A quote from Mickey Mantle’s opened the film "Moneyball." "It’s unbelievable what you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life." While it referred to baseball it could just as easily apply to soccer. Even the greatest players continue to refine and develop new skills. Skills build on previous skills just like any learning process. All too often coaches don’t demand that basic skills become second nature for youth players. They opt instead for less repetitious and therefore less boring practice games. Retired U.S. Men’s National Team captain Claudio Reyna recognizes that "…you can’t teach skills to an old player. Youth coaches should keep in mind that individual skills need to be nurtured at an early age. Players who haven’t mastered the fundamental skills become frustrated because the game gets too difficult for them as they move into higher levels." All too often I see players on NCAA Division I teams unable to execute these basic skills. If players want to compete successfully they have to have a first touch, an ability to trap the ball, execution of a safe and proper header, an understanding how to play off the ball, play equally well with both feet, be at least 90 minutes fit, possess the instinct to come to the ball and have an accurate pass both on the ground and in the air. Simple, right?
First touch is exactly what it says. Players need the deftness to gently accept the ball on a ground pass in such a way that the ball remains close to their feet. How often have you seen a player get a pass, have it hit the foot and bounce ten feet forward where an opposing player picks it up. I argue that when people say soccer is boring it is actually because of a series of lousy first touches creates a game of ping pong without the fluid dance of a team moving the ball down the field. That dance generates the electric possibilities that put a fan’s heart in the throat. Developing that nimble first touch requires hours of. If your child plays baseball, how many infield balls are hit to the shortstop with every possible permutation of the follow-up throw? How many fly balls are hit to the outfield? Drills are an important part of development. For youth soccer, drills should take up a significant part of every practice.
Trapping the ball is the ability to receive a ball in the air on either the chest or by literally trapping it between the foot and the ground. Few players do it right. When trapped on the chest it shouldn’t bounce off like a racquetball hitting a wall. Instead of bouncing the ball should be cushioned and slide down to the player’s feet. If trapping is done with the foot, it needs to end with the ball under the foot and on the ground, not 20 feet in front of the player. Again, the only way to make this skill second nature is for the coach to drill the players in proper methods with the goal being near perfection.
There has been debate concerning the use of head gear to prevent concussions in soccer players and to diminish the effects that heading a ball might have. However, most players and coaches agree that learning where on the head to receive the ball and how to rotate the head properly make a header safe. Yet often players are left to instinctively develop their header technique on their own leading to injury. There are header drills that coaches can conduct to help players develop the proper techniques.
Movement off the ball may be even more important than what a player does with the ball. Samuel Eto’o, the talented Cameroon soccer player, stated that, "The most important thing for a forward is speed of thought. Top players read the game." Playing off the ball requires a player to consider what options are present and how to maximize those options by placing himself in the most advantageous spot. That ability to read the game is somewhat innate but can be taught with both film and drills. Here is where practice games can pay off, because the coach can stop play to discuss placement and have players reason out where they could place themselves on the field. As Mia Hamm says, "Failure happens all the time. It happens every day in practice. What makes you better is how you react to it." Players can learn how to turn negatives into positives if they begin to understand that more soccer is played without the ball. Learning to be patient, not to be a ball chaser and see possibilities will make every youth player stronger.
Learning to play with both feet not only develops a player beyond just serviceable, but actually catapults them into the highest levels. You’ve seen players miss an open goal because they had to shift the ball to their "proper" foot giving the defense time to intervene. Or you’ve watched a ball go wildly off course because it was hit with the "wrong" foot. Playing equally well with both feet doesn’t just double a player’s value, it can quadruple it. Defensively that player can steal a ball or slide tackle from any direction. Likewise, offensively the opposing team is vulnerable from all directions when a two-footed player begins the dribble. They can’t predict where she’ll turn or how she’ll turn. Coaches can conduct drills which require players to practice with their weaker foot until they develop the strength, skill, and intuition to use both feet.
Every practice should begin with fitness training. The average distance a soccer player travels during a typical 90 minute game is seven miles. So players need to be able to run seven miles without lagging and without fatigue. Players without a strong center of gravity will be easily pushed off the ball. Youth players probably won’t benefit from weight training, in fact it could do harm, because they are still growing and developing their muscle mass. They can benefit from learning how to brace, how to use their bodies to protect the ball and what foods will best develop those fledgling muscles. Once players are in high school they can consider adding supervised weight training.
Kyle Rote Jr. said, "If you're attacking, you don't get as tired as when you're chasing." Learning when to come to the ball can make the difference between an attack and a chase. A player sees his teammate is going to pass to him. He sets himself up to receive the ball. Suddenly the opposing defender steps in front, steals the ball and the chase is on. Players have to learn not to root themselves in a position especially when the ball is coming to them. Often they have the mistaken idea that they are five steps closer to the goal, so running away from the goal to meet the ball is unproductive. There are drills for learning how to shield the defender from stepping in front if the player wants to stay put and drills for developing the instinct of when to step to the ball.
The biggest and most frustrating bugaboo of soccer is passing. Players seem to settle for being able to send the ball away from themselves but don’t seem to be overly concerned about where those passes land. Voted European Player of the Century in 1999 Johan Cryuff manages the Catalan National Team. He observed that, "Football is simple but the hardest thing to do is play simple football." Nothing shows that more than bad passing. Players make lousy choices because they complicate the process. The center of the field leads to the center of the goal, prompting players to erroneously assume the best bet is to pass down the middle. In fact only 33% of goals are made in the middle of the net. That leaves 67% on the sides. Add to this that 67% of those goals are achieved by aiming low means that players who approach from the sides and shoot low have the greatest chance of scoring. Passing into the opponents in the center lane of the pitch isn’t as effective and often leads to an opponent picking up the pass. Learning which shoulder of a receiver to send a ball over requires an understanding of the direction the player is moving and which side of her the defender is on. There are excellent drills both for developing accurate open field passing and defended passing.
Parents should look for clubs that will develop their players by developing these skills. While playing matches is fun, it won’t correct the bad habits players have or build skills that players need. Find a club that emphasizes drills, especially in those years leading up to high school. It’s important that players can take care of the basic skills if they want to move on to the more complex aspects of the game. While these skills don’t seem all that simple, they are attainable with the necessary practice and devotion. Coaches can do only so much to give a player these skills. Like anything we learn the quality depends as much on the student as on the teacher. Manfred Schellscheidt, the German-American coach and player, makes it clear, "I don’t believe skill was, or ever will be, the result of coaches. It is a result of a love affair between the child and the ball." A player who truly wants to get better will. While drills aren’t glamorous, they do offer players a chance to move up to a more glamorous role on their team.