Rule number 1: Something that I learned after a week of coaching soccer to 4 year olds; get down to their level.
Everything you do needs to be tailored to the weird and wonderful mind of a 4 year old. This may mean forgetting how you usually talk about soccer. Everything should be a game and everything should be fun.
4 year olds love having fun and playing with their friends. Their excitement will be evident from the start. You'll get a few who are shy and need a little coaxing to join in but that is to be expected.
Your job as the coach is to harness that raw enthusiasm and joy to start making it look more like soccer.
Here is a summary of things that I’ve learned coaching soccer to five year olds.
- What do you want to get from it?
- What type of coach are you?
- How to be a better coach than
Decide early on what it is you want to get from coaching. I’d recommend removing the ego from the equation as soon as possible.
Forget about results (that comes later) and the glory of coaching a winning team. Focus on the process that will help you achieve those outcomes.
That may include getting others to help you to coach or communicate with parents. It may even mean being prepared to step aside and get help from someone with more experience. If you remove the ego and focus on the kids’ enjoyment and development. Then good things will happen.
Ask yourself what success looks like and even if you didn’t achieve that success, would you still do it?
Of course you would!
What you need to create a training session
Keep it simple. Here are few things that I think are essential to 5 year olds fun and development:
- Give every one of them a ball (if you can) - if not ask them to bring their own
- Depending on numbers, you’ll want to make sure you have an area of at least 20x20 yards (or 60 x 60 feet). You may need to make this bigger once you have more than 12 players.
- Cones (or lines) - there may be natural lines on the field or venue you are using which can help you set boundaries. If not you’ll need a few cones.
- Extra help! See if you can rope another volunteer or parent in to help you with crowd control
Picking a training theme
Start with fun and work backwards. You’ll quickly be able to establish how much your 5 year olds understand about soccer. In my experience, there’s one thing that they’ll all benefit from, whether a beginner or not and that’s more time with the ball.
- Plenty of touches of the ball with their feet using different parts of the foot
- Changes in direction
- Opposition if possible (this could be a cone to dribble past or another player)
“Ball mastery” is a great starting point. Plenty of touches of the soccer ball. Small touches, big touches, different parts of the foot, running at speed with the ball, changing direction and even going backwards are all important parts of the game.
If you can start building that comfort and fearlessness with the ball, then you'll be on the right track.
The idea of ball mastery then filters into an important ongoing session theme for five year olds: Mastering a 1v1. How can you get past an opponent and how can you get the ball back quickly from an opponent?
Structuring a training session for 5 year olds
At the start of the soccer playing journey it’s important to build technique. As they get used to playing together and grow in confidence, you can then increase the intensity, add real pressure and increase the opportunities for decision making.
I usually try and structure a training session like this:
- Arrival activity - you’ll find you don’t know who is going to turn up and when! You could be 15 minutes in when another 5 year old arrives, wide-eyed, like a puppy dog ready to play.
- Unopposed technique - a chance to build technique and get used to the ball without the pressure of an opponent.
- Opposed technique - a chance to put the technique into practice with an opponent or under other pressure such as time restraints.
- Small sided game - something that looks like football, with back and forth direction and one or two goals to score in.
Games for practices
Arrival activity: Let them play
You may be short on time, arrive late or need extra time to set up the session. For this you just need two small goals (use cones if no goals) and then you can let the kids play themselves. It will be chaos but it is a nice antidote to all the organised kids soccer. They decide which goal they are scoring in and the kids are occupied while you wait for people to arrive.
Warm up: Ball mastery
We want the 5 year olds to get as many touches of the ball as possible. Ideally each player has a ball and this is about getting them used to it. We want to see plenty of small touches with different parts of the feet. You can make up your own commands or use some of the below.
You'll quickly be able to add your own style to the ball mastery game, but here are some suggestions appropriate to 5 year olds:
“Red light” – they stop and put the sole of their foot on top of the ball
“Yellow light” – they get ready to go, shuffling the ball side to side with the insides of their feet
“Green light” – carry on dribbling the soccer ball
“Reverse” - they have to go backwards with the ball
“Turn” – they have to change direction
“Fast” – they have to dribble faster
“Slow” – as slowly as possible
“Break down” – they have to sit on the ball
Opposed technique: Sharks & minnows
This is a chance to apply a little bit more pressure by adding a defender (shark) into the middle of the square. The coach shouting "go" creates real excitement and the players have to find the best route across the sea, past the shark(s) to the other side of the square. This creates plenty of interference and chaos.
You can progress this game by swapping the sharks regularly and increasing the number of sharks if too easy for the minnows.
For safety reasons, it's a good idea to encourage the sharks to stay on their feet when tackling.
Minnows are encouraged to stay calm with the ball, dribbling at speed into space and moving past the defender (in a banana shape).
Opposed technique: 1 v 1
Mastering a 1 v 1 duel is a vital part of soccer development. If you can beat an opponent and get the ball back quickly from an opponent then you'll be in good shape.
Kids love the idea of trying to beat a defender and shoot at goal. Though you may need to keep encouraging those who are struggling to get past the defender.
You can make it easier for attacker by making the defender come from the side or behind to give the attacker more space.
If attackers are struggling to get past the defender you could give them a free run and say they have to dribble past a cone.
Match / small scrimmage
As the kids get more and more used to playing, they'll want to "play a proper match". I always like to end with a match for the last 10 or 20 minutes.
At first, you'll notice kids not getting involved. You can encourage more involvement by giving them a free kick or letting them kick the ball back in when it goes out.
This is a great way of getting them used to the pitch geography and what to do when the ball goes out of play.
End of the session
I’m a big fan of setting standards and creating a culture through storytelling and mantras. At the end of the session I might gather them in, sit them down and reiterate one point from the training session. I’ll then count to 3 and get them to all shout the team name as loudly as possible.
What not to do
I often hear coaches talk about passing and how 5 year olds don't pass.
They wonder how they can make them pass.
But the reality is that if running with the ball gets the job done, then why do they need to pass?
Why is it an issue? Football is about scoring goals so if the player gets the ball and keeps going past his opponent before getting a shot in, what's the problem?
As they get older we can encourage better decision-making. They can learn how to turn a 1v1 into a 2 v1. But for now we encourage running with the ball. Can I drill into space?
So don’t worry too much about passing when they're aged 5 and focus on what works; dribbling and getting the football back quickly.
What type of coach are you?
You might hear other coaches shouting at the kids like they're adults or English Premier League soccer players trying to get instructions across that they don't understand.
All you really need to do is smile, encourage and let the game be the teacher.
Adults shout instructions at kids to help them win matches and do the right thing. But, making mistakes is a big part of their development. You can help them make better decisions in training by giving them the right environment to play in.
Reacting to Chaos
The first thing you need to understand is that you are dealing with 5 year olds. Regardless of how much you know about soccer yourself, 5 year olds playing any sport will have limited resemblance to the adult version.
A 5-year old soccer game resembles a load of baby sharks swimming around only thinking of themselves, often neglecting the ball and making their own amusement or when it's time to think about the ball they'll all think about it at the same time, drawn to it like a magnet.
You might go in with grand ideas around formations, how you will get them to play a certain way I'll with diamonds, triangles and passing the ball around like Barcelona in their prime.
The reality is it will be chaos. For a good few months and maybe even years, both matches and training will look like chaos.
You need to embrace the chaos. Soccer is chaotic.
That means to forget about it looking like an army training camp with lines of well drilled troops and focus on the individuals and their relationship with the ball.
You may even feel the pressure of parents watching and thinking it is disorganised.
I’ll say it again; soccer is chaotic.
How can you thrive?
In order to coach Soccer to five year olds, you need to come away from every session thriving.
You'll get frustrated that things haven't worked out but your main focus is making these kids fall in love with soccer. If after every training session they come away with a smile on their face and you can feel like you've helped put it there, then you're doing a great job.
If you can see them start to improve themselves as soccer players then you'll be doing an even better job and you'll find it even more rewarding.
But you need to find the right conditions for yourself to thrive. This might include
- Communication with parents
- Approach to shared vision
- Attitude and culture among the kids
- Behaviour of kids at training and matches
- Approach to issues such as equal game time and ability of training groups
This means you have your approach, you find the things that you are happy with (hopefully it is to the benefit of the kids as well) and you double down on those.
If you’re a parent then you’ll be very familiar with the “merry go round” of discipline; your child behaves in an inappropriate way. You know you need to discipline the child and are caught between your instincts of shouting at them vs. those newfangled techniques of explaining what is wrong with what they are doing and what the consequences might be, in such a way that you don’t dismiss their behaviour.
You may even give into your instincts, snap at them and then feel thoroughly guilty after seeing the look on their little face.
Well this will happen countless times when coaching soccer to five year olds.
I realised early on that one of the worst feelings for me was coming away from training feeling like I had come down too hard on one of the kids. It could have been for something simple like booting a ball away, not listening or being disruptive.
Instead of spending as much time getting them to not misbehave, I look at the reasons they might be doing it. For example are there too many gaps between games or are they just not engaged enough with the game?
Either way, if you spend less time on behaviour and more time on keeping them playing and engaged with the soccer ball, you may find your blood pressure staying lower.
If in doubt set up two goals and creating environments where each player takes turns to attack and defend against another opponent.
5-year olds understand this. Where's the ball, there's the Defender, where's the opposition goal.
Distant translates into matches if you're starting with three or 4 aside against another team is simply encourage as much dribbling and running into space with the ball possible.
Your players will start to beat opposition players and score goals.
In the defensive transition there also swarm an attacking player and attempts to get the ball back as quickly as possible.
If you're a soccer player and you know how to beat an opponent after getting the ball back quickly then you'll go far.
So is a five-year-old no need for or awareness of your teammates or the opposition you just need to know so how to get the ball back quickly dribble with it's on wrong with it speed and banging it towards the goal.