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A National Curriculum for Volunteer Recreational Youth Soccer Coaches

I had lunch with a friend yesterday – and in an effort to both make conversation and receive some advice – he told me he was coaching a recreational level U-9 boys team. Knowing I was a professional coach, he asked: “How do I keep them focused? Sometimes I look up and I’ve lost them. They are distracted, playing on their own or watching the team next to us.”

I started in with the standard, No lines, no laps, no lectures dialogue to which he nodded his head in agreement. “Just play” is what I told him next. “1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, 4 vs. 1, 4 vs. 2, 4 vs. 4.” And then, as I sensed he wasn’t necessarily satisfied with the simplicity of my “just play” answer, I asked him:

What do you normally do in practice?

Well,” he said “I always start them with some stretching and then I make them run some sprints. I want them to build up their leg muscles (with the sprints) so they don’t keep tripping over the ball.

I sat back in my chair, reflecting on his statement, and thought “#!*&*$%#, we have a long way to go.

We are doing our most novice players a massive disservice by not finding a way to guide well-intentioned but un-soccer-educated recreational level coaches.

Like many of the Soccer Parenting community who are volunteer coaches, my friend is an enthusiastic volunteer who seems to really have ‘loving the game’ and ‘having fun’ as his coaching priorities.

He just needs more guidance.

I struggled a bit in that moment to find the balance between telling him he was way off track with his current methods, and guiding him to a better way.

Would it help to tell him that stretching and leg muscles shouldn’t to be a consideration for an 8 year old as they haven’t developed the muscle yet? Or that sprinting isn’t going to help these pre-pubescent boys develop muscles – Puberty is? Or that the boys tripping over the ball has little to do with strength and more to do with their age, proprioception, coordination and ball mastery?

There are coaches all over the country just like my friend, thousands and thousands of them who can’t wait to leave work once or twice a week to get to practice. Volunteer recreational level coaches who wake up early Saturday morning scribbling a line up on a napkin and excited for their game.

We desperately need these enthusiastic coaches – in fact – we need more of them.

We also need to solve the problem we have created by not adequately guiding them.

While there has been a lot of focus in the recent years on empowering youth soccer clubs to develop methodologies and focus on their values, requiring youth soccer clubs to take the lead on solving the volunteer youth coach problem is not the solution.

Maybe some of the larger clubs will want to tackle this as a means of developing a system or style of play. But this is the United States, where there are thousands of volunteer led clubs who don’t have the capacity or staff to develop a curriculum.

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Therefore, our national organizations such as U.S. Soccer, United Soccer Coaches, USYS, AYSO, US Club Soccer must collaborate and develop such a curriculum.

There must be a FREE, easy to implement national curriculum that transforms the way our most novice players learn by providing volunteer recreational level coaches with a simple to follow blue-print for the season.

This is not a hard thing to do!

Yes, you read that correctly – there is a solution to this massive problem, and it’s quite simple!

We need to guide the recreational level coaches past the football, basketball and baseball mentality they are understandably accustomed to – where skills training is how the game has been taught. We need to help volunteer recreational level soccer coaches (and parents) truly understand and embrace the idea that the easiest way to teach the game is by letting young players play.

If the coach has no soccer background and doesn’t have a solid understanding of the game, this concept of ‘let them play’ is even more relevant. In fact, it actually makes for an easier practice to plan, a more enjoyable experience for the player and results in heightened overall development!

Yes, as the players get more advanced and as the coaches are more experienced and educated, some layers can be built into the sessions – but for our volunteer recreational level coaches – simple is better and a focus on play is the way to go.

What if U.S. Soccer used $1 million of their $100 million surplus and developed a national curriculum and then distributed it FOR FREE in the form of a Coach Planner and Curriculum to every single volunteer recreational level youth coach in the United States?

After all, there is little chance my friend, a full-time working and volunteer parent is going pay $100 and attend an 8 hour course for 7 vs. 7/9 vs. 9 unless doing so is a mandatory requirement in order to be a volunteer coach, as it is in USA Hockey.

There is also little chance my friend with limited soccer knowledge will be able to successfully navigate a website full of drills and pick ones that are suitable for the age he is coaching (and the concept of drills is an entirely different article, anyway)….

However, if my friend was given a FREE Coach Planner and Curriculum by his club and told he must follow it – chances are good our youth soccer environment – and players – will improve.

The FREE Coach Planner and Curriculum can be complete with information about the developmental level of the players based on their age, a quick guide to a successful season, and then practice 1, practice 2, practice 3, practice 4 – diagramed in detail – all the way to 30!

Maybe sometimes the focus of the play-based practices is on defensive principles of play, or there could be sessions that focuses more on finishing or transition. At the end of the curriculum book can be brief chapters such as: “How to Make a Coaching Point” and “A Coaches Guide to How to Keep Game Day Focus on Love of the Game, not the Result” “Tips for Ensuring your Lowest Level Players See the Playing Time they Deserve and Need.”

As an example, If my son decided he want to play lacrosse and I was asked to volunteer as a coach, I wouldn’t spend my time scouring the internet for how to run a lacrosse practice for 13 year olds. I would instead call one of my college friends who played lacrosse and is currently coaching, and I would say: “Tell me what to do.”

Really – that’s sort of what my friend was asking me yesterday when he wanted help keeping his team focused. And if when I asked my lacrosse friend for help, and he said: “No laps, no lines, no lectures.” I’d say “Okay, thanks, but TELL ME WHAT TO DO.”

I wouldn’t want to have to think about it. I’d want to arrive to lacrosse practice, look at the paper with the practice he detailed for me, and set up the cones and spaces, move the goals to the right place and follow the lacrosse practice plan he put together. After all, he’s the lacrosse expert – not me!

The solution to improving recreational level soccer is to simply tell these coaches exactly what to do and how to do it in a Curriculum.

Of course – some coaches won’t follow the Curriculum. Some coaches will rebel and follow their antiquated ways.

But we at least need to try.

We must provide a standardized recreational level Curriculum for all recreational level coaches across the country to follow that has a foundation, not on drills, but on play.

You are coaching the same level recreation level team for another season? DO IT AGAIN! Simply, follow the curriculum, step by step, again!

This is recreational level soccer – it is not rocket science.

One of the results of the business of soccer taking over the United States has been the permeation of the underlying sentiment that teaching the game needs to be complicated. On the contrary, setting up practices that are fun, developmentally appropriate and challenging is simple to do – even for the most novice coach – if you keep the focus on play.

The time has come for us to provide our novice, recreation level volunteer coaches with a FREE national curriculum thereby rewarding our most novice players with an environment in which they can best develop.

Don’t you think?

  • Skye:
    Wish I had something like you described when I started coaching 5 or so years ago. It pains me when I think of all the time I wasted (both mine and the kids) doing age in-appropriate activities, etc. As a volunteer “parent-coach” with no experience in soccer I felt rather lost the first couple of years. While I have invested a lot of time (and money) learning the coaching trade, many don’t have that luxury. FREE is the key word.

    Keep up the good work that you are doing.

    • Thanks Kevin!

      So happy to hear you have invested in developing as a soccer coach. We need to understand that the vast majority of our youth soccer volunteers are happy to volunteer but – unlike you – don’t have the time, inclination or finances to do any coach education. Yes, the key word is “FREE” and also – “CURRICULUM.” Thanks so much for chiming in!

  • Love the magazine, but I disagree here. The pendulum has swung to far into the “let it play approach”. Indeed, one of the great strengths about AYSO, and why it is so great especially in the early years, and that they do have a unified curriculum that focuses on skill based training, and that uses lines effectively.

    Guided self-learning is a great teaching technique and I agree practice should include 1 v 1 building out to a larger scrimmage. But club soccer too often doesn’t focus, especially on the early years, on the techniques kids need to learn to be effective players as they mature: including first-touch, passing, and shooting, all of which may require one on one instruction by the coach to the player which is not possible in a scrimmage situation. Sure lines are a whole lot less fun, and may make it more difficult for the kids to concentrate, but short of providing each child an individual trainer, I think it’s an important part of the equation. For my E license exam in club soccer, my topic was playing the wing and I put together an exercise to teach players to effectively cross with elevation…I was told that the players should already know how to cross or should be working outside of team training on that…team training was develop skills within the context of the team.

    One of my son’s positions is goalkeeping. I’m aghast at the number of skills he’s expected to know (far more than me when I played in middle school): scooping, basket catching, w catching, forward diving, ground diving, high diving, high balls, punching, through balls, deflecting, drag downs, defending the cross, defending the long ball, PKs, angles, one v ones, positioning and that’s before we get to playing with his feet and distribution. It’s a lot. Where does he learn this if we go to an entirely “let them play” approach?

    A good curriculum would be one that balances skills based education (particularly in the early years) with a let them play philosophy.

    • HI Grace! This is the big question happening in youth soccer at the moment – what is the most effective way for kids to learn? What is most important – general understanding of the game or technique? How do you most effectively utilize the limited time coaches have with players? What is the best way to learn? I find the research on these topics fascinating! If you are a MySoccerParenting.com member check out the interview with Todd Beane I’ll be posting later tonight…he gets into quite a bit of this!

  • I’d heard a year or so ago that USSF was developing a rec coaching curriculum. No idea what happened to it.

    The USSF F license is a good place to start, as is the first United Soccer Coaches online class. The E license is OK, but by the time you reach the D, you’re doing lesson plans far better suited for travel teams, and you’re not learning how to coach.

    I think all coaches would also benefit from watching an elementary school teacher.

    • Hi Beau! The U.S. Soccer licensing pathway is changing soon…Check out the recording of the webinar with with Frank Tshcan from U.S. Soccer at MySoccerParenting.com to learn all the details. Thanks for joining the conversation. Our primary issue, it seems, lays with the fact that the vast majority of recreational volunteer coaches don’t have the time, inclination, motivation or desire to do any coaching education – they are busy and doing everything they can to show up and run the session, let alone spend time in coach education….Maybe a road map curriculum will help these types of coaches the most.

  • Thank you for your insight. As a volunteer coach that started in rec and moved to club I struggled a lot with where to start. Thankfully I do have enough soccer background to be able to teach certain skills. However that doesn’t mean they were age appropriate, and or level appropriate. There certainly is a difference between a U8 rec team and a U8 club team. Thankfully when I moved to club I was fortunate that they have a very detailed curriculum based on age and I do mean detailed. These were extremely helpful. However looking at the curriculum for 8 year olds was way too advanced for the rec level player. I think a love of the game and a fun environment for rec players is far more important than technical skills. Let’s face it, the players that stay in the game because it’s fun are far more likely to develop in to quality players later in their youth. The best U10 players are almost never the best U15 players. I know this isn’t necessarily on point with the article, but we chase too many quality players out of the game because it isn’t fun at a young age. I completely agree that a play more, do less drills approach is very appropriate and long overdue for the recreational level environment.

  • Good thoughts. I heard your interview on 3four3 and followed it here.

    I like your idea. Why wait for USSF?

    I credit 3four3 for putting out a free coaching course. That helped me more than any other online resource.

    I also think the F license is decent. I learned a couple of simple approaches to teach proper technique to little ones from that (e.g. “pinky toe dribble’ instead of ‘outside of foot’).

    At this stage, almost anything is better than what we have now.

    If you outlined the course, what topics would it cover?

    I like your advice to keep it simple and do think kids gain a lot from 1v1s-4v4s. What else?

  • Totally agree. I’ve started a low cost recreational club in North St. Louis County. All the experienced coaches go to the bigger select venues. Parents & well intentioned folks do their best but start with a ‘win at all cost’ and ‘use the athletic kids to bundle the ball into the net’ approach.

    I have tried to find an off-the-shelf curriculum that I can put into the hands of the volunteer coaches we have but everything is select or proprietary – even the US Foundation has this approach.

    If we want soccer to be more than a ‘rich white kid’ sport then we have to have a MASSIVE influx of curriculum, training and facilities around our lower income neighborhoods. Please someone lower the barriers to entry.

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    Skye Eddy

    Founder, SoccerParenting.com
    Skye is a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. She holds her USSF "B" License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is an active youth coach, soccer parent and coach educator.