Soccer Coaching Blog | Professional Soccer Coaching Advice

Space Invaders gets young players fit

Many coaches believe that getting children fit to play football is a stealth exercise. Running up and down the pitch and sprint training may be all very well in some sports, but playing games is undoubtedly the best way to keep kids entertained, whilst subtly building fitness at the same time.

Benefits of games

Kids become so absorbed in the game they don’t realise how much running they are doing. And because they are practising technical attributes at the same time, this also allows you to focus on developing other football skills under pressure so you are not wasting precious training time on fitness. For the best fitness results from games follow these guidelines:

• Use small-sided games – players have nowhere to hide and have to be involved all the time. Four- or five-a-side is ideal.

• Take a break – have rest periods in between intense periods of work. Two teams play for three minutes while another team rests. By swapping the teams round, each team works for six of every nine minutes.

A change is as good as a break – keep football fresh by changing the game or adding new rules. This means players constantly have to adjust mentally whilst still working hard physically.

• Use games like the one below to give players a change from normal exercises and really take their minds off exercise.


Main Objectives

Dribbling and close control, passing accuracy and pace, and one touch passing.

Set Up

Create a 30 yards by 10 yards playing area with cones spread 5 yards apart along the length. Use 16 players split in to four teams of four, with 10 footballs.


Introduce timing so the quickest team to reach the safety zone wins, or stipulate a maximum amount of time. Alternatively, allow the passers an extra touch so they can be more accurate when firing the “laser”.


Keep an eye out for cheating in this game. If an invader’s ball is touched, they’re out. Make sure the passers are only using one touch to begin with.

How to play it

In pairs, players from three of the teams stand on either side of the channel. On your call, they play one touch passing back and forth. This represents the laser to shoot down invaders.

The fourth team – the invaders – has to dribble through the channel, one player per zone at a time, avoiding having their ball hit by the lasers. If an invader’s ball is hit by a laser, they have been destroyed and leave the channel in that zone.

The invaders must aim to reach the safety zone at the end of the channel. The team with the most invaders reaching the safety zone wins.

If no team reaches the safety zone, the team that progress the farthest along the channel wins.

Get 24 more games like this in  Fun Soccer Games for 5 to 8 Year Olds. But don’t be put off by the title. I used the game above with players as old as 16.


Puyol, we love your labour

David Clarke

Carles Puyol is the type of player every team would like. He is the classic old-fashioned captain. Quick and powerful, committed almost to the point of comedy, he is an inspiration to team-mates and an idol for the fans.

His intense commitment to Barcelona runs deep – he often stays behind to train and reportedly comes in on his days off to put in some extra work.

He makes a good roll model for youth players because he has made himself great even though he does not have the reputation of some of his team mates. Puyol has played for Barcelona since 1999 and been club captain since 2004. In his early years as captain before Iniesta, Messi and Xavi came on the scene he said of his team mates: “I don’t have Romário’s technique, [Marc] Overmars’ pace or [Patrick] Kluivert’s strength. But I work harder than the others. I’m like the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does OK in the end.”

“Puyol is the key,” says Xavi, the Barcelona midfielder, “not just because he is one of the best defenders in the world but because of his character. He never lets up. If he sees you relax at all, he’s suddenly at your side demanding more.”

He has starred in more than 500 official games for the team, winning 18 major titles, notably five La Liga and three UEFA Champions League championships. At international level he has won the Euro 2008and the 2010 World Cup tournaments with Spain.

Team mate at Barcelona Gerard Piqu&eacute said: “He’s someone who, even if you’re winning 3–0 and there’s a few seconds left in the game will shout at the top of his voice at you if he thinks your concentration is going.”

More recently said, “Even four goals down he thinks we can still win.”

“The fans appreciate that I work my hardest all the time,” Puyol explains. “I need no encouragement because I’ve always been a cule – I’ve never hidden that fact. I am living the dream playing football for Barça and it is my dream to retire playing here. I know someday that I will have to leave and I am not looking forward to that day. I will work hard to realise my dream but if I can’t then I would like to play in another country. I wouldn’t want to play in Spain. I would go to England or Italy.”

Tactics at short goal kicks can free up a congested midfield

David Clarke

Temperatures have plummeted over the past few weeks and the result has been that a number of games have been called off. My side couldn’t dodge a frozen pitch, but one of our younger teams managed to get their match on, so I went along to watch them.

They are a good team and have a clever coach who is always ready to try things out during matches if he sees a problem. During the match, his goalkeeper was not having much luck from goal kicks.

Every time he kicked the ball it was going into a packed midfield and the opposition’s physical advantage in the centre meant they were often emerging with the ball. In fact, the opening goal had come as a direct result of a goal kick coming straight back from midfield. With his team losing 2-0 at half-time, it was clear the coach had to change something.

The first thing he did was alter the routine of the goal kicks to give his keeper more options.

He got two defenders to drop short left and right of the goal so the keeper could play a simple pass to ensure that his team retained possession. When this happened, the opposition players moved forward to close down, something that freed up space in the midfield area. As you might expect, this made a huge difference straight away, and having previously been overrun in the middle third, the team were now finding it easier to build attacking moves.

His mobile defenders also utilised space down the line, with attacking midfielders able to take the ball forward further, frequently sending dangerous crosses in towards the near post. After his team had won a succession of corner kicks they scored to pull the scoreline back to 2-1. In working harder to win the ball from goal kicks, the opposition lost a lot of their attacking speed and were less able to get the ball forward.

The match had effectively been turned on its head, all because of a change in the goal kick routine. The team had a number of chances to equalise but couldn’t take them, but that’s football. Nonetheless, they had won the second half 1-0, and learned a great lesson in tactics at the same time.

I love to see goalkeepers playing short balls to the wide defenders. If watch the video clip below of Victor Valdes the Barcelona goalkeeper continually playing short balls against Real Madrid. Even after he makes a mistake he continues to pass the ball short.

I could watch this all day!

Learning from losing

David Clarke

Learning to lose graciously is one of the hardest lessons any young sports person has to take on board. Young players learn a lot from losing, providing they can accept it, analyse why they lost and know what they can do to improve next time.

It’s okay to show some emotion…
Many psychologists believe you shouldn’t deny children the opportunity to show their emotions when they lose. It’s okay to feel upset but they need to know where the boundaries are in terms of displaying emotion. Set standards of behaviour for your players and have sanctions if they don’t follow them. For example, showing dissent towards a team-mate or the referee means they start on the bench for the next game. They will soon learn to control their emotions better. Always acknowledge your players’ disappointment and show sympathy but emphasise the positive elements of the performance. It is important that players go home after a game with a positive mindset.

They should know that, despite the result, they have achieved and learned something.

Win as a team, lose as a team…
Football is the ultimate team sport and no one individual is ever responsible for a win or a loss. Create a team sprit where players encourage their team-mates rather than point blame at individuals. Good teams have been ripped apart over the course of a season by one or two ‘blamers’. If you have any of these types identify them quickly and speak to them about their attitude and the effect it is having on the team. Try giving them responsibility within the team as ‘motivators’ instead. It is then their job to go straight over to a player who has made a mistake and get them back in the game.

Remember you’re the role model… You cannot expect your players to accept losing if you don’t. You need to keep your emotions under wraps especially in front of the players. It is often easy after a game to look for excuses, but is a lot harder to look at yourself and your players and ask, ‘What could we have done better?’. Despite what many armchair critics think, referees are very rarely responsible for the results of matches. Develop a ‘never blame the referee’ culture in your squad and lead by example. Encourage players to shake the referee’s hand after games and thank him for doing his job.

Focus on performance… If you are going through a bad patch of results, one way of keeping players motivated and focused is to de-emphasise winning and focus on improving skills. Set realistic goals within the game – for example, “This week I want us to make eight out of 10 first-time tackles”. This means if the team achieves its goal the players win, regardless of the result.

Watch players show their emotions after losing:

Why ‘we’ is better than ‘you’

David Clarke

One of my player’s parents came up to me this week after training and said: “What I like about your half-time and post-match team-talks is that you always use ‘we’ when you talk to the boys and not ‘you’.”

I appreciated his comment and, listening in on another training session the following day, noticed the difference in a rival team’s demeanor when I heard their coach using ‘you’ frequently when addressing his team.

I’d never sat down and thought about it before, but it makes sense that the players should feel more involved and part of a shared belief by using ‘we’. If I was addressing the team as ‘you’ then I’m not sure they’d feel a part of things at all – you lose the inclusive factor.

In my mind, it’s a very simple rule that all coaches should observe. Being made to feel central to a project is one way to boost players’ confidence, giving them the belief that they are important and integral.

When you think of the role of a coach it is the little things that make such a difference; things that are so simple you may not even give them a second thought. And it’s not just ‘we’ or ‘you’, there are a number of other subtle personality and vocal traits that can, literally, really make your players go the extra yard… and very often they won’t realise they’re doing it!

I made a note to include this little tip in my coaching advice because if one parent can notice the difference between one coach and another thanks to the use of one word, then you can be sure there are a lot of parents (and players) who will pick up on it.

And getting feedback like that is very important to me because it helps me to see how little things can make a big difference in the life of a child.

Try to write down 10 ways in which you would confront or address a situation, and list your typical reactions, in terms of what you’d say and how you’d say it. Then consider if that is the best way to convey a message or phrase a sentence. Like me, it could be that expressing something in a slightly different way could really make a difference, and you’re certain to see the results where it really matters – on the pitch!

One skill leads to another…

David Clarke

Technique can be simple. Anyone can do Lionel Messi’s drag back which is nothing more than pushing the ball out in front of you before dragging it back and turning to face the way you came. You’ve left your opponent behind.

But the skill is to do it at speed.

If youth players can perfect just one skill they can do at speed they will become much better players.

That takes practice and repetition.

And I reckon if a young player can make one skill work they’ll want to learn another…
Here’s how young players can do it:

How conditions can affect the way you play

David Clarke

It’s been blowing a gale lately out on the practice pitch, but nothing like what I had to endure in a match last season.

We turned up for a match and it was like being on an exposed seafront during a gale. The pitch was very open, high up, and ready to present my players with a real problem in terms of keeping the ball under control.

My immediate thought was that we would find goal-kicks, free-kicks, corners and other crosses difficult to control given how hard the wind was blowing. So instead of doing our normal warm-ups I got my players to practise set pieces, both against and with the wind.

However, I didn’t do it on our regular pitch, I took them onto an adult 11-a-side pitch next door where all the elements were exaggerated. I put my holding midfielder into the middle of the pitch and got two players to practise goal-kicks towards him. “Where would you stand when the wind is blowing so strongly?” I asked him. After a few kicks he began to realise what was required of him. He moved closer and to the side so the wind brought the ball towards him.

Then I set up my corner taker and goalkeeper so they could see the different ways the ball would move from the corners of the pitch. My keeper soon realised he must have firmer hands behind the ball to turn it away or push it over the bar. We used both ends of the pitch so we could experience the different ways the ball would move. With the wind behind us it went flat and long, but any high balls into the breeze held up and often came back at the kicker.

Playing into the wind in the first-half we kept it tight and the opposition played long balls that the wind whisked away and we could usher out. Goal-kicks were short, as was our passing game. Half-time came and the score was 0-0. In the second period we played to our strengths and passed the ball around, keeping long balls to a minimum, and the rewards came.

In the end we won easily, scoring a hatful of goals late on as the opposition tired from having to defend for practically the whole of the second half. We won because we had adapted quicker to the conditions and used them to our advantage.

So remember, when you get to a match it’s worth taking note of the conditions. Something as simple as taking the time to alter your warm-up can have a massive effect on how your team adapt and play.

In the video below I think maybe I wouldn’t have let my team play! But you get the idea from it how conditions can be something to take into consideration when your team plays.