It’s a fact; more hours will be spent preparing for matches than the time spent in matches themselves. This exists in all sports. Great coaches know this and have a process in place for planning and strategizing. Every great team and season starts with top training sessions to elevate the players to the next level.
“Victory or defeat is not determined at the moment of crisis, but rather in the long and unspectacular period of preparation.”
There is so much information available today about drills and techniques about pushing your players to the next level. All of this important but we need a larger framework to work within to keep everything organized. Have you ever walked away from practice feeling like something was missing?
This guide is prepared to help you navigate through a practice session. We will discuss the basics of a session, considerations, and different styles to use.
What Is the Structure of a Session?
The most common session follows the general structure of a session is a warm-up, main topic/theme, and a scrimmage. Another way to think about this is similar to a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of a story is to warm the reader up to the characters and story, just like a warm-up is to engage and wake up the bodies of your players. The middle of a story is to build the story and lay the groundwork, similar to practice where players learn new skills via structured drills. The ending brings everything together and a scrimmage is no different.
A warm-up consists of dynamic stretching, light drills, jogging to bring the body temperature up. Warm-ups are a crucial part of every training session. As a coach, parents put a lot of trust in keeping their children safe. Medical research studies have conflicting results on warm-ups and injury prevention. However, there are few risks with a good warm-up. If true, it is one of the easiest ways to keep players healthy and happy.
Warm-ups help young players get engaged in the game. A lot of the time they come directly from the school where they have been sitting down all day. Warm-ups will activate their brains, so they will be ready to stay focused during practice. This is might be the best benefit.
Every few weeks add some variety to the warm-up to keep the players engaged. Players can lose interest quickly especially if they are young. Variety reduces the players from ‘going through the motions’.
The main part is the meat and potatoes of the practice. In other words, this is the part of the practice that you focus on team development with specific drills aimed to improve the team’s weak areas.
Player development can be broken down into four pillars: technical ability, tactical understanding, physical ability, and psychological part of the game. The ultimate goal is to weave all four of these categories into your practice sessions to see the best improvement. Below we will describe each category and an example or two to give you an idea of what to focus on.
- Passing & Receiving: Passing the ball on the ground with pace from different distances and receiving the ball while keeping it moving.
- Quality of the first touch: a player needs to be able to handle passes from their teammates and opponents cleanly. The first touch can determine if the player keeps possession or hands it back over to the opposing team.
- Shooting: Players must develop the ability to shoot and strike the ball at different distances. A player should be able to kick the ball to an intended target with proper speed and height. Check out this article on finishing drills.
- Ball control and turning: A player should be able to keep close control of the ball while under pressure. A player can use different techniques at speed to move away and around the defender.
- Playing out from the back: All players must feel comfortable playing the ball from the back through the midfield and up to the final attack quarter of the field.
- Possession and transition: Teams must try to keep possession of the ball playing a one-two touch game. This works nicely with the building blocks of technical training. Players will be encouraged to move to open space, thus creating passing options.
- Offense-defense quick transition: When possession is lost, players must react quickly and apply pressure to regain possession of the ball. Once possession is regained, players must transition back into the attack.
- When an attacking player loses the ball, the number one rule to regain possession for the team. They must chase immediately while the other defending players must decide whether to help or to drop back towards their own goal.
- Restart situations: players should know what their role is during corner kicks, throw-ins, direct and indirect kicks. Players must understand many goals are scored from these situations, so those that master these are at a big advantage.
- Speed and agility: Players should be able to move and understand changes in the game quickly and easily. Coaches can use speed ladders, hurdles to improve a player’s speed, agility, and coordination.
- Endurance: All players should be prepared to train at a high level of intensity that can last the length of the game. Soccer (association football) is a fast, non-stop sport that requires persistence and sustained level of energy.
- Strength & Power: Not only do players need to be fast with endurance. They need to be strong and powerful to be competitive. It helps to develop speed to win games.
- Respect & Discipline: Players should learn many life lessons from playing youth soccer including respect and discipline. Regardless of the outcome, it is important to respect teammates, coaches, referees, and opponents.
- Cooperation: Soccer (association football) is a team sport. Cooperation is required to be successful by working together to complete objectives and sessions. Learning to work with others is a good life skill.
- Competitiveness: Players need the fire in the belly feeling to get the most out of playing. Some players struggle to get there. Adding games with clear winners and losers can bring out the competitive nature of kids.
Scrimmage is the best way to finish off a practice. After all, this is what most kids love the most about a session. They come to play! This is an opportunity for the players to practice in real-time what they just learned. At this moment, you will know if your training session was successful. If the practice was focused on the first touch, watch how your team handles the first touch. How does their play compare to the start of practice? You should see some improvement.
Scrimmages come in two different flavors: full-game and small-sided games. While both are useful at different times, let’s discuss why you might choose over the other.
A full game scrimmage is to imitate a soccer game as much as possible. Both teams put on different color pinnies. Sometimes it is played versus another team, but this is usually your team playing against each other. Full game scrimmages can take up the whole field or can be shortened. Referees are not present usually. This scrimmage allows a coach to try players at different positions. Players can try out the new skills they learned during the main part of the session. During the scrimmage, you will find many coaching moments to further develop your team into a top competitor.
A small-sided game (SSG) reduces the number of players on the pitch and focuses on a specific situation like 3v3 or kickoff. SSGs are a great option if you only have 12 players at practice. This way you could focus on a 6v6 game. With fewer players comes a smaller field so both sides can maximize the number of touches made. There are usually never more than 12 players on the field at one time. During this style of play, the focus is on player problem-solving and anticipation.
Remember to enforce the rules of play during scrimmage to hammer home good playing habits. Practice is the foundation for how the team plays in the game. As the saying goes, “how you do anything is how you do everything”.
It is easy to over coach your players during a scrimmage. One of the benefits of scrimmage and gameplay is allowing players to learn through guided discovery. Guided discovery is using pointed questions for players to solve the challenge in front of them. This tactic gives the control and power to the team to read the game and anticipate plays and opportunities. Wouldn’t that be amazing!
What Are Some Considerations When Designing a Practice?
Now that we have chatted about the structure of a practice session, let’s focus on some considerations when planning a training session. Every team is a bit different, so preparation can avoid most negative situations.
- Number of Players: The number of players expected should always be in your plan, as it is common that not all players will show up for the practice. When this happens, have some flexibility in your plan. If you only 12 players show up instead of 16 on the roster, then you can adjust your small-sided game to two sets of 3×3 instead of 4×4. This flexibility will maximize your time with your players and keep them active.
- Time: This is determined by a few factors including age, number of practices, and competitiveness of the league. The younger kids have shorter practices than older ones. Plan accordingly to make sure you work everything in. If an activity is going poorly, move onto the next one. On the contrary, if the exercise is going better than expected allow more time.
- Be mindful of when the next match is because a long, difficult practice before a game could hurt players more than it helps. For instance, after a tournament, a recovery session where players rest and recuperation is recommended. Some examples of that would be non-contact games like soccer marbles, soccer golf or light exercises such as juggling, light jogging, dynamic stretching.
- Ability of players: When preparing your session plan, know your team’s skill level. Some drills are too complicated to perform. You will notice this quickly. After you explain something a few times, they might not follow. Move onto the next activity or tier it down to a simpler form. Within a team, there could be a wide skill gap between your best player and your worst player. One challenge is finding drills that will grow all players on the team.
- Overplan on activities: Plan many activities and weed out the ones that don’t work. It is easier to take away than come up with new drills on the spot. If the practice is flowing then keep it going!
- Space available for practice: Tailor your session plan to the training space open to you. Some clubs and rec teams have no restrictions on their playing field, while others have many. Thinking ahead of this will reduce the number of stoppages and allow for more efficient practice.
- Players 8-years-old and younger will need the grid to be marked off with multiple cones as the idea of imaginary lines between cones designating the corners is not fully comprehended.
- Use cones as a way to mark off the grid. A typical grid is 15 yards by 10 yards
- Weather conditions: if the weather is extremely hot or cold, a shorter session is needed. Consider wind conditions as well. A day with strong gusts of winds will negatively affect certain drills such as crossing or defensive clearing.
- Training equipment: The drills you choose to run can range from one ball and a field to a bag of equipment. Before practice, check your players to make sure they brought all their equipment. Make sure every player has a ball and shin guards. Some other useful pieces of equipment include a dry erase board, a first aid kit, a ball pump, and a water container. To learn more, check out this article discussing the equipment a coach should bring to practice.
- Learning styles: Players learn differently. I am a visual person. I need to see it to understand it. By seeing, I mean drawing it out or walking through the motions before I can internalize the situation. While others can hear instructions and execute the plan. Switch it up to maximize understanding and ask guided questions to see where the gaps in understanding are.
After every practice, take a few moments to reflect back on the session to see if you accomplished what you set out to do. This is such a crucial step that many coaches overlook. It is the end of the day or you get busy and it never gets done. But, if you do this step consistently, you will make major improvements in your coaching. Feedback is the key to success. Here are a few questions to ask yourself after a session:
- Was the session appropriate for the player’s skill level?
- Was time used efficiently?
- Did we transition through the drills smoothly?
- Did the players learn?
- Did you and the players have fun?
The purpose of sessions is to teach and brush up on skills to improve your team’s ability to develop as players and to win games. Now there are several ways to accomplish this. There are two widely used session styles I will be going over: simple to complex, whole-part-whole, and a multi-theme session. Each has pros and cons.
Simple to complex
Simple to complex is when practice starts with a skill in its simplest form like passing. A practice might start with everyone getting in pairs and two players passing a ball back and forth. This is passing in its purest form. You can focus on all the fundamentals without any distractions. This allows you to make adjustments on the first touch, the weight of the pass, the quality of the pass, the best striking area to maximize power and keeping the ball on the ground.
Once the team gets a handle of this, you add a bit of complexity. In the example of passing, you might introduce the diamond passing drill. Peep #8 in this article to get a visual idea of what I am talking about. This gets players passing with a bit more difficulty. Instead of passing linearly, now they have to open up their body, use a good first touch, keep their head up, and face a new target.
And this continues. Each drill adds more complexity. A 4v1 or 4v2 then scale up to a 5v5 small-sided game could be great next steps. This is the diamond drill but now pressure is introduced. Players learn to stay calm even when an opponent is trying to take a ball away from them. The goal is to build up to a game-like scenario. Players can see the skill in the simplest form and then how they would apply it in a game. Another name for this method is a progressive session.
The benefit of this type of training is you can see exactly where they are struggling. From the diamond exercise to the 4v1 exercise, you notice kids are making inaccurate passing. Instead of going to the next step, you can stay put or go back to focus on the skill they need most. This style can be used at all levels. The younger teams will start at the very beginning, where a U14 girls team might start with passing diamond and work quickly towards a small-sided game.
On the contrary, this style can be boring at the start. Kids come to practice to have fun and standing 10 yards apart and kicking in a straight line is not very engaging. If the season just started, this style could be covering something they already do well. Another style could be more useful early on until you know what the team needs most.
In this style, practice starts off with a game or modified version of a game. A practice might start with a scrimmage or a small-sided game. You can watch and see where the players need improvement. Taking the example from above, you notice players are passing the ball but their teammates aren’t moving into open space. We have our issue to work on during practice. High-pressure situations bring out the errors quickly.
Whole-part-whole plays well with simple to complex. What I mean by this once you identify the technique to work on you can start with a simple drill and add complexity. With passing and receiving, you notice the attackers aren’t moving into open space. Therefore, you can start with the 4v2 drill to work on finding space to get open. This isolates the area of improvement. Then you work your way back up to a game-like scenario.
The reason I love this style of practice is players are engaged from the very start. After sitting in school all day, children want to have fun. Whole-part-whole accomplishes that. When a season first starts, you might not know what is best for this squad. Whole-part-whole gives you an idea of you need to focus on instead of wasting time on skills they already have a handle on. Also, this style works well for experienced teams to build off previous sessions.
While there are many things to love about this method of training, let’s talk about some negatives. The biggest is for teams that struggle in a lot of areas in the game. When there is too much to focus on, this session can be overwhelming. It would be easier to start with simple to complex.
The last style of practice is a multi-themed session. During this method, many skills are taught in the course of one practice. An example would be diamond passing drill, 3 progressive attack finishing drill, and corner kicks. Often times, soccer camps would use this as station training. Each station will have a different coach and drill for the players to perform. Every session ends with a scrimmage or small-sided game.
There are many reasons why you would use this method of training. You can cover many topics in one session. Towards the end of a season, you might use this to tie together a lot of loose ends to prepare for a tournament. Or if you working with a young team that could use help on everything. Sometimes there isn’t enough time to have a dedicated practice for each skill you want to cover. Players usually love this type of practice because it is fast moving and keeps their attention. Once you teach a young group, you understand the reality of keeping their attention. It is a never-ending battle, but this might be a good way to combat it.
The difficulty of switching between many themes is players don’t progress as much. This isn’t rocket science. If your team spends 45 mins on passing, you would expect to see better results than if they only spent 15 mins. Focus might be a better solution for your team. These sessions can feel disorganized and players might not make the mental jump between the drill and a game. Sessions are only as good as players who use their new skills in games.
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The Passing & Receiving eBook makes coaching and planning your next coaching session ridiculously simple. It’s a true straight-forward guide for the rest of us. Print it and put it in your practice folder and you’ll have the perfect dummy-proof reference!