Focus, Focus, Focus: Doing More by Doing Less in Coaching Youth Soccer

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As coaches, we seem to have a natural impulse to correct everything on the field, all of the time! We also want to construct amazing and imaginative practices and end up having to 10 minutes to just explain it!

In this post, I will demonstrate how you can use Target Ball once per week for 20-30 minutes per session for 10 weeks and focus on something different every time. I have found Target Ball to be hugely popular for U8 players and above. Because they get used to the game, you can set it up quickly and get into playing with minimum fuss.

Here is the basic progression I would use (change them as you like, but you will see they go from simple to more complex concepts/skills. Also, you can and should still use the Target Ball progressions (as outlined in this previous post).

So, you should only stop the game in order to coach the focus for that week. This is where you can use the Guided Discovery Questions and highlight players doing it right (or “catching them being good”):

Week 1: Side foot passing technique
Week 2: Shooting with the side foot
Week 3: Making the field bigger on offense (spreading out)
Week 4: Possession
Week 5: Switching the point of the attack
Week 6: 1v1 attacking
Week 7: 1v1 defending
Week 8: Position of the weak side defender(s)
Week 9: Getting the defense to step up from the back
Week 10: Pressing high up the field

Of course, these are just sample topics, but the point is that if you want your players to really learn something, you have to keep your message focused on ONE THING! You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for practices; find a game they like and use it as a vehicle to teach soccer concepts/skills…one at a time.

2v1+1 to Goal with Counterattack Gates

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2v1 to goal with the added complexity of another defender and counterattack gates.

2v1 to goal with the added complexity of another defender and counterattack gates.

In my last post, I discussed the importance of “numbers up” when teaching offensive concepts. This post continues that theme, but adds extra conditions that make the activity even more game-like.

Applicability: Playing numbers up on offense is a great teaching tool because it allows attacking players to experience lots of success. On the other hand, it is good for defenders, too, as they struggle to deal with a numbers down situation they are forced to figure out what works best, as well as the importance of pressure and angle of approach. Additionally, this is a shooting drill, but under game-like conditions. 2v1+1 increases the difficulty for the attacking team and encourages even faster speed of play to capitalize on the “numbers-up” situation.

Area: If you have a marked 18-yard box, use it; otherwise, put a cone 5 yards to the side of each post. After that, put a cone facing it approx. 18 yards away.

Activity: Divide the players into 2 even teams. Have the defenders line up behind the 2 cones level with the posts. Have the attackers line up in 2 lines on the edge of the box (far cones) facing them. The balls should be with the attackers. To begin, have one of the attackers dribble towards the goal and try to score. As soon as the attacker takes his/her first touch, one defender can come out to pressure her (but not before). If the attacker passes the ball to her partner, then the second defender can enter the play (from the other side) and they play 2v2. Players go to the other line once they have had their turn (e.g. attacker goes to the other attacker line and defender goes to other defender line). Give them a time limit (e.g. 75 seconds) to score as many goals as possible (keep count) and then have the two teams switch roles. Review guided discovery questions points, and repeat as necessary, then add progressions one by one.

Offensive Guided Discovery Questions:

  • Is it easier for you and your partner to beat the defender when you go slow or fast? (See what they say and ask why)
  • What is the best way to eliminate the defender from the drill? (See what they say and ask why – dribble straight at defender and then pass it before she she can recover/dribble past her or the second defender can impact the game)
  • If you pass the ball to your partner, what is the best type of pass and why?
  • When you receive the ball, where should you look to take your first touch? Why?
  • What types of shot can you employ to be successful in this drill?
  • How does shot selection pair with which foot you favor?
  • If you lose the ball, what should you immediately do? Why?

Defensive Guided Discovery Questions:

  • Do you want to pressure the attacker quickly or slowly? Why?
  • Do you want to defend high up the field, or near your own goal? Why?
  • Why is it smart to show the attacker away from her partner? Why?
  • What is a good way to tackle the attacker without over-committing and getting beat? (Poke tackle)
  • What can and should the goalkeeper be communicating during this activity? Why? Give some examples
  • How does the game change when the attacker makes a pass? What are the challenges in this situation? What are the opportunities?

Progressions:

  • Move the balls to the other side (move defenders over, too)
  • Move the starting positions of the defenders/attackers (e.g. more centrally/more to the side, start the attackers closer/further away).
  • Have the coach play the ball to the attacker.
  • Add counterattack gates for the defenders to score through.
  • Allow both defenders to enter the game on the attacker’s first touch (which makes it a traditional 2v2 activity)

Guided Discovery Questions after you have added Progressions:

  • How has moving the balls to the other side changed this game? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • How has changing the starting position of the defenders/attackers changed this game? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • What has changed now that the coach is playing the ball in? What do you now have to ensure with your first touch? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • Now that counterattack gates have been added, how has the game changed? (e.g. if the goalkeeper catches a ball, she can roll it out to her defender or thrown/kick it directly through a gate) What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • How has the game changed now that it is a 2v2 situation? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?

Numbers Considerations: Again, this activity can easily accommodate 20 players; however, if you have access to another big goal, I would make two fields, as this will increase the number of repetitions/opportunities players have to participate.

Additional Notes: This activity can be used on its own and/or as a progression to 3v2, 3v3, or one of the “continuous” games. It is an important activity because it not only gives your players shooting practice, but it teaches the benefits of the overload in soccer.

2v1 to Goal: The Importance of “Numbers-up” for Teaching and Success in Youth Soccer

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2v1 to Goal

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Applicability: Playing numbers up on offense is a great teaching tool because it allows attacking players to experience lots of success. On the other hand, it is good for defenders, too, as they struggle to deal with a numbers down situation they are forced to figure out what works best, as well as the importance of pressure and angle of approach. Additionally, this is a shooting drill, but under game-like conditions.

Area: If you have a marked 18-yard box, use it; otherwise, put a cone 5 yards to the side of each post. After that, put a cone facing it 18 yards away (see diagram).

Activity: Divide the players into 2 even teams. Have the defenders line up behind the 2 cones level with the posts. Have the attackers line up in 2 lines on the edge of the box (far cones) facing them. The balls should be with the attackers. To begin, have one of the attackers dribble towards the goal and try to score. As soon as the attacker takes his/her first touch, the defender can come out to pressure him/her (but not before). Players go to the other line once they have had their turn (e.g. attacker goes to the other attacker line). Give them a time limit (e.g. 75 seconds) to score as many goals as possible and then have the two teams switch roles. Review guided discovery questions points, and repeat as necessary, then add progressions one by one.

Offensive Guided Discovery Questions: 

  • Is it easier for you and your partner to beat the defender when you go slow or fast? (See what they say and ask why)
  • What is the best way to eliminate the defender from the drill? (See what they say and ask why – dribble straight at defender and then pass it before she she can recover/dribble past her)
  • If you pass the ball to your partner, what is the best type of pass and why?
  • When you receive the ball, where should you look to take your first touch? Why?
  • What types of shot can you employ to be successful in this drill?
  • How does shot selection pair with which foot you favor?
  • If you lose the ball, what should you immediately do? Why?

Defensive Guided Discovery Questions:

  • Do you want to pressure the attacker quickly or slowly? Why?
  • Do you want to defend high up the field, or near your own goal? Why?
  • Why is it smart to show the attacker away from her partner? Why?
  • What is a good way to tackle the attacker without over-committing and getting beat? (Poke tackle)
  • What can and should the goalkeeper be communicating during this activity? Why? Give some examples

Progressions:

  • Move the balls to the other side (move defenders over, too)
  • Move the starting positions of the defenders/attackers (e.g. more centrally/more to the side, start the attackers closer/further away).
  • Have the coach play the ball to the attacker.
  • Add counterattack gates for the defenders to score through.
  • Keep score and make it a competition!

Guided Discovery Questions after you have added Progressions:

  • How has moving the balls to the other side changed this game? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • How has changing the starting position of the defenders/attackers changed this game? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • What has changed now that the coach is playing the ball in? What do you now have to ensure with your first touch? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • Now that counterattack gates have been added, how has the game changed? (e.g. if the goalkeeper catches a ball, she can roll it out to her defender or thrown/kick it directly through a gate) What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?

Numbers Considerations: Again, this activity can easily accommodate 20 players; however, if you have access to another big goal, I would make two fields, as this will increase the number of repetitions/opportunities players have to participate.

Additional Notes: This activity can be used on its own and/or as a progression to 2v2, 3v2, 3v3, or one of the “continuous” games. It is an important activity because it not only gives your players shooting practice, but it teaches the benefits of the overload in soccer. Once you have exposed your players to this concept–that it’s far easier to create scoring opportunities when you are numbers up in the attack–you will be able to introduce it in other situations and your team will see the benefits of supporting the attack.

Target Ball!

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Target BallApplicability: I have used this as a fun warm-up game, as well as a stand-alone activity in the middle of a practice. It is effective because there are multiple targets, it gets everyone moving, and it is game-like!  

Ages: U12 and up.

Area: 40 x 50 yards (W x L) – make as big as possible!

Activity: Put a cone in each corner of the field, then 2 or 3 others (equally distributed) along each end line (see diagram). Balance a ball on top of each cone on the end line.  Divide players into 2 teams. The objective is to successfully knock a ball off the cone (with the game ball). Team A defends their side and attempts to score on the other end (vice versa for Team B). If a player shoots and misses, (s)he must run to retrieve the ball, while the defending team can take the ball off the cone that the attacker missed (meaning that they will be temporarily “numbers up”). Play first team to 3 goals, then review the guided discovery questions and move through progressions.

Regressions: If defenders are just standing by cones, say that 5 consecutive passes equals a goal. This should entice the defending team to come out and play.

Guided Discovery Questions for the Attacking Team:

  • Do you want to make the field bigger or smaller when you have the ball? How can you do this? Why should you do this?
  • What is the first question you should ask yourself when you have the ball? (Can I pass knock a ball off?!)
  • Given that you have multiple goals in which to score, what are the opportunities and implications for attacking? For team shape?
  • Because you are aiming to serve a penetrating pass to a specific end zone, what implications does this have for your team shape?
  • If you miss the target, what should you immediately do? Why?
  • What types of communications will be most effective in this game? When and Why?

Guided Discovery Questions for the Defending Team:

  • Do you want to make the field bigger or smaller when the other team has the ball? How can you do this? Why should you do this?
  • What type of team shape should you have in this activity? Why?
  • How does pressure, cover, and balance come into play here because of the five target goals?
  • How important is good communication in this activity? What types of examples are there?
  • Is it possible to transition immediately from defense to offense in this activity? How so?

Progressions:

  • Add a neutral(s), so that the attacking team is always at an advantage
  • Put all players on a touch restriction (e.g. 3 touch max)
  • Add a halfway line and mandate that to score, all of the attacking team’s players must be in the attacking half
  • Mandate a certain number of passes (e.g. 5 before a team can attempt to score)
  • Play transition (whereby once a team scores at one end, they then go and try and score at the other end).
  • Finally, mandate that “goals” must be first time (e.g. players must knock the ball off the cone with their first touch!)

Guided Discovery Questions after you have added the Progressions:

  • How does the addition of a neutral(s) change the game? Why? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • How do the touch limitations for the players change the game? Does this it make it easier or more difficult to score? Why?
  • How is the game changed by the rule mandating all attacking players must be over the halfway line to score? Why? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • How does the addition of “transition” change this game? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?
  • How does mandating a certain number of passes before you can score change the game? Does it make it easier or harder to score? Why? What can you do to counter this?
  • How does the “first time finish” rule change the game? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?

Additional Notes: There are a number of progressions you can run through that legitimately make this activity significantly different each time, so you can easily spend 30-40 minutes on it (including water breaks) and keep the players engaged.

Numbers considerations: Depending on your numbers (e.g. if you have 16 or more), you may want to go for two smaller fields in order to maximize players’ touches on the ball and exposure to learning situations. It is best to experiment and see what works best for your group.

Pass and Move: Fun Partner Gate Passing Game with Progressions

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Gate PassingApplicability: Warm-up passing activity suitable for all ages (u8 and up) and levels. You can also precede this activity with Soccer Pong!

Area: 25 x 25 yards (W x L) or larger, depending on how many players you have.

Activity: Put players in pairs with a ball. Set up a number of 1.5 yard gates randomly arranged in your grid. The size and number of gates can vary depending on the number of pairs of players you have and their skill level. I would start with at least as many gates as pairs. Players score a point for each completed pass they make through a gate to their partner. Go for 30-45 seconds and have pairs keep count of how many points they get. See how many they get and ask how the top pair got so many. Get them to demonstrate. Repeat. Switch partners. Repeat.

Regressions: If your players are struggling with this game, make the gates bigger. The objective is simply to get them passing with their partner. You should always start an activity so that everyone can quickly find success. Once they understand the game, that’s what you can start to make it progressively more challenging.

Progressions:

  • Add restriction that players must use a certain foot or surface of the foot to make a pass and score a point
  • Replace some of the gates with pinnies (or different colored gates) and say that pairs must go through a cone gate followed by a pinne/bib gate
  • Make the gates smaller
  • Reduce the number of gates
  • Introduce a bandit (or pair of “bandits”) whose job is to stop pairs from scoring in gates. Change the bandit(s)
  • For advanced groups, mandate that the pass must go “over” the gate (chip pass)

Guided Discovery Questions:

  • What do partners need to do to be successful at this game? (See what they say, ask why, get them to demonstrate)
  • What is the best distance between partners so that you can be most efficient? (See what they say, ask why, get them to demonstrate)
  • What types of things can you communicate to make it easier for your partner? (See what they say, ask why)
  • How do you know where the open gates are? (See what they say, ask why, get them to demonstrate)

After you have added progressions: 

  • How has this game become more difficult? (See what they say and ask why)
  • What do you need to do to score more points? (See what they say and ask why)

Numbers considerations: Rather than creating two grids, just make your current grid larger to accommodate greater numbers of players.

Additional notes: Sometimes players will stand either side of a gate and just pass the ball back and forth. I love this! This means that they are using their brains! Rather than berate the pair that does this, celebrate them for doing the smart thing (remember, you gave everyone 30-45 seconds to get the ball through as many gates as possible). However, after you praise them, now tell the group that they cannot go back and forth through the same gate. Take this approach as players come up with new and innovative ways to scam the system! Simply modify the rules so that the players are forced to adapt.