Do you remember the first time you tried to teach a child under the age of 6 how to play football?
I remember it like it was yesterday and it was the most difficult thing I had ever done.
I was just 20 years old at the time and thrown into the deep end by another coach who had more experience than me at the time.
I had my session prepared from the night before and I thought it was a good session at the time of writing with me adding lots of skill development and coaching points throughout.
How could this go wrong I had the perfect plan, or so I thought.
So I began my session, first I started with a fun traffic lights game where the kids had to respond to the different colored cones, this went well the kids loved it.
With how well the kids were responding to the warm-up I was on a high and feeling good, “bring on the main activity” I was thinking.
“Could actually pull this off” I was thinking.
I approached my main activity with confidence, after how well the warm-up went I was expecting a similar response, how wrong I was.
My intention was to teach them a few 1v1 skills with the ball nothing too fancy, I started with the ‘Messi feint’ where you drop your shoulder to go one way to create space on the other side.
The kids were just not getting it, they were either not doing anything at all or messing about doing something else.
“Where did I go wrong,” I thought.
So I stopped the session, explained again amongst all the players in the area, and told them to restart and they were still off task.
I couldn’t get my head around it, but I was determined to stick with my plan so I carried on with it.
The kids were beginning to become really disruptive and my plan was well and truly out the window, now it felt like survival mode!
By the end of the session, I began thinking ” am I really cut out for this? Can I do this as a career?
Have you ever had a session that made you question if you could carry on being a coach?
Lucky for me I chose to ride the storm and figure this game out, below I would like to share with you what I had learned from many experiences like the one above.
Where did I go wrong?
Before we can move forward with anything we must learn from what went wrong previously.
Let’s take a look at things that I could have done differently and what can be done moving forward.
‘it is fine to celebrate success but it is even more important to heed the lessons of failure’ Bill Gates.
Did you set the tone?
No matter what the age we must set our expectations right from the beginning.
How can you expect a child to know what’s expected of them if you haven’t explained it to them beforehand? At this age it needs to be done more frequently and different from how you would with older children.
Before the beginning of the first few sessions lay out your expectations, just mention the main ones you don’t want to overload them with too much information I.e when I am talking all eyes on me and keep the footballs still, always show respect to our coaches, etc (add whatever values and principles you have that may be important to you).
When you have stated your expectations it is important that you are always consistently following up with the players.
Trust me, the moment you start to let standards drop is when you begin to see the cracks in the player’s behavior.
You don’t have to be a sergeant major about things just calmly prompt the players from time to time when needed and find ways to reward players that show good examples of how it should be done.
Did I Manage player behavior and performance throughout the session!
One thing you have to learn as a coach is that kids love praise/rewards of some form.
Now, this doesn’t have to be something like giving out something physical every session like a certificate or medal, it just needs to show that you recognize what they are doing in the practice.
What I like to do is point out a player who maybe did something well like execute a skill or was one of the first to show me that they were listening and say “because Simon tried really hard to execute the scissor skill I am moving him into the Champions League!”
Then I would ask “who else wants to be in the champions league?” normally other players will put their hands up and I will then respond and say “well show me you can play at that level”.
Obviously, I know these kids are not really at the champions league level but it’s about setting the kid’s standards and letting them see the level you want them to reach if they too want the same kind of recognition.
I normally find this very effective when raising standards.
Did I get on their level?
This is where I see many youth football coaches fail with this age group.
Can you relate to the players? Do you understand what their interests are and can you use them to inspire and captivate them?
When coaching this age group, most of the time you might feel like you are taking on a different persona as you might make silly jokes or do things that you wouldn’t normally do just to keep the players engaged.
This is a necessary part of the process if you want to keep the players engaged throughout the session. Learn to master this one skill and you will find that your players will listen to you a lot more and implement your message meaning they will learn more from you.
Was the session age-appropriate and realistic?
Remember that we are dealing with players that are 6 years old and below meaning attention spans will be low so whatever you choose to do has to be engaging along with your delivery too!
I tend to try and use practices that involve the ball as much as possible starting the session often with the players having a ball each to embed some fundamentals (technical).
Then comes the mid-phase of the session (Skill) where I would gradually introduce some form of pressure from opposing players. Depending on how the players are coping with the practice I may play with the area sizes/player numbers to either increase difficulty or make it easier.
And in the final phase, we will enter into a small-sided game that will normally start with a condition of some sort to relate back to the topic. It is important that we never forget that this phase is not meant to be used as some form of ‘treat’ for the players, it’s an assessment of what was previously taught!
Don’t waste this opportunity to truly test the players to see if they have taken on board what you have been teaching them.
Was the session enjoyable?
If you follow the steps mentioned previously then this shouldn’t happen but I thought I should mention it anyway.
Children at this age just want to have fun! Yes, they also want to be the best player but they tend to not want to hear or focus on what is required to become the best player.
This is why we have to cleverly introduce topics and teachings so that the players are not even realising that they are learning, further reducing the chances of disruption from the players.
Remember when I mentioned realism? Even at this age, the players can get annoyed if they don’t see the relevance of the session.
Keep them as ‘realistic’ as you can and the players will complain less because they are still being introduced to elements that happen in the actual game.
Allow them to problem solve and make decisions constantly along with the things mentioned above and your players should be still enjoying the session throughout.
Nobody said coaching was easy and it definitely isn’t, for me coaching 6-year-olds and below can be the most difficult age to teach in coaching when you first start out.
I have seen UEFA B licensed coaches turn up to coach them only to realize that they cannot get through to them and leave their session without a single child learning anything from it.
No matter what your qualifications or experience in coaching is, coaching under 6s is a different ball game.
The things I mentioned above WORK! take the time to learn how you can implement them and begin doing it right away.
Don’t worry if you prepare something and it doesn’t work just prepare to ‘adapt’ when this happens and react ‘quickly’.
Problems tend to get worse when they are left, even though it is clearly obvious that something needs to change.
Youth football doesn’t have to be difficult in fact once you have developed a philosophy and methodology then you have a path that you can follow.
The above is the method I have been following for years when coaching this age group and, to be honest, a lot of this is still relevant with the older age groups (I either do more or less of a certain area).
Two of the biggest skills I have is the ability to recognize quickly when something is wrong or not working and not being afraid to make changes no matter how big they might be.
They can become your biggest assets too!