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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.

 

Coaching Ball Skills

Sam Snow

I get asked some great questions about our beautiful game and I enjoy the dialog. So, here's a discussion on coaching ball skills I've had with a youth coach.
 
I have been looking at the Skills School: Fundamental Ball Skills document. I have also read that the focus should be on technical, not tactical at the younger ages. How does one use the games and activities method of practice - for example, for U-6 players - and at the same time teach those players shooting, dribbling, balance, running, jumping and movement education? For example, the document says basic running mechanics must be taught and reinforced as part of movement education in the U-6 and U-8 age groups and those motions can be reinforced during warm-up or cool-down activities with the U-10 and older age groups. Do the games teach the skills or should they be coached; if the latter, when and how?
 
I'm glad you've had a chance to read over the Skills School manual, I hope you have enjoyed it. Actually, there is a shared focus on both technique and tactics from U-6 to U-19 that is the essence of the games-based approach. That approach is best learned through reading the material on the website for Teaching Games for Understanding: http://www.tgfu.org/. Now, of course the "tactics" for U-6 are very simple - which goal to shoot at and at which one to block shots. Tactics for that age group also includes where is the field and beginning to understand the concept of boundary lines. The teaching of tactics and how to use ball skills to pull off your tactical ideas gradually progresses to quite complex levels by the U-19 age group. We want coaches to teach ball skills in game context as well as some rehearsal of the body mechanics of ball skills as a separate component of training. The teaching of balls skills when done in game-like activities gives the kids notions on how those skills can be used. The problem for American players over the last 30 years has been that we teach ball skills in an isolated way (drills) and then using them in the right moments in a match eludes many youngsters. Or some coaches have gone too far the other way and only play games and take little or no time to teach skills. As with most things, it is striking the balance that creates the best environment for development.

Part of the idea of using game-like activities is that a novice coach can use just the activity, not say anything, and the activity will teach the players. However, the same activity in the hands of a more knowledgeable and experienced coach can go further with some well-timed coaching points and guided discovery questions.

Now, as to movement education, we can incorporate those movements into warm-up, cool-down and inside many activities during the training session. Our coaches of U-12 and younger players need to accept that they are now the physical education teacher as well as the soccer coach. This is needed for our kids since so many schools have reduced or eliminated P.E.

A good deal more of these methods of coaching and age appropriate training will be presented in the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model.
 
Thanks, I followed everything in your email and I knew and agreed with most of it. One thing you said that I want to understand, should the entire practice be games that teach the kids or is there a part of practice that should involve "some rehearsal of the body mechanics of ball skills as a separate component of training" as your e-mail states? If so, what does that part of practice look like and when during practice should it occur and how much time and how often?
 
There's not really a set formula to each training session. Yes, the majority of training should be within game-like activities and then free play (match). This is especially true for the U-12 and younger age groups. That approach continues to hold true for teenage players but the need for functional training increases.

So- your questions of when during a training session, how much time and how often to rehearse the mechanics of ball skills is not one easy to answer with a set formula. Frankly, deciding when the players need that type of work is the art of coaching as opposed to the science of coaching. That answer though is troublesome to those who think analytically...they feel comfortable with set patterns. I find it interesting that some coaches want a predictable pattern to training soccer players, yet the game itself is organized chaos. When do things go as planned during a soccer match? We must train our players and our coaches to be flexible and to think on their feet - literally and figuratively.

So back to ball skill mechanics, I can teach those within the context of a game-like activity. Using proper questions and some modeling gets the point across to most kids. Another way to help improve ball skills that is underutilized by our clubs is mixed age group training. We are far too sterile in our training environment. We should have more instances of the U-9 and U-10 players training together instead of separately. And the U-10 team should training with the U-11 team now and then. I do not mean scrimmage one another but mix the players together and train. One of the wonderful aspects of player development in the Hispanic soccer culture is teenagers training with and playing with adult players. We need a LOT more of that in mainstream soccer!
 
I appreciate all the time and thinking that went into your response. On the training across age groups, while that may be a good idea, as a practical matter I am less concerned about different ages in organized practices and I would like to see content that helps explain how to create opportunities for free play, supervised but unstructured, street (or park or neighborhood) soccer, that involves a wider age range - and I will want your views on how wide a range is okay.
 
Well, when it comes to pick-up games, the older the players get the wider the age range can be. There was very good logic behind the traditional age groupings in youth soccer of U-6, U-8, U-10, U-12, U-14, U-16 and then U-19. The difference in psychomotor, psychosocial and cognitive development is significant prior to late adolescences and early adulthood. These three domains of human development impact soccer players in technique and tactics. Fitness improves as athleticism develops and under proper fitness training by knowledgeable P.E. teachers and some coaches.   (Most youth soccer coaches are insufficient in their knowledge of physical education to tailor the lesson plan to the needs of an age group, much less an individual. That deficiency is not confined to volunteer coaches.)
Clearly, the differences in the four components of the game and the three domains of development are distinctly different between a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old for example, or a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old. So, a range of two to maybe three years in pick-up games is acceptable from a risk management perspective up through early adolescences at approximately age 15. Once into the late teens and early adulthood the age range can and should expand.

Saying that, having talented adult players, who know how to control their emotions, could play in pick-up games with all of our kids from age 5 to 19. The kids do enjoy it when the adults play with them from time-to-time, but NOT all the time. Remember that one of the core ideas behind having pick-up games is giving the game back to the players. However, having a soccer talented adult play with the kids occasionally can provide great examples for the young player. This is in concert with the theories of Lev Vygotsky. He was a Russian psychologist (1896-1934) who advocated that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. "Zones of proximal development" defined the limits of learning. So the practical application of this theory in pick-up games is older players participating among younger players.

So, how to fit street/pick-up soccer into clubs? Well, many of them are already doing so. They tend to be the clubs that have had coaches who have gone through the NYL and they take the lessons taught in the course on street soccer and apply them to their team or the entire club. Many of our US Youth Soccer ODP coaches do the same at Olympic Development Program camps - even to the extent of mixing players from different states onto teams.

These clubs have educated the players' parents and the board of directors on the benefit of pick-up games. This is a crucial step so that the adults can understand how they are getting their bang for their buck. Of course, once the kids play and return home fully enthused about the experience all resistance from the adults ends.

In the National Youth License course there is a classroom presentation on "street soccer", which is directly followed by the candidates going onto the field and playing in the set up described. The session on the field ends with a review and critique of the session by the candidates and instructors.