Introduction to youth coaching

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a social media post from someone starting out coaching children, looking for guidance. Often they feel as if expectations of them are inordinately high, and want to prepare themselves as best they can in order to live up to them.

On the whole, people don’t tend to set high expectations for their first time doing something, so why does coaching differ? Often, people associate the title ‘coach’ with a bottomless knowledge of the game, which can be harmful. Many new coaches worry about not having all the answers, but nobody has all the answers, and anybody who claims they do isn’t worth following. A willingness to learn is a great standard to set for a teacher in any role, and can rub off on your players too.

It is therefore important to understand the role of a coach. Primarily you are a facilitator, giving the players what they want. Surveys by the FA and MSU into the motivations behind youth sport participation have shown that kids participate because they find it fun. This is the difference between a coach and a teacher, the kids want to play football, they don’t want to do maths. This means giving them opportunities to do fun things like dribble and score, and avoiding unfun things like long tactical talks.

Failing to make sessions fun means the players will switch off, sulk, and eventually drop out. It’s important to remember that adults always take sport more seriously than children, most children have forgotten about a bad defeat 5 minutes after the final whistle.

You can meet your young players’ needs by playing games in which there is at least a ball for every two players, so there are lots of opportunities to do the things they enjoy. When young players are losing a game heavily they can begin to lose interest, so try playing multiple rounds of the same game with the score reset each round, instead of one long game. Competition can create a fun atmosphere, however ensure the losers are having fun too.

Atmosphere can be determined to a large degree by the coach. Your mood transmits to players, who want and need energy and positivity. Many new coaches are so overwhelmed with the pressure of leading and the amount of stimuli to respond to that they don’t have a conscious thought in their head their whole first session. Setting your expectations lower, aiming for fun first and development second can allow you to consider your approach in the moment, rather than trying to opt between two approaches that sometimes conflict.

In practical terms, many new coaches obsess over their session plan. It is less the case that a session plan is inherently good or bad, and more the case that a session plan is more or less appropriate for your group. Only you know your group, and furthermore the individuals within your group will have different needs. As long as all players are getting enough chances to succeed, you’re doing well. Starting with a basic framework can allow you to adjust and adapt based on the needs of your players, though having some ideas around potential progressions can help you to prepare for sessions.

Often new coaches will copy a session plan right down to the timings, which leads to abrupt endings and interrupted learning. Players learn best when they’re challenged, and sticking with a game that fails to challenge them is almost as bad as ending a game before they’ve found a method of overcoming the challenge. I play a little shooting game for the early arrivals at my sessions that allows them to play while I set up, before we start proper and get into more game realistic scenarios. Recently I started a session prepared to do just that, when during the arrival activity I noticed a technique that I wanted the players to practise. I threw out my plans and stuck with the arrival activity for ~40mins. The players complained when it ended because they were enjoying it, and they learned how to keep their shots low.

I saw a coach recently take a primary school age youth team and work multiple weeks in a row on corners. Corner after corner, hour after hour. No counter attacks for the defending team once they won it. He had an idea in his head of being a team that were hard to beat, and a threat from set pieces. I’m sure he had this idea before even meeting the players, and it demonstrated a selfishness that has no place in coaching. The players inevitably lost interest and motivation, and stopped paying attention to the coach. Having gotten this far, I’m sure you can diagnose the issue, and how to solve it.

Hopefully you feel prepared for the start of your coaching journey. Be glad you’re not a maths teacher!

Stats from:

FA Youth Participation Survey

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