Of all the aspects that go into coaching a sport the training session is perhaps the one that the coach has the most influence on. While the time, location, space allotted and duration may be outside the individual coach’s control the actual design, focus, actions, pace and flow of the session is largely decided upon by the coach.

Almost any youth soccer coach, and many college level coaches as well, has to develop flexibility when it comes to training as we often have time changes, shortened sessions, unexpectedly poor field conditions, emergencies, players trying out, players being late, players who said they would be there not being there, players who said they wouldn’t be there being there and we all have colleagues who feel they are special and need much more space for their session than you do, oh, and all goals available as well, at your expense.

And if any of you have attempted to run training sessions over the last few months which require social distancing and limited/no player interaction, you’ve experienced an even greater challenge!

All the above parameters can push coaches into two different directions in terms of the amount of preparation put into planning the session. It would make sense to utilize less planning the more volatile your day to day sessions are from each other, along with more detailed planning if much of the above is steady from session to session and week to week. If you work with training groups at younger age groups where attendance can vary and attention is always in short supply, more open ended planning not tied to a specific number of players would help to keep the session ticking along. In contrast, an older group with reliable attendance and players mostly playing in one or two positions would allow for much more detail in the session planning.

Once a coach has an idea, or in some situations just a guess, as to how much space they have and how many players will be attending the session the coach still has a blank notebook page or session form to fill out.

This is where the coach has the influence, what is going to happen during the training session!

Coaches can often times bypass this process by downloading a session or by having sessions supplied to them by their Club. It’s also easy to find session planning templates provided by US Soccer, United Soccer Coaches and several online services that provide templates and editing.

These session templates though can limit a coach from setting up the session just how they like to deliver exactly what they are hoping for. They can be handy, for sure, however they can also suggest a fixed number of activities per session and in the case of US Soccer’s play-practice-play model can even strictly limit setup and the type of activities you can do.

Starting with a blank piece of paper allows for total freedom in planning the session in an exact way that makes sense for you. It can be daunting in that that freedom can also leave you with something akin to writer’s block.

To avoid this a coach can come up with their own template, structure and methods of organizing. How you write down a session only needs to work for you, it may look overly simplistic to some, it may look like a complete mess but so long as you are comfortable with the way it gets your thoughts onto paper, it shouldn’t be a worry.

Of course, other coaches may want to see a copy of the session or a part of it and would give value to cleaning it up or going into more detail for someone else’s benefit.

The session plan has to work for you in the moments of delivering the session itself above all else!

I personally have exercises and entire sessions, done mostly with younger age groups, that I’ve done hundreds of times at this point and only write them down to keep a record of what I’ve been doing with that specific team in recent weeks. Often just to counter the occasional “we haven’t done 1v1s in forever” with the fact of record to let that player know, actually we did them last Wednesday.

Here’s an example of my session plan for a U10 team:

  • Topic: Dribbling/Attacking in 1v1s
  • Ball Mastery Square(15 minutes)
  • Dribbling Lines(10 minutes)
  • 1v1 Line Soccer(15 minutes)
  • 2v2 Line Soccer(15 minutes)
  • 3v3 Line Soccer(15 minutes)
  • Game(20 minutes)

Very simple and again, this more or less just done for record keeping purposes as I would include a date and the name of the team. That session plan doesn’t show what any of that looks like or the coaching points to be touched on. However, having done all of those exercises and focused on that topic with that age group hundreds of times, I feel comfortable in delivering a quality session with only that written down.

Many times after completing a session planned out like the above, I may have then been working with a high level U15 team and the session plan would have looked like this:

In the above session plan I gave myself a clear set of pictures as to what the setup should look like, progressions for each exercise and specific coaching points to ensure I touch on them throughout the session. I even went into the detail of the formations to be played by the two teams in the 8v8 game to conclude training and even the selection of the 8v8 format would have been a reflection of the expectation of having exactly 16 players in attendance, none of which were the team’s goalkeeper, hence the restriction of the team attacking the full goal only being allowed to shoot from inside the penalty area.

Both sessions were done at the same Club which provided each age group with a weekly topic to focus on while leaving the details of the sessions to the individual coach. Having the topic selected for you in advance can be a helpful tool to focus the mind on planning the session and it also ensures that over a given ten week period of twenty sessions a range of topics would be covered.

That covers the range of building a session plan from a simple record of activities to complex planning around a reliable group of players in terms of attendance(and you will surely have seen far more complex examples than the one shown here) and having the topic selected by your Club for you or having to select it yourself. As coaches we should feel free to utilize either a simple or complex plan based on the age and level of the team as well as other factors like part of the season, the current mood of the team, the weather and so on. Sometimes an older high level team going through a tough stretch of performances and training on a rainy day could use a simple session light on details and coaching points, as one example of being flexible in your planning.

There are also two sources of choosing a session topic that perhaps aren’t utilized often enough. The obvious one is the players should be occasionally enabled to decide as a group on the session topic based on what they feel they would like or need to train. The coach would plan the session based on the topic chosen ahead of time by the players and deliver the session as well. This would still give the coach the ability to influence the session and to make sure the team’s principals around the topic are highlighted and trained.

During in-season periods of training a team could potentially greatly increase their level of confidence going into their next game having spent time addressing a topic they feel needs to be addressed. The coach shouldn’t feel that they alone know what is best for the team nor should they always defer to what the Club says the topic should be for any given week.

The players are a great resource for a coach to decide on needed areas of focus as they ultimately are the ones who will need to perform in the next game.

Some of us are fortunate to work with assistant coaches with some of our teams, particularly school organized teams at the high school and college level. Giving these coaches opportunities on a regular basis to not only suggest a topic but also plan and execute the session keeps them engaged in the team’s journey, allows them development opportunities and allows the head coach flexibility in their usage of time during the session.

A head coach present at but not delivering a session may allow for interaction with individual players, injured players, parents, prospective new players(recruits/tryouts) and coaches or administrators observing the session. It also allows opportunities to reinforce to the team the importance of the input they receive from their assistant coaches. It also gives the head coach an opportunity to step back and watch the team train free from having to give much instruction. And finally, it could spark new ideas for you to utilize in sessions as your assistants can bring in new exercises that are effective in building on the team’s principals that the players enjoy.

Giving topic selection over to the team or assistant coaches requires a large degree of trust in that they are in agreement with your playing philosophy and have been together with you long enough that everyone knows the group’s agreed upon playing guidelines and principals.

Giving a session over to an inherited coach early on in preseason with a new team probably is not the best way to bring this into the team environment. Going into your second season with a team and having an assistant you trust and know well might be the correct time to expand the responsibilities you give out to them.

Improvisation of Training

There is also another idea to consider using from time to time with your session planning, something that most coaches have probably done on accident, don’t plan the session.

At one time or another all of us as coaches have had to run a session without planning it. We also all probably know coaches that simply don’t plan sessions on a regular basis out of negligence or because they are of the opinion that session planning isn’t necessary or perhaps they think sufficiently highly of their abilities as a coach that they can deliver excellent sessions on the spot with no prior thought given. That is not really the idea being proposed here!

We have all most likely had to do this because life can get in the way of our day to day plans. Many coaches do so as part-time work or as a volunteer, which means the job that pays the bills can sometimes gobble up the time we use to plan a session, so we have to improvise. Our children, cars, public transportation, traffic, emergencies and so on can also make that time needed go away. Even many coaches who work for a soccer club or college full-time may not have time to plan a session because of all of the other tasks we have to get done in a given day.

The skill of improvisation in planning and delivering sessions will be needed by by all of us at some point and because of that we should challenge ourselves from time to time to improvise. There are varying levels or ways to improvise…

Complete improvisation: You show up at training with no topic or exercises in mind and you don’t check to see how many players are attending the session.

From this starting point you could decide on the topic by starting training with a game and observe what you’re seeing or not seeing from the players and design the rest of the session based off of that. The play-practice-play model would be useful here.

You could also let the players decide on the spot, either by voting on a topic and you select and execute the exercises throughout the session or let the players select each exercise through the whole session by picking their favorites from past sessions. You could go one step further and let the players select and coach the topic and exercises themselves.

Partial improvisation: Here you could either select a topic but not plan the session, or plan the session but don’t have a topic.

If you select a topic but don’t plan the session you could again use the players to select exercises that fit the topic or you could spring your improv trap onto your assistants by giving them the session topic upon their arrival and brainstorming with them on exercises or leave it up to them. You could also run through the team’s pregame warm-up routine and go into an even sided game for the duration of the session and find moments in open play to address your topic. This is great practice for your in-game coaching and an opportunity for the players to work on developing their in-game adaptability to feedback.

The other way around is also an opportunity for on the spot, freelance coaching interactions with the team. You would plan out a session from start to finish with no specific topic in mind, which is actually fairly easy to do as many exercises, such as rondos or 2v2 line soccer, are able to be used for multiple topics covering elements of attacking, defending and transitions. You would then just coach what you want to coach based on what’s happening or not happening in the session.

On the fly improv: You may arrive at the session with a topic and a plan and then see something during the session that spurs an idea. It may be that you’ve chosen to work on attacking in the final third but find that the defending in the final third is below the team’s usual standard. You could let that go and stay on topic but you could also decide to change topics on the fly and then adapt the rest of the session to your new topic. Even if we have a plan and a topic going into a session if we see cause enough to alter one or both, then we should!

The key to planning the session is making sure that above all else the process you use enables you to be effective and perform well as a coach. We shouldn’t plan sessions to fit into the structure that works for someone else or that an organization has provided us if it inhibits our creative process.

We should also be grateful to have assistant coaches when we do and make sure we give them development opportunities, influence to the direction of the team and make sure we’re showing them how grateful we are to have them around.

The players are perhaps the greatest source of inspiration for planning a session that suits them and we should be sure to get their feedback, at the very least, and find the right way and time to give them influence into the decision making process. And the players can be a great source of stress release as well by getting them involved and thinking and taking some of the mental load out of being a youth coach for a couple hours.

The ideas around improvisation can take us out of our comfort zone and it can also sharpen our analytical skills by doing more coaching in the moment and influencing what’s happening instead of looking to pick out specific moments that fit our topic.

Our overriding topic for every session should be individual and team development and the moments for were that could happen with our influence might occur outside the day’s topic and it’s a perfectly good idea to seize those moments whenever we can. And sometimes that may mean coming to the session with no preconceived notion of what the session will be about and letting the focus for the day develop on its own.

A seasonal calendar that lays out the team’s expected training sessions, team building events, classroom/WebEx(we don’t all use Zoom) sessions, days off, games and travel days would be helpful to develop to allow a coach to choose carefully days where the coach, the team, the assistants or improvisation will bring about the topics and planning for moving the team forward in a coherent and overall longer term structure.

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