Oregon Youth Soccer September 2015

A First-Time Coach’s Story of Survival

There was a moment, about 15 minutes into my first practice, when I thought, “I can do this!” My team of six 5-year-olds had seemed to enjoy my pre-practice warm-up routine, had bought into my attempt to re-purpose the 30x30 section of patchy green grass as the mysterious, exciting “Soccer Island,” and eagerly brought back their balls for that old U6 first-practice staple, Red Light, Green Light.

Two minutes later, I had one player in tears, one kicking his ball halfway across the field in the wrong direction, and four others staring at me, clearly waiting to see if I’d gain control over the situation, or if practice was about to descend into a crying and kicking free-for-all.

The truth was, I hadn’t asked for any of this. I had no plans to coach my daughter’s U6 team this season, and had ignored the first email from our local club seeking parents to volunteer as coaches. The second email, though, was more specific: “Hello Parents of Team 4,” it began. “You probably received an email yesterday asking for coaches in U6.  Your children are on a team that is in need of a coach.”

Now the lack of coaches wasn’t just a club problem, it was my problem. If I didn’t step up, my daughter might not be able to play. After an hour or so of internal debate (“Do I really want to take this on right now?”), I replied to the email and threw myself headfirst into the world of youth soccer coaching.

Fortunately, our local club, like many others, offers a wealth of support to new coaches. I was immediately notified of upcoming coaching clinics run by the club where I could meet other coaches and learn the basics of running a practice, and was put in contact with field schedulers and equipment managers, who offered up balls, cones, shirts and just about anything else I could have needed. Club staff were overwhelmingly supportive and responsive to my many questions and requests. And best of all, my daughter was excited at the idea of sharing the field with good ‘ol Dad.

With the Club taking care of the behind-the-scenes elements — field scheduling, equipment, setting up the team website, etc. — I was free to free to focus on the most daunting task … planning an actual practice. I felt pressure to come up with 45-60 minutes of activities that would both entertain and educate a group of 5-year-old soccer players … while also doing a convincing impression of a soccer coach for the parents who had ponied up their hard-earned cash to help their children develop as soccer players. I’m not sure who I was more nervous about making a good impression on — the kids, or the parents. Either way, I needed to be prepared.

My first and, as it turns out, last stop was OregonYouth Soccer’s Coaching Resources page, where I found a 10-week series of lesson plans created by coaches of the Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns, specifically for first-time coaches like myself. The sessions, in a printable PDF form that I could bring with me to the practice field, laid out in detail how to construct a practice, from developing a theme (Movement, Dribbling, Passing, etc.), to constructing a warm-up, small-sided activity, and full-sided game that reinforced that theme to the players. In addition, coaching points are included, so that I knew exactly what to look for, and discovery questions as well, allowing me to guide the players throughout the activity.

Other resources, including the free U.S. Soccer National "F" License Course (a free, two-hour, online course that is designed to be completed in multiple sittings), took me beyond the drill and into creating an atmosphere in which my players could thrive — hence the creation of Soccer Island, where only soccer players are allowed, balls become runaway monkeys or loose coconuts, and cones can be anything from towering palm trees, to an invading pirate army.

And right up through those first 15 minutes, everything was going perfect. Our first game of Red Light, Green Light, went off without a hitch, but when one of my players failed to be the first one to reach the coach after the second game, the waterworks began to run. While I focused my attention briefly on that player, another decided to take the opportunity to start kicking his ball all over the field, while the remaining four — and, I could sense, each of their parents — waited to see how I’d react.

Fortunately, we made it through that moment, largely on the power of a whistle and a smiley-face sticker, which have become the most powerful tools in my toolbox. In the weeks since, each practice has become easier than the last, as I’ve come to understand that my most important job isn’t to mold six world-class soccer players, but rather to end each practice with six players who can’t wait to come back and do it again the following week.

Supportive parents, a supportive club, and the abundance of resources at OregonYouthSoccer.org have made my first month as a youth soccer coach far less of a struggle — and much more fun — than I had at first feared it would be. We’ll play our first game later this week, and I’m eager to see another U6 team — are they more organized than we are? Do they look like they’re having as much fun?

The main lesson I’ve learned is that, at this age, the answer to one of those questions is far more important than the other.