A Great Start To Practice: Free Play!

By Mike Woitalla

I have often wondered what goes on in the minds of 6-year-old American children who are told they’ve been signed up for soccer. I imagine they think that means they’re going to be playing soccer.

Then they show up for practice, and do drills. The playing, “the scrimmage,” is a few minutes at the end, served up as a reward for suffering through the boring stuff like ice cream after eating the green beans.

I wrote about this practice of treating scrimmage like dessert years ago, but it came to mind after spending my first practice with 7-year-olds in quite a while.

The boys show up after a long day of school with enough energy to power a small town. They’re desperate to play. Why not let them play as soon as they arrive?

I brought this up with longtime youth coach, Nick Lusson, the Executive Director of the Dublin United Soccer League and head coach of the W-League’s Bay Area Breeze in Northern California.

Lusson had toured youth academies in Japan and described the scene at practices:

"When the first kid that shows up, it'd be 1v1 with the coach. Then the second kid shows up and it's 2v1 against the coach. The third kid makes it 2v2 and then with the fourth kid arriving, the coach steps out and they play 2v2.

"With each additional arrival the game grew until everyone was there at practice. The coaches would then let the game go for a while and that was the first phase of their training session -- sometimes using it to check in with the parents or talk with the other coaches a bit as they watched.

"This was primarily done with pre-pubescent ages as there are concerns around proper injury-prevention warm-ups once the kids are older."

Lusson said the Vissel Kobe director told him the idea came from the French soccer federation.

Lusson started experimenting with this method of beginning a training session at Dublin United with the younger players.

"Kids are running into practice from the parking lot to the field much more than before," Lusson says. "They're starting their practice with something fun and exciting that they like to do and that they have some control over. We let them just play in a more unstructured manner. ... We try to prevent our coaches from doing any coaching in this opening game.

"Coaches are encouraged to play with them and have fun with it. The goal is to give them that feeling of freedom that comes with pick-up soccer and also 'fill the emotional tank' to start practice as our friends at PCA [Positive Coaching Alliance] like to put it.

“On the sport psychology side, there's the theory of motivation that says motivation is derived from a sense of self-efficacy and control, so we try to provide that through this piece and it helps start them off on the right foot for a good training session. We then always try to end every session with a good chunk of time devoted to just playing, and that's where the coach will give more direction."

Lusson says that a common reaction was the players thought it was “some sort of trick” -- too good to be true:

“It made me realize how over-programmed they can become with this pattern of the ‘boring stuff’ at the beginning and all the fun saved for the end.”

Besides free play giving them the best chance to fall in love with the sport in way they’ll need to if they’re to excel at it -- it uses up some energy so they’re less rambunctious when in the next phase you introduce a more complicated exercise.

The concept also reminds me of some of the best advice from the U.S. Soccer Federation’s "Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States" Guide:

“Coaches should think of themselves more as facilitators, monitors, guides or even participants.”

And:

“Set up situations where the players can learn by playing the game. The game is the best teacher for young players.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif and is a Grade 8 referee. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)