Understanding Soccer – A Cheat Sheet for Parents

I coach kids’ soccer and have for a few years now. I love my teams and for the most part love my parents that are piled along the sidelines screaming and cheering for their kids.  I didn’t grow up playing soccer however, I’m no expert. But, just like life, there are hacks available for any and all willing to look and learn.   

This article is that hack. A Parents cheat sheet and understanding your kid’s favorite sport.

This is not the article for coaching, but…I do have that!  If you want to become a coach, let me help you out, I have created a “New Coaches Cheat Sheet” as well.

OK parents…You need this. Pass it along to your friends too, they need it. 

 Last season I had more than a few parents that assured me they just didn’t understand the game. Also, as a coach, I will often hear parents mistakenly instructing their kids to do the wrong technique or skill. They are missing a key element of the sport and it is keeping them from enjoying sports at a higher level.

First off, your kids love soccer, and it may the #1 best sport for kids. “You kids get out there and run after the ball for an hour, that’ll tire you out.”

A bit of understanding speeds the advancement of the kids skills as well as enjoyment of a beautiful game (soccer is actually known as “the Beautiful Game”.)  Often this enjoyment is handicapped by a mis-understanding of the sport itself.

Add to it hyper-excited parents wearing “parent goggles” demanding that their kid gets a fair shake at life.

This leads to terrible advice from the sidelines and a confused look on the kid’s faces as well as way too many prematurely balding coaches throwing clipboards.

This is not unique to soccer guys, my kids also play baseball, softball, football, surf and do Ninja warrior stuff plus a hundred other things and even I am guilty of being that dad that will sometimes, in the heat of excitement, shout out, “go!” at the exact time he should have “stopped.”

The problem is, there are often times in all sports where “go” is a terrible idea and sabotages the plan.

Example:  Just last night I was at my daughter’s softball game and every single parent, one coach and even a kid hyped up on caffeine on the adjacent field yelled “Go!” when a third baseman bobbled a ball.  My daughter had just stolen third base and the catcher gunned it to the third baseman who dropped the ball as the slide came in.

Everyone yelled, “Go, Go, Go home!

Are you not sure of my point?

Exactly.  The point is, that’s really terrible advice…all the kid at third had to do was pick up the ball and throw it home.  Science has proven a thrown ball travels much faster than a running kid. Thus an easy out and bad play.   

The teaching of poor techniques and poor understanding.

Nowhere is this more obvious than soccer.  I guess being born in the US just predetermines us to being oblivious to how the sport works. That multiplied by, “I’m not really sure what’s going on out there..”

I can fix this, easily – as soccer is the easiest sport in the world to understand. Indeed, because of this seemingly inexplicable lack of understanding – last season I put together a little “Soccer for Parents” handbook to make it a little easier to understand and digest.

In addition to being able to annoy your friends at work with your professed soccer knowledge, it will make you better soccer parents. As now, you will actually be yelling out correct things to your kids.

Making better soccer parents is actually my #2 bolded headline at the beginning of the season. I grew up a coach’s kid and I’m a long-time sports practitioner, nothing is more embarrassing and sad than the sports mom that doesn’t have a clue as to what her kids have been doing the last 9 years.

Don’t be that mom that stands up screaming and cheering while clapping and jumping and then whispers to the person on her left, “What just happened?”

Don’t be that dad that says, “back in junior high I played soccer for a week in PE…here’s what I think they should do.”

Concept #1 – Soccer really is one of the easiest sports in the world to understand

Stop telling yourself it’s weird. The rules go like this:

You use your feet, not your hands.  When the ball goes in a goal, it’s a point. That’s all.

Well ok, there’s this…The team in blue goes this way, the team in red goes that way.

If the ball goes out of bounds you throw back in.  You can use your hands for this part.

Now here’s where it gets a little crazy. This is where Americans have just lost the ability to think rationally, so stay with me here.

There are positions.

Now this isn’t unique. In fact, every team sport I can think of has positions.  I’m not sure why this is so difficult for soccer parents but it’s the most obvious mistake I see while watching parents when I should be watching their kids.

You see, there are players that should be trying to move the ball towards the opponent’s goal and score and there are also positions that are set up to keep the other team from scoring. There are also positions, specifically made to play a kind of in-between. A “do-it-all” pass it here or there and help out on defense and just sort of figure out what’s happening and make it work type spot.  But that’s not every position. Only one.

As in most sports they can collectively be broken down into:

 “Offense” =try to score 


 “Defense” -stop the bad guys from scoring

And…The go-between guy I was speaking about is called “mid-field.” (This player is offense when her team has the ball and defense when her team does not)  

So please quit telling your kid to “take the ball and score” when that’s not her position.

I tell my 8 year olds, “there are two ways to win at soccer.  

  1. Score more goals.
  2. Don’t let the other team score. Both are equally important.

Actually, when compared to other American sports such as basketball, soccer is a low-scoring game. Defense is way more important, and the best athletes often end up there as you progress up the ranks. Parents and kids in early development soccer often don’t like this because they feel they aren’t a part of winning.  

They are wrong, however.  There will be significantly more “stopped goals” than “goals”  

Allow me to share a concept that really helped clear this up explanation this season. Especially to the parents!

We know football here in Texas, so we’ll start with that.

The kids I coach like analogies and football is bigtime in Texas.  They just “got it” and they all laughed and the parents nodded in a “lightbulb above the head eureka moment” of comprehension.

For instance – 

Are you aware that the best QB of all time, Tom Brady- doesn’t actually “catch” his own touchdowns?  It’s true -and yet, despite not catching touchdowns he is still quite famous AND financially stable. Using high-speed analysis, it seems that the majority of what has made him the most popular football player in history, on the planet, is his ability to pass the ball. To see the entire field and pass the ball where it should go.

The ability to pass is significantly and statistically more important than the ability to score.

In soccer, it’s the same thing – the ability to pass is just an undertaught, underappreciated and often neglected skill. Not because coaches don’t know, but because parents don’t know. You’re not trying to sabotage the game; you’re just looking at it wrong.

Have you ever told your kid you’ll give them $5 if they score?

I tell my players, “Tell your parents you’ll take $3 every time you set up a score – you’ll make a lot more cash.”

I hear my parents often shout, “Take the ball and score.” and all kinds of shouts of “shoot!  Shoot it!” despite being on the wrong part of the field and no matter how many opponents are running directly at them or guarding them.

But hardly ever do I hear shouts of, “Pass it to that poor kid standing all alone in front of a goal the size of the garage door who has upwards of a 99% percent chance of scoring even if he totally whiffs and the ball and it just bounces off any body part!”    

But that’s what we say as coaches.  All the time.

If you get this concept down, this “passing wins every single game ever” concept – as a parent or youngster playing the game you immediately move up to the upper echelon of your soccer understanding. 

I see an insanely high amount of time spent on ball handling and skills and moves and cool YouTube tricks of amazing foot skills but really don’t see much time spent just watching the game. Play the odds. Kids are like Labradors, they run to the ball. If 7 players are running after you because you have the ball, you did a great job – that means there’s someone unguarded right. Over. There. Get the ball to her!

At the end of the year, some teams give out awards. Soccer has a tradition of an award for the most goals in a season called the “golden boot”. These players are good. But typically, not the best.

No, the best players are the guys that get that kid the ball. That player is typically called the MVP.

Concept #2 – Soccer isn’t boring because it is low-scoring

Soccer is tough.  There’s a goalie right there who can use his hands. A goal is unbelievably difficult to come by. Can you imagine basketball scores if there was 11 players and the guy at the basket could use stilts?  

 There is so much beauty and skill happening without goals being scored.

As football fans, we go nuts over a huge pass where a receiver jumps 11 feet in the air and makes a one-handed catch! Even when it wasn’t for a touchdown but for, let’s say, a 5-yard gain. Additionally, when a running back jukes the heck out of a monster trying to tackle him in a classic ankle breaker and leaves that poor sap grasping air and is gone in a poof, the entire Wings-N-More goes crazy like they just collectively hit the lottery.

Basketball has it’s behind-the-back passes and baseball has the diving catch for a foul ball. All are equally, crazy exciting and often has zero bearing on the game’s score.

Heck, my kids scream like it’s the fourth of July if they get a plastic water bottle to flip in the air and land on it’s bottom.  Dude Perfect has made million of dollars flipping bottles to land on their cap! “Ahhh dude…didyouseethat!!??? Ahhh!!”

Soccer has the exact same things happening. Ankle breaker moves, fake out passes, stop and goes and long bombs down the sideline leaving the defenders scrambling like it’s the Chicago Fire and the goalie so scared he’s quite possibly peeing in his pants a little. It’s all right there happening and yet, we as American soccer watchers…we miss it. It’s nothing if it’s not a goal.  We call It boring.

Oh come on!

Get a little FE (false enthusiasm) up in there and get excited already. Make your kids want to try a stop and go 360 Burn. As a fan, stand up in slow motion replay excitement when a big arching pass goes high in the air with a huge curvy bend and your little girl catches the ball, with her foot…her freaking foot, like Odell with a sticky glove. That’s excitement y’all!!

It’s up to you to create it and feel it.

I’m 100% sure most of my parents look at each other with confused eyes when, as a coach, I lose my mind in excitement and cheering and run down the sideline when one of my kids does some cool soccer concept -like a backwards (negative) pass or a 1-2  (like a give and go in basketball) even when it doesn’t score.

 *Side note on the negative pass.  This is a huge development for soccer kids, it’s a tough concept. In essence, it is no different than a center in Basketball passing the ball back outside to a guard at the three-point line because the inside is congested.  It’s simply a reset, it’s.. “let’s take another look at the field with less pressure and work our way in again.”

My friend Joe Casey relates that when he started reffing and a team would drop a ball back, Parents would inevitably start screaming, “No! That’s the wrong way! Wrong way!!!”

It drove him nuts.  Parents…Don’t be such a noob, that’s how you play the game!

The new techniques and developments are what is fun about the game.  It’s the same as a no-look pass in hoops or a sack in football. It IS THE COOL PART of the game.  It takes a lifetime to get down. Even the world’s best pro’s will never master it all!

Concept #3 – If you know basketball, you know soccer

We already spoke about the negative pass but I’m telling you – everything matches.  It’s nearly an identical sport and this concept really helps parents and kids “get it.”

Bring the ball down the court. Sometimes slow and controlled with one main guy taking his time, running predetermined “plays” and changing positions based on that play. Sometimes, fast-break big passes down the sideline trying to catch the other team being lazy or caught out of position.

In both sports, the main “play” is to attack from the outside to the inside where the biggest tallest kid (or the kid with the best developed skills) will put it in the hoop. But occasionally, you may pass in from the top of the key to the inside. You have to work your way in there.

To get there you might set screens, or run two or three passes, pick and roll or give and go.  

Sometimes your going to set up outside and pop the long-range ball.  A three-pointer in hoops is a 40 footer in soccer.

The big mistake I see in youth soccer is in front of the goal.  It gets too crowded and too congested. My wife has 100 pictures of 5 of our team’s kids all lined up in front of the other team’s goal with 7 of the other team’s kids right up in there with them trying to keep it out.  Every parent and coach screaming, “kick it in”/ “kick it out” and there is ¾ of all the players from both teams standing so close together I could put a hula hoop around them.

Last night on the NBA game I heard an announcer point out the exact same concept. 6 players in the paint = no baskets.

Different game. Same concept.

In the younger kid’s game, there are less three pointers and long balls because their skills have not got to that point yet. So yeah, the stuff you see on TV doesn’t and won’t work for the kid’s game. They haven’t developed the strength or skills yet. But they will!

In both sports, actually, most sports -especially during the younger years- often it’s just the best kid on the team taking it all and doing it all on his own.   

On my soccer team, there are kids that are just a bit more developed and “into the game.” On my kid’s basketball team there is that one kid that is a standout and scores half the team’s points.  So yeah, get that kid the ball. But by no means think that is how we want to coach it or view it as the game develops and they get older and obtain more skills. At first, just getting a kid to pass the ball when the other team is running a press is a huge accomplishment.

The ability to dribble with both feet and then look up and then kind of develop a strategy based on things that happen takes experience and time – These concepts “go forward” in all sports. But by high school, there should be some quick one two three passing, some three-pointers, and kids ripping the ball when left unguarded.

If you know hoops you know soccer.  

See?  I Told you you knew this sport.

Concept #4 – Soccer has a secret code

Because the powerhouses of soccer are not here in the good ole USA but rather in Europe and South America you need to speak the code. Soccer coaches and Oh God, hardcore soccer fans, are just a little peculiar and love the shroud of mystery and intrigue. They love, more than anything else, to annoy their non-soccer understanding friends and colleagues.   

I equate this to my Mexican speaking friends, specifically Steve Tijerina, whom, when I ask “how do you say ___ in Spanish?” Immediately put on an incredibly hard accent and verbalizes in lightning speed, “cuuumpleasnos?”

Me:  what was that?

Steve: Esteban Tiene cumpleaaaaaannnnnyyyooos” (but crazy fast)

Me:  uh..again?   

Steve:  “capl”

Me:  c’mon Steve, help me here….bah, just write it down.”

Steve, “I’m busy, gotta run… sucka!!”

Agh!!!  I’m pretty positive Steve has just been making up stuff for 2 decades around me.

Anyway, sorry…Soccer fans are weird, and they like to be. Even American soccer fans take on the European soccer terminology because well…they’re soccer fans, they love to be different.

Here’s a few trade secrets. Remember, mostly European. Down here in Texas we have waaay more terms to learn because of our connection to the Mexican League, but this article is draggin’ on long enough already, let’s stick to the basics.

Shoes are often called boots.  “Tie your shoes” would thus be translated, “lace your boots.”

The score zero = nil.

Sidelines = touch lines

The field is called the pitch

Refs are often called officials

Teams are clubs

Tournaments are called cups

The rest of the world calls soccer football. As in FC after a lot of teams’ names. That means “Football Club.”

Often times there is no championship game – you just play everyone and keep track of wins and losses and at the end of the season the team with the best record wins….unless they are tied in wins and losses after an entire 50 game season.

And it always ends in a tie due to some crazy contract with the soccer gods of antiquity.

So, when it inevitably does end in a tie, then you go by a tie breaker that soccer weirdo’s call a “goal differential”. Basically- how many goals did you score vs how many did you let in.

Ahhhh, so that’s why the coach is so crazy about only getting beat 0-2 vs 0-4 or why when your kid’s team is up 6-0 the crazy coach loses his mind when he gives up a goal in the last 30 seconds and why the weakest kid on the team never gets to try goalie even when it’s a blowout.

See?  It all makes sense now.    It’s easy.

OK – I’m done with part 1 – everything I’ve just gone over was for the parents. That’s all you need to know. You can stop now. You know this game. Enjoy.

Part 2 is for the intrigued. So, if you want a bit more, by all means…. Proceed (coming soon) 

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