Some 45 million kids in America play soccer, but anyone who’s ever watched a pack of children flail after a ball knows they only learn so much from just rolling out the ball and playing. Furthermore, it can be hard to motivate them to put in the necessary effort to improve, particularly for girls, whose sports participation rates tend to drop drastically around ages 12-14. That’s why we sought the advice of two coaches who’ve nurtured talent at every level.
John Galas is Sporting Director and Head Coach of Lane United FC in the Premier Development League (PDL), the primary feeder for the MLS and the highest level of development soccer in the U.S. Jeremie Piette is a former pro soccer player who trains the likes of U.S. Women’s National Team defender Taylor Smith. Here, they offer ways to practice basic soccer skills and keep girls motivated when the game gets tough. With their tips and your help, your daughter will savor the sweet taste of victory … or orange wedges.
The Skill: Physical Literacy
Galas says soccer fundamentals start with “physical literacy,” a general understanding of movement, balance, and how the body works. “It’s the little things we learned as kids. You play tag, you climb the jungle gym, you eat it, and you get up and do it again.”
- Set balloons around the yard and let kids simply run up and kick them. “It doesn’t hurt, it’s fun, they can control how they move, and they see what it feels like to kick something.”
- Lay down some cones and have your young player jog up to them and stand and balance while trying to prop each one upright with one foot.
The Skill: Love The Ball
“Dribbling, passing, and balancing with a ball at your feet is the foundation of everything,” Galas says. Piette agrees. “My favorite drills for girls ages 7-11 are dribbling drills that get them used to using the inside, outside, laces, and bottom of the foot.” But they don’t have to figure it out all at once. The key takeaway is comfort moving with an object at their feet.
- Add a ball to the classic backyard game Red Light Green Light to teach kids to start, stop, and restart with a ball at their feet.
- Have your kid dribble through a series of cones (call it an obstacle course), stop the ball on a cone of one color, dribble to a different colored cone, stop the ball again, and repeat.
- Count how long your daughter can keep the ball going back and forth using the inside of both feet. This drill is often referred to as “Foundations,” “Bells,” or “Tick-tocks.”
The Skill: Confidence
In Piette’s experience, the biggest difference between girls and boys at all ages is how they turn mistakes and frustration into confidence, perseverance, and passion. He’s found that girls love positive encouragement and honest assessments of how they can correct their errors, he says, but respond better to such critiques private or one-on-one coaching than in group settings.
“Alex Morgan and Amy Rodriguez started playing competitive soccer at 13 and 14; even elite players like them aren’t always as confident as they should be. Many players come train with me one-on-one just to get back their confidence. They have to understand development and that perseverance matters. Not every day will be fun, but with a patient, positive, encouraging coach, every player can find a spark that brings back the joy.”
- Find a trainer who is positive and believes in your daughter but will be honest about what she needs to do to improve.
- Put your daughter on a team with a coach who’s not verbally abusive and plays everyone at least half the game. “She gets nothing out of sitting the bench just so she can say she’s on the top team,” says Piette.
- Just go outside and practice with your daughter. “The difference between girls who get private training and girls who don’t, it’s almost not even fair,” Piette says. “Plus, it’s great bonding time.”
The Skill: Control, Pass, Receive
“If they can pass, move, get in a good spot for their teammates, get it back, and pass to the next player, that is football,” says Galas. Passing and receiving are easily practiced in the backyard or the living room. Again, it’s not about crushing drills at speed, which can quickly get frustrating. It’s about building muscle memory and confidence through quality repetitions.
- Put a pair of cones to the right and the left of your player, gently pass them the ball, have them take a directional first touch through one of the gates, then pass it back with the opposite foot. Alternate that drill in each direction.
- Kneeling on both knees, alternate rolling the ball to your daughter’s right foot, then left, and have her pass it back to you with one touch. Encourage her to keep the inside of her foot showing towards the target, aka you.
- Simply have them pass a soft bouncy ball off the wall. Says Galas, “They get a touch, they pass back, they get a touch. As they’re doing that they learn balance, body control, and ball control. All those little things add up over time.”
The Skill: Shoot
Everyone wants to score goals, but Galas rightly reminds his would-be strikers there’s a difference between shooting and finishing — actually putting the ball in the back of the net. Finishing actually begins with passing. Piette notes that girls tend not to bend the ball with the inside of the foot. “Even some of the best high school girls don’t know how to strike a proper ball with the laces,” he says. Galas agrees that young players too often shoot with their toes. “But they learn to pass with the inside of the foot,” he says, “so if we reinforce proper passing technique first, shooting power and control naturally follow.”
- Stand five yards apart and slowly pass back and forth to hone the proper technique. As they improve, back up to seven yards, then 10, then put them in front of a goal.
The Skill: Move Without The Ball
What makes the beautiful game beautiful is the cooperation amongst a group of individual players to read the signs on the pitch, react, and move as one to set up a goal. That’s a tough lesson to learn on the fly. Better to help teach them to get open by simulating game moments in the backyard.
- With a blue cone in your right hand, an orange cone in your left, and a ball at your feet, pass to the young player. As you do, hold up one of the cones to direct the player to either turn left or right before sending a shot on goal. “They have to make a tactical decision based on their technique,” Galas says.
The Skill: Defend
Watch a youth soccer match and Galas guarantees you’ll see a defender charge at a driving player with equal energy and force, take a swing at the ball, miss, and stop cold. To avoid this, teach young defenders to decelerate or even just wait for the right moment to poke check the ball away.
- Stand in a 7’ by 10’ rectangle and have your young defender pass you the ball, follow their pass, slow down, force you to go left or right, and poke at the ball when the moment is right. It’s simple but, when repeated, it leads to sound technique.