Coaching Youth Soccer: Teaching Progressions and Building Proper Foundation for OFF THE BALL MOVEMENT and FINDING SPACE

The biggest mistakes I see from youth soccer coaches, whether they be parent, or worse, they are paid to coach, is the failure to follow teaching progressions and failure to communicate with youth players.   Coaches that teach complex ideas using foreign soccer jargon to 8-12 year old “competitive” soccer players waste time.  It also waste an opportunity to teach.  Why do we do it?

1.  The biggest reasons coaches fail here is that they have not properly identified the problem.  This comes from two main reasons:  (a) the failure of the coach to give the team and players her focus and attention, and (b) lack of experience.   If you cannot see the problem, then you cannot correct it.  Failing to identify means coaches miss the boat on what to teach.  Identifying the issues requires focus and effort — even though it is mental effort.  It is taxing.  It is work.  It means not talking on your cell phone during a session.  It means thinking about each of your players and how you can help them.

Lack of experience is a problem because a coach’s inexperience with youth players, regardless of the level the coach played at, can make it hard to identify and communicate with younger players.  This is particularly true if the coach does not have kids.

2.  Coaches use the wrong vocabulary.  Besides identification, communication is essential.  If you are using the wrong words, phrases, or actions, at the wrong time, you are failing to communicate. Using soccer phrases that sound good and make you look smart are not helpful if the players do not understand them.

Like in the Courtroom

When a lawyer wants to offer a piece of evidence in a trial, he has to “lay the foundation” for the evidence.  There are a series of facts that must be developed to make sure the evidence is trustworthy.  If you skip the foundational steps, the evidence will not be admitted.  So, before you offer a piece of evidence, you have to go through the predicate questions for the piece of evidence.  Only once those are completed can you ask the Court — “Your Honor, we move for Exhibit A to be admitted.”  If you have failed to go through the proper predicates, there will be an objection that is sustained and your evidence will not be admitted.  You cannot skip steps.  Coaching soccer, to me, is much the same.  You have to lay a proper foundation of knowledge and language with players before you can expect the players to understand more advanced concepts of the game.

Roadbuilding?

OK…so you do not like the evidence example.  Let me try another analogy that I know less about — road building.  I purchased a home some time ago with a long private driveway.  The prior owner paid to have the long driveway paved.  However, shortcuts were taken in the preparations for the asphalt.  The quality of the dirt as a base was poor; there was not enough lime; etc., etc.  My understanding after the fact is that all of these factors had to be met for the road to last in usable form.  So, the road looked great initially and performed well for a short time.  But, over time, the shortcuts taken in the foundation of the road’s inadequacies became apparent to all.  Such is the case with soccer players — if we fast forward through the foundation issues — maybe solving problems for players, making ourselves look good (and even winning games) — what we may be seeing is fool’s gold.  And, while it may look good at first, pot holes may surface later when those players are on a different team with a different coach.

Examples of Foundation/Communication Issues in Coaching Soccer regarding Off the Ball Movement 

1.  Problem:  players do not move into space to be a passing option when your team has the ball.  Solution: proper off the ball movement.  Phrases that are not helpful:

a.  “Spread Out.”  Lacks direction; not specific enough; vague.

b.  “it is more important where you go when you don’t have the ball than what you do with the ball”  Not helpful – not instructive – not specific – I unfortunately have said this a lot.  This is just a coach wanting to hear himself speak.

c.  “Get open”  vague; not specific; no orientation principle; not helpful.

d.  “Lose your marker.”  Could be good if you have taken the time to explain what a “marker” is.

e.  “Get away from each other.”  Not helpful; usually mean-spirited; not specific; vague; negative coaching.

f.  ‘Freeze…if I threw a grenade here, how many would die?”  Too much death; usually mean-spirited; not helpful; not specific; negative coaching.

g.  “On offense we want to make the field as big as possible.”  Vague; lecturing; coach hearing himself speak.  This is another one I have said a lot.

h.  “Play wider.”  Vague; joysticking — don’t give them the answers (even if it is the answer you want them to have).

i.  “Hit the early pass”  Vague; joysticking; not specific.  While passing early is a great idea, and one that can make a coach look good, at the ages outlined above, it is not necessarily the best thing to tell a player from the sideline.  Ask a 9-year-old:  “What is an early pass?  An early cross?”  See what kind of response you get.  Let them decide when to pass – do not tell them.  

j.  “Play it to so-and-so” or “Pass it to so-and-so.”  Please stop.  You are harming your players.  Yes, you can make all the decisions for your U9 team from the sidelines and your team can dominate and look great.  But you are not helping them.  We call this joysticking.

k.  (To the wide players) “Get to the line.”  Great – you have an orientation point – that is helpful.  I have used this a lot.  The concept can be effective and helpful – but are there ways we can get them to come to this answer without us giving it to them?

Quit trying to impress the parents or kids with your soccer expressions.  Coaches that spend time with lots of these “look what I know statements” are usually wanting people to hear their ideas and how much they know rather than trying to help the players get better.  Focus instead — how can you get through to your players?  How can you help them learn?  Here are some I have learned (and I am learning all the time).

Phrases that are better:

a.  “Can you find space when your team has the ball? Where?  Show me”

b.  “Where is space to receive the ball?”

c.  “Get away from the closest defender to you.”  This can be shortened to “Lose” vs. “Get away” if you have covered that ground.  Otherwise, it may be confusing.  “Defender” can be replaced with “marker” if you have covered that vocabulary.   This is a much better way to say “we want to make the field as big as possible when we have the ball.”  I love this expression because it is something they get — they know how to run away from people.  And, when you cover the next point, they start to learn WHY they need to do it.

d.  “Would you rather receive the ball with a defender next to you or without a defender next to you?”  I have yet to have a player answer this question by stating they want the ball with a defender next to them.  This is a great question to teach the concept of off-the-ball movement.  To get even deeper into the issue, start with this:  “how do you feel when you receive a ball with a defender next to you?”  then ask “how do you feel when you receive the ball in open space?”  Let them talk.  You listen.  Then, in sessions, if you freeze a session while working on it, ask one of them to provide the coaching point, not you.   If you want to talk, use their language and answers that they gave.  I guarantee you that the answer to these questions is what you want to teach — so let them help teach. This goes to the heart of what you are trying to teach, not correcting a symptom.

e.  To the player with the ball (passing): “How can you pass to your teammate to get them to an open area?”  “Where is space to pass to your teammate?”  “What if your teammate is standing next to a defender – where can you pass the ball to give them space?”  What you are teaching here is not to play their teammate into trouble — but, don’t say it that way — it is too vague.  Let them answer and talk and solve.  You listen.  You have phrased the question in such a way that, again, they are going to give you the answer you want.  Let them say it in their words — by doing this, you also improve your coaching vocabulary because you learn the words that they use, at their age (whatever it may be) to express the idea.

f.  To the player with the ball (dribbling):  “Can you use your dribble to find an open area?”  “How fast can you dribble into an open area?”  “Where are open areas you can dribble into?”  “How can you separate from the defender marking you?”   An epidemic in coaches is to over-teach passing to players with the ball to get out of trouble.  An epidemic with players at this age when dribbling is to always go forward – even if they receive the ball facing their own goal – they turn into pressure.  Again, don’t tell them where to dribble — let them solve it and express it.

g.  To the player receiving a pass or winning a 50/50 ball: “where can you touch the ball to have space?”  “where can you touch the ball to get away from the charging defender?”  A question I love to ask to teach taking a first touch on the ball in a direction other than where the ball came from is this (I ask this before I ask them where they can take their first touch”):  “who else is coming with the ball?”  This applies to a 50/50 ball or a pass from a teammate.  We all know the answer – so do they.  They do not want to receive the ball with a defender on top of them.  So let them solve the problem.

h.  “Where can you go to help your teammate who has the ball?  We all know that the player with the ball is going to be under high pressure. But let them tell you — “for your teammate with the ball — what is it like for them?  Do you think that they have time to find open players? is it helpful for them to hear their name being yelled?”  (without directional support, this is a big distraction but something kids this age love to do).  So…”where can you go to be helpful to them?”  I love talking about this with players.  The word “support” for help is good if you have taught it — but help is better at first.  I have seen a lot of methods to teach this – and I have evolved.  Once you cover the “why” support (because the player is under great pressure and needs help), the “where” question can lead to a great answer.  Forget guiding them to “where her hips are pointing” “in space”  or some other soccer nonsensical expression — simplify.  Guide them this way — “where can you go to help your teammate? ” Answer – “where they can see you without a lot of work on their part!”   It may take time to get to this answer – so what – take the time.  It is that important.  So, “where can you go to help your teammate under pressure?”  One answer (and there are others too – but kids this age struggle with this so bad I start here) is “in front of their eyeballs.”    Kids get this.  It is specific.  It is directional.  It is a body part they all know (not sure how many of them can tell you what their hips are or how to read a players hips).   It means you are not behind a defender.  Forget about angles of approach – teach this first as a foundational point.  It also reinforces a great passing point of “play the direction you are facing.”  I love it for targets.  I love it for center-mids (make your approach where they can see you somehow).  I love it for outside backs supporting.  I love it for center-backs.  I love it for keepers.

  • It can be used to teach when to overlap (right mid is 1v1 with left back — facing forward — a “support” position is not that helpful.
  • It is a great way to teach when and where to drop a ball
  • It can help the center mid learn the angle of approach without using those words
  • It teaches the forward not to plant in the ground – but to be active and helpful (and not to run away from the play every time asking for a ball).
  • It is a great way to teach when to play the ball backwards or to the keeper.

I know there are times when you can use directional phrases to great effects but I have had great success with this phrase to help the players know where to offer support off the ball.   It means that the player has to move laterally and in front of defenders to get in the eyeball zone.  No standing around waiting on the ball to come to you.

A Pre-Game Warmup I love for teaching these concepts:

I coach a lot of U11 and U12 games and U8-10.  I warmup every game with a passing exercise to reinforce touching the ball into space or turning with the first touch to find space most games.  (If I am doing a U8-9 game, I may tailor this to more dribbling but still do some pairs passing).  Pairs passing, 10×10 (or whatever room you can make)(half as many balls as players):

(1) can you touch every piece of grass while you pass the ball around?  (emphasize ball on the ground) Similar to “paint the square” – which I love – make sure the kids are using this as a dynamic warmup.

 (2) can you turn the ball with your first touch? (avoid saying “side-on” or “back foot” unless you have explained it to them (I start here because I over-emphasize using back foot;  my experience at this age is they almost always use their front foot and touch back to the direction the ball came from;)

(3) can you disguise your turn? (we don’t always do this but they like it because you can teach feints, dummies, etc.)

(4) can you touch the ball into an open area on your first touch? (now they can use front or back foot – I don’t care where the space is)

(5) now, once we have done that, remind them ?when do you need to identify that area – before you receive the ball or after? Teach them to look around them before the ball comes to them and prepare their body for their next move.

(6) in what direction will the space be? (remember, it is a square, no goals, so the answer is anywhere — I do this because most of these players only ever want to go forward)

  (7) what can you do with your body before you receive the ball and after you have identified the open space?

 (8) once through that, I add: “now, once you have touched it into open space, can you dribble quickly into that space (2 touch speed dribble if you have room, if not 2 touch close dribble but fast), then relax and find your next pass (watch for acceleration after the touch – encourage it); “burst into the space”

(9) ?why relax before the pass? (Most kids this age rush too much all the time — I have found that if given time, they usually make good decisions; so, rather than coach decisions, I try to get them into places where I know they will succeed);

(10) Now, after you have identified the space, touched into it, then dribbled quickly into it, can you turn the ball before you pass?  (pull back, outside foot, inside foot)

(11) to the receiver – can you ask for the ball in space?  how?  where?  how do you communicate it? how do you ask for the ball at your feet?  can you check away from the ball to create space? (I usually do not let them talk to each other to call for the ball — to small of an area and too many voices gets too loud).

 (12) add a couple defenders.

Usually, by (12), our field is open and we can move to a larger warmup incorporating some shooting or some targets with defenders.

I will add some more posts on foundations and language for other concepts like shooting, center-mid play (a struggle from 8-12), defending, and others.  If you have expressions or foundation issues you have worked through, please post them here and we can share and learn together.  I learn every time I watch another coach teach a session – I learn a phrase, a concept, a way to teach.  Please share your ideas.

I have shared in this post some of the phrases it has taken me years to develop.  I know they are not perfect.  And they have changed over time (and I suspect they will continue to change).  I look forward to your experiences and phrases too!

13 thoughts on “Coaching Youth Soccer: Teaching Progressions and Building Proper Foundation for OFF THE BALL MOVEMENT and FINDING SPACE”

  1. This is great! I was just coaching my U9 girls team on Monday about players off of the ball trying to get in an open area on the field to help out their teammate who has the ball. I was saying that it’s quite simple — if a defender is between you and the player with the ball, then you need to move in an open space. I was just thinking today while driving home from work that maybe I needed something more visual for them to imagine. So, I thought could tell them to imagine a pink, thick (hold my arms out wide) line on the grass from themselves to their teammate with the ball. Is a player from the other team standing on this imaginary line between you and your teammate? If so, then move to another area on the field. I am then thinking of having two teams wearing different color pennies/bibs run randomly around in a coned off area.then I would blow the whistle to freeze play. I’d place the ball at a random player’s feet and then ask her teammates to move to an area on that field that would help her all the while having the player with the ball and the players on the other team (defenders in different colored pennies/bibs) remain still. After they start to get the concept, then maybe I will start to give them. say time them for 5 seconds to get in a good area that will help their teammate with the ball. Once they understand what they need to do, then only give them 3 seconds to move into position, etc. (this would probably be something that we continue to come back to throughout the season. Thoughts on this approach?

  2. Oh, in addition, I will tell them to imagine a circle of a certain size around their teammate with the ball. (I will need to think of how to specify a size without saying a normal unit of measure such as yards, feet, etc. Perhaps the center circle as a reference… Might be too large. Or place a circular pattern of cones around the player I give the ball to so they can visually see the circular area). I could tell them when moving into an area on the field that helps your teammate, to not stop and stand in the circle (they can quickly run through it if need be), but still make sure you can “see” their entire pink line that goes straight to their teammate with the ball. I’m thinking this may help them stay spread out. Thoughts?

    1. Daniel: My first comment is that if you are excited about the teaching aid, then they will be excited about it. It does seem a bit elaborate but give it a shot. I prefer a simpler approach — I would recommend the question: “do you like to have the ball with a defender nearby?” let them tell you. That is going to be the best discussion you will have to teach off the ball movement. Follow up – “if you don’t want the ball with a defender nearby, where can you go? AND when should you go there (when your team has the ball). Good luck with the activity and keep working. As you probably know, the younger players feed off your energy. So, if you come to practice excited about a new approach, they will love it. It shows them that you care — and, even at that age — that makes you more effective.

  3. I have often wondered how I can quickly pick up more coaching phrases that my 10 year olds will understand, aside from taking the time to observe more experienced coaches at work. You have provided a brilliant solution – allow the kids opportunities to provide the coaching points in their own words. The answer has been right in front of me all along!

  4. Thanks a lot for this post – this topic is an extremely important one. This ability to communicate to young players makes a huge difference in effectiveness of a training session, yet I have not found much treatment of this in books, coaching courses, etc (Horst Wein’s book does have a lot of specific examples of guided questions). It is also a skill that requires attention to detail and a lot of practice. I have used several of the poor phrases, thankfully not the grenade one, ha ha. I agree that these are not very effective. I have also used several of the proposed helpful phrases. I especially like “where can you go to help your teammate with the ball?”, followed by “why is that more helpful to them?”. A couple additional but related questions I have found effective: A common situation (problem) is when young players make a pass and then stand still to admire their handiwork. In those cases I like to ask, in the flow of play, “where can you go *now* to help?” When passing, sometimes players pick out the correct teammate to pass to, but fail to recognize which of their teammate’s feet to pass to, or which area around their teammate to pass into. I will ask “Where would your teammate like to go with the ball?” and then, “So where would you pass the ball so that it is easy for them to go there?”

    1. Love the questions – keep them coming. I bet you discovered that writing them down, even in this reply, helps you work on them…Helps me too. If you want to ask quality questions, you have to put the time in with the word choice. In the law field, we literally write and re-write our questions well before trial (for voire dire, cross, etc.) Thanks for contributing. Keep them coming.

  5. Clint this article is exactly what I needed. I coach two U10 boys team A & B. I have done a great job of teaching my A team over the last three years the ball skills and passing and shooting needed. And feel that my team has the skill to play at a high level. and every game we loose my players are more skilled but we still loose. Its communication and I am joysticking my players like I am playing fifa. I have been looking for what I am doing wrong for awhile now. Thank you very much

  6. I’m late to the post here but dang this is good stuff. I cringed when reading some of the bad phrases I have used. I feel like my U10 boys are improving their footwork and 1 v 1 skills but can’t connect in a game to move the ball up the field. This is a great start! I can’t wait to start dropping these gold nuggets and thinking of effective drills and games to help teach them.

  7. really glad i found this, thank you for posting. i had my first practice of the season last night and this is the 1st group of boys in some time i’ve had bunching up on the ball so intensely, likely due to player and previous coaching inexperience where it seems kick and chase was praised. the range of skills mixed w/ some of the boys difficulty listening was a real wake up call and i have my work cut out for me this year. the solutions here make a lot of sense to me and dovetail nicely with my own idea that simplicity is key.

    -mike

Love to read your thoughts...