Play the statistical game. It’s very hard to get kids to do anything planned at this age, so you have to take advantage of certain parts of the game to put your kids in better position to win the possession, not turn it over, block goals, and score goals. This comes down to key plays at game stoppage points throughout the game. When the ball goes out of play and needs to be thrown or kicked back into play. That’s where your coaching and strategy can make a difference. It took a few years, but I think I’ve perfected my system of play and practice.
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So, how did I figure this all out? I am a science and statistics junky. I never do anything halfway. If I am going to get into coaching, I am going to read every book I can get my hands on regarding coaching and observe a bunch of coaches and how kids react to them and watch a ton of videos on coaching. I’ve also played a ton of sports in my life at every level, with some amazing coaches. I bought a ton of soccer coaching books, watched a ton of videos, and shadowed other coaches. I finally was able to put together a great system that works very well. So, here it goes…
Before we dive in, I have a set of tips for older kids. In addition to what we teach here, you can teach much more advanced things once kids are 9 or older. Read that section here. But please make sure that your kids understand these basics. I can’ tell you how many times I’ve attended high school or college games, where the goalie clears the ball right up the middle, only to get scored on immediately.
At ages 3-4, children aren’t really that coachable. They may be on the field kicking a ball, but most of the time they aren’t going in the right direction, or want to go out and sit on the bench to drink their juice box. We won’t discuss coaching at this level, because you are more of a babysitter than teaching them anything useful. Just get them to run around and kick the ball in the right direction. Some kids will have natural talent, you should push and encourage them. But mainly here you want to get a lot of “foot on ball” time so they can acclimate to what a soccer ball feels like and which direction you need to go in. It’s still fun and fulfilling, but not as much as when they turn 5.
Between ages 5 and 8, kids become fairly coachable and they can easily learn a few of these tricks to help them gain a statistical advantage. This is when you need to practice these techniques during team practice. It will become second nature to them. They won’t make mindless mistakes during games. They’ll be fun to watch. Your kids will be doing everything right, while the other team is frustrating to watch. And the opposing coach is going nuts (in a fun way, these are just kids).
Remember, this is recreation, so just have fun with it. Don’t be that crazy, angry parent. Don’t yell at kids. Parents didn’t sign their kids up to be yelled at by other kid’s parents. That’s insane. Just be calm and play with them. Kids love playing with adults. It doesn’t matter if you are a brain surgeon by day, in the evening you are the most fun parent that any kid could ever dream of having. Roll around in the dirt with them. Laugh, run, play. It’s simple. Be a kid.
My General Philosophy
My general philosophy is to have fun and teach them essential soccer skills while having lots of fun. It needs to be fun. Not torture. Kids will learn the most from “foot on ball” time. They need to be handling the ball, kicking it, dribbling it, stopping it, turning it, and doing everything they can to the ball. Shuttling through ladders on the ground, running around a track for miles, and hopping through tires isn’t going to help them, it’ll just prove that you are a good drill sargent. I can’t tell you how many times I walk by other coaches and they have their kids shuttling through a ladder on the ground or trying to get them to run with a ball held up by their heads. Don’t make your kids do endless drills, that isn’t going to help. Get them to do soccer moves. There are a lot of ways to do that. Some fun drills and games will be listed at the end.
Stop trying to pass
Kids at this age are still very single minded. It’s nearly impossible to get them to look up and pass the ball. Yelling at them trying to get them to pass is fruitless and will just stress them out and you will be disappointed. So stop trying to get them to pass. Maybe by age 8 or 9 they’ll be able to, but even then it’s very difficult. Here is what you can do at this age to help them improve their soccer skills, get better, and prepare for the next level.
No Endurance Training
There is no need to have your kids jog a mile. That’s torture. Not fun. Kids at this age are usually very fit, or at least fit enough to survive practice and games. Sure, there may be one or two kids that aren’t that athletic, but they will be by the time you finish practice and scrimmage. Do not torture your kids. You want them to like practice and like playing soccer, not hate it. Endless cardio and endurance drills will quickly make them hate the game.
Don’t have them do endless drills that won’t contribute to their soccer skills or just make them hate the sport in general. If they hate practice, they will hate the sport. By drills, I mean drills that aren’t fun or soccer related. Jogging through tires or up and down a hill is not soccer, it’s torture. There is no need for this. Do fun soccer stuff. If you want to crawl through a mud pit while avoiding a swinging chair, do that on your own.
No Standing in Line
Kids have a very short attention span. Try to find games and drills that involve everyone. Standing in line and taking turns is really boring and it’s an inefficient use of time. You could easily redesign the drill to involve all the kids. Find a way to make them all participate. Kids at this age will start misbehaving if they stand in line for too long, especially boys.
End with a Scrimmage
I end every practice with a 20 minute scrimmage. Just divide them up and have them play each other with no goalies on a small field with small goals. If the goals are smaller than the game day goals, their aim becomes much better. Scrimmaging teaches them soccer. The game teaches them. You don’t. I can stand around and talk all day about what to do in a game, but once the game starts, that all goes out the window. Have them play each other and stop play for all of the crucial situations listed below. If it’s a goal kick, walk them through how we kick goal kicks and the opposing players get to walk through how we defend them. Same for throw ins, same for corner kicks, same for center balls. Stop, and teach them what to do, then have them do it. Alternate kids. If one kid hasn’t kicked it in yet, have them do it. Just keep rotating. This is what teaches them soccer. They will actually learn and practice what you taught them. All of these skills become second nature. In a game, no kid will ever throw a ball in backwards, no goalie will ever kick it up the middle. It becomes the norm. That’s what you want.
When our goalie is kicking the ball back into play, their job is to kick it to the sidelines. Even if not a single one of our players is there. Even if it just goes out of bounds. We tell our players to be there, but if they aren’t, just get it to the sideline and down the field. Never, ever, ever kick it in the middle! The majority of the other team’s players will be in the middle, and if your goalie kicks it in the middle, the opposing team will get the ball and shoot it back in at your goalie. This is how the majority of goals are scored at this level. It’s on kickbacks at the goalie because they kicked it right up the middle to the other team. Just pick any side and get it out there. Statistically, it’s very difficult for the opposing team to get the ball back and shoot it at your goalie if you clear it to the side. We need to tip the odds in our favor.
Similarly, we teach our kids to defend the opposing goalie’s goal kicks by making a half circle in front of their goalie. You will score the majority of your goals on this play. Have them surround the opposing goalie. When they are younger, have them back a few yards. But as they get older and the goalies can really kick, have them back up to 7-10 yards. Sometimes a younger goalie can really kick it, so have them back off. Have one kid on each side too, in case their goalie knows to clear it to the sides. It’s that simple. Nine times out of ten, the opposing goalie will kick the ball right back to your kids, and they get a free and open shot at goal. Practice this at every practice, it’ll become second nature. You’ll score tons of goals this way.
We teach our kids to never, ever throw the ball backwards. No matter who is back there. In fact, we teach them to never be back there. All of the kids head to the opposing goal box, the thrower has to throw it towards the opposing goal box. Very simple. Throw it over your head, forward, and towards the opposing goal box. Nothing else. Just get the ball to the goal box. Simple. One of our kids will get it or it will ricochet off some other kid, but the ball will be in play on their side and to your advantage. Throw ins are, at best, a 50/50 proposition. Even at the world cup level. The chance that your team retains possession is 50%. It’s no better than a coin flip. Since those are my odds, I’d rather the ball is loose or turned over in their goal box rather than anywhere else. That gives our kids a better chance of stealing it or kicking it in. Keep the odds in your favor.
Similarly, when the opposing team is throwing it in, we create a half circle and surround the thrower. This tips the odds back in our favor, and 6 to 8 times out of ten, the ball ends up back with our players. Which is much better than 50/50. So we gain an advantage there. A lot of opposing teams will throw the ball backwards to a player standing back, this is awesome for us! We teach our players to rush to the ball and run down and score before everyone else has time to react.
The player kicking the ball is to kick it into the goal box. All of our players stand in the goal box. If you kick it low and keep it on the ground, it’s more likely to make it to the foot of one of our players. And if it doesn’t it usually will ricochet around in their goal box. The key here is, IN THEIR GOAL BOX. That’s where we want to keep it. Never kick it backwards. Always straight and into the goal box. This puts your team at a statistical advantage and amongst all the chaos, your kids can get a shot at goal. Sometimes a few shots.
Similarly, when we are defending corner kicks, we form a half circle around the kicker and surround them. Stand about 5-7 yards away depending on the kicker. Nine times out of ten, they kick it right back to our players. We teach our players to quickly turn it up field and try to get a shot on goal before the rest of the opposing players can catch up to them. You get a free shot on goal! This will give you a huge advantage. Practice it during your scrimmages. The key is to stop play during scrimmage and make them do these things correctly, over and over again. Until it’s second nature.
Goalie Runs Out
If the goalie is the only one back and an opposing player is dribbling the ball towards them uncontested, the goalie runs up to that player and kicks the ball away. Running up to the opposing player closes all of the shooting angles. The opposing player can not get an open shot and will be scared and flustered. They will kick it away out of bounds, or the goalie kicks it away, or the opposing player scores. But this increases your chances tremendously. The goalie should not wait till they are in the goal box. Just run up and kick it like you are the last defender. Don’t use your hands. Just rush them and kick it away. Before it gets to the goal box. Once they are in the goal box, the angles change and it becomes slightly easier for the opposing player to score. But most of the time they won’t. Never sit back and wait in the box. Our small kids can never properly defend an 8 foot wide goal, so why sit around and wait for them to shoot on you. Run up and close that angle. They will have to be an amazing shooter to actually score. Tip the odds in your favor. Always.
Keep it low and on the ground. Aim to the right or left of the goalie (or into a corner if your players are really advanced). No goalie at this level is willing to dive to the ground to stop a ball. Just keep it low. They don’t even have the reaction time or natural instincts built in to do that. If you kick it up and towards their waist or chest area, it’s very easy for them to use their hands to block it. They barely even have to try. Even if you kick it to the side or corner and up off the ground, it’s easier for the goalie to run to the side and block a high ball than to dive into the ground to block a ground ball. Just keep it low. Even if your kids are only capable of kicking it straight ahead. Just keep it down.
It really depends on the rules in your league. If they allow you to kick it forward, have one of your players kick it as far forward as possible trying to land it to either side of the opposing goalie box, or right in front of it. All of the other players are lined up on the white center line on either side and sprint down field to get the ball and take shots on goal. Just line up like you are about to run a sprint. Not in the back in your half of the center circle. But on the sides on the center line.
If you are not allowed to kick it forward, one of your players kicks it slightly backward to one of your other players who will boot it forward as described above. Everyone else is lined up on the white line and sprints down field like above. The idea is to get the ball into scoring position and leave it there. When the ball is on their half of the field, good things happen. Or less bad things happen. Statistically, this is one of the best ways to keep the ball out of harms way and in scoring position on center balls.
When the other team is kicking off to you, or centering the ball, your players surround the center circle and create that half circle wall of defense. If the other team kicks it forward, you get it right away and advance the ball, if they tap it back to another player and start dribbling, everyone rushes the ball and the game goes on. If the second player looks like they are going to boot it forward, your players maintain their positions and react to the ball being kicked to them.
Force kids to play
Don’t worry if your kid doesn’t want to play or is a grass picker. Most kids need some encouragement or just aren’t mature enough. Sometimes we need to put kids in sports even when they say they don’t want to do it. It teaches you camaraderie, sportsmanship, discipline, and is great exercise. If your kid is adamantly against sports and is acting insane, they you may have to reconsider. But most kids just need a little nudge and encouragement. Teach them to enjoy the process, the practices, the friendship, more so than focusing on the outcomes or their skills and results. While winning is important, it’s also important to learn how to lose. Not everyone wins. Teach them to be good losers and move on quickly without any emotional attachment. Just move on and win the next one.
Simple Fun Drills
These need to be fun. At the beginning of practice, I line all their balls up on the front goal box line, have all the kids hide in the goal box, then one by one I kick their balls away in every direction. When their ball is kicked, they are to take off running and dribble it back in to score a goal. This gets their heart racing and is a nice cardio work out to get them warmed up. It also teaches dribbling and shooting skills.
Next we play a game called Spider Man. I am Spider man. We all stand in center field and make a circle around coach. Each player has their own ball. Their job is to kick their ball into the coach. Whoever hits coach 3 times (or whatever number you want), dribbles their ball into the goal box and waits on the others to finish. I slowly wander around the field dodging their kicks. This teaches them aim, dribbling, stopping, turning, and gets their foot on ball a lot.
We take water breaks in between each drill and halfway through scrimmage. If it’s hot out, we take plenty of breaks.
Another game we play, I stand in the middle circle at midfield with all of their balls, then kick them all away. They have to retrieve them and bring them back as quickly as possible. I kick it away again. Whoever does it the fastest and most times wins. We don’t usually keep track, but we tell them that we are. This teaches them dribbling with speed and aim.
One other drill is to pair them up into partners and they each get one ball (every two kids gets one ball). Your goal is to keep the ball away from the other person. We just spread them out all over the field and have them do this. We tell them we are keeping track to see who has possession longer. This teaches them very critical one on one ball skills and possession skills.
You can modify that slightly by having them take turns. One kid starts in the goal box, the other at mid field, the ball is kicked into play in between them and they both have to get to the ball and get it across to the other side (or through a small goal on the other side). This doesn’t have to involve waiting in line, you can have them pair up and do it all simultaneously.
The key is to have fun and do actual soccer stuff, not endless endurance training or torture. And remember, it’s recreation and it’s fun. Don’t ruin it for the kids and lose your temper or be that crazy angry, yelling parent. Just have fun! Enjoy and please share if you found this useful!