Soccer Coaching Blog | Professional Soccer Coaching Advice


Let the players speak

davidscwnewI work at a number of clubs coaching kids of all ages, as well as running my own team. One of the interesting things that I notice is the differing attitudes shown by head coaches towards the way the players behave. I’m not talking about disruptive behaviour here, it’s more the receptive behaviour.

As an example, let me tell you about an incident last week when I was coaching a team of talented Under-12s for the first time. The head coach and parents were interested to see what I was going to do with the players – I’m sure you’ve experienced the same scrutiny. I ran a session on passing and movement, calling the players over at regular intervals to talk to them about what we were doing and why.

The boys were very on the ball, answered the questions well and really got into the spirit, even if there was a certain ‘we know what we’re doing’ bravado towards what they saw as the new coach. In essence, they were out to impress.

At the end of the session we wrapped up and I went over to talk to the head coach. He was suitably pleased with how things had gone but he raised a couple of objections.

“Why didn’t you get the players to sit up straight and focus on you when you gave the talks throughout the session,” he asked? “There was a point when they were all shouting out their ideas – how could that work?” Well I’m not one for enforcing that style of receptive behaviour from my players. I want them to be comfortable; and as I had just run a fairly fast session I allowed them to lay on the grass rather than sit up straight. After all, this wasn’t a maths lesson!

And if players shout out ideas, great. I want them to express themselves; I want them to feel they can say what they want, when they want. I prefer this more casual style of sitting around and discussing the session rather than me being the teacher and them the obedient pupils. I want a relaxed atmosphere where every single player feels comfortable in that situation and wants to speak up about what we are doing.

I have no problem if the head coach would rather see players sitting neatly in rows all cross legged with straight backs – that’s how he gets his ideas across to his players and if that works for him that’s fine. But always remember, if you start with rules about sitting up straight and only speaking when spoken to, you may not get out of your players what they really want to say.



Do your players UNDERSTAND?

David ClarkeYou can be as clever as you like with tactical planning and technical instructions, but players must be able to understand what you want them to do.

I went to a demonstration this week by a couple of highly respected youth coaches to see examples of the different ways you can coach young players. There were some really good coaching and session ideas that I was privileged to take away from the get together.

However, one thing that was clear to me was that the players were having a hard time understanding exactly what was expected of them.

Both sessions were player- and activity-centric – but, because this was a meet-up designed for coaching knowledge, the players at times were clearly unsure of what they were doing and what was expected of them. In that respect, the experiment failed on all levels, bar one – namely in reminding me that one of the most important things you must do with players is ensure they are ‘with you’ at every step along the path of learning. It’s the whole purpose of what we do, after all.

If you notice that players are not doing what they are supposed to or are looking around to see how others perform the task, either they were not listening or you failed to get instructions across well enough.

Remember, players understand things in three different ways:

  •  Visually
  •  Verbally
  •  Physically

It is important that for each demonstration a coach must:

  •  Perform and show the technique that is being learnt, or recreate the scenario for tactical feedback (the visual part).
  •  Use explanations and key coaching points through the stages of the demonstration (the verbal part).
  •  Let the players perform the technique or replay the situation (the physical part).

This way, you can be sure your players know what they are doing. And it will ensure you make the most of every session you take.



Using player-centred coaching

David ClarkeThere has been much debate recently about player-centred coaching and the benefits it has for young footballers. Player-centred coaching is about focusing and targeting soccer to the ages and skills of your players.

But in addition, it supports players’ independence by giving them a controlling influence over the session. They feel the session is theirs, which improves communication with the coach, increases motivation and accelerates understanding and appreciation of what’s being taught. From that, a player’s ability to solve tactical problems within the game is enhanced.

This does not mean that the coach has no control – far from it. The role of the coach is to set a challenge that’s centred on their skills, and he’ll still need to guide the players through the process of solving problems. But there is created an environment in which players share responsibility for individual and team performance.

So, for example, I will mark out the playing area, but within that area give the players cones to create boxes or gates that are going to be used. I will guide my players if they make squares or gates too big or small, but they can alter the parameters as the session commences.

I will present them with questions related to what they’ve laid out and might recommend a set challenge, but am looking for them to correct any mistakes made. For instance, the challenge might be to dribble a ball through four gates. If a player misses a gate, I’ll watch him to see if he makes amends for the error without me pointing it out.

The challenge is the same, but the player is in control. For a scenario that is less game-like, I might look to work on technique and skills… such as players having a choice over which channel they go down in 1v1s – a long, thin one, or a short and narrow one. Or I might move to a setting with four coned off parts of an area where players cannot be tackled – wing channels on either side of the pitch, for instance, where a player can run without opposition before putting a cross in. I’m always interested to see what effect player-centred coaching can have – from those 1v1s to 4v4s for general all-round choices, or even 8v8s to offer experience in more specified roles.

Whatever the task in hand is, I will always guide players so they experience every position, but by and large they’re fashioning the challenges themselves. The crucial thing for me is, of course, getting the challenge as relevant as possible to my players. But it’s also about identifying the point at which guiding a player turns into interfering with the process.

Player-centred coaching, and empowering the footballers who play under you, is certainly something that develops gradually, but players love the freedom and, as a coach, I believe I am beginning to see real rewards.



How to get every player playing every week

David ClarkeOne of the experiments I’ve been trying at my club is to run extra teams who play friendly matches. This is so that players who have been substitutes the previous week get a full run-out the following weekend.

It has worked really well. Parents have shown a lot of interest because it provides a great outlet for those players who find themselves sitting out the majority of matches for the main team.

It’s also a good way to integrate any new players into the club. There’s a huge benefit for the coach as well, namely that it’s an ideal way to watch and monitor talent, keeping the kind of check on their development that you just wouldn’t be able to get normally if you only saw them in training. After all, game time is essential for any player looking to really ‘find’ their game – it gives them something to aim for.

On Sunday morning, I went down to watch a couple of new players in one of our friendly teams. The match was against a strong local side. They lost, but you wouldn’t have thought so when you saw them after the game. The players were full of energy and self-confidence and were thrilled at having achieved a full game for our club.

I’ve only had one negative comment so far.

This was from a parent who didn’t want to pay the same amount of money as other parents whose children played in what he called ‘proper’ matches – “Why should I pay for friendly games?”

I explained that the coaches involved still have to turn up and organise the friendly games. Then there’s a referee, and someone to book pitches. Everything else is the same apart from the kids get more out of the experience.

The player named Man of the Match in the friendly will play in one of next week’s league games as a result. It showed all the other kids that putting in the effort really does pay off – and we can use it the other way around with ‘first-teamers’ not giving it their all.

But the best element it is that around 20 boys in each age group are all playing regularly, and that can only be a good thing.



Two ways to recover your session from disruptive players

David Clarke

By David Clarke

I was speaking this week with Dan Cottrell a rugby coaching guru who often has to deal with disruptions in his coaching sessions. We were discussing how you can recover your session once it has been disrupted by silly behaviour.

He said: "Working with children can fall apart if there is a distraction, like two players fighting, someone burps or there is something significant happening on another pitch. But there are ways to recover the session quickly."

These are the two ways we spoke about.

1. Silent treatment

  • Get everyone together and don’t speak for 30 seconds.

  • Don’t even tell anyone to shut up.

  • Players will become embarrassed by the silence.

  • Some will tell others to shut up, while some will continue to muck around or laugh. Don’t worry about how they react.

  • Then, look at your watch, say: “Right, where was I was? Yes, we were working on…” and carry on as if nothing had happened.

2. Peer threes

  • Split players into groups of three.

  • Ask them to come up with one key factor for the exercise you are doing between them in 15 seconds.

  • Ask someone you know will give you a good answer.

  • Give them lots of praise.

  • Ask someone else, again who is going to give a good answer.

  • Praise them and say that you are sure there are lots of other good answers… and move on.

  • Like above, act as if nothing happened.



The five telltale signs that your kids are enjoying what you offer them

DC1. They keep coming back!
Absence is the biggest indicator that players are not enjoying training and that it might be time for a change. If players don’t turn up, ask why when you next see them, and reinforce the fact that their team-mates need them back. Don’t be too pushy though, this puts a lot of young players off and you might lose them for good.

2. Players are well behaved at training
Poor behaviour is a good indicator that players are not enjoying training. If your kids are always productively engaged and challenged then there is no time or energy left over to misbehave. Excessive downtime, repetitive exercises or moves that are too challenging will provoke boredom, or worse, frustration.

3. Players smile and laugh at training
A smile is an obvious but important indicator that your players are having fun and enjoying training. Remember, it’s not school, so you can relax and have a few jokes with them too. That said, a lot of young boys can be quite insecure, so it’s always best to start by poking fun at yourself or a fellow coach to show that there is no harm intended.

4. Players are happy to talk to you and feel safe asking questions
A fun environment is a safe environment in a young player’s mind. If they are happy, they are far more likely to take risks, and a young player asking questions in front of their peers can be seen by them as a risk. Make sure you are approachable at all times. You can start your answers with “That’s an excellent question, I’m sure other people are thinking the same thing”. This sets the player’s mind at rest and lets them all know that anything they ask will be taken seriously.

5. Players buy into the ‘team’ and genuinely feel part of the squad
Always be on the lookout for players who are at the periphery of the squad. Often they will be doing their own thing while the others are enjoying themselves before or after training. Make an extra effort to include them in everything you do. Always pick teams yourself rather than letting players do it. This gives you an opportunity to split up cliques and integrate everyone. With that in mind, encourage players to buy into the team by wearing team kit to training and games. It’s the little things that really work in terms of bonding a team together. Players will always be drawn to their mates, but if you can draw the whole team into liking and respecting you, then you have the complete.




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