Player Development

How to Keep Kids Engaged in Soccer Off the Field

Tips for keeping players excited and engaged with soccer when they are out of season.

by Adam Wood

Writer, researcher and soccer coach. Devotee of The Beautiful Game. Lifelong learner and community-building advocate.

As the fall season races to its end, coaches everywhere are hoping their players stay invested in soccer over the winter. Some encourage private training, while others find indoor/futsal leagues. With many of my own players trying basketball for the first time, I’m mostly dreading next season’s inevitable handballs!

But with burnout a very real concern, it’s important to give players time to rest and relax. As parents and coaches, our priority should be nurturing players’ deep and lifelong love for soccer — and that happens off the field as much as on it. 

Read below for some ideas to help keep your players engaged in soccer this winter (and beyond) by allowing and encouraging them to enjoy the sport on their own terms.

Watching Soccer

The best players watch soccer. Whether on TV or in person, watching soccer allows players to process the game’s bigger ideas: how teams set up, how their shape evolves, how players find space in crowded areas. This crucial aspect of player development is hard to cultivate on the field, but it happens organically just by watching.

The beautiful thing is that most players don’t even realize it’s happening. In their eyes, they’re just finding players to idolize, new skills to try, fresh jerseys to put on a Christmas list. But beneath that excitement, they are constantly listening, learning and absorbing information. And they’re having fun doing it.

If players don’t have the patience to sit through a full game, don’t pressure them. Start small — individual game highlights on YouTube are a digestible format to learn about teams and players. From there, as kids build familiarity and affection, they naturally grow more interested in following games. I dare anyone to watch the 2005 Champions League final or compilations of Ronaldinho in his prime and not fall in love.

Watching soccer can also be a wonderful avenue for connection and quality time between parents and their kids. If you have lots of experience, you can answer your kids’ questions. If you don’t, maybe they can answer yours! At the very least, it’s two hours a week to spend together, bonding over a shared interest and learning to love the game.

Thankfully, it’s easy to watch professional games on TV — though not necessarily cheap, with broadcast rights spread across channels and streaming services. Most English Premier League games are broadcast across NBC’s viewing platforms. The UEFA Champions League, a highly-prestigious mid-week tournament for top teams across Europe, can be watched on Paramount+, along with the Italian Serie A. ESPN+ is home to both the German Bundesliga and Spanish La Liga. 

The single most transformative soccer experience, however, is to attend a match live and in person. If you’re lucky enough to have a local team, nurture your player’s love of the game by taking them to soak up the stadium’s electric atmosphere. Austin FC’s inaugural season ignited tons of enthusiasm in my club, and players that attended games came back inspired.

Interacting with Soccer

Players today have countless opportunities to interact with soccer in exciting new ways. Apps like TopTekkers and Beast Mode Soccer encourage players to develop skills in their own free time. Playing FIFA can help players develop positional sense and understand build-up play. Movies like Goal! The Dream Begins or Bend It Like Beckham and books like Alex Morgan’s The Kicks series help young players tap into the larger culture that makes “The Beautiful Game” a global phenomenon. 

YouTube’s absurd amount of content — from ball mastery drills to tactical analysis to tips for perfecting knuckleball free kicks — makes it an engaging, customizable and free resource available to almost anyone. That accessibility also allows players to take charge of their own learning process.

But the most powerful way for a player to interact with soccer is by watching their own game film. Seeing yourself score a goal (or make a terrific goal-saving tackle, or nutmeg a player with some tasty footwork) can be a magical experience. It also legitimizes and celebrates your hard work as you watch your finest moments again and again.

With Trace iD, players have a unique opportunity to relive their season’s highlights. Rather than dig through entire games, they can review individual moments and organize playlists of their favorite memories to show off to friends and family. Check out this sample Trace iD, created by a Trace athlete from FC Dallas who recently committed to Clemson.

Playing With a Soccer Ball

If players aren’t playing competitively over the winter, they should be doing something to keep their skills sharp. Any time a player spends with a soccer ball is productive, and there are a number of fun technical challenges players can incorporate into their daily routines to help them learn new skills, retain their touch and feel comfortable with the ball.

Juggling is divisive, and sometimes unpopular with kids. But there’s a reason every coach emphasizes it’s important: juggling is a crucial element of players’ growth, helping players develop balance, agility and touch. It also helps cultivate a healthy spirit of self-improvement and constant growth. Thankfully, the viral craze of “toilet paper juggling” made juggling more approachable and way more fun. Encourage your players to try their luck, or even to start a friendly competition with their friends! Once they build some basic skills, soccer tennis can add a competitive, game-relevant edge to their training.

Another way to encourage daily practice is with a kick wall. You can use a suitable wall at home or at a park, or you can build one yourself. It’s remarkably easy to do, inexpensive (less than $40) and can make for a fun end-of-season team party! The simple act of going outside and kicking a ball against the wall helps players perfect their technique and touch, and take control of their development.

Of course, nothing can rival actually playing soccer. More than anything, players want to kick the soccer ball. They want to experiment with it, and they want to score goals. As much as possible, parents should give their kids opportunities to get outside and kick the ball — with friends, with family, with their dog, and without any external pressures. Learning to love playing for the sake of playing is the best way to develop a healthy, lifelong love with soccer.

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