Knowledge of the correct techniques and how to train using these techniques

There are four main technical components of soccer: Passing/Receiving, Dribbling, Shooting/Finishing, and Defending.

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For each component there is a specific set of techniques needed to execute the skills correctly every time. You need to learn the correct way to execute these techniques.  Many young players believe they have already learned and mastered these techniques – but when asked to demonstrate, it becomes readily apparent that almost every young player really only has a very basic understanding of the correct technique.

Learning soccer is very similar to learning a foreign language.  Just like going to your Spanish class, you need to practice in order to learn these techniques.  There is a progression of steps that build upon each other leading to soccer-fluency!

Players can develop their soccer skills in two ways: being taught or self-taught … hopefully it’s a combination of both.  But the most important thing is that they learn the correct techniques – there is no improvement if one continues to make the same mistakes, improvement comes from making new mistakes!

Click to see an example

We are going to use the inside of the foot pass as our example – the most common play in all of soccer. For those unfamiliar with an inside of the foot pass, it’s what Spain used to win the 2010 World Cup with relative ease. Don’t get scared by all the steps – when learned correctly they become second nature.

  • Step your plant foot (non-passing foot) 4-6 inches to the side of the ball
  • Use this plant foot to direct your aim – it should be pointing at your target and parallel to the ball
  • Lock your passing foot’s ankle upwards. To do this attempt to pull your toes through the roof of your cleats. This is the most important part and is the exact opposite of when you shoot (which requires that you lock your ankle downwards). Note: when done properly you will feel a stress on the outside of the shin
  • Open the face of your passing foot up so it creates a 90° with your plant foot
  • Swing your passing foot back like a pendulum
  • At this point all your weight should be balanced equally throughout your plant foot
  • Make contact with your passing foot just on the inside of the ankle bone – for those wearing Nikes we refer to this as the center of the Swoosh
  • Hit the exact middle of the ball
  • Exaggerate the follow through – swing your foot several inches beyond the contact point
  • Depending on the force of the pass – you may be forced into a forward momentum hop
  • Use your eyes to follow the ball to its intend target

You can practice the inside the foot pass on your own against a wall, or with a friend … using repetition (see point 3) this pass can eventually be done in your sleep.

Start passing the ball with a partner 5-7 yards away (a wall and a target is fine too). Begin with two touches – strong foot only – and go through all the steps, passing to your partner’s strong foot. In your mind rapidly check off all the steps – feel the contact on the inside ankle bone, feel the stress on the outside shin from a properly locked ankle – follow the ball with your eyes as it hits the intended target!

Progression:

  • Expand the distance
  • Increase the speed of the pass
  • Move to one touch
  • Move to the weak foot

As you can see there is clearly a correct technique. Understanding the reasoning behind the techniques will allow you to understand each step’s importance and enable you to self-correct flaws.

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Understanding the reasoning behind the techniques and ability to recognize/correct flaws

There is a reason behind every technique; each component of a technique is an important part.  Every player knows how to shoot, but it’s in the details of the technique’s steps that make your shot a goal.  A player who understands the reasoning behind the technique will be able to correct why their shot has no power or went over the goal.  If a player does not know why they are not getting the result they desire, they will not know how to fix the problem.

Click to see an example

Let’s go back to our inside the foot pass to explore this in more depth.

The goal of the inside the foot pass is to make the ball roll on the ground at the proper pace and travel directly to its target. If a player (or team) is able to continually pass the ball correctly, it will control the game. But what happens when your pass is bouncing towards your teammate, or your pass is always intercepted because it is not accurately reaching its desired target? If you are not getting the desired result, there must be a glitch in your technique. By understanding the correct technique you can recognize and correct the error.

Q: Why does a ball sail over its target?
A: Was contact with the ball made below the center point or were you leaning back too far (your weight is not balanced equally on your plant foot)?

Q: Why does a pass miss its mark?
A: Was the plant foot too close to the ball; was the plant foot pointed at the target; was the ankle locked correctly; was the hip opened up so as to create a 90° angle with the plant foot; was the contact point on both the ball and the passing foot incorrect; was there a follow through towards the target?

This may seem too complicated to you, I mean, how are players (in particular young players) going to be able to honestly assess and correct their mistakes? The answer is that they are smarter than you may give them credit for – by explaining to them what is going wrong and visually showing them, they begin to become their own coaches with the ball as their tutor.

Repetition

You can know everything about soccer but you need to repeatedly practice the correct technique to make it second nature.  Spaced repetitions are the most important learning method – teaching a new technique, and then over time continually repeating that technique makes it become second nature.

In just one training session, your skills are impacted immediately; but over-time, through constant training/repetition, your skills are impacted permanently.  When you learn a new skill there is an obvious immediate improvement in the skill, but these skills drop-off over-time.  To keep on the path to mastering a skill, players need spaced repetition that converts the correct techniques to memory.  These repetitions should be constant and focused.  It’s at this point that many coaches fail, because they do not constantly teach the same information again and again until the skill is permanent.   

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One of the tricks to great coaching is to get your players to master skills through repetition without boring them – this means providing them with an array of different drills and games that teach the same information.  For example, if a coach just knows one shooting drill or game to work on shooting, a player’s level of interest and effort will diminish over time. Keep it fresh, providing new material will increase both attention and retention levels.

Click to see an example
“When you create a memory, a pathway is created between your brain cells. It is like clearing a path through a dense forest. The first time that you do it, you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. If you don’t travel that path again, very quickly it will become overgrown and you may not even realize that you have been down that path. If however, you travel along that path before it begins to grow over, you will find it easier than your first journey along that way. Successive journeys down that path mean that eventually your track will turn into a footpath, which will turn into a lane, which will turn into a road, and into a motorway and so on. It is the same with your memory: the more time that you repeat patterns of thought, for example when learning new information the more likely you will be able to recall that information. So repetition is a key part of learning.”
Michael Tipper, World renown accelerated learning expert

K.I.S.S.

Mastering soccer is not about learning 1,000 moves, but rather doing a handful of moves 1,000 times.  You yourself have probably heard the acronym K.I.S.S, which stands for “Keep it simple, Stupid!” (Or for young kids, “Keep It Super Simple!”).  The K.I.S.S rule is a general rule for many areas of life, but in soccer it is essential.  The more complicated and fancy you make soccer, the more likely you are going to make a mistake.

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Your ability to improve in soccer is directly affected by the amount of time you practice.  This is why we divide the needed soccer skills into four components (Dribbling, Passing/Receiving, Shooting, and Defending).  For each of these four components there are 5-6 key techniques and concepts that form the foundation of all play.  The aim is to Keep It Super Simple.  These 20 or so techniques are all that is needed to be a great player – whether this is to be the best 2nd grader in your elementary school or playing in Europe in front of 80,000 fans.

You are better off performing 20 skills very well, than 1,000 skills poorly.  By focusing on mastering these 20 techniques, you will train smarter.

Click to see an example

In youth soccer these days you are more likely to find a young player who can do a “rainbow” move (an elaborate showy move) than you are likely to find one who can execute a driven long ball correctly or control the ball with their chest. This is a sad state of affairs.

What skill do you think is more important to learn: the “rainbow” move or how to hit a long driven pass?

This answer is easy. You might see a “rainbow” used once a season, but maybe 2-4 times a game you will need to hit a long driven pass. On top of this, a “rainbow” move is probably successfully completed only 35% of the time by a professional player – this is not a very good success rate. In the situations where a player attempts a “rainbow”, there are almost always simpler moves that will achieve the same goal. But when you need to hit a long driven ball there is no substitute; if the game is screaming at you to pass to your teammate on the far side of the field who is ready to go on a breakaway, you need to be able to hit that long-driven pass. One correctly executed pass can win the game!

So why is it that you are more likely to find a player who knows the “rainbow” than a player who can complete long-driven passes – it’s because they practice the “rainbow” and not the driven pass – they need to practice smarter and learn to K.I.S.S.

To understand that the same 20 techniques that you need to begin to learn as a young player, are the same 20 techniques that professional players use and master, you must watch the pros.

Sit In The Stands

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A large percentage of youth soccer players have never been to a professional game, or even worse have never watched a game on TV.  Young players need to see a visual demonstration of soccer being played by professionals.  Your coach can describe and teach soccer forever, but you get a completely new understanding when you witness it.  This doesn’t mean that the New England Revolution (an MLS team) provides a perfect example of how the game should be played; or that if you watch every European match that is on TV, through the magic of osmosis you will become a star.

Watching soccer helps you to see what makes a good player.  The trick to really benefitting your personal development in soccer is to watch professional games as a student of the game.  Some find watching soccer boring, while others think it is very exciting; regardless, in all likelihood when you watch a game you follow the ball or the star player.  You need to look deeper into the game.  Look away from the ball – how do the players position themselves? What runs are being made?  How compact is the field kept?  Don’t watch the game as a spectator, but as a student trying to pick up tips.

The most important part of watching soccer is to find the person who plays your specific position and watch that player for the entire game (use your peripheral vision to follow the ball).  Youth players should know who the top three players in the world are at their position, know the responsibilities and duties of their position’s role, and understand what makes these players the top players.  If you can learn some of the things the top players in the world are doing (or even the local professional player who plays your position) it will make you a better player at whatever level you are at!

Click to see an example

I recently took my friend’s brother Jon, an 11 year-old who plays U12 town soccer, to a New England Revolution game. Jon had been playing soccer for five years and had been by his account to over 20 Revolution games. I had seen Jon play on several occasions; he is a central defender who is barely four feet tall and not yet as physically developed as his teammates. Despite his lack of size, he is smart and can already implement some important defending concepts in his games.

As the Revolution game unfolded I observed Jon following the action, what I noticed was that his eye was trained to only follow the ball. At halftime, I asked Jon his thoughts on the game … here they are in no particular order:

“I like the cleats that #7 is wearing”

“That CREW player (the other team) should have gotten a red-card for that tackle”

“The forwards are fast”

“The goalie can kick the ball a mile”

Jon was clearly enjoying the game, but he wasn’t seeing himself in the game … he wasn’t seeing the big picture. Knowing Jon was a center defender, I asked him who the center back for the New England Revolution was … he knew this one, “Parkhurst.” I said, “Great, what do you think about Michael Parkhurst?”

“He is awesome, nobody ever gets by him and the Revolution haven’t been scored on yet … and he is on the US National Team”

I said “Good,” at least Jon was able to identify the number one goal of a defender: to stop the opposing attackers from scoring! I continued to politely interrogate Jon, “What else can you tell me about Parkhurst?”

Jon thought about this for a moment, then he replied, “he is quick, but not too tall.” I continued, but “What makes him so good?” It’s at this point that Jon got a little confused, so I said, “I want you to watch the second half with one eye always on Parkhurst. You can either follow the ball and keep Parkhurst in your peripheral vision, or you can follow Parkhurst and keep the ball in your peripheral vision. But the key is you need to know what Parkhurst is doing all the time – even when the Revolution is on attack and the ball is nowhere near him. After the game I am going to ask you to tell me what you saw and I am going to ask you questions – you think you can do this?” Feeling challenged Jon quickly replied, “Yes!”

The game continued and Jon followed my instructions. After the game on the ride home, I asked Jon about the second half and Mike Parkhurst’s role. This time Jon gave me five straight minutes of information – what Parkhurst did when the ball was near his goal; different defensive plays he made; the verbal communications he passed along not only to his center back partner but to all 10 teammates; and how the attacks all originated from the back. I then asked Jon, “How many of the things Parkhurst did in the game do you do? Are there any new skills Parkhurst is using that you have never used?” Jon looked at me and said, I need to see him play again to answer that … I looked at Jon and smiled, then proudly declared that he was now a student of the game.

Jon went back to several more games … each time as a student and not as a spectator. With my help Jon started to look at the game through the centerback’s eyes and he was able to recognize the three D’s of defense (Deny the opponent time and space, Destroy the other teams buildup and attack, and Distribute to start your teams attack). Jon was able to recognize the Six Highest Forms of 1v1 Defending and use them to evaluate the defender’s performances:

  • Interception – the highest form of defense
  • Tackle as the ball arrives
  • Don’t let the attacker turn
  • Delay – get attacker’s head down, and delay for help
  • Contain – use teammates/sideline to deny penetration
  • Sliding tackle – the last resort

By becoming a student of the game, Jon started to understand the duties and roles of his centerback position, along with the skills he needed to work on to continue to improve his game. Find a role model and emulate that person. If you can apply some of the concepts the best players in the world at your respective positions use, don’t you think it will help you when you go and play in your games? It sure did for Jon!

Coordination

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There is a wide range of philosophies regarding the physical components of soccer and its importance.  Leaving the professional game aside, players must have enough endurance so that can fulfill their game responsibilities.

Being bigger and stronger can help you in soccer, but it can also hurt you.  The best players in the world are not huge players – in fact the average height/weight of the four 2010 World Cup Semi-finalists are as follows:

Germany: 6 feet, 173 Lbs.
Uruguay: 5 feet 11 inches, 166 Lbs.
Holland: 5 feet 11 inches, 163.7 Lbs.
Spain: 5 feet 11 inches, 160.7 Lbs.

The top three players in the World Cup (according to FIFA): Diego Forlan, Wesley Sneijder, and David Villa average only 5 feet 8.5 inches and weigh 155 pounds

Lifting weights to be built like a NFL linebacker would not help you on the soccer field.  What is most vital for young players is to not allow a lack of fitness to affect their play.  When a player becomes fatigued, they lose their mental focus and commit errors.  Your two minutes of direct action that we talked about earlier does not come all at once.  Your two minutes is a total, it comes in small spurts throughout the game.  At the end of the game, you need to be fit enough so if you are attempting to pass a ball you have the mental focus and physical stamina to execute the technique correctly

Soccer is full of complex movements.  On the field players need to be able to rapidly change the speed and direction of their body effectively while under control (this is agility).  A player’s coordination determines their agility.  As young players grow, their speed and strength naturally increases; however, they need to work to maintain their agility.  The bodies of youth players are always developing, but the hardest transition is when there is rapid growth (both in terms of weight and height).  When the body is at a constant growth rate, it’s relatively easy for a player to improve their technique.  However, when the body is in a rapid growth phase it is more difficult because of a loss of coordination.  This is the most important time to focus on coordination and proper technique.  If a player can maintain their coordination, technique, and agility while they are undergoing rapid growth, they improve very quickly.  It’s much harder to regain your coordination after your body stops growing rapidly, than it is to maintain your coordination as you are growing rapidly.

Click to see an example

Soccer requires the most coordination of all the major sports. Just think for a second about all the different surfaces that you can use to play with: head (1), chest (2), thighs (4), outsides of feet (6), soles of feet (8), insteps (top or laces) of feet (10), insides of feet (12), toes of feet (14), and your heels (16). That is 16 different parts of the body that that you need to be in control of and capable of using to play with. Yes, some of those body parts you will not use too often…but compare soccer to the number of body parts you need to be able to use in other sports: basketball (2), football (2), tennis (2), baseball (2), and hockey (4). Note: All theses listed sports (soccer included) require that players be able to run, jump, and use physicality – but only in soccer do you/can you use 16 or so body parts to actually play the ball.

To be a good soccer player you need to be in total control of your body … if you can’t control your body you will struggle to control the ball!

Personal Initiative/Self-empowerment

This is one of the least thought of, but one of the most important components of improving your child’s soccer development.  There are many great athletes or players with innate talent.  What separates the potential one has and the success one achieves is greatly affected by their motivation and personal initiative.  This notion is not just true for professional players, but for all players.  If a child has a large amount of personal initiative and motivation, he/she can overcome many disadvantages to achieve things thought unattainable.  At the youth level, having the motivation and personal initiative is often times the most important factor in determining to what level and how fast a player will develop.

It’s the players that need to be called in for dinner from their backyard because they want to pass the ball against a wall or practice a new move one more time, who often achieve the most success.  This personal initiative, even if it’s just to find 10-15 minutes every other day to work on some aspect of your game, is vital.  As discussed above, there is such limited true time during games and practices to improve that players need to work on their own.

Many parents assume that children either have a passion for soccer or they do not.  If your child doesn’t have the initiative to practice on his or her own, the majority of the time it isn’t because they don’t like soccer, but because either they don’t understand how to train themselves or they don’t understand how doing so will benefit them.  By teaching players how to train themselves, the correct techniques to master, and empowering them to recognize their errors: they will improve, gain confidence, and succeed.  If your child works on shooting for 15 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then on Saturday in their game they score a goal or receive positive encouragement from outsiders, they will understand the benefits to be achieved from their own training.  Teaching players that they will get out of soccer what they put in, feeds on itself and creates a passion that can fuel unthinkable success!

Click to see an example
“Players who practice hard when no-one is watching generally play well when everyone is watching””
Michael Jordan, NBA All Star