Coaching the competitive recreational team

I’ve always bristled at the idea that teams are either elite/high performance or recreational/grassroots. I think there’s a substantial group of teams that don’t tidily fit into these two categories. I’d call them competitive recreational teams and they fit closer to elite/HP than purely grassroots.

The parameters

So what do these teams look like? What distinguishes them from the other two categories? Let’s start with this:

  • Players are not playing at the highest level available either by selection or choice
  • Generally training twice per week; sometimes three times
  • Players accommodated when it comes to playing other sports as long as soccer remains at least on par with other sport(s)
  • Liberal playing time policy, usually mandated by club but where not, the coach adopts this

In addition to being the Technical Director for a large Vancouver youth club I also coach my son’s team. They recently started the U15 season. They play at the third level of play. It’s called Gold and follows after BCSPL (BC Soccer Premier League; 8 teams in the province, six of which are in the Metro Vancouver area) and the MSL (Metro Selects League; usually 10 to 16 teams depending on the age group; all teams in Metro Vancouver). I should note that our club, despite being one of the largest is not allowed to put teams in MSL unlike almost all other clubs in Metro Vancouver. This is down to the fact our District, gatekeepers for determine how MSL will function among its clubs, has opted to put one, ostensibly, District run team in to represent it. We are in the process of challenging this and requesting to be given the option to put teams into this second tier of play. BC Soccer has stated that the only High Performance levels in the province are Whitecaps Residency programs and BCSPL. All others are grassroots.

That sets up where our club fits in and helps explain why we created a program called Gold Plus for our U11 and up Gold teams. Sometimes players don’t end up at the level they want and want to stay within touching distance of that through a program that provides extra club based support. This is what Gold Plus does. It’s perfect for the competitive recreational teams at our club.

The last things I’ll make clear are…

1. I have gone out of my way to proactively contact coaches at both MSL and BCSPL about players on my team that I think are capable of playing at those levels of play. I’m on my third kid and my 17th season coaching kids professionally. I’m over the vanity kick that sees coaches horde players to win titles at lower levels of play. Besides, it’s my professional responsibility to move players on to higher levels and I take that seriously.

2. Because I have coached professionally a long time, have played at a high level for many years before that and have a life that is thoroughly immersed in the game, my teams should do well, should win leagues and do well in Cup play. Again this is not intended as anything other than a road map to the many other coaches with similar level teams that might not have coached as long or have the background in the game I’ve been fortunate enough to have. I have motivated players, many of whom could and/or should be playing higher but choose not to. Im making no claims to being a coaching genius. I’m aware of the inherent advantages I have in terms of relative experience as a coach and relative pick of players.

The approach

Here’s what I’m trying to do with my 2002 boys.

1) Our focus

At this level you are doing well if you can count on getting a quarter turf field twice per week. If you’re lucky there’s three of you on the field at the same time and you can rotate getting a half field every third session. That is huge and should be planned for.

Last year we were that team that trained twice per week on a quarter field. About half the team (I carry 15) opted for a third Academy session through the club. Median attendance was about 12-13. The year before when we were U13 we were able to rotate through a half field with two other teams both nights we trained. As the players were new to 11 a side at U13 that and the fact that we were able to play a lot of games in the spring helped us tremendously.

Our sessions were either in 75 minute slots or 90 minute slots. Ball rolling time is paramount and a near obsession for me. I want to wring as much out of those minutes as possible. Water breaks are 30 seconds tops and they get just one, maybe two. As much as possible, sessions are planned, accounting for the space we have, to flow from one element to the next with a minimum of set up between them. As much set up as possible is done before the players start.

Here are the key aspects that we have focused on:

Initially at U13:

  • Spacing and general roles and responsibilities in a 4-3-3
  • Confidence on the ball and encouragement to maintain possession and play through opponents’ pressure as much as possible
  • Early decisions on and off the ball (recognizing situations and acting on them)
  • Quick ball movement

Then on top of that at U14:

  • Adaptability to other formations
  • Breaking lines with passes (in all thirds)
  • Deception in passing
  • More sophisticated movement in attacking third

Now at U15:

  • Engaging training sessions that create game-like scenarios via SSG’s
  • Creating a strong team identity
  • Giving them the confidence to dictate how games are played

Playing out from the back as a first option is so heavily engrained in them that when we were playing a Coastal Cup quarter final game against one of the top MSL teams and protecting a 1-0 lead with ten men (we need to work on the coach’s son avoiding stupid red cards) our CB’s were still splitting wide and our keeper was throwing to them despite a four to five man press at the top of our box. I won’t lie. I told him to “mix it up” after a few of those (while wildly gesticulating to pump it over their press). We ended up winning 2-0 but in retrospect it was a defining moment for them. Despite playing against one of the better teams from a league above them they showed the composure in a difficult situation to play through pressure. Lumping the ball down the field had become such a foreign concept to them that it didn’t dawn on them to fall back on it.

Players who had been with me in the past had already been subjected to my thoughts on teaching positional play (link) and I had purposefully favoured intelligent players over physical players as I knew I would be expecting them to develop confidence in possession and that comes primarily from soccer specific intelligence, even before technique. We have players that still, mainly through physical growth issues, have a touch that would suggest they play down a level, yet are very effective on a team that has the won the league both the years they’ve played 11 a side because they have an understanding of the game that is beyond the average player they play against both at their own level and when they play MSL teams in tournaments and Cup play.

2) Fitness (is a waste of time)

Literally. I had my players in training for 2.5 hrs per week last season. Dedicating time to fitness exercises without a ball is counter-productive. If I felt it was important to improve them substantially in terms of aerobic fitness, I’d really need to commit at least 20 minutes of each practice to that. A bit less for anaerobic but it would still be a chunk of time given the rest periods between work. My experience is that it’s a waste of time.

These players have never run a lap under my watch. They’ve never done doggies/suicides/shuttles. There’s no time or need for that at this level. They get their fitness, game fitness, from the small sided games and the insistence that the tempo stays high with few breaks. When we play SSG’s, there are always balls within easy reach. My asst coach and I fetch them if necessary so the players can keep playing. We keep spares in our hands and throw them in to keep play moving. Again, we carried fifteen players both seasons. We played many games with one or two subs. We won the league by 19 points in a 16 game season. That may suggest we are clearly at the wrong level but the reality is that we only won three games by more than one goal. We lost one and tied one. The games were competitive but we consistently rallied and/or hung on to get wins and out of shape teams don’t do that.

That 20 minutes spent playing 3v3 with a two touch restriction is giving them similar fitness plus touches on the ball, combination play, physical strength from 50-50 balls and shielding and hundreds, not exaggerating, hundreds of opportunities to sense, calculate, consider, decide and act.

3) Very little time on set pieces

Almost all work on set pieces was based on playing out from the back on goal kicks. Next was short corners. Direct free kicks were either direct shots at goal or keeping possession with a short pass if we were out of shooting range. Wide free kicks were played in for headers (which very rarely materialized).

I’d guess two thirds of our corners were played short. We scored three times last season off of short corners. We didn’t score once on long corners.

Direct free kick don’t need much in the way of contrivances. The keepers at these ages are still very small relative to the full size goals they protect. Identify players who can strike a ball well, know their range and have them hit for goal when they’re within that range. Nothing fancy.

4) Don’t create divisions

I touched on this in another thing I wrote here. I don’t pick team captains and I don’t pick MVP’s after games or after the season. They’re peers. They’re teammates. They’re teenagers. It’s hard enough being a teenager these days. They don’t need a hierarchy imposed on them by adults to maintain a competitive edge in training. They don’t need an adult telling them one or two are special and are the ‘captain’;  particularly when it’s really just a ceremonial title and serves little function. It just serves to divide and categorize them. Even if you let the players pick the captain themselves. I  italicized let because you’re actually telling them they have to vote for a captain. They are not choosing to do so and by turn you are forcing them to pick some over others and create the division between them themselves.

5) Check in with them

They’re playing at a competitive recreational level but it doesn’t mean that’s what will always work for them. Some of them may be ready to try to make an elite level teams. Some may want to drop down to more grassroots level. Your job is to discuss this with them and their parents and, if a move up or down is plausible, to try to facilitate it. We don’t own players. They are not chattel. We coach to serve them and their needs.

6) Miscellaneous

  • Nothing in training should involve standing in a line for more than ten seconds. This follows on the idea of treating training time as being very important and maximizing what you can get done in that done.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket. You want them to focus? You have to set the example if you want buy in.
  • FIFA 11+. I’ve been doing it as an injury prevention warmup for the last 7-8 years. I have found it really effective and I have insisted that our U11 to U18 teams at our club do it as well. You never know, with certainty, in the end what factor is responsible for injuries occurring or not occurring but I definitely feel this has been a contributing factor to very low injury rates on my teams. I don’t have them do any stretching unless they have been told to do so by a physio to aid recovery from an injury.
  • Small Sided Games (SSG). There is nothing that will get you as much bang for your buck as well chosen, conditioned SSG’s that bring out the elements of play that you are targeting. At U13 and up, learning principles of play, positional roles and responsibilities, fitness, tactical awareness and technical refinement can all be done most effectively and organically through SSG’s. Possession games fall into this category as far as I’m concerned even though most aren’t necessarily directional (ie attacking a goal, defending another goal).
  • Be demanding. Tell them the truth. Both the good and bad. It’s far more important that your players trust you rather than they are your pals. They need to know you are on their side when it comes to helping them improve as a player. When they see that your critiques are honest but delivered empathetically, they will concomitantly take praise to hear more rather than seeing it as just meaningless platitudes. I had a parent tell me the players were tired of a coach who relentlessly praised everything the kids regardless of whether it was right, wrong, good or bad ‘to boost their confidence’. They just ended up tuning him out. They were old enough that it just felt patronizing after awhile.
  • Have a session plan. On paper and on you during practice. Have variations you can quickly go to if you end up with fewer players than you were expecting (sadly more common than ending up with more players than you were expecting). Make quick notes on how to improve or add to what you’re doing based on how its going. Being adaptable is necessary at this level. Your commitment level isn’t as high as it is for elite level teams so you need to be able to adjust if the numbers don’t match what you need for your plan.


If you’re coaching a competitive recreational team you probably have multi sport athletes that see soccer as either one of two or three priorities or that its a secondary priority for them. Your job is to respect this and try to make it work for the individual while they have to respect that they are part of a team. Issues around commitment are most common manifested around playing time. This is where I find a smaller squad is handy. Finding appropriate playing time for those that are at every practice is much easier. If you’re operating within club policies on playing time (ours is half a game minimum every game in the absence of discipline problems and unexplained absences from training) then its much easier to do this with fewer players. With 15 on the squad, I average 13-14 each game. Two to three subs is very manageable. I generally just roll them through every 15 minutes or so. It lets me keep some players on the whole game if necessary while ensuring everyone else is getting two thirds to three quarters of the game. And when you do end up playing the odd game, or half a game if some get injured during a game, its not a big deal for 11 of them to play the whole game with no subs. They’re already close to doing that .

If you’re aware of the environment you’re coaching in and attuned to what’s realistic for your players you will win the battle to keep them playing. If your training sessions are appropriate for the age and level, progressive in terms of equipping them with confidence and ability  you will win the majority of the battles on the field. Note that they are related. If you can retain players who have been following a plan you have laid out you will have success on the field and that success will tie the players to the team and also help reduce attrition.

Get them to U18 and if they’re confident, capable players who want to continue into adult soccer,  pat yourself on the back. You’ve done a good job.

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5 Responses to Coaching the competitive recreational team

  1. Very interesting. Super useful. And nicely stated.

  2. football_UK says:

    Very good as usual. The problem I have (U13s) is behaviour at training (90 minutes once a week). Not listening. Kicking balls around when asked to huddle and listen. Messing around during an SSG or drill. These are players who have chosen to play and who give 100% during the league matches. But getting some of them to ‘train like they play’ is a struggle.

  3. Scott Moye says:

    Great article Gregor! Similar to the rough philosophy Terry and I have run with our group for the last few seasons. Now I know to look out for those short corners! Looking forward to our rematch Saturday in Langley! – Scott

    • Gregor says:

      Too funny. At half time, my chat included, “These guys play like you but they did it way better that half.” And the short corners hardly worked in our favour. We messed one up and you guys countered immediately for a goal. I could tell just from your warmup that you had a good buy in from the boys on your team. See you Saturday.

  4. Brent Loewen says:

    I was researching possible formations for my U13 boys’ silver team this afternoon and came across your article about 3-4-3 formations. Brilliant stuff! We’ve played a 3-5-2 in Cascadia this Spring with one centre mid playing higher than the other two and tucked in behind the strikers (who play wide). I’ve spent the last 2 hours enjoying this webpage!

    I’ve also shared the above article with my AC’s as it reflects my philosophy to a tee.

    What a great way to spend an afternoon at work!!!!

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