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Coaching Soccer Players 1 on 1

I just received a complimentary e-mail on our soccer web site and training materials from the owner of Coachable in Australia. Allan Edwards also pointed me to a very important concept he is advocating: The benefits of coaching athletes in a 1 on 1 environment. You can find more about that here: 1 on 1 Soccer Coaching.

This caused me to reflect on my own coaching experience, including my current role of being the goalkeeping coach for a competitive U 12 team. I realized that the one experience I haven’t shared much is the 1 on 1 coaching I have done to supplement team training sessions. It’s not that I haven’t done much of it, quite the opposite, I have done lots of it. But until I read Allan’s material it didn’t occur to me that coaches MAY NOT be doing this.

WHY 1 ON 1 ?

In team training sessions we tend to run soccer drills in various size groups. It seems the most practical way to teach a team and the most relevant to incorporate game situations. However, at any level of soccer, even at the Pro level, it becomes fairly obvious that not all players execute technique or tactics in the same way. Some are better than others, some are more motivated for certain drills, some are physically more suited for certain exercises. Which gets me back to our FOUR PILLARS OF SOCCER (TM) – Technical Skills, Tactical Development, Physical Fitness, Mental Fitness. All soccer players are different in how they learn, process, and execute any four of these pillars. So augmenting team training with individual coaching is critical. It allows you to understand what prevents an individual from perfecting a particular aspect of the game.

HOW 1 ON 1?

What I have always done is keep notes on every player. I evaluate them against the FOUR PILLARS, scoring then against various technical skills, tactical understanding/execution, physical condition, and mental approach to games and practices. I have done this in an age and competitive appropriate level from U3 to University teams. This provides a fairly robust understanding of the priorities for each player.

I then plan some individual coaching into a practice session. This is where a knowledgable assistant or co-coach is extremely valuable. One coach can run the team drill while the other can take individuals aside for some 1 on 1 coaching. In addition I have offered individuals to stay after practice/game, come before practice/game. I have also slotted special sessions focussing on a particular element of soccer, such as shooting technique. The players requiring extra development are invited.

The key is to understand why an individual is challenged executing a certain skill or tactical move. It could be lack of comprehension, body mechanics, lack of experience, etc. Once the reason has been identified then the proper corrective actions can be developed and trained. At this level of detail it is easy to understand that 1 on 1 coaching is not a common occurrence in a team practice environment. So some structured thought and plan has to be incorporated into the soccer seasonal plan.

The one position that makes it somewhat easier to coach 1 on 1 is that of goalkeeper. Typically a youth team has two keepers, a pro team three. Smart teams will have a goalkeeper coach and there is typically a fair amount of goalkeeper training set aside during a team practice session. By definition it is 1 on 2/3 and there is plenty of opportunity for some 1 on 1.

Case Study

I will use my current example of goalkeeper training as a small case study.

Regarding technical skills my two goalkeepers were dropping catchable high balls consistently. On first glance nothing seemed wrong. They got in position behind the ball, reacted fast enough to the ball, and had their hands on the ball at the right point. They were correctly taught the theory of forming a W with their hands and upon close inspection consistently formed that W. Until I realized that their hands were too small to get a good grip on the ball with their thumbs as closely together as shown in this picture. 

So I suggested to “open up” the W a bit, spreading their thumbs and getting their little finger around the ball more. After a few tries to get used to it they stopped dropping the ball. So what happened with these competitive U12 keepers who had received specialized training in soccer goalkeeping academies? What happened was that the academy has adult instructors who showed them the proper W grip, with their big hands. The group contained players of all ages and sizes and the larger players had no problem. But the instructors never realized that the precise hand position might pose a problem for players with smaller hands and fingers.

Another example was focussing on the ready position for various type of game situations. Goalies know that the closer the attacker is the more they have to crouch down, bending their knees. One of my keepers couldn’t crouch as low as necessary. I thought there was some laziness or lack of comprehension involved. When I took the keeper aside and talked about it new information came to light. The hamstrings hurt when crouching. There was no prior injury and I hadn’t observed the issue earlier in the season. An examination by a physiotherapist revealed structural problems in the lower body which was getting worse with growth spurts, but which can be addressed with therapy. In the mean time the keeper and I developed a different technique of stopping close-in shots to compensate for the lack of “crouchability”.

I am sure that you will have ample examples of players not doing exactly what they should. Before you pass judgment on their abilities, find out what is causing the issue and offer the player some methods of correcting it. The player will develop to a higher potential and the team will be more successful

Coach tom


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Soccer Stretches

Stretching before a soccer practice or game is a common practice, and has been since the mid 20th century. Why do we need to stretch? To prepare muscles and ligaments for vigorous activity avoiding muscle pulls/tears and ligament injuries. Imagine not stretching. A player would come to a game, say in cooler weather, with all muscles in their normal state. Then you go into a sprint followed by a tackle and leg muscles are moving quickly and are extended to the maximum. It would be a shock to them and their natural resistance might cause an instant pull or tear. Having properly warmed up and “pre-stretched” the muscles reduces the gap between their rest and activity state. In a way it is like waking up in the morning and going to work. Most of us need to go through a routine before getting out of bed, have breakfast, read the paper, and shower. This allows the brain to warm up, stretch and be ready to drive to work. Not many of us can be woken out of a deep sleep, hop into the car, and drive with full alertness.

How should soccer players stretch?

When I played the standard was to get together in a group and go through a routine of hamstring, quad, calf, and back stretches. Later this was called static stretching. Then in the 1970’s the idea of incorporating motion was added. You would see players run a few laps and then gather to stretch. Why? Because stretching muscles that weren’t warmed up still had injury risk if you didn’t increase the amount of stretch gradually. Most coaches didn’t know about that so players injured themselves during stretching. I will say that I was one of the first coaches in the 1990’s to combine the traditional stretches with my philosophy of maximizing touches of the ball. Each player would have a ball and walk/dribble or do low speed run/pass work with a partner. In between the drills there would be a stretch. It was more fun and warmed up muscles while stretching them. Muscle/ligament injuries were extremely low.

Somehow in the last 20 years the idea of the classic stretches has been abandoned. What we see teams do now is a routine without the ball, moving legs in various ways (big swings to the left, right, larger steps, jumps, etc.). It is choreographed and looks nice. It is also fun. It is called dynamic stretching because at no point does a player stand still and do a traditional stretch.

So what is the right way? The jury is out. What I do know is that there have never been more muscle injuries at the professional level than in the last 10 years. In fact teams have fired and rehired entire medical/fitness staffs because of injury problems and recurring injuries after rehabilitation. Is it because the pre-game routine is not working? Is it because the demands of the game have increased? We don’t know. It’s not as much of an issue with children or youth because their bodies are naturally more flexible.

Somehow I think that the mixed dynamic/static model I introduced in the 1990’s has merit. The techniques can be updated but the principle is sound. I say that because in all of the dynamic stretching I don’t see the muscles being challenged enough to withstand game action.

But you decide for yourself. We offer both models on our web site and in our books. For static stretches, incorporated into a dynamic warm up, click Soccer Stretches.

For a “modern” dynamic stretching routine, click Dynamic Warm Up


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Soccer Coach’s Preparation for Practice Session

To be optimally prepared for your soccer practice takes, …well,  practice.

Set up ALL your drill grids/cones before the practice starts so that no time is wasted between drills. Sometimes the movement or addition of a few cones in a few seconds gets the next drill ready Spend no more than 30 seconds (60 seconds for very young children) explaining/demonstrating the drill and then step outside the drill grid to observe. The coach needs to really rehearse and be mentally ready to be this efficient and effective. When a correction is necessary, stop the drill and in 30 seconds explain what went wrong and how to fix it. Then step out again. “Teaching/talking” time should be no more than 60-90 seconds per 15 minute drill. Our soccer drill pages that go with each practice plan give you helpful tips on how to modify practices and what to do when the drill isn’t going as planned. Be ready to adjust your drill on the fly. Think through and perhaps use one of the techniques we teach: Visualization.

Break each exercise into as small a group as possible, each group running the same drill. My favourite example is shooting drills. I still see 11 kids line up in front of a goal for shots. In 10 minutes every child is lucky to get three shooting (ball touches) opportunities. That’s boring and ineffective. Instead I suggest setting up 4 goals with three kids each. One in goal (you find new goalies and train existing ones) and two take shots. Have a volunteer behind each goal to retrieve the ball and throw it back to the shooter (needs to control ball and dribble it to starting point – more touches). While the first shooter gets their ball back and gets ready, the second player shoots. Then rotate the goalie after two shots each. Everyone is busy all the time. There are variations so shooters sprint (fitness training) to retrieve their ball and dribble (skill, more touches) it back to get ready.
Have a good practice,

Coach Tom

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Running Effective Soccer Practice Sessions

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Here are the keys to running effective soccer practice sessions. This is based on observing 1,000s of practices combined with the learning from coaching certification programs we attended.

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  1. Maximum number of touches on the ball for each player and constant movement with or without the ball are critical. To really develop soccer skills youth players need about 4,000 touches on the ball per week. I have seen practices where in an hour a player gets 30-40 touches. They stand in line, listen to the coach or are in extended scrimmages and aren’t involved. Our practice plans get between 600 and 800 touches per hour. In a situation where a competitive team practice 5-8 hours a week the 4,000 touches would be achievable.[separator top=”10″]
  2. Holistic session incorporating skill, tactics, fitness, mental elements all culminating in a game situation scrimmage at the end, and united by a theme (i.e. counterattack, zonal defending, etc.). Players need to know the relevance of each drill to playing the game and running a bunch of random drills doesn’t work.[separator top=”10″]
  3. Injecting a reasonable amount of humour and fun to give a mental break from the concentration and focus required for each drill.