Gluck: Coaching Youth #Soccer Part I

Soccer is a global sport – and some say it’s the largest, organized, youth sport in the United States Why, in a country with such a huge population of youth soccer players, do we see ourselves failing to qualify for the World Cup? 

I don’t think it’s because we aren’t teaching players the mechanics of technical skills used in soccer I think it’s because we aren’t teaching players HOW to play controlled soccer once the mechanics are mastered.

In order to do this I submit coaches must know HOW to teach players HOW to play soccer. 

  • Decision Making:  In an 80+ minute game your child will probably make as many as 13,000 to 15,000 decisions with about 98% of them occurring while playing ‘without the ball’.
    • That’s roughly three or four total minutes of possessing the ball – in real time – per player for both teams per 80+minute game.
    • Said differently – for roughly 77 minutes during an 80 minute game players are playing soccer without the ball.  Every time a teammate or opponent touches that ball during the 77 minutes the child is making a decision on where to be, when to be, and why to be relative to ball location, their teammates and opponents.
    • If you want to read the details on how I got to those numbers additional information is provided after the end of this article.

If you struggle making decisions you’ll struggle knowing how to play soccer.

  • Players need to know where to be, when to be, and why to be where they need to be. 
    • Between 95% and 98% of a game players play without the ball – therefore it’s critical to help them understand where to be, when to be and why to be.  
  • Positional shape.
    • When your team has the ball or doesn’t have the ball.
    • Players need to know where they need to be in relation to teammates and opponents when they do or don’t have the ball.
    • In a 90+ minute game players play without the ball 98% of the time, this is pretty crucial.
  • Two touch passing.
    • In a 90+ minute game most teams average over 450-550 passes per game.
    • When playing controlled possession-based soccer players need to be able to receive the ball under pressure, turn, and pass the ball, under pressure, in order to retain possession.
    • The more they train two (and eventually one) touch passing the better.
  • Dribbling.  Why is dribbling a controlled possession-based skill?
    • Dribbling is a location specific skill that should only be taught to players who have FIRST mastered the first/second touch and the ability to turn the ball in at least three different directions.
    • Dribbling should only be used where risk, time, and space warrant its use.  Dribbling should rarely occur in the defending final third unless there are acres of space from the nearest opponent; and that’s usually not dribbling with the ball – it’s running with the ball and that’s a different technical skill.
    • In a 90+ minute game, most professional players run eight to nine kilometers, only 200 of those kilometers include close movement with the ball at the feet; dribbling doesn’t occur as often as we think.
  • Standardized communication.
    • Every coach (and club) should have a standardized list of seven or eight words or phrases that have meaning to the players so that they can communicate with those players when on the sidelines.
    • Directing players where to go and what to do, during a game, is NOT my preferred method of coaching; for me that approach is thinking for the player.
    • I’d prefer not to think for players, this is the time for them to learn, make mistakes, and think for themselves.
    • Some words and phrases you may hear from me are: 1) control, 2) risk, 3) settle, 4) keep it simple, 5) shape, 6) push-up, 7) clear, and 8) overload.
    • If I’m saying these words during a game it means the “team” needs to do better in those areas.
  • Recognizing/creating overloads.
    • Creating time and space is crucial.
    • Pass and move the ball to create overloads on the pitch.  Where an overload exists there should be more time and space to penetrate and create shots to score goals.
    • When playing controlled possession-based soccer this approach is the best approach when moving the ball from your defending final third, through the middle third, to the attacking final third.
    • The greater the amount of overloads created the more likely to retain possession and gain penetration in order to score.  Where an under-load occurs, be patient and recycle the ball (move the ball) back to where an overload exists.
    • Some may have heard the phrase “back to square one”.  This phrase originated in soccer and means when all else fails (and you can’t move the ball forward) move it back to the goal keeper (square one) and restart.
  • Recognizing/mitigating under-loads.
    • As offered above, teams look to create overloads in order to gain additional time and space – players need to see these overloads occurring and take appropriate steps to mitigate.
    • Mitigating under-loads is associated with risk; sometimes a coach is willing to cede time and space.  When the coach works this out with the players then they’ll know where to and where not to mitigate under-loads.
  • Control.  (Defending final third, middle third, and attacking final third)
    • There is a considerable amount of training associated with learning control and what and how it applies relative to the three thirds of the pitch..
    • Learning what it means in those different areas of the pitch will take months, if not years to master.
  • Risk.   (Defending final third, middle third, and attacking final third)
    • Like control, there is a considerable amount of training associated with learning risk.
    • Learning what it means in those different areas of the pitch, with different scorelines, will take months, if not years to master.
    • Like teaching control, the earlier this occurs in the development of a player the better.
  • Muscle Memory Mentality.
    • Continued, consistent use of these concepts helps players establish a muscle memory mentality on HOW to play soccer to the point where how they play becomes as second nature to them as tying a shoe.  I hope that makes sense?


In closing:

  • Consistency of purpose and possession with purpose have value.
  • Standardizing HOW to teach players HOW to play soccer at the very lowest level helps establish a strong foundation (base of the pyramid).
  • To ignore the concepts of controlled possession-based soccer is ignoring one of the most fundamental concepts of the game.  Fact:  Teams, at the highest levels of domestic and international soccer, who play a controlled possession-based style, regularly earn more points than teams who don’t.
  • Said differently, there are roughly 8,250 square yards on a soccer pitch, if a team only makes use of around 7,000 square yards (by consistently playing counter-attacking and direct attacking soccer) then your ability to create time and space is only 3/4ths of your opponents.
  • Follow this link, if you want to read Part II of my coaching philosophy. 

Oh… for me it’s important to remember to remind the players to have fun and encourage them to think on their own.

Mistakes are made in soccer – as a coach I’m not judging players on their mistakes – I’m looking for them to learn from them.

Best, Chris


Additional details on estimated number of decisions.

  • Decisions:
    • 21 other players have an opportunity to touch that ball during those 77 minutes
    • Figure change of possession about every 20 seconds (that may be on the low side for an estimate) = three renewals of possession per minute.
    • Three decisions (where to be, when to be, and why to be)
    • All relative to the other 21 players
    • Mathematically that’s
      • 21 players x 77 (minutes) x 3 (renewals) x 3 (where, when, and why) equals ~ 14,000 decisions without the ball.
  • That doesn’t take into account the decisions the child has to make while in possession of the ball.
    • How to receive the ball on the first touch is decision #1,
    • Then what to do with the ball becomes decision #2
      • Turn the ball #3
        • Which direction, left, right, backwards, on-wards? #4 – #7
      • Keep the ball and dribble #8
        • Which direction???  #9 – #12
      • Pass the ball #13
        • Which direction??? #14 – #17
      • Strike the ball #18
        • If space and time exists (where – far post – near post #20 – #21)
      • Clear the ball if in defense #22
    • In every instance the player makes those decisions based upon the location of defenders and teammates – so when dribbling from one area to another the cycle of decision making begins anew.
    • If a player controls the ball at least 50 times during a game that’s as many as 1,100 decisions made playing with the ball.
  • All told that’s roughly 14,000 + 1,100 decisions per game.


  1. Pingback: Gluck: Coaching Youth #Soccer Part II – Possession with Purpose PWP
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