Coaching beginners in any sport requires patience. It also requires an understanding of what the novice can and can’t do and what they know about the sport. Nothing can be assumed. In North America, soccer is not part of the mainstream culture: it is likely that beginners may never have seen a soccer match on TV, let alone a ‘live match.’ Coaches (and parents) who start with the basics will likely get better results with their players.
For the purposes of this article, it is assumed that the beginners are younger children. Many of the points that are made will apply to children or adults as well, but the teenager who takes up soccer will likely have had experience in another sport and can use that knowledge and physical skills to help them.
This Is A Ball
Vince Lombardi famously said this. The soccer beginner might not have seen a soccer ball. The first place to start is to let them have as many ‘touches’ of the ball as possible. The child is there to play soccer and everyone can kick a ball. As long as you have space it will be safe for them to practice without any instruction. It is common for a coach to spend 10 minutes explaining the rules of the game whilst the children look longingly at the big bag of balls behind the coach.
Each player should have a ball at the beginning of practice. They will try things out and probably pick it up a few times. By kicking the ball and running after it, they are warming up their minds and bodies. They are achieving their goal of playing soccer.
If the coach is lucky, the players will know the difference between their left and right feet. The first instruction could be, ‘kick it 10 times with your left foot and then 10 times with your right foot.’ This stops the beginner from only practicing with their dominant foot, which becomes even more dominant if left to continue. Two years later, that player can’t shoot or pass with his left foot and struggles against competition.
Coaching beginners should allow them short-term success and set them up for future success too.
The balls will be going everywhere during this warm-up but not very far. The children will not have the leg strength to balance and take a big swing with their kicking legs. The coach should use age-appropriate balls to allow proper techniques to develop. Tennis balls are a good alternative to help develop touch and skill but not right at the beginning as the target area is too small.
Due to the lack of strength in the adductor muscles, passing to other players inside the foot is difficult for beginners. They simply can’t generate enough force. When the coach introduces passing drills they need to be over a short distance.
This video shows some ideas that can be used in a small space to develop the required touch.
Players that train on artificial pitches will find passing easier because the ball scoots along the ground. When they go to play a match on real grass, they often struggle to reach their players and either get disheartened or give the ball to the opposition.
Pitch size and goal size need to be smaller too. The children will get tired and start to walk if they are being asked to run too much. Goalkeepers need to be able to defend against shots and not get swallowed up by a full-size goal. Smaller pitches mean smaller teams. Practising 2 vs 2 or 3 vs 3 in training allows the players to get multiple touches of the ball. Children under the age of 7 have little sense of space and teammates beyond their own immediate self. Small-sided and small area games allow the children to get a sense of the game of soccer. Playing rush goalkeepers, where the goalie can come out and help attack, ensures that every player touches the ball.
No Fixed Position
At this stage, no one should have a fixed position. The coach who spends a morning drawing up team formations for beginners is wasting their time: as soon as the whistle blows, the players from both teams gather like a bunch of bananas. There should be no rush to play matches against other teams. Once the players can pass to each other in 3 vs 3 situations, score goals, and get back to defend their own goal, they are ready to play in a more formal situation.
Suppose the beginner soccer player is able to kick the football around with their teammates, get a sense of achievement and feel that they are improving. In that case, they will come back week after week. The patient coach can then introduce more advanced skills when the players are ready.