In 2006, after I graduated from Penn State, I started working individually with players who wanted to get extra training outside of their team training.
As a player/coach, I am asked quite often to work with players on improving all areas of their game (except defending, I don’t usually get that one for some reason... and goalkeeping) including technique, finishing, mental toughness, taking players on 1v1 and my personal favorite, kicking the ball further and harder like the other kids do.
Since then I have worked individually with more than 30 players one-on-one or in small groups in the US and overseas, teenagers, U10 players, boys and girls, you name it.
I’ve learned so much in doing that, not just as a coach, but also as a person and educator in general.
So, I have come up with a list of ten things that I have found to be extremely important when working with players in a more private setting.
In no particular order here they are:
1. If approached by someone to work with a player one of the first things I assess is whether the person approaching wants the individual training or the player does. I think this is very important to how much of an impact you’ll have on a player. I know it’s not always an easy thing to see, but be aware of the parents who want it more than their kid does.
2. Once you’ve settled on working with a player, be sure to watch them in an actual game setting. It’s easy for a player or a parent to tell you what they need to work in (kicking the ball harder!) but it’s usually a much different story when you sit down and analyze one of their games. This has been extremely helpful in the past for me to plan sessions.
3. I have grown fond of something I call the juggle test. If I’m working with a new player who I know little about, I’ll give them the juggle test. I will have them juggle in front of me until they get what they think is their highest score. Then I tell them that we’ll have our next session once they’ve beaten that record. I have only ever had one player, a high school player, who I never heard from again.
4. I am always sure now to know what players’ schedules are like. There have been times when I have trained players on the same day that they had a game or even two games. I was young and inexperienced then, but now that is something I’ll never do. I am very cautious and aware of their workloads and rarely will put them through any type rigorous training without knowing what their life looks like. So many kids are working with personal trainers in the gym, training with their team twice a week, playing basketball or hockey or gymnastics and think they are not over-trained. We don’t need to add to the problem is how I look at it.
5. When it comes to actual sessions, I find it much more beneficial to have at least two players in a session. So if I must, I jump in and do drills with the player. This allows me to get an idea of what I’m putting them through and also shows them the intensity level and focus level I would like them to shoot for. Sometimes I also invite older players to jump in the session to do the same thing. It’s good for the older players to help the younger players and also gives the older players some touches on the ball. I also like to have goalkeepers when doing finishing sessions. When working on technique, it’s not always necessary but if I’m showing them how to make a GK’s life miserable, I need a GK!
6. The struggle to find a place to train players is always real. But I have found that if there is a free field, many times you’re not the only people using it. I can’t even count how many times I’ve had kids with me and we’ve asked other players kicking the ball around to play a little 2v2 or 3v3. It is something most kids never do, but something they always walk away from with a bunch of stories. Usually about how I nutmegged a 15-year-old boy in their class. But more importantly, about how they are able to play with players older than them or if they are girls, play with the boys. It’s a really cool opportunity to give the players.
7. I have learned a lot about different kinds of training methods when it comes to working on technique. There are plenty of arguments about making drills game-like and whether players should do reps for the sake of doing reps is okay. I think there is a good mix of both that should be incorporated. Sometimes players just need to learn how to strike a ball properly. Sometimes they need to know how to turn under pressure. It all depends on the player. Regardless, I include both types of technical training in my sessions. I like different color cones and pinnies and seeing how players react to situations where they have to make decisions. I also love seeing them learn how to strike a ball with some spin and dip for the first time. It’s glorious.
8. Give them assignments to watch games on TV. When you live in Connecticut and it snows throughout the winter, it’s not always possible to get out and get sessions. I like to give players assignments where they have to watch games as a student. Sometimes I just want to hear what they think about a game or sometimes I’ll ask them to watch a specific player. Sometimes I give them a tactical assignment. The learning doesn’t end when the session is over in my opinion. I also have players do goal-setting, write about their own games and training sessions and other top-secret assignments to enhance their lives.
9. I’m always sure players understand the role of one-on-one sessions. It is supposed to be extra training. If players tell me they miss their team sessions a lot or that they don’t do extra stuff on their own time, I have a hard time continuing with them. It’s not because I don’t want to do it, but it’s because they don’t want to do it and they don’t even know it. There is nothing at all that can convince me to work with a player who doesn’t want to get better. Individual sessions are a privilege not a right and something that is definitely not for everyone. So I’m always sure that players are committed to their teams and to getting better before I can commit to them.
10. I always make sure the sessions are short and sweet and as much as possible, leave players wanting to stay longer to figure something out. It’s not always the case. Sometimes a session can be mentally draining and after an hour or so it’s just time to go. Sometimes though, many times, a player is on the cusp of figuring something out and will want to stay. That’s the sign right there that you did something right. (Or I guess it could be a sign you’re not a good teacher! Either way!) My hope is that they take it home with them and don’t stop thinking about it until they can do it.
That’s my top ten list.
The reason I started thinking about this recently is actually a funny story. One of the players I recently coached played her freshman season at the University of New Hampshire this past fall. She texted me one day and said she wasn’t playing as much as she would have liked but found solace in the fact that the player who was playing in ahead of her had been trained by me when she was younger.
The player who was playing ahead of her emailed me a few months later asking if I could work with her again because she wanted to play professionally. So, I asked her to join our training group. She told me she remembered our sessions and how I taught her to bend a ball when she was in high school. I thought this was really cool and crazy. She just recently signed for a team in the first division in Finland. So she is the first player who I’ve worked with who has gone on to play professionally. I'm proud. (And old)
I think working with kids one-on-one is an amazing experience. I never had the opportunity as a player to work with someone until after college and it changed the way I lived my life, never mind just the way I played soccer. I hope coaches who have the opportunity to work with players look at it the same way. You never know how much you can impact someone’s life just by giving them a little extra.