Setting the Tone for Practice

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I believe that the warm-up sets the tone for practice. If you can have a quality warm-up, it gets everybody buzzing for the rest of the session. How do you achieve this? I have found that there are usually one or two players on a team that can be energizers for the group. An energizer pumps up her teammates and raises the energy level. Thus, when selecting a warm-up activity, pick one that your energizers will love.

I remember coaching a young lady named Jasmine Pratts. If anyone had the mindset of a defender, she did! She loved to defend. What I mean by that is, she had the mentality that she was going to stop you from playing your game. She would bump, nudge, capitalize on a bad touch, and if she got you in her sights, she wouldn’t leave you alone. Of course, I started her as a forward her freshman year! Shows what I know! She didn’t play her sophomore year, but she returned as a junior and was simply outstanding. Jasmine was an older player on a team primarily composed of freshmen. We were young, scrappy, and we had the kind of talent that on its day could be amazing. Because we were young, though, we had our bad days, too.

In April of that year, we went to Augusta and played a very strong Westminster team with a number of girls who would later play in excellent college programs (University of GA, University of Florida, and Wellesley College to name a few). We got pounded 8-1…that’s right, we lost by 7 goals to a team that would score 100 that year. It was a long bus ride home. How do you recover from a loss like that? Well, it starts in the warm-up of the next practice and you have to get your energizers doing their job. What did we play? Knockout (Sharks and Minnows in this book). This was Jasmine’s favorite game because she would hound you until she kicked your ball out – in fact, she took pleasure in it and she got everyone else moving, forgetting the disaster of the previous game.

Anyway, we got things back together and went on a run to the state championship game, squeezing through the semi final with a 1-0 win. Guess who we were slated to play…Westminster. The team that just 6 weeks earlier had demolished us! You can talk tactics all day long, but when the whistle blows, the players are on their own. This was the game where Jasmine stepped up and marked their star forward out of the game. I have never seen something like it before or since of how such a strong player was effectively taken out of the game. The girl did not get a kick. Jasmine epitomized the mindset I am trying to communicate in my new book. The score of the game? We won 5-1…It pays to win on defense!

Best,
James Jordan

New book: It Pays to Win on Defense: A Game-based Soccer Training Approach to Developing Highly Effective Defenders

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.

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.

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

Busy Bees Soccer Activity for U4-U10: Lots of Touches, Lots of Fun!

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Great game to get everyone moving and touching the ball!

Busy Bees: Great game to get everyone moving and touching the ball!

Ages: U4-U10

Applicability: Great warmup activity for the beginning of practice because all of the players are moving around with a ball, changing direction and pace…and it’s fun!

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

Activity:

  • Have the players “BUZZ” around like a bunch of bees (get them to make the noise!). Make sure you pretend to hear the bees and begin saying that you don’t like bees.
  • Have one of the Assistant coaches kick you with the ball and you fall down and yell “Ouch the bee stung me!” Be very dramatic and the kids will begin stinging you with their ball.
  • Make sure you move around and stop frequently. 
  • They really love this game. Ask if anyone wants to be the beekeeper (your role) and continue the game (go for 30-45 seconds max) and allow all players to have their turn as the beekeeper.
  • With the older groups and larger numbers, you may need to start with two beekeepers. 

Guided Discovery Questions:

  • Does the beekeeper stand still or move around? (moves around…unless too tired!)
  • How do you know where the beekeeper is? (keep head up)
  • How can you look at the ball and the beekeeper at the same time?
  • Is it easier or harder to sting the beekeeper when we kick the ball from far away? (harder)
  • How do we get closer to the beekeeper? (variety of answers, such as move fast, etc.)
  • Should we take big touches or little touches (depends, but the rule of thumb is little touches to maintain better ball control). 
  • What part of your foot can you use to “sting” the beekeeper (any, but more likely they will use toe, laces, and/or side of foot). 

Progressions: 

  • Add another beekeeper.
  • Mandate that players can only use one foot to dribble the ball (e.g. right foot only).
  • Mandate that they can only “sting” the beekeeper with one foot only.
  • Make it a competition to see who can get “sting” the beekeeper the most in a 30-45 second period. Get that person to demonstrate how they are able to get so many stings, and then see if the other players can imitate them.