4 Coaching Lessons That I Learned From Working With 5-8 Year Olds

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On my drive to work a couple of days ago I listened to a podcast from Mike Robertson. In the podcast, Mike reviewed his past season as a youth coach for a soccer team that his child was part of. You can find that podcast HERE. While listening to his biggest takeaways from the season, I realized that we shared some things in common, and thought that this might be a good topic for a brief blog post. Like myself, Mike Robertson is a strength and conditioning coach that has a passion for soccer.

So, without further ado, here are my biggest takeaways from working with 5 to 8 year old kids for the past 10 weeks.

Set Kids up for Success

I recall a meeting prior to my very first summer camp with the Football Association of Ireland a number of years ago. In no uncertain terms we were told

Don’t be the coach that negatively introduces soccer to kids. Their experience must be positive, and they must not leave thinking ”I never want to play soccer again”

Since that meeting, those words of advice have stuck with me and have helped shape every session I create with youth soccer players.

When I finish each session I ask myself “Did ALL of my players have an enjoyable session?” – If the answer is no I need to seriously ask WHY NOT. Sometimes that answer may be out of my control but for the most part that is something I have complete control over.

For a 5 to 8 year old kid, what does success look like? While that answer could be the topic of a lengthy article, success to me is correctly dribbling, correcting passing and correctly shooting.

As these training sessions and games were the first introduction for soccer for some of my players, I wanted to have them think Hey, I can actually do this. 

Success = Enjoyment

To set kids up for success I began the first training session with cones spaced widely apart from one another. This meant that if they took a bad or heavy touch from moving through cones they still didn’t miss any of the cones. As their dribbling began to improve from session to session I gradually decreased the space between cones. And guess what – nobody noticed and each player was still able to move through each cone correctly. If I were to set the cones from Week 10 to my first session I’d be left with a poor success rate. Moreover, I would continually be saying “you missed a cone”, ”you didn’t do X’ or Y” etc.

Process not Outcome

As my players’ training age and experience with soccer was minimal, it became quickly apparent that it was incredibly easy to notice improvements in passing, shooting and dribbling each week. Prior to the first game of the season I asked my kids to 1. Pass and 2. Score goals. We managed to do 2 very well, but not so much 1. However, in the weeks that followed it became evident through our games each weekend that we were passing more.

A number of opponents’ coaches seemed to be largely outcome driven. They wanted goals, and lots of them. But what I noticed was that their teams seemed dependent on just one or two players to score. In between scoring, there didn’t seem to be a lot of dribbling or passing to teammates.

In contrast, I didn’t really care about goals or wins. Sure, the kids were excited every time we scored but my biggest source of pleasure was seeing the progression in the number of successful passes that we made in each game. This was especially noticeable in our last weekend of games and was great to see.

At this age level (U5 – U8),  the majority of goals that are scored are from the fastest player on each team or the player that can kick the ball the hardest. In recognizing this, I pushed for process not outcome.

Winning games by scoring goals is good, but setting kids up for success (correctly dribbling, passing, etc) later in their soccer journey was my priority. The fastest player and the hardest kicker of a ball is not always going to be the faster player and the hardest kicker of a ball on the field in later years…but for now they enjoy success, albeit temporarily due to their size advantage. This won’t always be the case, especially when other kids begin to catch up.

Do More, Say Less

Kids are great visual learners. I made the mistake of explaining each exercise or drill in too much detail for the first session or two. What I found most useful was simply walking through each exercise or drill, and then having them complete it at a low intensity. In doing so, it gave my players more time to recall their next movement.

Many of my players had a short attention span. If I didn’t  show them or explain to them fast enough, I would see them playing with grass or dirt, or searching for flowers. If I could show them in 10 seconds versus speaking for 60 seconds, I opted to show them. The old adage is true.

Keep Kids Involved

“I Don’t Feel Well” – If you work with kids, you’ve likely heard this a thousand times before. Rather than having them sit down and be involved with practice I tried a couple of tactics throughout the season. I introduced “Guest Throws”, and “Judges” among others.

  • Guest Throws

The non-participant was allowed to briefly act as a goalkeeper by throwing the  ball out in practice games. As there were so many goals scored in these kind of games it kept the non-participant constantly involved even though it required little movement or exertion.

  • Judges

I used judges much like linesmen (AR’s) for practice games. I’d ask them who touched it last, etc for goals scored or balls in or out of play. Whenever we would do competitive runs or sprints I also asked them who won. Again, much like guest throws, this allowed the kids to still feel involved and required that they were attentive to training and not playing with dirt.

What I enjoyed most about being around the kids for the past number of weeks was that they didn’t feel pressure to succeed. This dramatic contrast to that of my day to day work with Division 1 student-athletes was refreshing to see, and is something I will remember in the years to come.

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AC Cugini Pre-Travel Academy 2017