Reflections on the first year of youth coaching…

John Zuidema
4 min readJan 3, 2024

Although I’ve spent a lot amount of time (three years now) working in various football environments, 2023 was the first year that I spent doing a considerable amount of coaching myself. Whether on my own, or working with another coach, I worked with seven different teams across six different age groups. In one year alone, I ran or helped run sessions for teams in age groups U8, U9 (3x), U10, U12, U14 and U16 all within the same club. Next year, I anticipate that I’ll probably work with the same teams, adding another U8 team to the list.

I’ve been given a great opportunity at the club to have freedom to run sessions with all of these age groups, and it taught me a lot. There are three lessons that I feel are worthwhile sharing

  1. Confidence goes a long way.
  2. Planning is more important than you think.
  3. Burnout is very, very real. Plan for it.

1.) Confidence goes a long way.

Early on, one of the things that I struggled with immediately (and still do today sometimes) is having confidence in my coaching. In general, I’m way too hard on myself and question almost everything that I do and this means that even in the moment, I question myself too much. This lack of confidence resulted in a few of my early sessions getting out of hand because the kids could detect the uncertainty.

Even if you’re not fully confident, act like you are. It will make the sessions go better and you’ll still have the opportunity to reflect later on. A big part of this though is having a a well thought out plan for every part of the session…

2.) Planning is more important than you think.

However important you think being prepared is, double it, and then probably double that again. There isn’t a single thing that is more important to me than being prepared.

There’s a few suggestions that I have for planning that went a long way for me. The first is, in the event that you can expect a certain number to show up, at least begin to consider how you’d adapt to +1 or -1 player. You don’t need to rewrite an entire session plan, although it might help some people, but having beginning the thought process means you won’t have to work so hard to adapt when it, inevitabaly, happens.

Another part of planning that I personally found to be incredibly useful is planning your transitions. At higher levels, you might have an entire pitch to layout sprawling exercises and all it takes is some time collecting the balls, that’s much easier. I had 1/8th of field and had to maintain a semblance of control with twelve very young kids. One of the ways that I planned transitions was using the same cones and/or near identical dimensions for each exercise. This also helped with their learning (I think) because they didn’t have to make a major cognitive switch.

The final reason that I have for emphasizing planning is that oftentimes you will not get ‘through’ all of the concepts that you hope you would. You can sit down at the beginning of the year and write up an entire curriculum for a team, and I promise, you will frustratedly throw it out the window within the first month after they failed to grasp something that you had assumed would be easy. Plans actually make us more adaptable, I think.

By having the knowledge of things that you want to do, you’re still able to cover things in a logical manner, even if the dates on the sessions plan from the plan that you had originally created.

3.) Burnout is very, very real. Plan for it.

This part will seem pretty silly for anyone reading the first section and wondering “how in the world did he coach that many teams at once!?” because well, of course I was going to burnout! And yes, you’re not wrong. I have a pretty well established habit of taking on way too many responsibilities. But still, I have a different side to that argument which is that if you’re coaching soccer, you are probably already overworked. I’m not sure I’ve met someone even associated with the sport who isn’t.

Bearing that in mind, there are some things that I’m planning to implement this year to hopefully help ensure that when the burnout hits, it doesn’t actually destroy my session quality in the same way that it did this year.

The first is to plan out my sessions far enough in advance that even on the days or weeks where I’m not feeling up to it, my past-self has already created a contingency plan to guarantee a decent session still happens. Another part of this is also having an “ol’ reliable” type of session where I’m confident in the exercises and setup, and know that the players will get something out of the day no matter what.

The second is to make sure that you’re doing things outside of coaching and working that are fulfilling. Given that most clubs, especially at a youth level, are training at night and having games on the weekend, many coaches are giving up time which would normally be a leisure hour. While still recognizing that you’re making this sacrifice, you must build in other times during your day/week to guarantee that you’re still taking care of yourself mentally.

The third and final recommendation that I have is to make sure that you’re not doing things on your own. Having a circle of people who can help out with sessions in some capacity makes a big difference, as I can attest in the more recent months. Being confident that you can bounce ideas off of other coaches or ask them to fill in for your sessions turns it into a more collective experience that is much less draining.