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The Key to a Child’s Understanding of Soccer

Danny Jackson on The Key to a Child’s Understanding of Soccer

Build a Strong Foundation and the Rest will Come

Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) star and captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson's new column with insights into the professional world of soccer.  So many kids dream of go pro, few accomplish this and fewer become team captains and then go on to become youth coaches.

Anyone who’s ever coached youth soccer knows what a rewarding experience it can be. Having the opportunity to affect a child’s formative years on the field is a true gift. But figuring out how best to instill an understanding of the game in a young player can also be a challenge. Different kids absorb information in different ways; learning styles vary. So how do you develop a young player from the beginning?

SoccerNation Youth SoccerWhen teaching anything, especially to young kids, you must provide a reference to something they understand, and something they can visualize. The analogy I often use with young soccer players is that of a jigsaw puzzle. We have all used puzzles; in fact, they are often one of the first challenges we face as toddlers. Where do people start when they put together a jigsaw puzzle? You start with the corner pieces; then you search for those straight edges. In essence, that's what you are building as a coach, and what you try to instill in a child. You need that strong border, that strong structure, and then everything else inside is pieced together bit by bit. Part of teaching the game of soccer — as well as any other sport — is starting with something that you know is going to work, that you know is important, and then all the other pieces fall into place.

There are many facets to the game of soccer, and each has a vital role to play.  It doesn’t matter which area of the game a coach is talking about, or what the focus is; each coach has a method to achieving success. The challenge is to communicate effectively and share your knowledge in a way that can be easily understood. As you stand in front of your team, be aware of the players’ body language when you highlight the importance of character, and what it takes to be a good teammate. Focus on the foundation, and the characteristics that will serve the players well in soccer and in everything else they do: the ability to listen. The ability to work hard. The ability to respect coaches and teammates. The ability to focus. Developing these traits must come first. So when you are out there trying to explain the nuances of the game to a group of willing and eager young players, take a step back and provide a visual of what you are teaching and why you are doing it. And keep it simple.

A key factor in developing as a player is to be a student of the game. I had some natural ability, but my willingness to listen, to absorb information, and to think about things — not just what I was being told, but what it meant — was very important in my development. Don't just do. You must apply imagination, personality, and independent thought when you play. To me, these are the special ingredients. With the right coaching and the right guidance, everyone is going to learn similar skills. But people who can throw the special ingredients into the recipe will shine. It could be someone with a feisty character, someone who creates a buzz at practice, or someone who is dynamic with the soccer ball. You don't have to be the best technical player; you just need to bring something a little bit different to the game. 

The role of the coach is to build traits that will serve kids well for many years, both on and off the field. Kids have to love the game, and have a passion for it. That passion is developed from what a coach does, especially at the beginning. Children gain this special affection from many places: watching games at the stadium, watching games on TV, talking to friends and teammates. But the person who has the biggest influence — who can bind these emotions together, provide clarity and understanding of tactical and technical training — is the coach.

The coach, especially in the early years, can have a profound effect on how that child will view a sport, and how he or she will grow into it throughout their teenage years. Burnout is unfortunately inherent in sports today, so we need to get back to basics and understand what sports are all about. Fun and enjoyment have to be our focus, and it is up to the coach to understand his or her team and players. Premier players may have a different focus than recreational players, but the common denominator is that we all love the game. 

Developing a controlled and structured environment is essential when coaching young kids. When players show up to practice, they should know what is expected of them. Through repetition and clear communication, the basic foundational pieces have been put it place. But what makes it exciting for the player, and builds a sense of anticipation, is wondering, “What skills or drills are we going to do today?” Kids, especially at the younger ages, may not realize what they're learning and why they are learning it. But experience will teach them. The responsibility of the coach is critical. Building good habits will ensure that kids are playing with a smile on their faces for many years to come.  

Finally, we have to create a place where players can express themselves and develop their own sense of imagination. As a player, when you’re watching a game, there should be a sense of imagination: I want to be out there. I want to be that player. That brings a whole different dimension to a game. How do you try and emulate what someone else is doing? You see someone do a skill, and then you try and replicate it. When I was a young player, I watched my soccer heroes, and then went straight outside and did the same thing that they did. I imagined myself being there at the game, in the shoes of my soccer idols. This was often with friends, and it was never structured. We just played – in the park, on the school soccer field, in the garden. What mattered was that we had a soccer ball and we were playing. We could do what we wanted, we could imagine. Players these days are often told how to move, where to go, what to do. Some are over-coached and micromanaged. The key is to build the jigsaw puzzle, build the foundation, evolve the middle, and when it’s all said and done, let the player get out there and play. The lessons you have taught them will help them make the right decision, execute when they need to, and have confidence in their abilities. When all these pieces are in place, the game of soccer will always be fun.

Photo Credit: Carey Schumacher


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Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders for five seasons.  Jackson, the Colorado Rapid’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL National championships. At the University of North Carolina, Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal as the UNC Student Athlete of the year.

Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.

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