One of the biggest challenges youth soccer coaches face is designing evaluations that are accurate, fair, and balanced to all players. Good evaluations are a critical part of a young player’s development. Most youth coaches fall short of thorough evaluations.
How should you evaluate youth soccer players? Youth soccer players should be evaluated by several criteria including technical skill, physicality, tactical awareness, knowledge, adaptability, and teamwork.
Whether you are a new or veteran youth soccer coach, it is crucial to design practice sessions that will test your players’ skills and provide feedback for players to improve. Evaluations will also provide coaches with invaluable insights that can be used to strategize the approach to every practice and game.
While the evaluation of a youth soccer player’s skill set is ongoing, tryouts are the first, and best, chance for a player to impress their new coach. Players’ technical ability, tactical awareness, knowledge, and personality are all evaluated to formulate an idea of how each player will perform on the field.
Soccer is a fast-paced sport that requires incredible physical endurance and mental clarity to meet the pressures and challenges of the sport. Players are asked to display a huge variety of technical skills while executing maneuvers for tactical advantage.
Players might not be expected to have all of these skills and techniques mastered on their first tryout and coaches select players with different strengths in the hopes of developing a well-rounded and highly skilled teams.
Physicality: The 4 Basic Skills
Soccer requires extreme endurance and fortitude for the fast-paced pressure of games. The physical demands of the game require more than the ability to run across the field for the duration of a game.
Youth soccer coaches are developing physical fitness tests that mimic the actual demands of the sport. Drills designed to test endurance, agility, technique, and strength.
Endurance might be the most obvious required skill. The youngest players only participate in 10- minute halves, but youth leagues for older players run 45-minute halves. Players might be expected to be on the field, running and playing hard, for the entire duration.
Ball control skills require quick reflexes, poise, and self-assertion to execute. Players should be agile and adaptable, able to change directions and maintain control even while dribbling downfield at high speed.
Speed, too, is evaluated in youth soccer players, but not just speed when running straight down the field. Players should be able to move laterally and change direction quickly, sometimes while in possession of the ball. Knowing how and when to decelerate and stop quickly is also crucial.
The best youth soccer players utilize their entire bodies to dominate their opponents. Strength will help players to tackle and regain control of the ball, to change directions or stop on a dime, to sprint at high speeds, and for pure goal-scoring shooting power.
Personality and Attitude
A player’s physical and technical performance can only be as good as their mental acuity and psychological health. The ability to forecast and anticipate opponents’ moves and to decide, during the pressure and intensity of a game, on the best course of action is vital.
Traits of a Strong Youth Soccer Player
Coaches will evaluate players on their personality and attitude to decided which players to draft and which positions to place them in. Personality or mental fitness is weighed equally with physical fitness and skill.
- Responsibility – Coaches want to know that they can count on their players to show up for practice and games and that they will always put their best foot forward
- Determination – Players who want to succeed need to be determined and able to overlook small setbacks and always focus on improving their skills.
- Aggressiveness – Strong players know when to take risks and work hard to take advantage of every situation; however, overly aggressive players can be sore losers or lack self-control.
- Toughness – Mental and physical toughness, the ability to recover from a hard fall or a particularly brutal loss, are necessary for good youth soccer players.
- Self-Control – Players must be able to stay cool-headed in the face of fouls or losses and have the discipline to push themselves through the physical and mental challenges of soccer.
- Confidence – Players who are confident in their skills and techniques will have faster reflexes and not question their instincts. It is both coaches’ and players’ responsibility to maintain a team’s confidence.
- Trustworthiness – Teammates have to be able to trust each other to make the best decisions in the heat of a game and coaches appreciate reliable and communicative players.
- Resilience – Soccer can be tough and the ability to push through losses and keep playing at peak performance even when the outcome of a game looks dire is valuable.
- Adaptability – The agility and speed required in soccer also require players to be able to quickly adapt to changing situations. Strong players are adaptable on and off the field and are always looking to improve.
- Leadership – While not all players need to display that they are leaders, a good coach will identify which members of a team are natural leaders and encourage them to motivate the rest of the team.
- Drive – Strong will and an eagerness to succeed will help a soccer player to always be motivated to practice and improve their skills.
Technical abilities, such as ball control and shooting, are a straightforward way to evaluate players’ skills during tryouts. Younger players are not expected to have mastered these techniques and skills, while experienced players will be held to a higher standard.
Ball control describes a players’ ability to maintain control of the ball when it is played to them. Control comes in after the ball has been passed to a player or after the player collects the ball from the opposing team. This also includes a player’s ability to receive passes and shake opposing players as they move the ball downfield. Soccer balls can reach high speeds and bounce or become airborne. A player’s ability to adapt their skills to maintain control in high-pressure situations is crucial.
Dribbling is a skill involved in ball control. Players will be asked to control the ball while they change directions and speeds, penetrate opposing ranks, or outmaneuver other players; all of that fancy footwork is considered dribbling. The best players will stay calm under the pressure and adapt to rapidly changing situations on the field.
Passing is another aspect of ball control that involves coordination between two or more players. Players must learn to work together to drive the ball between each other while keeping the ball out of opponents’ control. The best teams and players will master one-touch passing and drive the ball toward the goal cooperatively.
Heading, controlling the ball with a player’s head, is a skill that soccer players cannot learn until they are eleven years old. Heading is a valuable defensive and offensive skill that can be used for passing or setting up shooting opportunities. Heading skills can change the outcome of close matches.
Shooting and Scoring
Finishing or shooting describes the skills and awareness required to score goals in soccer. Recognizing chances to score is just as important as the various striking techniques that can lead to victory. Sometimes, players have to use unconventional techniques to surprise goalies and a good scorer can finish by heading, or striking the ball with their chest, knees, thighs, or heels. Aggressiveness, a level head, and a lack of fear of failure can make a good goal scorer.
Technical skills are important, but a player who lacks the judgment and foresight to execute successful passes and plays will not be a well-rounded member of a team. Tactical awareness includes knowledge and understanding of the rules of soccer and the ability to make lightning-quick decisions about the best moves in each situation.
Tactics for Offense
Most of the time, players won’t be in possession of the soccer ball, but acute awareness and the ability to react quickly are just as important as knowing what to do when the player has passed the ball or regains possession from the opposing team.
Not in Possession
Players not in possession of the soccer ball should always be working to make themselves available for a pass when the team is on the attack. A diagonal or cross-over run might be a good tactic to shake opposing teammates and give the player’s team a chance to pass.
Sometimes, it is crucial to stay near the teammate who is in possession of the ball, like when there is a tight group of the opposing team closing in on the ball. Other times, it is good to maintain distance and stay open to passes.
A “take-over” is when a player takes a ball from a teammate’s control, and communication is crucial for a proper take-over. Overlapping occurs when a player moves to the outside of a teammate in possession to make themselves open for a pass. Knowing when to execute maneuvers such as take-overs and overlaps is an important part of a player’s tactical skill set.
Vision and foresight are important in soccer; youth players can’t be expected to be able to predict every situation that might arise on the field but practicing quick reflexes and attention to detail help players to succeed.
Players should always be on the lookout for how to utilize other players down the field, mentally charting a path to deliver the ball from their current position to the opposing team’s goal. This includes judging when to pass and when to keep control of, or hold, the ball while overtaking opposing players at top speed.
Good peripheral vision and awareness also help players to keep control of the ball and while predicting the opposing team’s strategies and deflecting any attempts to tackle or intercept passes.
Tactics for Defense
Ball control skills are useless without the ability to regain control of the ball from the opposing team. Players must be able to determine the best techniques to employ to discourage their opponents from passing and shooting goals and to intercept opponents’ plays.
Should you stay close to the player in possession to discourage a pass or fall back in order to anticipate and intercept a pass? The ability to decide which tactic is best in each situation is crucial.
Teamwork and communication are just as vital to defense as to offense. Players should learn to read their opponents and their teammates to ensure seamless coordination.
The goal of any defense is not just to block goals and passes but to regain control of the ball, and players should be on the lookout for every opportunity to regain control of the ball and switch into the offensive.
When building the skills required for this high-energy, fast-paced sport, it can be easy to forget that coordination and teamwork are vital to the success of any team. Good coaches won’t fail to evaluate a player’s ability to work as a member of the team.
Players have a responsibility to respect their teammates, to understand their fellow players’ strengths, and to trust in others’ skills. One player, no matter how skilled or agile, cannot singlehandedly carry a team to victory.
Coaches will often design drills and exercises to test a player’s ability to work as a team, such as staging mock scrimmages or running one-touch-pass drills.
Evaluation of youth soccer players’ skills and abilities does not stop at tryouts and continues into practice and the season. Coaches will design drills to both improve players’ abilities and to continue evaluating their skills and progress. The most dedicated coaches do a beginning, middle, and end of the season of evaluation. This allows for the most amount of improvement.
Players should be aware that their agility, speed, strength, and endurance will constantly be tested and should always be looking for opportunities to improve both physically and mentally.
How to Evaluate Drills
When running drills, players should be aware of what skills are being tested and coaches should be constantly evaluating players along standard measures. It is important that coaches evaluate all players by the same standards:
- Pay attention to who likes to play defense and who is aggressive and confidently engages in offensive play.
- Determine who your best shooters are and communicate that with your team. Have them explain their skills and techniques to the rest of the team. Having players teach their skills will help them to understand their strengths better and benefit the entire team.
- Watch which players have the best ball control, which are the best passers and tacklers, and be sure to discourage players from being a ball hog. Youth soccer is the perfect time to impress upon players that teamwork is crucial to success.
- You might have some weaker players on your youth team in order to fill it out. Coaches might be inclined to neglect those players and to devote time to improving their best players, but this will come at a cost. It is vital for coaches to impress upon every player how important each member of the team is and to help develop weak players’ skills.
- How players behave off of the field can be important for evaluating player’s attitudes and personalities and can help identify leaders and which players need a confidence boost.
Drills for Evaluation
Here is a list of some drills that coaches can use to continuously evaluate their player’s progress:
Running will surely be a part of every team’s practice routine, but a little friendly competition can really drive players to push themselves. Having a 40-meter foot race can help you to determine who your fastest, most agile players are. (You might decrease the distance for younger players).
Determining which players can do a proper and expedite throw-in is crucial because many will happen each game. Place players on a line and teach them the fundamentals. Have them practice without a ball for a while, then pair them up and see who can make the longest throw-ins. Note that, while it may be tempting to use your best players for throw-ins, it is safest to have midfielders make them.
Fundamentals, Strength, and Balance
Don’t be afraid to have players engage in drills that don’t specifically coordinate with in-game moments. Players should continuously build strength, speed, and agility through exercises that don’t require a ball. Also, be careful not to forget to drill fundamentals like dribbling, passing, and tackling, take-overs, and overlapping.
Stage a small scrimmage without goalies by diving your team in two. Set up cones with to mark goals and the bounds of a small field and find some way to mark the two teams with different colored vests or something similar.
Don’t assign positions and let your players decide, naturally, who will play in what position. Stand on the sidelines with your assistant coaches and only intervene as often as necessary.
Watch closely to who displays which skills and strengths. Who the natural leaders of your team? This is an excellent exercise to evaluate teamwork, personality, and tactical awareness in a low-stakes environment. Find a way to congratulate the winning side without hurting the losing players’ confidence.
Designing Productive Evaluations
Even the best-intentioned coaches sometimes fall into patterns of practice or evaluation that hinder their team’s progress rather than helping them to improve and succeed. Design evaluations that are fair and equal to all players and make sure your evaluations are unbiased so that you don’t accidentally set players back with evaluations.
Make the Skills Being Evaluated Clear to Players (and Parents)
It might seem like it would be smart not to tell players what you are looking for to see how they play without prompting them to use specific skills. If you don’t let your players know what you are looking for, though, you risk them putting extra effort into the wrong skills.
For example, if you design a drill that uses a ball to evaluate players’ speed and agility, players might concentrate on ball control and show off some fancy footwork rather the getting the ball down the field as quickly as possible.
Transparent communication is a good practice to keep as a coach. If you tell your players what you are looking for in plain language, you are sure to see them put all their effort into displaying that skill. Also, dedicated parents of players will want to know that you are evaluating their children fairly and equally, and setting clear evaluation guidelines will keep parents happy.
Design Simple Evaluations
Don’t design drills or evaluations that test too many skills or techniques at once. Keeping evaluations simple and straightforward will ensure that your evaluations are focused and fair.
If you try to concentrate on evaluating too many skills at once, you won’t be able to accurately evaluate each of those skills in each player. More advanced and skilled players can handle more complex drills and you should challenge your players without overloading them.
Additionally, if you are making the skills you evaluate clear to players, telling them that you will be evaluating a bunch of skills at once will confuse and distract them.
Stick to the 4 Basic Skills
If you find that your evaluations are becoming too complex, that you are having trouble communicating your expectations or the results of your evaluations to players, take it back to the four basic skills: speed, agility, strength, and endurance.
Design evaluations around these four skills to begin with. Maybe you will design some basic evaluations for tryouts and the pre-season and begin to increase the complexity of expectations once the season starts.
This will be crucial, especially for the younger and newer players that you are sure to encounter in youth soccer leagues. Be patient if it seems that your players aren’t improving and look for ways to switch-up your coaching to motivate your team.
Move into evaluations of personality, tactical awareness, and advanced techniques only when you are sure that your players grasp the importance of constantly working to improve fundamental skills.
Beware of Bias
It is natural to praise your strong players and push your weaker players harder, and those biases might seep into your evaluations. Design evaluations that force you to be fair to all players.
Maybe one day your strongest shooter and scorer isn’t performing as well as usual, but you let it slide because he usually performs really well. With luck, the player will correct the behavior themselves but if you are lenient on that player in evaluations for the day, they won’t know that they’re expected to push themselves to perform and improve at all times.
Also, it can be easy to overlook weaker players’ improvements when strong players are consistently outperforming them. Acknowledging their improvement is vital to weak players’ confidence.
Use Evaluations as Encouragement, not for Shame
This is a logical step when avoiding bias in evaluations but be sure that you don’t fall prey to the impulse to shame weak players when they aren’t performing well. Shame will not improve players’ confidence or resilience and will discourage them from putting in the effort.
Spend extra time with players who consistently perform poorly on evaluations rather than focusing all your attention on stronger players. The best coaches will know how to find strengths in even the weakest players and use both compliments and constructive criticism to push a player to improve.
Evaluate by Observation, not Memory
When you are conducting evaluations, make sure that you are not relying on memory of your players’ performances to judge their skills, techniques, and abilities. Make evaluation forms and bring them to practice on a clipboard.
Before starting each drill or exercise, have the corresponding evaluation sheet on hand and ready to fill in. You don’t want to have to judge players based on your memory of them. That’s not fair to the player or the rest of the team.
It’s especially important not to try to fill in evaluations hours after practice. This will leave you open to more bias and you might remember the events of practice differently than they actually occurred.
If you evaluate your players by memory, you won’t be prepared to congratulate your weaker players when they perform especially well, and you won’t realize until it’s too late if your strongest players are slipping.
Remember: Evaluations are a Tool
With all the focus on evaluations in this article, it might be easy to lose sight of the fact that evaluations are a tool to use in your coaching and shouldn’t be the focus of your practices and drills.
Don’t let evaluations distract from training players in fundamentals and learn to recognize when it’s best to evaluate and when its best just to coach. Not every drill, practice, exercise, or activity needs to be evaluated and, if they are, both coaches and players will get burned out quickly.
Coaches that place too much gravity on evaluations will make players feel like they are in constant competition with each other which will hurt team morale and hinder progress. This is especially true when working with younger soccer players in youth leagues.
Finding the perfect balance between motivation and constructive criticism can be difficult but, if you remember the advice in this article, you are sure to design and conduct fair evaluations that help you lead your team to countless victories.
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