Light crew: What to do when only a few players turn up to practice?

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At some point, it’s happened to every coach at every level: only a few players turn up to practice. After the practice plan goes out the window, how do you still put on an engaging and meaningful session in which your players can get better?

This happened today at one of the sessions I visited. We played World Cup the entire practice with just 5 u10 players.

With one player going in goal (and rotating after each game), we started with every player for himself, sometimes rolling two balls out at a time (initial rounds were played to 2 goals).

After a few rounds, we played with two teams of two and went through the following progressions/tweaks after each round:

– First team to score 2 goals
– First team to score 2 goals, but goals could only be scored with left foot
– First team to score 3 goals; goals with left foot counted double
– First team to score 3 goals; goals from outside the 6 yard box counted double
– First team to score 2 goals; goals can only be scored with a first time finish
– First team to score 3 goals; goals scored off a first time finish count double
– First team to score 3 goals; goals scored from outside the 6 yard box count double; goals scored off a first time finish count double; first time finishes from outside the 6 yard box count triple

We played with each set of rules 1-3 times (to allow rotation of goalkeeper and mixing of the teams) with a lot of success. I asked guided discovery questions at water breaks or in natural breaks (e.g. After a goal had been scored or between rounds).

I would recommend this set up for 3-7 players and it is very easy to implement.

What sessions do you run when you have a light crew?

~James

Red Light, Green Light: Fun Soccer Activity for the Youngest Players

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Red Light, Green Light

Applicability: You can use this activity every single practice because it focuses on coordination, movement, and basic dribbling skills.

Area: 20 x 20 yards (W x L).

Activity: Each Player has a ball and finds a space inside the grid. When you shout “Green Light,” players begin to dribble around the area. When the coach shouts “Red Light,” players stop the ball, then keep this foot on the ball and put their arms out to the side for balance. Continue.

Guided Discovery Questions:

  • What part of your foot can you use to move the ball fast? Show me!
  • What part of your foot can you use in this game to stop the ball? Show me!
  • Should we always take big touches or little touches? Why?  (depends, but the rule of thumb is little touches to maintain better ball control)
  • How do you stay inside the grid?
  • How do you not run into other players?

Progressions:

  • “Yellow Light”: players do another command, be creative! For instance, players must put both knees on the ball
  • “Blue Light”: players pick the ball up, hold it on their heads and run around making as much noise as possible. Like a police siren!
  • “Monster Truck”: when the coach shouts, “Here comes the monster truck,” he/she tries to steal the players’ balls before they can safely get outside the grid (or designate a safety zone (e.g. behind the goal)

Guided Discovery Questions after you have added Progressions: 

  • How do you put both knees on the ball? Show me!
  • What is the fastest way to pick up the ball and put it on your head? Show me!
  • How can you escape the monster truck? Show me!

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.

1v1 Soccer Ladder: The Heart of the Game

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Applicability: 1v1 defending and attacking is at the very heart of soccer. The more comfortable players are in these situations, the more they will be likely to do them on match day.

Area: Make a number of 7×10 yard (WxL) “tunnels” (can be smaller or bigger depending on how many players you have and their ability levels).

Activity: For each tunnel, one person starts as the attacker (can do rock-paper-scissors to see who goes first). The aim for the attacker is to dribble the ball past the defender and stop the ball on the far line. The defender becomes active when the attacker touches the ball forward.  If the defender tackles the forward, she becomes the attacker and tries to “score” at the opposite end. If the ball goes out of bounds, whomever the ball touches last, the other player restarts with the ball. Go for 60-90 seconds, review coaching points, and then have the loser move down the ladder, the winner move up. This is a good activity to see who the best dribblers/defenders are.

Offensive Guided Discovery Questions:

  • Is it easier to beat the defender when you go slow or fast? (See what they say and ask why)
  • Is it easier or harder to beat the defender when you change pace and direction?
  • What else can you do in this drill to be successful?

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 end zone? Why?
  • Why is it smart to show the attacker to her weak side? How can you do this? Show me
  • Is it a good idea to slow the attacker down? Why?
  • What is a good way to tackle the attacker without over-committing and getting beat? (Poke tackle)

Progressions:

  • Change where the defenders and attackers start from on their line (e.g. defenders on the left, forwards central, diagonally across, etc.).
  • Add gate goals (a couple of yards wide) in each corner (both ends) – have players dribble through/pass through to score.
  • Replace the corner gates with a central goal (4 yards) at each end.

Guided Discovery Questions after you have added Progressions:

  • How has the different starting position changed this game? Who does it favor? Why? What are the challenges with this new starting position? What are the opportunities?
  • Does having gate goals make it easier or harder to score in this game? Why?
  • Does having one central goal favor the attacker or the defender? Why?

Additional Notes: This activity should become a staple in your coaching repertoire because it offers the basic principles of attack: penetration, change of speed/direction, as well as the basic principles of defense: pressure, move feet, patience/delay, with emphasis on poke tackles. The more comfortable your players are in 1v1 situations, the better soccer players they will become.

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.

Best Way to Teach Soccer Throw-ins

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Frequently, I will ask coaches what they plan on doing in their practice that day, and they will tell me that they are going to spend time on teaching throw-ins. Regardless of the age of the players, this focus tends to take the form of the coach standing in front of a line of players, talking for too long and then having the players do the action (sometimes one at a time!). Why are we spending valuable practice time teaching throw-ins in a way that is divorced from the reality of the game?

Remember, my mission is to abolish lines from youth soccer!

Another part of my mission is to make practices fun. As coaches, we do this by allowing the kids to play soccer.

Let’s say you have 12 players (or 16 or 20, or however many you have on the team). I would make two fields with cones goals the end of each field. I would split the players up into 4 teams, and, guess what…I would let them play! You can make it a round robin, playing 6 minute games.

Ok, so remember, we want to teach throw-ins. The only rule is that when the ball goes out of bounds (on any line), the restart is a throw-in. If the player does a foul throw, stop the game, show him how to do it, let him have a quick practice, and then restart the game!

Why should you teach throw-ins in this way?

  1. You are letting them play soccer, so they are getting lots of touches on the ball.
  2. Because you made two fields, your players are getting many more opportunities to touch the ball, which means they will be more engaged, have more fun, and ultimately lean more.
  3. You are teaching them throw-ins in context. Now they can see when, where, and how to take throw-ins as part of the natural course of the game, instead of lining up and having the coach critique their form.
  4. As well as teaching how to take a throw-in, you can also teach where the ball can be thrown, what speed, what height, etc. because the ball will actually be going to (hopefully) a teammate in a game situation!
  5. Speaking of the teammates, you can train the thrower’s teammates on how to make space and make runs when the thrower has the ball.
  6. Again, you are teaching throw-ins in the context of a game that  mirrors what they will see on a match day.

After you have played your round robin, let the players get water and ask them what they have learned.

Guided discovery questions could include:

  1. What is the proper way to take a throw-in? (Show me)
  2. Does the ball always have to be thrown forward? Why? Where else might it be thrown? Why?
  3. Who decides where the ball gets thrown? Why? (This is where you can bring in the role of the other team members at throw-in situations)
  4. When would it be appropriate to throw the ball a long way? Why?
  5. When would it be appropriate to throw the ball a short way? Why?

Following the guided discovery questions, go back to the round robin, except this time play goal kicks and corners (previously, every restart was a throw-in), so now it is looking more like “real soccer.” However, this time, say that every goal that is scored within 3 touches (or something like that) of a throw-in counts double (or triple). This will get them looking to make the most from their throw-in situations.

Finally, end with a scrimmage involving all players. When you see a foul throw, stop the play, correct the mistake, and restart the game. Again, this is teaching in context and the players will much more likely retain what you are teaching.

Try it. Let me know how it works.

~James