Practices for the 7-13 Years Old Age Groups
Children in the older age groups transition gradually in the focus of their soccer education from play involving personal development to that which incorporates progressively more advanced concepts, like goal keeping, field positions and strategies. Keep this progression in mind as you work with the kids, and size up each player and each team to determine which practice strategies fit their capabilities best.
Over the years, I have developed a coaching system that works well for players at these levels. The following summary gives an overview of my methods.
- Free Play: Let the kids play amongst themselves freely.
- Line-Up: Blow your whistle and line them up for a roll-call.
- Warm-Ups: Spend 10 minutes or so stretching and doing warm-up exercises, then run laps (2 laps).
- Briefing: Line them up again and make any announcements, such as game time, when pictures are coming in, and so on. They’ll sit quietly for a minute because they’ll be tired from warm-ups.
- Drills: Do 20-25 minutes of drills.
- Water Break: This is another word for “Free Play.” Give them 5-minutes to take a drink of water, talk with each other, or take shots on goals.
- Drills: Do another 10-15 minutes of drills.
- Scrimmage: Divide them up into two teams, grab your whistle, and ref your own!
- Line-Up: This is really the FINAL line-up, since you’ll want to line the kids up at the start of each drill, before water break, after water break before drills again, and so forth. During this final line-up, tell them when the next game and practice will be and make any other announcements you need.
- Dismissed! That’s a day. One hour goes faster than you think!
- Show up a few minutes early for practices. Parents will show up early, but some won’t let their kids out of the car until a responsible adult representing the soccer program is present.
- As kids shuffle in, release the practice balls onto the field and tell any kids you see standing around to go warm up by passing the ball amongst themselves or take some shots on goal. Within minutes, you’ll see a mob of kids in their natural-born state: The state of play. You’ll probably have 3-6 kids standing on the goal line trying to stop shots, and the rest chasing balls on the field trying to steal one to take shots with. Monitor the action to detect any unsafe play and reprimand rough or unsafe play - such as people taking shots more than one or two at a time, pushing, shoving, wrestling, and so forth - and do not permit children to leave your sight or to climb on the goal posts.
- Allow the kids to enjoy this state of “free play” until practice start time, or a little after start time if you need to wait for more latecomers to get their numbers up.
- Once you decide to stop “free play,” condition your team to line up along the goal line when they hear you blow your whistle. During practices, the whistle should be used to signal the kids to line up, such as at the beginning of practice or between drills.
- Once you get the kids lined up, greet them, and tell them a little about what to expect in that day’s practice. I usually read from the same script here: “We’ll be doing some stretches, warm-up exercises, some drills, and if everything goes well and we can get through these on-time, we may scrim at the end.” This excites them (the prospect of scrimmaging), because it’s competitive, like a real game. During practices, you can remind them (when they become unruly) that if they want to horse around like that, we won’t have time to scrimmage at the end, so if they want to scrimmage, pay attention; get in line; or whatever.
- After having a quick talk with them, run through the roll call. Separate kids who are talking to one another (they’re friends) by moving one of them to another position in the line-up.
- Use a printed roster that shows first and last names for the roll call. It will take time for you to memorize each kid’s name, and conducting roll calls will make it easier to match a name to a face. Also instruct your team not to leave without checking out with you, and notate on the roll call sheet that the child has left. I used to allow the kids to check themselves out as long as they acknowledge with me that they are leaving before doing so. I would leave a clipboard with the roster on the bench for this purpose. The value of this step can’t be understated: It’s very often that parents need to pick their child up early, and the child will often leave with a parent without letting you know. Later, you’ll realize that the child is missing and usually, other kids will be able to tell you that the child in question left with a parent. However, this is still a little unnerving and training them to check out and sign out before leaving will prevent this from happening.
- After roll-call, get right to work on them with stretching and warm-up exercises, such as push-ups and jumping jacks. Make them run wind sprints. I liked to have them run to the end of the penalty box, touch the line, and run back; then repeat for the half-way line and the full-field line. Do not permit them to sit on balls or even on the ground. If you catch a player sitting, explain that they look nice and rested like they’re ready to run some laps. They’ll usually stand right up for you.
- After warm-up exercises, they’ll be tired and willing to catch their breath while you do the talking. Explain your next drill exercise and the skill it’s designed to teach (for example, show them what part of the foot to use for the drill, how the drill will improve their game-playing skills, and so forth). You can also use this rest period to explain things like the field and the rules of play, fouls and misconduct, and so forth. Realize that this is a very narrow window of time, especially early in the practice, because the kids will soon begin to stir by throwing grass, pushing and pulling each other, and generally digressing back into their natural state: Play. Once you see this happen, get them going on the drill or make them run a couple laps. They’ll be ready to listen again after more physical exertion.
- Run two unique drills in the first half of practice and take a break about half-way through. Allow them to sit, lay down, play, drink their water bottles, have a snack, or go to the bathroom. Always send kids to the bathroom in groups and send a parent with them to supervise if possible. This is to keep any single child from walking any distance away from your area of immediate supervision where there could be danger of being struck by a car, accosted by someone at the park, or abducted.
- Conduct one or two unique drills after “water break” and if there’s time, let the kids play a scrimmage, either amongst themselves or against another team if the other team shares your practice field and consents to the challenge. During scrimmages, run along side the kids and offer as much coaching and encouragement as you like. For the 9-12 year old teams, this is your only chance to run the field with the kids, since coaches are not allowed on the field during the water break. Try to allow for the last 5-10 minutes of practice for this activity. Before letting the kids take the field, remind them to sign out before they leave!
- Between each drill or at the start of any practice activity, start by lining the kids up or assembling them on the field. If you plan to speak to them for any length of time, allow them to sit. The line-up is always a good idea, because it signals the kids that it’s time to stop playing and time to start listening.
Creative, skill-specific drills are suitable for kids in the older age groups (9-10, 11-13). These skills help developing players learn to control the ball in more advanced ways, and to understand some of the more organizational factors of the game like goal keeping, offense and defense. Coaches are encouraged to speak to other experienced coaches about the drills they like best, or to seek library and Internet resources on coaching for drill ideas.
By contrast, kids in the younger age groups don’t align very well with the line-up-and-drill type of practice. Their bodies have yet to learn even basic rudimentary motor skills involving the use of their feet to manipulate a ball (in fact, they usually only know how to do this with their hands, which of course isn’t allowed in soccer). Coaches in the 7-8 age group should consider reviewing the material given to coaches in the 5-6 age group, because the 7-8 age group is a cross-over period for these developing players and their experience with the game will benefit from factors taken from the younger age group.
In all age groups, kids should be allowed to learn and explore the game at their own pace and in their own way. A well-structured practice with some instruction and a lot of working with the ball for each kid is best.
Position play can be introduced at any age, but it is important for players in the 7-8 age group to understand at least starting positions. Later, especially in the 9-10 and 11-13 age groups, position play becomes more strategic, and some teaching about offensive and defensive positions and duties can be introduced with gradually increasing complexity. For the players, learning is very hands-on and scrimmaging and game experience will teach about the benefits and consequences of good position play (or play that needs more development, for that matter).
Positions can be drilled by pooling your players (say, in a line up), then calling on your more advanced players to go fill various field positions (ie, “go to the goalkeeper’s spot!” or “go to the left forward spot!” and so forth). Younger or less experienced players can then be drilled to “go substitute Jane in right midfield!” In this way, these players who might not quite grasp positions at least know who their teammates are and have additional clues about where to go. On game day, the ability to go where you need to go becomes valuable timewise.
This format, when used regularly, results in a well-regimented team that knows what to do next and tunes in to your whistle and commands when discipline is needed, and makes practices fun for the kids by giving them plenty of time to just play. The bulk of the time is spent on skills-improvement activity (drills and scrimmages) so they’ll come out of it a better player.
Keep in mind that this is not the only way to conduct a practice, and I’ve seen a lot of other successful methods applied. If you have the time and would like to contribute to the Practices section of the site, please contact me!
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