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From Practice to Performance: Why Does Your Child Look Great in Football Training But Struggle in Matches?

Back when I was a child, I used to love training!

I vividly remember counting the hours until it was time for me to go and get my football fix every Tuesday for my local junior soccer team.

I did not want to miss a minute, so being on time was important to me (unfortunately for my mom) and I admit it used to drive my mom up the wall with the constant reminders of “Remember I have training in 1-hour Mom” then “I have training in 30 minutes, mom”.

Imagine having this for 3 hours nonstop as a parent!

I had the football bug bad as a kid, and could not get enough of it which is why I loved to train so much!

This is why I would often be frustrated with the first part of our training sessions as sometimes we did not even see the ball for the first 20 minutes or so.

Coaching was very ‘drill-oriented’ (long lines, overly dictatorial & lack of creative thinking) with whomever I seemed to train for so waiting for those last 15-30 minutes to play a game felt like a lifetime.

Looking back, I remember always thinking and even sometimes speaking out loud “When will we play a game!”.

Nothing we did in the first part of the session felt useful to me unless it had some relation to the game, even then as a child, I could see this.

I believe that in the first 10 years or so of my youth soccer playing days my game improved despite this due to the many hours I put into playing ‘street soccer’ with friends outside of training.

You might be thinking “Kurtis why are you telling me about this?”.

This is because children around the globe are still having similar experiences to this one all the time.

Training this way taught me little, as throughout the process I was not stimulated enough or guided to see how it would fit into the actual game.

Unfortunately for many these days, kids are not playing in the streets or playing fields like they used to.

The streets have been replaced with game consoles and the latest phones, meaning children spend less time learning through play.

This has meant that parents have become reliant on organized soccer coaching to fill the gaps that free play & street soccer used to fill.

But just because you are paying for it does not mean it is better.

Unfortunately for many parents and players, many practices we see today are not fit to produce the ‘natural’ and ‘instinctive’ type of players that we would pay good money to see as soccer fans.

If I was to scroll down my social feed today, all I would see is ‘robotic sessions’ that have kids in long lines or are ‘overly dictatorial’ taking all the ownership away from the players just so they can have full control.

So, what does this mean for the youth soccer players of today?

How can we as parents ensure that they receive the support and guidance that is going to accelerate their development and help them become the standout player on their team?

How can we ensure our children get the best start in football so they can take what they have learned and bring it into games?


Mastering The Art of Youth Football Coaching: A Comprehensive Checklist

The Environment – Setting the Tone!

First off, let’s begin with creating a positive environment to set them up for success.

For me, this is an area that many football parents neglect and don’t give very much thought to it.

Let us make choosing your child’s football team, to begin with.

Now when you go out shopping for new clothes do you normally settle for the first piece of clothing you see, or do you continue to look around and check different stores to compare quality and prices?

For most people, it is the latter, so my question is why do we tend to settle with junior football teams based on convenience?

Remember what the main job of a youth football coach is? To improve the players!

So, before we decide on where to send our children, shouldn’t you be confident that the club can provide this to a high standard?

For me, this is one of the main reasons we see young players struggle when it comes to the ‘real game’!

The football coach sets the tone, and if the sessions that they use are unrealistic i.e., long lines, overly repetitive/rigid, etc. how can we expect them to see what it should look like in a game?   

Here is how you can reduce the risk of choosing the wrong club or coach!

Step 1 – awards/accreditation!

This will most likely be the first thing that all parents recognize when searching for a club. Here In the UK, accredited youth teams will have what is called a ‘charter standard’ award. Having this award means they have support from the national FA with coach education and other useful tools.

Find out how teams are accredited wherever you are based and check what this means for the club.

You should also try to ask about the qualifications and experience of the coach who will be taking the sessions.

Whenever you buy a used car don’t you ask about the history and previous owners before deciding?

Choosing your child’s football coach should be no different.

Step 2 – What are they known for?

No doubt, if the club has been around for a period of time, it would have developed some form of history.

Do they have a reputation for developing players? what can you find out about their coaches? How do they work with parents?

These are the sort of things that we want to be aware of when researching youth football clubs.

Step 3 – What do they stand for?

For me, this is a big one, and it’s normally not mentioned by many clubs which is the club philosophy!

What is their ethos? How do they like to develop players? do they give equal playing time to all players?

Ideally, you want to hear that the club has its own footballing culture that values player development over everything else.

Step 4 – Do they have a passion for developing players?

Unfortunately, many coaches value results over development, meaning they are willing to take shortcuts if it gives them victory.

Let us get this right, in coaching, there are no shortcuts to truly developing players!

Good coaches have a plan of where they want to go, and they will normally do this by gradually progressing from one session to the next regardless of what has happened in the previous game.

Step 5 – What is their coaching philosophy?

How do they like to play the game? Do they try to clarify their coaching philosophy to parents & players?

All good coaches will have an idea of where they want to be and how they are going to get there.

Before you decide on your child’s youth football team, be sure to ask them the following.

  • How do you like your teams to play football?
  • Do you rotate their positions from time to time to help them become more multi-functional players?
  • How do you ensure that the players are respectful in training and on match days?
  • Do you believe that you should allow the players to make their own decisions & take risks or do you prefer to give all the instructions to the players?

I could throw more points into the mix on what to look for when choosing a team/coach, but I wanted you to focus on the areas that could impact their performance on the pitch.

Stick with these five important areas and you will give your child the best possible start in the game.

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Have you considered Futsal?

Whenever I first see a young player play, it is not difficult for me to tell that they play a lot of football outside of team training and matches.

This is normally due to the fact of how ‘instinctively’ they play the game.

Remember the game is always chaotic, so there is no need to place too many restrictions on players when they practice.

One of my coach mentors used to always tell me “Practice how you play and play how you practice” which has always stuck with me.

I know you might be thinking “But Kurtis didn’t you mention that fewer kids are now playing football outside of practice?”

Yes, this is the case, and it is still important to have some form of ‘free play’ regularly in their development.

This is why I am such a big fan of futsal.

Futsal is a 5-a-side game that is played with a heavier ball and a hard flat surface. With a much smaller pitch size, the game is played at a fast pace and the players are encouraged to move the ball quickly, using 1v1 skills and manipulating the ball mostly using the sole of the foot.

The similarities between futsal and ‘street football’ are noticeably clear which is why I am such a big fan!

Let’s take my son for example who started playing futsal at the age of 9.

Before he started playing futsal, my son had always been a player who liked to use tricks and take players on but lost the ball more times than he should be.

Decision-making was a notable area for improvement, knowing when to dribble, where to dribble when to put the ball on the safe side away from the defender, etc.

In his head, he is aware of what he should be doing (how can you not when having me as a dad) but he is working out mastering distances and timing of his actions in game situations.

Playing futsal helped massively in this area.

Due to the tight spaces and fast pace, he would find himself in 1v1 situations on many occasions encouraging him to problem solve and find the solution.

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning” Fred Rodgers.

This resulted in a big improvement when he played for his club on the weekend. His confidence grew and we could clearly see what he was learning from futsal, as we would see it transfer to his soccer matches!

I hope by now you are starting to notice a common trend when it comes to player development.

To foster real change in your child’s technique, skills, and confidence in games then they must train in a way that helps them understand why they are training this way.

Therefore, things like futsal, small-sided games, deliberate practice, etc. need to be at the core of your child’s development.

The Player – mindset!    

“Pass it, pass the ball!!!” “Stop the ball hogging!”

“Stop messing about with the ball and get rid of it!”

“You are not Messi so stop trying to act like him do it simple!”

Did I just hear that right? Did someone really discourage a young player from trying to emulate one of the best players in the world?

It was a damp Sunday morning, and my son was playing for his local youth football team.

It was a remarkably close game at 1-1 and both teams were working hard to try and find the winner.

With the game being so close, some parents on the sidelines were starting to impose themselves more in the game by giving their children some instructions.

“Mason, Mason” a parent screamed. “Just play it simple!” he said.

“Danny, stop trying to take players on and just get rid of it!” another parent screamed.

It was relentless and I am not surprised some of the players reacted to their parents by shouting back.

Did you ever play a competitive sport?

Do you remember what it was like to have parents scream from the sidelines even if it was not your own?

Let me tell you, it can be very distracting and confidence-draining for many young players.

How can we expect our children to feel comfortable enough to take risks or simply try new things that they have learned in training if their parents (or other parents) are screaming at them to do the opposite?

“All kids need is a little help, a little hope, and someone who believes in them” Magic Johnson.

Here are a few things we can try instead.

Step 1 – Remind them that it is ok to take risks!

When you watch football who are the players who get you on the edge of your seat?

I can think of a few Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, etc. The list could go on and on.

A clear thing you will recognize with these players who are regarded as the best in the world is their willingness to attempt things that no other player will.

This is not something that just happens overnight, in their development years they were allowed to become great!

What I mean is, when they were learning the game these players who are the best players in football were more than likely never discouraged from dribbling with the ball or taking on their opponent.

They could express themselves freely once they stepped out onto the pitch in matches as this is the true assessment of what has been taught in training.

So, parents, my question to you is do you want a child who is reliant on your every word or a child who has learned to solve football problems on his/her own in games?

Which one do you think is more likely to become a better player?

Say less on the sidelines allow them to fail and learn and most importantly allow them the chance to be great!

Step 2 – Goal setting!

When my son was 9, he used to have some mindset issues when he struggled to execute certain moves or when he felt he was having a bad game.

So, I decided to help shift his focus and help him set realistic goals to help him visualize where he wants to be and start building the steps to achieve it.

The thought process behind this was to think about what he wanted to do beforehand and then plan what he needed to do to achieve it.

I felt it would help him to be more focused and patient.

At the beginning of each month, my son would set his main goal for the month i.e., to make 5 assists this month.

Then we would discuss things he could work on each week to achieve his target i.e., to improve my receiving on the half the turn and checking my shoulder.

Finally, we would have a daily plan of certain things he could do throughout the week to achieve his weekly goals i.e., Monday 30 minutes of 1st touch training, Wednesday futsal, etc.

Normally 2 targets are enough, and we would review them at the end of the week discussing what went well.

 Step 3 – More thumbs up and say less!

When it comes to match day less is most definitely more!

As coaches, we see the match as an assessment of what has been previously taught, and I believe that parents should share a similar view.

What would be the point of taking them to all these personal 1 to 1 or team coaches and not allowing them to express themselves freely to see if it were worth your time and money?

Most of the time all that is required is a simple thumbs up to show that you are happy with what they are doing.

A little encouragement is ok also, but you do not want to overdo this, as sometimes it can often lead to constant shouting which can become distracting for young players.

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The Training – Working with Your Child at Home!

Over the last 10 years or so, personal football training has increased in its popularity.

Although it should never be the only form of training for a child it can be an excellent tool to supplement their current team training.

Now I know what you might be thinking “I don’t know anything about coaching how can I train with them” or “I don’t have the time to do that”.

I understand your concerns and it is probably the reason why so many are turning to coaches to provide this for them.

But remember this, just because you are paying for it does not mean it’s quality coaching!

Most of the sessions I see fill up my timeline will have little impact on the development of that player.

Personally, if the parent is willing, there is no reason why a parent cannot deliver this form of training themselves.

The truth is personal football training is not that difficult and if you are clear on what good practice looks like then a quick Google search will give you a host of resources for free.

Here is what to be aware of when choosing appropriate practices to use with your child.

Step 1 – Do away with the gimmicks!

football is a game that is very chaotic with many possible outcomes and if you want to create natural players who are problem solvers then we must practice how we play!

The problem with restricting players to 1 or 2 closed outcomes is that players struggle to make that link with the real game.

Yes, after practicing a particular routine with a ball and ladders might look impressive and the child in that practice can now pass the ball with the instep.

But can they do this with the same level of quality when other elements are involved i.e., when there are no predetermined movements, under pressure from another player, after receiving on the move etc?

Instead, why not focus on helping them become better problem solvers by creating practices that focus on a certain topic but also feature other elements that add realism?

“it is not what we do for children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” Ann Landers

Step 2Guide them to the solution, less dictating!

As mentioned briefly earlier, the aim is to create players with individualism and high in-game intelligence.

For me, the best way to achieve this is by constantly testing their critical thinking with key questioning.

When they are faced with a problem ask them “Why do you think this keeps happening?” or something along those lines and listen to their response, prompting them if they struggle to answer.

If for some reason they do not respond (it happens) then give them the solution but always lead with a question to get them in the habit of finding the answer and let them play.

Step 3 – Always look to include some form of a 1v1!

Just because you are training 1 to 1 does not mean it has to be unopposed most of the time, in fact, I encourage you to include yourself as much as possible.

In the game, you are never far from other players whether it is your teammates or opposition, and this adds its own challenges.

Young players should be exposed to playing amongst traffic as much as possible and this is no different in 1 to 1 training.

Even in the technical stages of the session, you can involve yourself by applying passive pressure and gradually increasing it as they become more comfortable.

Top coaches see matches in their sessions as an assessment of what was previously taught in the practice, I see 1v1 games that are geared towards our topic the same way.

As mentioned before the aim is to produce natural players who can perform without your aid once they reach the field.


Whenever you see your child struggling to replicate what was shown to them in training hopefully what was mentioned here can be a diagnostic tool for you to fall back on.

Try to remember what it was like for you growing up and how you learned new skills that were eventually applied to your everyday life.

I am sure it was either by failing a lot before finding the solution or watching and learning from others who were a few steps ahead of you (normally your peers).

A quote by Alexandra Trenfor states “The best teachers show you where to look. But don’t tell you what to see” and this couldn’t be truer.

For your child to understand how to execute a certain technique they need to also see for themselves how it would be applied in a realistic situation to then link it to the game.

If you manage to keep on top of all the points mentioned above, then you should begin to see an improvement in this area.

Mastering The Art of Youth Football Coaching: A Comprehensive Checklist!

Are you struggling to keep your youth football players engaged in training? Do you find it difficult develop sessions that will develop your players? why not get my youth football coaching checklist for grassroots coaches that will give you 10 easy to follow steps that will point you in the right direction!

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