United States Soccer Federation, coaches should:
Ensure the session is developmentally appropriate;
Provide clear, concise, and correct information;
Start simple and increase complexity;
Ensure that the training area is safe and appropriate;
As much as possible, allow players to make decisions.
A very simple, but effective rule of thumb for approaching and organizing practices for kids of all ages is to divide your available time into thirds: (1) Some kind of technique-focused warm-up; (2) 2-4 activities that are game like; and (3) the scrimmage – always leave time for a scrimmage!
As a teacher both on and off the field, I have experienced the best results with “guided discovery” (Socratic method – asking questions) when teaching/reviewing an activity. For example, after doing toe taps for 30 seconds, instead of telling the players how to do it quickly, what they should do with their arms, whether they should be on tip toes, or heels, etc., ask them what is the best way to do it. As they answer, ask the player to show you and his/her teammates. Recognize/praise them for doing so, and then ask if anyone can do it like that. The best questions contain the answers and are short! For example, “should we use big touches or little touches?” or “should we keep our eyes on the ball or looking around?” If you get a “wrong” answer, have the players attempt to do it in the way the player said and then follow up to see if someone has a different answer.
Do not be afraid to repeat activities, but try to incorporate new ones when you think things are getting too repetitive. Be prepared for inconsistency! What worked great last week may be a disaster this week! Always have more activities to move on to, if necessary. The ones that you don’t use can form the basis of next week’s practice.
All activities and games can be modified (e.g. making the grid bigger/smaller, imposing number of touch restrictions, increasing/decreasing the number/size of the goals). If your players are not finding success, don’t be afraid to modify!
Always bring a spare ball and never begin the practice by having the players run laps around the field. This is a waste of time and energy. If you need something to occupy your players for a minute or two at the beginning of practice, have them juggle the ball, pass with a partner, or do some other ball-related activity.
Again, always come to practice with a written plan of what you want to achieve and how plan to achieve it (diagrams are very helpful, but don’t spend all day trying to get the perfect one!).
Please feel free to provide feedback below or ask questions about how to write/optimize your practice plans.