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? 

It isn’t because were aren’t teaching players the mechanics of executing technical skills in soccer it’s because we aren’t teaching players HOW to play controlled possession-based 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 5,000 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.
    • And since 21 other players have an opportunity to touch that ball during those 77 minutes that equals (3 decisions – where, when, and why) times 77 minutes times 21 other players who could be possessing the ball.
    • Roughly 4,851 decisions without the ball.
    • That doesn’t take into account the decisions the child has to make while in possession of the ball.
    • In other words:



Players need to know where to be, when to be, and why to be where they need to be.  If you struggle making decisions you’ll struggle knowing how to play soccer. 

  • 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 never occur in the defending final third unless there are acres of space from the nearest opponent.
    • In a 90+ minute game, most professional players run eight to nine kilometers, only 200 of those kilometers include movement with the ball; 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 coaching; that approach is thinking for the player.
    • As coaches our job isn’t to think for players it’s to let them learn, make mistakes, and think for themselves.
    • My words/phrases are 1) control, 2) risk, 3) settle, 4) keep it simple, 5) shape, 6) push-up, 7) clear, and 8) overload.
    • I use all of these words/phrases during my training sessions and use them as reminders before and during a game.  If I’m saying these words during a game it means the “team” needs to do better in those areas.
    • For me this is a crucial part to help youth develop “muscle memory mentality”.
  • 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 more about Possession with Purpose. 

Oh… and it’s important to remember to remind the players to have fun – it’s no good if the environment is to serious…  and in encouraging players to think on their own should help them understand that when mistakes are made, I, as the coach are not judging them on their mistake but I am looking for them to learn from it.

Have coaching director vacancy, will travel.

Of interest – I’ve just published Coaching Youth Soccer Part II >>> here is a link.

Best, Chris



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