Overview of this age group:
For children aged 6 and under, they are more than likely playing soccer because a parent signed them up without their knowledge and/or because friends are playing. This doesn’t mean that your players won’t learn to love soccer; however, as the coach, you have a huge responsibility to keep them interested in a game that they may not have chosen for themselves. As such, it is important to understand some basic developmental information about your group. Please note that all kids develop at different rates and they will not develop evenly across all of the domains listed below. Practices should not last longer than 45 minutes and should include a technique-based warm-up, 2-4 activities, followed by a scrimmage. When you include water breaks every 5 or so minutes, the time goes by fast! Leave them wanting to play more soccer! There are no assigned positions in these age groups!
At this age, kids are in the fundamental movement stage of life. Locomotive exercises, such as running and jumping are possible, as are stabilization exercises, such as hopping on one foot, balancing on tip toes, and stopping. Players will likely display high energy levels, but only for short periods of time – this means that activities shouldn’t last for more than 30-45 seconds, as they will give full effort and then stop. Water breaks every few minutes (e.g. 5 minutes between breaks) at this age are a must. Always allow players to get a drink of water if they ask. Keep water breaks short; for example, 60 seconds. You can also do a countdown to make sure the players are hustling to get back for the next activity.
Abstract concepts like “space,” “offside,” “pass and move,” etc., are completely foreign to these kids! They are in Piaget’s “preoperational” stage of cognitive development, which means that they explore and understand the world through direct sensory and motor contact. They will focus on themselves and on concrete objects; for example, I often hear, “that’s my ball.” At this age, players have no concern for team concepts, they will best learn experientially (by doing) and they need constant positive reinforcement and praise. Again, they have very short attention spans. If you talk for longer than 30 seconds, they lose focus. In fact, if you have to take longer than 30 seconds to explain something to them, what you are saying is likely too complex for them to recall and implement (working memory at this age is still at its infancy stage, too). As the coach, you should make your instructions as clear and concise as possible. A good rule of thumb is that for every activity you do, every player should have a ball and has the opportunity to be successful (see section on model activities for some examples).
At this age, kids are “ME” oriented. This means that they have difficulty understanding team concepts, they likely do not want to share their ball, and will want lots of attention from the coach (“Am I doing it right, coach?”, “Look at me, coach!”, “Watch this!”, and so on). Again, give as much positive reinforcement as possible. If they are struggling with something, help them out by modifying the activity for them and/or by going over and modeling what to do. Keep the kids moving and having fun! If they really enjoy a game; for example, “freeze tag,” allow every player the opportunity to be the “tagger.” This means that the activity will likely take longer (as you will need to give them a water break during the activity), but each player will get his/her “turn.” They may not understand complex concepts like “justice” or “equity,” but they know when the kid next to them got to do something they didn’t!
Age-appropriate technical aspects to focus on during the course of the season:
Coordination; for example, running without falling over, moving feet and arms together (marching in place), “toe taps” and “insides” with the ball. Lots of repetition and fun games are key here (e.g. freeze tag is always a favorite).
Balance; for example, standing on one leg, hopping. Competence comes with repetition and progress is not necessarily linear!
Dribbling technique; for example, utilizing both feet and as many different surfaces of the foot as possible (toe, laces, instep, side foot, outside of foot, sole, heel). Also, focus on players’ ability to keep the ball as close as possible without losing control of it and when it is appropriate to take big (heavy) touches versus little (soft) touches.
Ball mastery; for example, being able to manipulate the ball with all of the various surfaces mentioned above. Ball manipulation is fundamental, as it is the foundation for everything in soccer! The more comfortable they get in being able to manipulate the ball, the more confident they will get to do other things.
Stopping and turning; for example, utilize both feet and their various surfaces to stop the ball and move in a different direction with it.
With all of the research that is coming out on concussions, do not spend time on headers (heading the ball) and do not berate a child at this age for not heading a ball during practice or a game.
Age-appropriate tactical aspects to focus on during the course of the season:
Scoring in the correct goal!
Do not worry about tactical concepts at this age level.
You should not be expecting your players to understand and execute “team concepts,” and/or things that involve anything more complex than the player and the ball. Introducing more variables, such as passing to teammates, combining with teammates, etc. will result in breakdown (and a very frustrated coach!).