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Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.

 

Juggling

Sam Snow

An interesting thought was sent to me recently from Shawn Wilson concerning the skill of juggling the ball as a part of player development. I think it is a good look at juggling and opens us up for some discussion. While this matter is not a huge one in youth soccer, it does point us toward more effort in training sessions on ball skills. So the inquery was this:

I would love to hear your take on the relative importance of juggling on the thighs. I think it is over emphasized amongst youth soccer players. I see value in encouraging players to spend time with the ball, but I also think that allowing/encouraging players to demonstrate juggling that is dominated by the thighs is counterproductive to developing players with true touch and control for the game.

Now here's the passage from Shawn which prompted our dialogue:

My son recently joined a highly competitive U-11 classic team. His new coach at the first training session asked him what his juggling record is to which he told the coach "67". The coach did not give any positive feedback but instead pointed out that two players on the team are over 100, and one of which is actually over a 1,000, quite impressive indeed. Further discussion on the topic revealed that of those 1,000 touches, the vast majority (over 80 percent estimated) were with the thighs. This is not uncommon amongst youth soccer players. Juggling on the thighs is very prevalent to the point of dominating juggling, especially when a total count is the emphasis. 

My wife was observing the interaction and as the conversation continued felt compelled to point out that with our son we do not "count" thigh touches. To clarify, with my players I encourage them to use the thighs as a controlling surface but try to keep them from fixating on thigh to thigh juggling. When addressing juggling with my team I set up contests in a variety of ways. When going for simple total counts, I only allow feet and head to count, but all legal surfaces (including thighs) are in play for keeping the streak going. We also focus on juggling activities that force the player to move the ball from surface to surface on command (such as "climb the mountain" or juggling "h-o-r-s-e"). 

When my wife pointed this out to the coach, the coach got somewhat defensive and countered that, "a lot of the game is played on the thighs". Perhaps my wife should not have offered any response, but she did so in an effort to preserve my son's confidence in front of his new teammates. 

The fact is that not much of the game is played on the thighs at all. Just this morning I am watching Chelsea and Manchester United in the FA Community Shield. These are two of the best teams in the world, loaded with highly skilled players. Through 73 minutes, I observed the ball played off the thigh once. That's right, one time! Chelsea's right wing used his thigh to settle the ball to the floor near minute 26 from a pass played in the air to him. Furthermore, I have never seen a high level player move the ball from thigh to thigh in a match or even move the ball thigh to thigh while juggling or warming up. 

Ronaldinho, when in his prime, demonstrated the best ball control in the world. Viewing video of him reveals that for 2-3 minutes of juggling, he plays the ball off his thighs 1-2 times, and never does he move the ball thigh to thigh.

Perhaps, all of this comes across as a little hard core on my part. It is. But I do appreciate the skill and concentration required to juggle a ball thigh to thigh for several hundred touches. And if a young player can do this, then it should be recognized as an impressive achievement. But the point I am making is that focusing on thigh juggling to that degree is a mistake. Juggling is only valuable if it ultimately improves a player's touch (especially first touch) and control within the actual game of soccer. For this reason, young players should be encouraged to juggle primarily with their feet (preferably both feet).

Here's the response I sent:

I agree with you that juggle is a means to an end. The end being more confidence with the ball, improved balance and limb control, visually getting better at reading the spin, flight and bounce of the ball and finally to learn controlled impact with the ball to either settle or propel it (touch on the ball). Do Americans who juggle do so on the thigh too much? Quite likely so. I feel though that this issue is less of a problem than the fact that too little juggling is taught or encouraged by coaches in the first place. I think that juggling is a useful tool for improving in many of the areas mentioned above. Juggling can also be a good warm-up and/or cool-down activity. So let's get more young players out there learning how to lift the ball and then to juggle it. And yes, please encourage touches up and down the body. Even the juggling tricks, while not used in a match, help to build confidence. That confident attitude of a player's mastery of the ball is invaluable to quality match performance. Finally, on the note of one's record of juggles in a row, I do not see a practical need for anything over 100. After that record is achieved juggling becomes an end in itself and not the means to improvement in the areas mentioned in the second sentence above.