Running Effective Training Sessions

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The easiest way to insure effective and efficient training sessions is to plan and organize in advance. Each training session should revolve around a theme or major topic. This theme runs through all the activities and may shape exactly which activities you choose to include. More importantly, this theme determines the nature, timing, and content of your coaching interventions. Most activities challenge players to perform in several different ways; they might execute multiple skills and make multiple decisions. If the activity is opposed, players assume both offensive and defensive roles. As coach, you need to focus, laser-like, on the session theme. If you are working on shooting and finishing, do not spend time coaching the defenders how to block shots, for example.

Consistent themes or topics help players, particularly young players, focus on specific portions of the game. Assuming that you also construct progressive sessions (sessions that advance from simpler, less game-like activities to more realistic game scenarios), they help players see that the skills discussed in the session are applicable to the game on Saturday.

Planning Your Training Sessions

US Soccer coaching training proposes four phases in a training session:

  1. Warm-up
  2. Small-sided activity
  3. Expanded activity
  4. Game

Standard practice is to select four activities (roughly - some phases might have 2 activities) that allow you to address your chosen theme. Estimate the time needed for each activity as well as the time needed for changing setups and breaks for the players to make sure that you have enough time to complete everything. Do not plan too many activities in one session. As a rule, use simple activities that will not take a long time to explain and execute.

The USYSA created a presentation covering how to write these session plans. This is a comprehensive guide outlining their recommendations for planning training. You can download a template for planning your sessions in Microsoft Word format. Alternately, you can use the editable PDF template designed by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) and used for the complete session examples below.

Even if you write it out on the back of an old envelope, you should produce a written training session plan before each training session.

This website has 57 tested activities you can print and immediately use in your training sessions. In addition, the USYSA has assembled collections of activities for three age groups:

As a principle, you want to use activities that challenge your players (they are difficult and players sometimes fail) but in which they can achieve success. Activities that are beyond the technical abilities of your players will only lead to frustration. Add complexity in an incremental way so that they succeed and then maybe master something before you move on to the next level. Players enjoy getting better at the sport and they need to see how they are being successful. Celebrate success when your players achieve even relatively simple things. This will prevent you from always focusing on the "negative" - the areas where they need to improve because as young players, there are always many areas to improve.

Running Your Sessions

Planning your session in advance is the best advice for consistently running fun training sessions that benefit your players. The following tips can also help you, but your exact mileage may vary. You need to find a coaching style and approach that works for you.

Start on time
This is very, very important. If you are not ready to go at the designated start time, your players (and their families) will notice. They may start showing up a bit later. They might complain about being bored if the team seems to "mill around" at the start of the session. Shortcut all these problems by starting on time. Note that this probably means you have to arrive 10-15 minutes before the start time to get ready. Take this into account when you establish your practice time.
Finish on time
Your players' families are making sacrifices to attend your training sessions. Just like you, they are moving dinner times and running kids around to multiple places. Respect their time by not holding the players longer than the published time.
Avoid player downtime
"Idle hands are the devil's workshop." This old adage is certainly true about soccer teams, particularly younger teams. The longer and more often players are standing waiting for something to happen, the more they will misbehave (actually - act like the young children they are). Help them avoid temptation by keeping them busy and engaged in soccer.
Simplify your setups
To the extent you can, plan your session so that you are not spending significant amounts of time setting up cones and reconfiguring the playing area. Look for activities that use simple areas that are easily changed in 2-3 minutes, the amount of time you want them to rest and get water.
Be flexible
Even the best plan sometimes does not quite work out on the field with your players. Players have fun when they are challenged but are seeing some success. Do not be afraid to modify an activity by changing the restrictions, the number of opponents, or the size of the area when an activity is not working the way you want. These are simple changes that do not take very much time. Do not be afraid to end an activity that simply is not working and switch to something simpler or something that you know they enjoy succeed in.
Build a toolbox
Experienced and effective coaches have toolboxes with two primary tools:
  1. A set of 4-8 "core" activities they know backwards and forwards and can use in multiple situations, including surprise coaching opportunities or other "emergencies."
  2. A vocabulary of things to say to players in order to change their behavior and improve their technical and tactical ability. These are not cliches, but proven methods for explaining common soccer topics.
Educate yourself
There are many ways you can learn about coaching soccer in formal and informal environments. The easiest (and cheapest) is to watch more experienced coaches run training sessions and talk to them about the decisions they made. Most coaches are willing to devote some time to this kind of mentoring. You can also attend formal training and look at the wide variety of resources on the Internet. GLUSC recommends the resources at World Class Coaching, including a very informational weekly podcast targeted at youth soccer coaches.
Give yourself time
The best coaches did not start out that way - they learned through trial and error, formal education, and informal observation of more experienced coaches. Coaching soccer is a craft that takes time and effort to learn.

Complete Session Examples

GLUSC has produced several example training sessions employing these concepts. Note that you can find the detailed version of each of the activities used in these sessions by searching for the activity name (shown in capital letters).