Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.


Peeling an Onion

Sam Snow

By Robert Parr

In many respects, the best coaches approach their craft in much the same way as one would "peel an onion". The onion is a relatively complex vegetable, with a small central bulb surrounded by layer upon layer of concentric spheres. Literally, when you peel an onion, you reveal the first layer, then the next, and the next, slowly working your way through the layers until you reach that final part at the core.

As a teaching technique within a given practice session, you can "peel an onion" to get things moving quickly whenever you introduce a new training activity. Especially as players become older and more advanced, your training activities often will have multiple layers of complexity and multiple types of restrictions. If you take the time to explain every last nuance before you get the ball rolling, players will lose interest and motivation, and aren't likely to actually remember all of the conditions required in the game. It is better to organize players with a minimum of explanation and detail, put the ball in play, then look for the first opportunity to stop the action so you can reveal the next condition or requirement of the game.

To see how this teaching method might work in a real practice setting, consider the following training activity:

705: Play It Forward


Set up a 70x50 yard field with a full-sized goal at each end, and use cones to divide the field into thirds (defensive, midfield, and attacking zones). Divide your players into two teams, and position one goalkeeper, three defenders, three midfielders, and two forwards for each team in their corresponding zones.

Play a regular game of soccer with the following restrictions. First, players may go forward, but they can not move backwards from their assigned zones (i.e., midfielders can go into their attacking zone but cannot go into their defensive zone). Second, all passes from the defensive and midfield thirds must be played forward (no square or back passes are permitted in these zones). This will encourage both teams to move the ball quickly into the attacking third to create goal-scoring chances.

As you can see, this game features a number of layers of complexity, including playing zones, restrictions on player movement, and restrictions on ball movement. If you try to explain all the parameters at once before you begin to play, you'll usually find that many players fail to retain some (or all) of the restrictions once you do get things moving, and you'll generally find that it takes much longer than you'd like to get through the complete explanation of the activity. When introducing a game like this to your players, it often works better to explain just a few essential conditions, get the players in position, then put the ball into play as quickly as possible.

In this case, you might simply instruct players to take their positions on the field (so they can physically see the "shape" of the game), tell them they cannot move out of their zones, then put the ball in play. Give the players a minute or two to get settled with the basic structure of the game, then unveil another piece of complexity at the next natural stoppage. In this example, you could interrupt the players briefly at the first goal kick or the first save by either goalkeeper, tell them that they now can move forward from their zones but can't move backwards, and get the action going again as quickly as possible. Let play continue with this newest restriction for a few more minutes, then briefly interrupt play one more time to add the final prohibition against square or back passes in the defensive and midfield thirds.

Continuing with this example, you can realistically communicate all the game restrictions in 90 seconds or less if you do so in a series of concise interruptions. It can easily take twice as long to give all the instructions in advance. Remember, if you can trim just 5 minutes of total "talking time" from every practice, you'll give your players the equivalent of 3-6 additional practices each season in terms of actual "ball in play" training time...without scheduling any extra practices! I have yet to meet a coach who told me that his or her team "had plenty of time for practices" each season, so it seems we can all benefit from being a bit more efficient with the way we manage our sessions.

"Peeling an onion" also serves as a strategy to develop players over time. This game takes decades to really learn to play at a high level, and it simply is impossible to teach everything in a single season, much less a single week or a single practice! Thus, we start with the basic techniques of dribbling, receiving, passing, and shooting, then layer in some basic principles of attacking and defending, then get our kids playing. Over time, we teach more advanced techniques and introduce nuances to the skills they've acquired previously. We gradually teach small-sided tactics of combination play and small-group defending, then later focus on learning different systems and styles of play as our players expand their depth and breadth of competencies.

For best results, we have to remove a lot of complexity from our sessions to help players focus on a specific objective, then gradually add that complexity back into our training demands so that players learn to transfer their newly acquired knowledge or skill to the "real game" conditions. This is why progressive practice plans are so effective -- they bring focus to the session's primary topic with a minimum number of players, conditions, and pressure early in the practice, then progress to increasingly more difficult and more complex activities that require players to apply concepts from prior activities in order to be successful in the later activities.


The co-creator of SoccerROM, Robert Parr holds a USSF 'A' license, NSCAA Premier Diploma, and a USSF National Youth Coaching license. He is currently the Technical Director for the Gulf Coast Youth Soccer Club in Southeast Texas, and an NSCAA Consultant for the Club Standards Project. Previously, he served six years as the Director of Coaching for the Arkansas State Soccer Association, and one year as the Director of Coaching and WPSL Head Coach for the Puerto Rico Capitals FC, which was the first international franchise to compete in the Women's Premier Soccer League.




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