Why coaching youth soccer is impossible

There’s something funny about listening to a chat between the great soccer coaching gurus John O’Sullivan and Sam Snow while dodging baseballs lobbed over a bunch of Little League All-Stars and the right field fence by a baseball coach might be a little too excited over this coaching gig.

As I retrieved a ball that had sailed over my head, several yards beyond the fence on the park’s walking trail, I heard O’Sullivan and Snow talk about things that make them cringe as they see soccer coaches in action.

I laughed at the first few items. Starting a practice with laps is so 1983, isn’t it?

Then Sam, someone who has been a wonderful resource for me and thousands of others, lamented the warmup drill in which players line up, play the ball forward to a coach, run on to the square pass the coach sends them, and blast it at the goal.

Hey, wait a minute. That’s my gameday warmup.

Sam’s objection — in addition, I presume, to the fact that we coaches are supposed to avoid “lines, laps and lectures” as much as possible — is that it doesn’t mimic the game.

“Well,” I objected in my head as I continued my walk on the uphill section and started breathing a little heavier, “if you have a forward who understands playing his back to goal, you might see a give-and-go combination … OK, Sam, you’re right.”

But what I didn’t hear was what I’m supposed to do instead.

I’m sure some hotshot Self-Appointed Elite coach who only works with top-tier talent will tell me what I’m supposed to do. Maybe it’s some sort of dazzling drill in which the ball is played out to the wing and a defender applies some pressure before it’s played back into the center. Or maybe I’m supposed to do what every NWSL team does — possession drills and some sort of painful-looking exercise involving large rubber bands.

Let me explain a few things to the SAE coach:

  1. I’m not coaching D.C. United’s U-18s. I’m coaching rec league players. If I have 11 players by the time the ref calls us over to check our shin guards, I consider myself lucky. I don’t have a lot of time to explain anything. I need to keep it simple.
  2. Why do we think of finishing as dessert? (I can’t cite the originator of that analogy because it’s quite old.) Do your 5,000 short touches, juggle 3,000 times, run 20 possession drills with no passes longer than five yards, and then we might let you take a shot. And then we wonder why no one can score a danged goal.

So I hear what Sam’s saying. But then how do I learn what I’m supposed to do instead?

Google didn’t help. The first item that came up on my search was a warmup drill that’s basically free kicks with no defense. How realistic is that?

Here’s the next problem: We have so many different philosophies. John didn’t use the word “rondo” but stepped into The Great Rondo Kerfuffle of 2018 by fretting about “directionless” drills. (Granted, after seeing Spain crash out of the World Cup because it ran a 120-minute rondo against Russia and neglected to set up meaningful scoring chances, perhaps the U.S. idea of adding “direction” to possession drills will gain some traction. Or, again, maybe we should work on finishing on occasion?)

But the biggest problem was something John and Sam mentioned as a positive of older-skewing licenses. In the National Youth License, coaches are taught how to teach. They’re taught about the “psychosocial” aspects of coaching.

Those of us who coach at the earliest stages of the game are taught nothing of the sort. And yes, I’ve taken the new “grassroots” modules — at least the ones that are out now. The F license, which was discarded for reasons known only to people in Chicago, taught a bit of it, at least by the example of seeing Shannon MacMillan teach.

The licensing courses have typically focused on practice plans. Is that really the first priority for grassroots coaches? Shouldn’t we be getting our practice plans from those who have really studied them?

Unfortunately, the practice plans we get generally aren’t helpful. They’re written for other members of the technical staff, full of jargon that Coach A and Coach B might understand but not the befuddled coaches of the C-teams and the recreational kids.

The new “Play-Practice-Play” practice plans, admittedly a good bit simpler than the “Warmup-Small Sided Game-Expanded Small Sided Game Because You’re Supposed to Guess The Difference Between That and the Small-Sided Game-Scrimmage With Caveats” practice plan we were taught a couple of years ago, are interesting. But the first set of plans I saw (I’m not going to name the state association that posted them) had something interesting. I checked out the U14 plans, which had nice names like “attacking from wide areas” and “defending crosses.” Take away the titles, and every practice was almost exactly the same. Get the kids to warmup with some 2v2, 3v3 and dynamic stretching while you talk to them about their day. (The last bit is a nice touch — finally teaching us how to teach.) Then move into the “practice” phase — which is basically a half-field setup in which seven players are trying to score against six. Doesn’t matter what topic it is. It’s an odd-number attack.

Maybe we should simply admit it. “OK, coach of a team from U12 on up. You’re going to do the same thing every practice. You’re going to do small-sided scrimmages, then basically a halfcourt scrimmage. We’re just going to ask you to emphasize different points in each one.”

So instead of a bunch of diagrams that spell out the same thing every practice, you just give us a list. Hey, we can put that on our phones. Nice.

Even then, though, we still won’t have much idea how to teach a lot of valuable skills. How do you teach someone to shoot like Denis Cheryshev? How do you teach someone to drop a 50-yard pass effortlessly into the stride of a teammate? (Granted, those might be beyond the capacity of a rec-leaguer, anyway.)

I’m going into my U16 and U14 seasons with two goals.

  1. Get players a lot of touches on the ball in varying situations. Futsal is nice, but it doesn’t teach you how to switch the point of attack on a full-sized field or deal with a hard-hit ball at chest level.
  2. Learn how to move on a big field.

That’ll be tough, because my practice space is generally one-fourth of a field. But we’ll give it a shot.

I’m open for ideas. Especially a new warmup exercise for unskilled finishers with short attention spans.



One thought on “Why coaching youth soccer is impossible

  1. Good post, Beau. I too listened to this podcast, and virtually all the others from John O’Sullivan. While I highly recommend them, I was prompted to write in to him about a previous interview where the same “Don’t Do This” advice was NOT followed by “Do THIS Instead, And Here Is Why.” I think they were going to get after this in their Q&A session, but it stayed high-level if I remember correctly: basically “Make It Look Like The Game” which they said the layoff drill did not. The irony was, I wrote in about 2 defenders kicking a ball out to 3 attackers and trying to stop them, and got feedback that was “not game-like enough” … which you then rightly point out in this post is a significant portion of the Practice portion of some of these National Youth License training materials! Talk about confusing…and why this post was smartly titled. Net net, for me 1) some drills are better than others, 2) the age and expertise of your players matters greatly, and 3) do drills your players like doing. Everything else is theory.


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