Any soccer coach looks forward to games, but they know the real work takes place in training. Piecing together the perfect soccer practice where players are focused, learning, and challenged is probably more of an art than a science. However, a great training session will include certain elements that without them, the training session falls short of amazing.
Tom Sauder, founder of Soccer Practice Books knows a thing or two about what consists of a great soccer practice, and I was fortunate enough to pick his brain. Let's go...
1. Please give a little background on your coaching experience and what inspired you to create Soccer Practice Books?
As many parents do I started by coaching my kids in house league. This coincided with the end of my competitive playing career. Wanting to do it right I went through formal coaching certification right away. I coached my kids teams through the highest level of competitive soccer ending with a season in the highest local division, the Ontario provincial league. I then wanted to coach at a higher level and got the job of women’s varsity head coach at a local university (Redeemer), followed by coaching the men’s varsity team for a combined total of 10 years. Then my grandchildren started playing soccer and I’m back coaching grass roots.
Throughout my coaching certification the emphasis was always on individual drills. Theory on developing practice sessions, season planning, annual planning was excellent, but there wasn’t anything that showed how to put an effective practice session on a piece of paper. So I started developing hand written sheets with diagrams that put a practice plan on one page, following the warm-up – technical – fitness – tactical – game situation format. When other coaches saw me with my piece of paper and observed a smooth running practice they asked to see the paper. The comments were – “ I wish I knew how to put that together”, “I like that”, etc. So I thought if people like it that much, maybe they’ll buy it. The rest is history.
2. If you had to narrow a great session down to 3 factors, what would they be?
· Maximum number of touches on the ball for each player
· Holistic session incorporating skill, tactics, fitness, mental elements all culminating in a game situation scrimmage at the end, and united by a theme (i.e. counterattack, zonal defending, etc.). Players need to know the relevance of each drill to playing the game and running a bunch of random drills doesn’t work.
· Injecting a reasonable amount of humour and fun to give a mental break from the concentration and focus required for each drill.
3. In your mind, how important is it that youth soccer players do no spend a lot of time standing around in line or listening to coaches talk at length? What are some ways coaches can eliminate this issue and get players engaged and moving?
As I said earlier, maximum touches and constant movement with or without the ball are critical. To really develop soccer skills youth players need about 4,000 touches on the ball per week. I have seen practices where in an hour a player gets 30-40 touches. They stand in line, listen to the coach or are in extended scrimmages and aren’t involved. Our practice plans get between 600 and 800 touches per hour. In a situation where a competitive team practice 5-8 hours a week the 4,000 touches would be achievable.
The ways to accomplish this are:
· Be prepared for the practice. Set up ALL your drill grids/cones before the practice starts so that no time is wasted between drills. Sometimes the movement or addition of a few cones in a few seconds gets the next drill ready
· Spend no more than 30 seconds (60 seconds for very young children) explaining/demonstrating the drill and then step outside the drill grid to observe. The coach needs to really rehearse and be mentally ready to be this efficient and effective. When a correction is necessary, stop the drill and in 30 seconds explain what went wrong and how to fix it. Then step out again. “Teaching/talking” time should be no more than 60-90 seconds per 15 minute drill.
· Break each exercise into as small a group as possible, each group running the same drill. My favourite example is shooting drills. I still see 11 kids line up in front of a goal for shots. In 10 minutes every child is lucky to get three shooting (ball touches)opportunities. That’s boring and ineffective. Instead I suggest setting up 4 goals with three kids each. One in goal (you find new goalies and train existing ones)and two take shots. Have a volunteer behind each goal to retrieve the ball and throw it back to the shooter (needs to control ball and dribble it to starting point – more touches). While the first shooter gets their ball back and gets ready, the second player shoots. Then rotate the goalie after two shots each. Everyone is busy all the time. There are variations so shooters sprint (fitness training) to retrieve their ball and dribble (skill, more touches) it back to get ready.
4. How important is training at game speed, and what are some ways coaches can get their players to increase the reality and intensity of sessions?
Training at game speed is important, but not at the expense of holistic development. I always stress accuracy over speed when starting a session/drill. Accuracy is achieved by having no/low pressure and slowing it down. Once accuracy is achieved game speed and game situation execution become important. This is accomplished by adding pressure in the form of adding players to the drill, demanding faster movement (i.e. you have 5 seconds to get a cross into the target area, starting at midfield), reducing the number of touches per player when they have the ball (my favorite is two touch soccer), and by reducing the size of the grid. Small sided games that incorporate the tactics/skills at the end of the practice are useful. Full field games with a focus work as well, for example switching the point of attack from left defense to a cross from the right wing by stringing together3-5 passes. Exhibition/test games are best to put it all together. Keeping score or setting goals during drills introduces competitiveness and it is amazing how quickly players turn into game mode. Just say that the losing team in a 4v4 scrimmage has to get water bottles for everyone and nobody wants to lose. Our practice drills all have progression options explained and coaching points to correct drills that aren’t working to expectations.