Coaching soccer is a little like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – there are so many different flavors in there that its hard to know just where to start. So let’s start with the basics.
First, be age-appropriate. The way you coach soccer depends greatly on the age of the team you’re coaching. It is a big mistake to treat them all the same. If you’re coaching young players, your emphasis should be on teaching skills and making it fun. Its your job to provide them with experiences at different positions, even if a particular position switch won’t help your won-loss record. The key at this age is development – spend the vast majority of your practice time working on individual skills and not tactics. Remember that their future coaches won’t care what their won-loss record was on their 2nd grade team, but they WILL care that they’ve learned the basic skills for their age level.
By the time players get to middle-school age and above, however, they’ve pretty much settled into their positions, and switching positions is less important than playing them in positions where they can be successful. Players at this age are more competitive, and they don’t want a coach who will still move everyone around from position-to-position without regards to the score – at this age, you need to put players at the positions that they are best suited for. That being said, if a player is interested in playing a different position at this age, be open to it. Provide opportunities in practices and in short stints in games to give them experience, but make it clear that he/she is very valuable to the team at their primary position. But again, a motivated player is a coachable player, so give that player opportunities to develop their game in the direction that they’re interested.
Second, know the game. If you’re coaching basketball or baseball or football in the United States, it is presumed that you played the game. Not so with soccer, though that is beginning to change. But if you didn’t play the game, that’s not an excuse for not understanding the game. Read books, watch videos on-line, attend a coach’s clinic in the next town. You may be able to find someone (and you should) who can demonstrate the proper techniques, but its you who has to understand the offsides rule, the difference between direct and indirect kicks, and how to defend and execute a corner kick. You may not be able to bend it like Beckham, but you should be able to demonstrate a proper throw-in, and know how to teach angles to goalies. And if you did play the game, yourself, you probably know the game at a player’s level. Now its time to learn it from a coach’s perspective. Challenge yourself to put in the effort and stretch yourself. Don’t play the game with a stopper but not a sweeper just because your own youth coach always did it that way. Do the research and learn the “whys” and not just the “whats”.
Likewise, if you’re coaching a young team, don’t assume that your players know the game. Most kids in this country don’t grow up watching soccer on TV, so their beginner skills are much lower than beginner skills in other sports such as baseball or basketball. They may all have seen LeBron James do a cross-over dribble in basketball, but the next scissors move they see on the soccer field will likely be their first. You need to start where they are, and usually for young teams, that’s at the very beginning.
Finally, keep perspective. Always remember that it’s your job to make your players successful – it isn’t their job to make you successful. And success is measured differently at different age levels.
If you concentrate on these 3 basics – be age-appropriate, know the game, and keep perspective – you’ll soon be ready to dig deeper into that box of chocolates and move your coaching to the next level.