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Sprinting for Soccer


Basic running in soccer comes naturally, but how and when to sprint in soccer needs to be taught. Sprinting is running at top speed over a short distance.  There are numerous times in a game when players must sprint.  These include:

  • Keeping the ball in play
  • Getting back into a proper defensive position after being beaten
  • Quickly moving away from a defender to start a run
  • Initiating a breakaway on attack
  • Obtaining time and space to get goal-side on defense
  • Creating numbers on attack
  • Adding numbers quickly to the defense after possession is lost
  • Creating a distraction as in a “dummy” run or as part of a set play
  • Defeating a quick counter attack
  • Penetrating or piercing a defense for a through ball
  • Speed dribbling
  • Triggering other runs
  • Moving to open space to create an opportunity to receive a pass
  • Initiating a slide tackle

Basic running involves the rocking motion of the foot by striking the ground first with the heel and then rolling along the sole, to the ball of the foot, and then to the toes.  Sprinting uses the ball of the foot and the toes, but the heel of the foot and the sole of the foot do not contact the ground.

Sprinting can be taught to children starting as young as seven-years old. The key is to first introduce “running in place” or “jogging in place.”  There is no need to discuss anatomy, just show them that it involves only the front part of the foot and the toes contacting the ground.  This can be demonstrated by sitting down and touching the balls of the feet; then have the players do the same.  Further, players can be shown that they will not be running like they normally do.


  1. Demonstrate “running in place.” This demonstration should be done from each of the usual positions of facing forward, facing away from, and facing sideways, to the players.  Emphasize “being only on your toes” and that you are “not going anywhere.”
  2. Explain that you will start slowly and practice together.
  3. Jog slowly in place. Observe and correct.
  4. Add the correct arm movements. This usually comes naturally, but you should demonstrate holding your arms with the elbows bent at approximately 90-degrees, “pumping” the arms as you go.
  5. Jog slowly in place with correct arm movements. Observe and correct.
  6. Demonstrate sprinting “faster” while still running in place. Perform a few times. Stop.
  7. Add the correct hand position. All that matters here is that the hand is comfortable and loose and is not in a fist.
  8. Jog slowly in place with correct arm movements and hand position. Observe and correct.
  9. Demonstrate running faster in place for about five seconds at a time. Run faster in place for a few times, alternating with a slow jog in place.
  10. Demonstrate bringing the knees up higher while running in place.
  11. Add the high knees and run faster in place. Observe, correct, and praise.

Intermediate Phase

  1. Demonstrate that you will now put sprinting into action by getting from one place to another on the field as fast as you can. Explain that the most important thing to remember is always “staying on your toes,” using only the balls of the feet to contact the ground, and not allowing the heels of the feet to hit the ground.  Sprint away from the players.  Sprint parallel to the players.
  2. Set out cones at least forty yards away. Demonstrate sprinting to the cones and then slowing down after the cones have been passed.  Direct the players to sprint past the cones.  Have them sprint back.  Observe from behind and correct as necessary.
  3. Demonstrate how to pump the arms so the hands travel from “hip to lip,” keeping the arms close to the sides. Demonstrate how, when you pump your arms, you keep your shoulders steady but relaxed.  Have the players sprint to the cones and back, concentrating on arm movement.
  4. Next, demonstrate a strong start, emphasizing leaning forward and keeping the first strides quick and short. Then demonstrate, after the start, how the strides are lengthened slightly as you gain speed and momentum.  Ultimately, you can discuss how, with each full-speed stride, the knee of each leading stride is lifted high (to obtain “knee drive”) and the back leg is straightened completely to deliver maximum power.  Have the players sprint to the cones and back, concentrating on obtaining the fast, full-speed stride.
  5. Finally, demonstrate how vision is to be focused on the location on the field to be reached. Note that this can not be at the expense of “tunnel vision,” losing sight of what is going on around them.

Advanced Phase

  1. Players need to be taught to recognize the situations that require sprinting.
  2. Players need to be taught that split seconds count and that reaction time, or how fast a player can respond to the action of an opponent or the ball, is critical to success.
  3. Explosive speed, or the extreme quickness used to attain a full sprint, must be applied instantly in order to “get a jump” on the opponent or the situation.
  4. Acceleration, or the increase in speed from a standing or slow-moving position to a sprint, must be applied as fast as possible.
  5. Players need to be taught that many situations that require sprinting do not start while facing in the proper direction. Players are often first required to turn their “front” or “lead” foot, starting on the ball of the foot, in the direction of the run to start.  Sometimes it may even take two steps to complete a turn, especially if the player is having to head back in the direction of their own goal in order to defend.

Game Application

Players need to be introduced to, and drilled upon, each of the game situations identified above:

  • Keeping the ball in play – ball angling toward the sideline, ball heading for the bi-line, ball into the corner
  • Getting back into a proper defensive position after being beaten (“recovery run”) – sprint past the attacker and turn
  • Quickly moving away from a defender to start a run (“come off your mark,” “losing your defender, “getting away from your man”) – feint one way and then sprint another way to open space
  • Initiating a breakaway on attack (often “first man running”) – ball sent into open space beyond the defense
  • Obtaining time and space to get goal-side on defense – sprint well beyond any attacker to be able to turn, be goal-side in a proper stance, before the attacker can move past
  • Creating numbers on attack (“second-man running” and “third-man running”) – sprinting forward from midfield
  • Adding numbers quickly to the defense after possession is lost (“emergency defending”) – sprinting back from midfield
  • Creating a distraction as in a “dummy” run or as part of a set play – See, “Advanced Passing – The Dummy
  • Defeating a quick counter attack – sprinting into defense after a through ball
  • Penetrating or piercing a defense for a through ball (“penetrating” or “piercing” run) – See, “Intermediate Passing – The Through Pass
  • Speed dribbling (“running with the ball”) – See, “Intermediate Dribbling – Speed Dribbling
  • Triggering other runs – draw a defender to clear space for a teammate’s run
  • Moving to open space to create an opportunity to receive a pass (“making a run”) – recognizing open space and quickly taking advantage of it.
  • Initiating a slide tackle – sprinting up to and beside an opponent who has the ball is the first step to perform a slide tackle

Players also need to be reminded, and drilled, that their sprints are not likely to be uncontested.  Defenders or attackers are to be added to the above situations after each has been introduced.  Players in the “speed dribbling” scenario may be introduced to the concept of “hand or arm fighting,” where the respective defender or attacker places their hand and pushes on the other person’s hand or arm in an attempt to gain an advantage in relative position while going for the ball.

Soccer Coaching Tips:

  • Young players tend to rise up and run in a more vertical position as they first learn how to sprint. A hint can be given to “stay low to the ground,” while reminding about forward lean.
  • Do not allow strides to become too long. Strides that are too long actually slow sprinting.  If necessary, err on the side of correcting to shorter strides (“shorter steps”).
  • Make sure that your feet fall under you as you run, not in front of you, as this will ensure that you have balance and leverage.
  • “Wind sprints” are excellent fitness drills, mimic the needs of the game well, and offer an opportunity to correct sprinting technique. They also offer an opportunity to emphasize breathing recovery.
  • Sprinting may be added in many drills as part of economical training.
  • At higher levels, sprints during games may be captured as part of “Electronic Player Tracking Systems,” or EPTS. These are wireless devices worn by players which transmit data regarding physical and health attributes.  This may include measuring speed, distance, acceleration, and the number of all-out sprints, as captured via GPS.
  • In a defensive response, players need to be taught to avoid “fly-by defending,” where the defender tries to stick a foot out at the ball while he sprints past, instead of actually running past and establishing position.
  • There are a few oral communication terms that need to be recognized, such as “Back and face,” that call for an immediate sprint. This call, made by the goalkeeper or defensive organizer is tells teammates to return by sprinting, get goal-side, and then turn around to confront oncoming opponents.


Any undefined soccer words, terms, or phrases may be found in The ULTIMATE SOCCER DICTIONARY of American Terms available at

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John C. Harves®

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