Once they've committed to the responsibility of planning a practice, new coaches often have several questions. How can they set up exercises and games to focus on one skill per practice but still keep the kids interested? What specific exercises are best for that skill and age group? What about all the parents who think their son or daughter should be focusing on scoring more goals? Is it best to just scrimmage, and simulate the real game experience?
And perhaps the most common thought, from coaches and parents alike — What's the coach on the field next to me doing? And should I be doing that, too?
To Colin Rigby, one of the directors of Eastside FC's RCL Juniors Program, the solution was simple: implement a common training style and playing system for every team, on every club, at every level, in the Eastside Youth Soccer Association.
"As far as I was concerned, in fact, it was an idea years delayed in becoming reality," Rigby says.
This fall, Eastside Youth Soccer Association became the first in the state of Washington to do just that, rolling out a coordinated curriculum for the Under-8 and Under-9 recreational and RCL Junior coaches throughout each of its member clubs — Bellevue Youth Soccer, Lake Hills Youth Soccer, Newport Youth Soccer, Mercer Island FC and Eastside FC. Every coach of every U-8 and U-9 team at all levels of play were invited to coaching courses to learn the new curriculum, and are provided weekly lesson plans to guide their training. In all, the coaches of more than 1,000 players throughout EYSA are now being taught the same things, at the same time, in the same ways — a cohesive structure Rigby says will pay huge dividends down the road.
"We have a lot of teams at that age group, which makes it a good place to start," Rigby says. "Habits are more difficult to break at older ages, so if we can get them started in this training style at a younger age, it's going to make it much simpler to carry that on as these players progress to older and more competitive teams."
Or, as EYSA Vice President Aaron Byers puts it, "We believe starting at the ground floor will strengthen all layers of the pyramid."
EYSA's new curriculum focuses largely on increasing each player's touches on the ball, a factor that coaches at the Ajax Online Academy — from whom EYSA will receive lesson plans — have proven has a significant correlation to a player's overall development. It's a progression-based model, Rigby says, in which fundamentals like dribbling, passing and receiving are fine-tuned in individual, small group and team-wide drills, with warmups customized to each training session's specific focus. Coordination and comfort on the ball are also key elements.
Most importantly, Rigby says, coaches will now be teaching the same curriculum program-wide, meaning that as players come together on older and more advanced teams, they will all have the same base to build from, making cohesion faster and allowing coaches to more quickly move on to advanced skills and techniques.
"This hasn't really been tried before at this level, at this age," Rigby says. "For the coaches, it's great to get that lesson plan every week and know that the other coaches in the league are all teaching the same things. It also makes it easier to work with parents, since it eliminates any questions about a specific coach's training methods or playing style."
Rigby says that if the program is successful this fall, the association plans to draft similar programs for other ages and playing levels in the coming years. For now, the proof will be on the field over the next several months.
"We've basically just started, but the response so far has been great," he says. "It sends a powerful message that both kids and parents will understand. We're excited to see where it's going to go."