Top tips: Grassroots Coaching practices

Les Howie, FA head of grassroots coaching, looks at five key issues for coaches to consider when delivering practices.

1. How do I ensure the players leave my coaching session with a smile on their face?

Creating a positive learning environment with specific goals for the players to achieve is crucial. If your team are clear on what ‘success’ looks like for the session, they will have an aim to work towards and will feel motivated to achieve it. Think of it as fun with a purpose.

Reviewing the players’ performance at the end of the session is a key part of this process. The review is a chance to focus on ‘what went well’ and a great opportunity to highlight good play and behaviour.

As well as setting team challenges, you could also set individual challenges within the session. This allows you to recognise differentiation and stretch players who may benefit from an extra challenge, but remember it should always be realistic.

If your group feel like they have learned, developed and achieved the session aim (or aspects of it), there is a good chance they will leave the session with a smile on their face.

Finally, providing positive feedback and, of course, having a smile on your face also goes a long way.

2. When and how do I work on heading with my team?

In reality you’ll see very few headers in a game of Mini-Soccer – the next time you play, count them.

Mostly when I watch Mini-Soccer games, I’ll see around two headers; therefore heading the ball isn’t a priority at the beginning of the player journey and can be worked on as they get older.

As there is no need to introduce the skill of heading too early, it’s important to avoid unnecessary heading and focus the majority of your time on supporting players to develop other key skills.

When you do introduce heading though, build up the exercises slowly to encourage the players and increase their confidence.

FREE Coaching session plans HERE

Introducing heading:

  • Using a balloon, beach ball or a sponge ball is a fun way for young players to be introduced to heading.
  • You can progress by getting the child to head the ball in their hands.
  • As confidence grows the player can throw the ball up gently then head it.
  • As the child becomes more confident, ask them to throw the ball a bit higher.
  • When the child is older and more confident, you can progress to serving the ball from a short distance.
  • As strength and confidence develops you can increase the distance between the server and player.

Finally, I would encourage all coaches to follow the best practice advice set out below when coaching heading in your practice sessions:

  • Only practise heading with age appropriate footballs (for U7 & U8 that’s a size 3, for U9-U14 that’s a size 4 football).
  • Consider eliminating practises which do not directly contribute to improving heading technique for the game. For example: juggling the ball with the head.
  • Question whether repeated heading in a training session is necessary for the aims of the session and how frequent sessions involving repeated heading are required.
  • Stop heading practices immediately if a player begins to feel dizzy, has altered vision, is unwell, has a headache or experiences other unusual symptoms.
  • If a player has been concussed, they should follow the guidance in the graduated return to play section of The FA’s concussion guidelines with regard to when heading can be resumed.

3. What coaching themes should I prioritise with my new team/age-group?

If you’re working with a new team for the first time it’s really important to spend time getting to know the players. Likewise, it’s a good time for them to get to know you and your coaching approach.

Setting clear expectations and communicating your coaching philosophy is a great way to do this. This should also be done with the players’ and their parents/carers.

In terms of the technical themes to focus on, there’s lots of great advice for coaches working with young players in the England DNA Foundation Phase resource.

Also, trust the practices and sessions you already know and have engaged with your players. Even if you’re working with the same group as last season, look at ways of tweaking and changing the sessions you know in order to increase the challenge – see more below.

4. How do I include all of the players in my session?

In every session there will be those who are striving ahead and those who are struggling to keep up. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to exclude any of the players from part of a practice.

Through clever practice design and the use of individual challenges, all of the players in your group should be able to take part in all of your session activities.

Applying the STEP principle is a great way to do this. Think about how you can tweak the Space, Task, Equipment or Players to make the practice easier or harder, ensuring the group are engaged and motivated.

Read more about the STEP principle by clicking here.

5. What formations should I use with my new team?

It’s vital that young players have the opportunity to play in lots of different formations and positions as they learn the game.

It’s very difficult to predict which players will play in what position when they’re older and they should all be given the opportunity to develop their understanding of a wide variety of positions.

Many formations in the modern 11v11 game are fluid and require players to understand how to operate in different areas of the pitch, and no doubt there will be even more change to systems and formations in the future. Therefore it’s crucial you give your players a varied education of formations and positions.

You can find out how to help young players move from 7v7 to 9v9 and 11v11 football by watching this session.

The above questions were taken from discussions in The FA Coaching Community on HIVE. Join the debate here.