For most coaches, running practices is the fun part. Given that it takes up 75% of your time with the team, it makes sense that it should be. In professional teams, the trend is for managers to spend less time actually coaching the team during practice sessions. They have a trainer/coach who takes care of that. Occasionally the manager shows up to see what is going on, but they spend more of their time dealing with the politics and game day decisions. It is unlikely that you have a trainer on staff with your team, so that means you still get the chance to get your hands dirty out on the training field!
In this section will will talk through some ideas for how to successfully run a practice session, from the big rules to the little tips that can get your sessions to flow. We also have interviews with successful coaches where we ask them how they run their sessions. Check out our interviews with Jaime Morrison on how to keep control of young players and Brian Contreras on what to teach and how.
The first step is to get to practice early. This will give you time to plan where you will run your various activities, set down some cones, decide where you want the players to put their bags, and fight off any other teams eager to encroach on your area. We recommend arriving at least 15-30 minutes before the official start time. Remember that players and parents might want to talk to you during that time, so ideally you should leave even more time to make sure you have everything ready. There is nothing worse than running a great activity then having to take a five minute break to set up the next part, so try to arrange your cones to make it possible to quickly move from one thing to the next.
Secondly, think about what goes where. There are two often-conflicting considerations here. The first one is taking care of your field. If you run every practice in your penalty area, you will destroy all the grass, leaving you with a lunar crater where there used to be a six yard box. Unless you practice on artificial turf, we recommend only using the goal area when you actually need it. Run warm up activities far away on the least used areas of the field and try to rotate each subsequent activity onto new areas, especially when the grass is wet. The second consideration is realism. Ideally, you want to run your various activities in the locations that they would happen in if you were playing an actual game. This lets players see the link between practice and games. For example, if you are practicing 2v1 situations on the flank, it would make sense to set out an area down one of the sides of your field, facing the goal, so players get the visual cues of where the various field lines and goals are (if you practice on an actual lined field).
The third step is thinking about breaks. Especially for young kids, it is important to have all their water bottles in the same place, preferably away from their parents. That way they get a quick break together and come back without the distraction of wanting to stay with the parents and not come back to practice. The NSCAA recommend that you set out a “Water Cone” which is on the side of the field and must have all of their water bottles touching it.
The final step is to check the rest of your equipment. Make sure you have the right number of vests (“pinnies”, “pennies” etc) in the right colors for whatever you are doing. Set them out next to where you will need them. On the higher level coaching courses, instructors often lay out the vests in scrimmage formation at the beginning of practice and assign all the players a different one for each position they will eventually build to for the final game. Make sure you have a watch on. Practices are all about timing: they must begin and end on time and everything within must run according to your plan to keep it flowing. As coaches we can easily get caught up in what we are saying or doing and forget how much time has flown by. Also, if you expect your players to arrive on time, you should finish on time. It is not fair to punish late players if you can’t keep your practices to schedule either.
The Warm Up
For help with content, check out the planning practices section of this website. Warm ups and early activities often have no direction or boundaries. As a result they don’t often need much setup. Try to get players moving within 20-30 seconds of practice beginning. Give them one instruction then let them play. Coaching points are for later and very few players care what today’s topic is, so keep that to yourself! As the players warm up, you should move around the entire practice, interacting with all of your players individually. This is a great time to check how they are doing and to give them little individual coaching points on what they are doing. You can’t do this if you are playing in the activity, so try not to get involved.
Each couple of minutes you should stop the warm up to give them one piece of coaching information (e.g. “for the next minute I want you to focus on your touch being light, pushing the ball when you dribble”) and / or one new transition (e.g. “now dribble with your weak foot only”). As this process continues you can also use the breaks to go through your dynamic stretching routine, which should cover all of the major soccer muscle groups.
Feel the flow of the session. You are aiming to get to a place where the players are having fun, working hard, and improving at the skill you are trying to teach, within an increasingly more challenging environment. Usually after 10-15 minutes you should give the players a drink and move to your first activity. In some cases the warm up might be flowing well and you could extend it for a few more transitions up to 20 minutes, if it will increase the three factors in red. Your water break should take no more than a minute (tell them they have 30 seconds!).
The first activities usually have limited or no pressure, direction and numbers. Let’s take two examples of basic keepaway and 1v1 grids. Both are examples of starting with a simple concept. Keepaway has no direction to go towards and probably has limited pressure (e.g. 7v2 instead of 7v7). 1v1 grids have low numbers (one player against one player), which allows players to focus on technique. Grids take up a lot of cones and planning, keepaway needs one big grid.
As the activity starts, your job is again to walk around, giving out individual coaching points. You should also use the time to check whether the game looks like you had hoped it was. Is the space big or small enough? Is it the right shape? If not, now is the time to change it. You can easily make spaces bigger or smaller without the players having to stop or notice. Is the keepaway square, rectangular, or some other shape? What bearing does this have on your topic? Remember that the goal here is to get lots of repetitions of your topic so that everyone gets a chance to practice it over and over before things get complicated.
After the activity has been going for a few minutes, you can begin to look for group coaching moments. A group coaching moment is when the entire team stop what they are doing to work out how to fix something that you have seen. You have to explain the problem, suggest a fix, demonstrate the solution, and get them playing again in as short a time as is possible. Try to aim for less than 30 seconds if you are going to do all those stages. If you are doing guided discovery (asking them questions so they can solve the problems) it will probably take longer, but the goal is not to spend several minutes standing around talking when you could be playing. Some other tips for group coaching moments are below: –
- Coach must face into the sun. Make it easy for players to watch you by not having them squinting into the sun.
- Coach must not play with a ball or any other object when they talk. Players will watch the ball instead of listening to you.
- Do not have something interesting going on behind you (another game, amusement park, fireworks display etc).
- Do not wear sunglasses when you are giving out coaching points. Eye contact is important.
- Be positive. If you ask players for answers or suggestions, don’t tell them they are wrong or embarrass them. Build their confidence! Try their suggestion and if it doesn’t work, as for more ideas.
- Be quick. Imagine how you would feel if someone kept interrupting your indoor game or favorite tv show to talk to you.
- Don’t read from your plan. Learn what you are teaching. Only use the plan when you need reminding what you are doing or what is next.
As practice moves on, generally things get bigger and more complex. Your 1v1 moves to 2v2, 3v3 and then maybe 7v5, towards the final game. This affects your space management and location on the field. Anything bigger than 2v2 will need scrimmage vests so that it is clear who is on which team. Coach should always wear a different color to the players on the field so that it is immediately clear who they are. This is particularly important when coaching older teams who are as tall or taller than you.
All games should provide a challenge of some sort. As they get bigger you can make them into more of a competition. Keep score between the two teams and set goals for each side. If it is defenders against attackers, challenge the defenders to win back the ball and then distribute it to targets, not just kick it away. Remember your topic though. Coach only what you are there to coach. Young players are only able to focus on one thing at a time, so it is important not to cloud their view by trying to coach everything at once. Stick to your topic, even when that striker punches the ball into the goal when you were busy working on improving the positioning of the defenders.
Let them play. When the game starts, unless someone catches on fire or a buffalo wanders onto the field, let them play for several minutes before you do anything. The scrimmage needs to be as gamelike as possible, so timeouts are not allowed. Also, especially if you are coaching boys, the scrimmage is the part they like, so let them enjoy it. After a while you can look for a couple of group coaching points that fit with whatever you are teaching, just so they can see how it applies to the game. Beyond that the only coaching you do is individual and from the sidelines.
As players get older, you should encourage them to lead your cool down and stretching routine. Not only does this give you time to organize your things, but it helps them develop ownership and leadership skills. Plus, after 80 minutes they are probably sick of hearing your voice, so let them have a go! Keep coaching points quick and on topic.
Make sure that no player is left at the field with nowhere to go. Especially for players who do not drive themselves to practice, make sure you wait for late parents to arrive. Ideally wait with two or more players and parents so that you are not left exposed to any accusations of anything. Some teams require the second last parent to wait with the coach until the last parent arrives so that they are not left on their own with the last player. Check with your club what rules they have in place for this. Be ready for impromptu meetings with parents or have a time set up for them to discuss things if you have to be somewhere else. Remember that it is important to keep communication as open as possible with parents at all times to avoid anything developing that you are not aware of.