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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.


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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Possession Plus

Sam Snow

Possession Plus

Possession is always a highly valued topic for soccer practices and keeping possession certainly helps a team at many points in a game. However if we focus on possession alone without directional possession, we fail to optimally prepare our players for the game.

When participating in a 360 degree possession game a player can quickly find the most immediate or closest option in any direction and, thus, do not need to look forward or far or prepare their body as they would do so if needing to go forward. A player’s approach to the ball, hip positioning, pre-reception scanning, and first touch are all different when playing 360 degrees versus playing directionally. There clearly are times players need not go forward in the game and simply maintaining possession to make a defense chase is exactly what a team wants to do. If only practicing this a team will not have the necessary skills when they do need to go forward (or the time presents itself to do so) and attack the goal. Speed of play always becomes a larger variable when playing directionally as space becomes smaller and defenses become more compact than they could in a 360 degree game. True, a defense would try to restrict space and time in a pure possession game, however the reality of a specific area of the field or goal being the target provides a different challenge that requires skill building.

The skill of a penetration pass or dribble is not always needed in a 360 degree possession and often players are given touch restrictions preventing them from dribbling. Providing such freedom and presenting situations that create these demands are hugely important in developing creative attacking players.

As I have recently transitioned from spending many years directing youth clubs and a state to spending more time coaching college players the points above have risen to the top of my thoughts repeatedly. Strong players I coach have great difficulty adjusting to playing sideways-on and taking peeks forward before receiving every ball. Proactive attacking first touches need to be coaxed out of them very often. We spend weeks and, often, over a season breaking habits formed over past years when these players were not forced to play directionally often or at all other than in games. Once my players have learned to do so, they become much more impactful, more dangerous attackers. First, we work on mechanics of doing so. Then, we work on decision making when given the options such early preparation allows. Makes me wonder how much more expansive their skill and creativity could be had they done these things regularly when 13 or 14 years old and following.

Mike Singleton
Head Men’s Soccer Coach
Washington and Lee University

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Experience in Barcelona

Sam Snow

Recently I had the pleasure to go on a soccer tour in Barcelona, Spain. The tour was arranged through Premier International Tours. There were 36 coaches on the tour. Those coaches came from youth soccer clubs from all across America. Specifically on the tour with me from US Youth Soccer were Dr. Tom Turner, technical director for Ohio Youth Soccer - North, national instructor for U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer and the chair of the US Youth Soccer technical committee, Coach Ian Mulliner, technical director for Mass Youth Soccer and a member of the US Youth Soccer technical committee as well as a national instructor for U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer and the most noteworthy, Coach Nick Zlatar. Coach Zlatar’s credentials and experiences comprise a long list. Most recently he received the US Youth Soccer Excellence in Youth Coaching Education Award, "The Dr. Thomas Fleck Award". (

Here are the highlights of our activities during the tour.

Program Barcelona Coaches Tour 2017 



Friday, February 3rd

11.00 hours Arrive at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat, Home of RCD Espanyol for a Youth coaching and development seminar with RCD Academy Staff

14.30 hours Arrive at the Nou Camp, Home of FC Barcelona for a Stadium Tour

15.45 hours Transfer to the offices of FCB Jugadors (Past players Association) for presentations by the Jugadors Ramon Alfonseda and the FCB Escola, Isaac Guerrero.

Saturday, February 4th

10.00 hours Arrive at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper (training complex FC Barcelona). Attend FCB (youth) Matches. Our group will be met by Pere Gratacos – Head of International Relations of FC Barcelona.

Program Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper:

10.15 FCB Boys Alevi “C” vs. FC Cornella ‘D’

10.30 FCB Girls Alevi/Benjamin vs. Manuel Lanzarote

12.00 FCB Boys “B” Cadete vs. Vilanova

FCB Girls Infantil/ Alevi vs. Vilafranca

14.00 hours Depart for the Nou Camp

16.00 hours Visit pro game FC Barcelona vs. Atletico Club de Bilbao

Sunday February 5th

Program Ciutat Esportiva Dani Jarque:

10.00 hours Arrive at RCD Espanyol’s Dani Jarque Training complex

10.00 hours RCDE Boys Juvenil “B” vs. FC Barcelona “B”

RCDE Girls Infantil/ Alevi vs. Fontsanta Fatjo

12.00 hours RCDE Boys Juvenil “A” vs. Sabadell ‘A’

13.00 hours RCDE Girls Alevi/Benjamin vs. Martinenc

16.00 hours Arrive at Hotel for a Video Analysis seminar with Xavi Guila, Technical Director of Analysis for FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City


Tour Summary

In addition to being a first rate professional coach Dr. Turner is an accomplished amateur photographer. Here is a slide show that he created showing our experiences during our whirlwind tour of Barcelona: 4.3

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Precious Moments

Sam Snow

Casey Mann, Executive Director of Nebraska State Soccer, shares his thoughts in this week's Coaches Blog:

Youth sports is nuts. Youth sports is out of control. Crazy parents, Obsessed Coaches, and a whole lot of innocent kids simply along for the ride. Dare you try to work in this culture, to administer in it, and to navigate your way through its volatile landscape, and you quickly become forced to build an emotional shell around you in order to survive. Soon nothing excites you, and nothing surprises you. You just keep plugging away, day after day.

Yet every so often, youth sports can remind you of the power and beauty playing games has on all of us, and to do so in a way that stops the crazy and whacked out win-at-all-costs culture dead in its tracks.

My son’s team was short players, so they asked him to play in goal. I was a goalkeeper and my son enjoys goofing around in the back yard every once in a while pretending to be a goalkeeper, but his interest has never gone beyond Butler Avenue. So when coach emailed, he reluctantly said yes. My son is a nervous-nanny as it is, and so the minute he hit “send” and accepted the role, his anxiety exploded. “Is Tayte going to be there? Will I have any defenders? I’m scared!” … and topped all off by the answer he was so fearfully dreading most of all …. “Who do we play?”  St. Wenceslaus. “St. Wenceslaus? They are 8th graders, they are huge!”

Yet, his interest in trying to play goalkeeper “for-real” was evident too, as I went to jump in the car and he was already in his (his dad’s) goalkeeper jersey, with gloves on, spitting and dumping water on the gloves to get them sticky and ready.

I am sure it was an eternity for him until the match kicked off, but when it finally did, it was neat as a father to see his soon look the part of something I used to be. After the mandatory pics texted to family, the game got underway. I will admit that I was prepared for anything, mistakes, confusion, some good and some bad. So when the first attempt on him in the game was a breakaway and he came sliding out in a collision and stuffed it, I was excitedly amused. Not two minutes later, he made a wonderful save on a set piece. Good enough for the coach of the other team to shout, twice, “Nice save keeper.”

At this point, my emotions and interest went from semi-detached and disconnect to hopeful and curious. I went in to the match hoping to sneak in a few moments to read in the car, to not wanting to miss a moment. I wasn’t competitive for him, just excited and engaged and all of a sudden things mattered. There was hope. There were possibilities. I am sure there was a little voice somewhere in my head whispering “Who knows, maybe with a little training…?”

I tried to be reasonable and put things in context. This was a rec soccer game, it was one half of play, and there was a long way between this moment and stardom, but when we are not careful, it is in these moments that we as parents start to project our own emotions, visions, and ideas onto our children’s games. That little voice gets a bit louder, a bit more decisive, and because it is shrouded in the best of intentions, we take that voice as a good thing. Who doesn’t want their child to be successful, to be a star, to succeed?

But here’s where, if we just let it, youth sports can show us that the games are not meant for us as parents to project our visions onto it, but for us cherish and embrace the lessons it gives all if us. The game is wonderful, whether that be baseball, soccer, or football, but the game is wonderful because it is simply the framework for everything else in life. Teamwork, competitiveness, adversity. It’s all there. We can’t control it, but we can learn from it.

And so for son and father, the second half began. A few saves, a few crosses, and my son seemed to be on his way to a shutout in his first match as a goalkeeper. He was all over the place. And as he would come sliding out for a save on a cross, block a shot, or punt the ball downfield, my hopes began to slowly replace my earlier indifference. And then it happened. The moment I won’t soon forget and will forever be thankful for.

With about 2 minutes to go the other team took a decent but routine shot that sailed at Keagan. Seemingly in position, the ball slipped through his hands and into the goal. His team lost 1-0. For a kid who was hesitant about playing in goal, and only sometimes loves the sport, there was still a part of me that knew this was an important moment for him.

In a moment frozen in time for me, he was smiling as he walked off the field and once into the car … started bawling, and all the while, I was loving every minute of this. Not the anguish my son was in, but the moment to be there for him, to connect, to tell him stories of when I made mistakes and dropped balls for goals. For all the dreams, hopes, and futures that youth sports focuses on, this moment with my son was real, it was here and now, it was raw, and it was true. For all the drama I deal with, for all in this business that forces me to put up a shell, this small moment cracked it wide open again.

I am so thankful for it, thankful for a mistake, for a loss, because it gave me a moment with my son to connect. It was what sports are supposed to do. It allowed me to be dad, to support, and to be there for him in HIS moment, and use my past to TEACH him. There was no PROJECTING anything on him, no futures, no glories, just a dad and son in a tough but true moment, a moment we will both be better for and may never have gotten to had he caught the ball.

If youth sports are a fast track highway to some glorified future, I am glad for the moments on the off-ramp where things slow down and you can enjoy life with your child.

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