SKILLFUL SOCCER, WINNING SOCCER

“With the overemphasis on winning in this country, we are creating a nation of kids who can win but cannot play the game”

– Dr. Jay Martin, National Soccer Coaches Association of America

  1. THE STATE OF THE GAME

Dr. Martin’s quote is taken from an article in the Soccer Journal following the 2006 World Cup.  That article seemed prophetic while watching the U.S. Women’s National Team during the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China.  The team’s 3rd place finish was disappointing.  More disappointing was seeing other teams display greater skill, poise and ability to possess the ball under pressure. The WNT had begun to forfeit its technical advantage, a trend that has continued.  Even more troubling was the (then) U.S. Coach defending the team’s new, more-direct style as simply a matter of “greater sophistication,” adapting to changes in the game and improvements in other teams.  Dunga, coach of Brazil’s men’s team, ignited controversy there in the next few years with similar statements and a similar attempt to fundamentally transform Brazil’s distinctive style of play.

Neither program has recovered from these changes.  We believe that both coaches were wrong in their assessment of The Game and its future.  Creative, attractive soccer and winning soccer are not incompatible.

  1. THE 75% SOLUTION

“Players who don’t get a thorough grounding in soccer’s essential skills at the younger ages are being cheated out of their futures in The Game.”

– Marcelo “Chelo” Curi, Coerver Coaching of Colorado.

Our opening chapters addressed the benefits of developing players and teams with strong skills, and a philosophy of player development aimed at creating “Skillful Players First”.

Two things stand in the way of widespread implementation of that philosophy.  First, as a nation we lack the ability to teach skills well.  Not even the various Coaching Education programs address skills teaching in sufficient depth.  The other impediment is related to pressures associated with wins and losses.  It is faster, and easier, to win games at the younger ages by using training time on team organization.   To win because the team’s players are skillful and comfortable with the ball at their feet requires a patience and perseverance that is not always in abundant supply.  With coaches or parents.

Skillful soccer is fun to watch, more fun to play.  But to achieve both objectives requires a different use of available training time.  We take the longer view that training of players U14 and younger needs to be based on what we call “The 75% Solution.”  That is, at least 75% of training time should be be centered on developing new skills and improving the speed and proficient use of existing ones, with every session including time where players are “one with a ball” and with limited time where it’s more than 4-6 players per ball in use.

CoachNotes: The coaching education programs of US Soccer and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) provide useful sequential guidance in areas such as child developmental abilities, structure of training programs, age appropriate technical and tactical training.

In clubs requiring coach certification, those requirements normally use US Soccer’s licensing program (link).  The introductory US Soccer “F” course is completed online.  The 18-hour “E” and 36-40 hour “D” courses focus on coaching players 9-12 and 13-14 respectively.  In order to “start with the end in mind” coaches will find it useful to complete the course that’s structured for the next older level.  The NSCAA program (link) features a series of one and two day diplomas.  Both programs are long on coaching theory and participants will be required to demonstrate the ability to organize training sessions in the “approved” structure.  US Soccer’s programs tend to be more formulaic, the NSCAA’s more holistic, but both will make you a better coach.

The Players First approach does not always lend itself to the formula of structuring training sessions that develop a single theme on a given day. (In particular, it consigns most full-team play to the weekly games.)  Rather it is designed to create pieces of a puzzle that reveal a larger picture as they are joined together.

The 75% Solution focuses on creating five sorts of puzzle parts:

> 1v1. <<Ch. 14-15>>  “The team that wins the majority of the 1v1 duels in a game will win the majority of those games.”  Players should participate in some sort of 1v1 activity every time they’re together, pre-game warm-ups included.  The cumulative impact of such regular 1v1 play provides the first step in developing exceptional poise, creativity and confidence under pressure with a ball at one’s feet.

> Juggling. <<Ex. 4, Ch. 11>>  Players who can juggle well with both feet develop amazing ball control. While this is most evident in their “first touch”, juggling makes every touch better. Weekly testing (and rewarding players’ progress) will, in time, get it done.  Again: it takes patience and perseverance.

> Striking the Ball. <<Ch. 12>>  Players should also do some sort of technical work each week on striking the ball:  getting the technique right, using the different surfaces of both feet.  Teaching exclusively to the weaker foot will develop power and accuracy in both.

> Possession <<Ch. 19>>  Use weekly or more as soon as passing and receiving skills allow. The basic progression for this starts in a 12×12 grid with 3v1 keep away, progressing in a year or two to where players can keep possession 3v2 in a 10×10 grid where they must touch the ball at least five times before passing.  Along the way, this progression develops ever-increasing poise, creativity and confidence in small-group settings.  Teams whose players can play “3v2 – 5 touch” do not get the ball taken away from them.

> Exterminating the “Weaker Foot” This is a matter of using every opportunity – mostly lots and lots of little things – to get it done over time.  You’ll find lots of ways in warm-ups, when working on footskills and ball moves, and in exercises involving passing/receiving and shooting technique. One simple idea is to establish situations where the weaker foot is to be used 2 or 3 times for every repetition with the dominant foot.

For more athletes to reach higher levels of play, those five elements need to be a much greater part of all soccer training for players through age 14.

 

III. ORGANIZING THE TRAINING PROGRAM

At higher levels of the game, much of the training time has a week-to-week short-term focus, notably fixing what went wrong in the last game and preparing for the upcoming opponent.

For a coach who takes on the longer-term goal of developing “players for tomorrow” that method makes little sense.  Instead training will be driven by a vision of the long-term product then by specific goals and objectives for the season, prepared and previewed with the team, before the end of the season before.

CoachNotes: The coach of an Under-12 was planning to switch from a stopper-sweeper defensive scheme to a “flat-back” zonal system.  The change was introduced in the week between the last spring-season game and the team’s one early summer tournament.  Needless to say, the first two games of the tournament were an extended breakaway drill aimed at the team’s goalkeeper.  (The parents were less than thrilled.)  By the third game, though, players were getting the hang of it – enough that the team scraped through to the semi-finals. Improbably the tournament was won, although much more by individual player skill than the team’s tactical brilliance.

What was most interesting was that after an extensive summer break << Ch. 7>> the team’s first game in the fall featured far better defensive organization, in that zonal system, than was seen in any of those five tournament games.

What happens when you give a preview is that new ideas introduced at the end of a season will percolate in the players’ heads over the break.  These athletes weren’t consciously thinking about zonal defending during the break, but the mind was still at work.  Subsequent experiments with introducing new ideas at season’s end yielded similar results.

Once priorities have been established, create an outline for a 3 or 4-week block of training sessions.  In the course of a 12-15 week season, plan to repeat that schedule four or five times.  Consider the length of your sessions and the frequency per week, then fill in warm-ups (every session), 1v1 activities (every session), shooting (at least weekly), possession (at least weekly), the juggling test (weekly.)

The advantages repeating a 3-4 week block are many.  Among them: You will spend far less time explaining new activities.  (Most come with enough variations that even an activity that appears more than once in a block will stay fresh.) The players will also benefit as you become better at teaching and managing the activity with each repetition.

For U6 players, U.S. Youth Soccer recommends one 40-60 minute training session per week plus a game.  For U8’s, two @ 60 minutes plus a game.  U10’s 60-75 minutes plus a game.

At U12 and U14, a schedule of 8 sessions every three weeks (Tu & Th with some Mondays and Fridays – never before or after a multiple game weekend) works well.  If sessions are properly intense, 90 minutes will be more than sufficient.

Games and tournaments are fun for players and their parents.  But their place in the player development process needs to be examined, and teams’ schedules then thoughtfully devised

Consider the ratio of training sessions to games.  In the United States it is rarely better than 4:1, and often dips below 2:1.  Contrast that with European youth teams, where ratios of 6:1 (Ajax) to 8:1 (Barcelona) are common.  Then factor in the difference in number of touches per minute per player in a training session as compared to in a game.  Typically game touches are between 1/20th and 1/100th of practice touches.

Tournaments are even more problematic.  By U14, games on back-to-back days is not productive in terms of player development.  Games on three or more consecutive days, or twice on any day, is more likely to be counter-productive, in addition to increasing the risk of injury.  The “soccer purpose” can be as well served, at considerably less expense, by getting four teams together for a single day round-robin of shortened games.

  1. “PERMISSION TO PLAY”

Soccer is a game where every player controls the game any time he or she has the ball.  In an instant the player must choose to pass, dribble or shoot, choose whether to combine play with teammates or take the “individual option”, choose whether to play for possession or to risk losing the ball with a more aggressive play toward the goal.

For young athletes, it’s a moment of uncommon freedom.  Unfortunately, as one coach has lamented, this doesn’t happen enough. “Decision making is being taken away from the athletes – on and off the field – by coaches and other adults in their lives.”

A few years ago we watched a defender try to dribble out of a 1v2 situation just outside the corner of the penalty area.  It didn’t work and the ball was lost, but the opponents then lost the ball and it was cleared away.  No harm was done, yet this was followed immediately by the coach yelling across the field, addressing the player by name, saying:  “I DON’T EVER WANT TO SEE YOU DO THAT AGAIN!”  A minute later the coach, again loudly addressing the player by name, yelled, “DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I SAID?”

Needless to say, that defender will never again choose “the individual option” in that situation.  Nor will she, we suspect, when placed in the midfield.  Or up front.  That kind of a response from a coach produces that sort of a result in the kid when the player is 11 years old.

The Game is most enjoyable when players are allowed to make their own decisions – when they are given Permission to Play.  That begins with the following mantra: “You are always allowed to take on opponents.  Often you will be encouraged to.  Sometimes you must.”  Such a statement affirms a coach’s confidence in players’ abilities.  It has an enormously empowering impact on young athletes.

It’s not easy to turn that mantra into reality.  First, the players must be trained the 1v1 skills to succeed in those moments.  This takes patience and dogged perseverance over countless repetitions.

Then there’s Game Day.  When players fear what will happen if a move doesn’t work, they’re not going to try one.  Coaches must create a culture of fearlessness, an acceptance of the mistakes that will happen as players learn to train and play “at the edge of their game”.  As legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “I want players to make mistakes.  Doers make mistakes.”  Learning from those mistakes, “failing well,” can be the best way to get better.

Finally comes the decision-making.  When permission to play is given, some horrible decisions will follow. If it happens too often, players should be asked what other choices they saw, then what might have happened if those options were chosen.  But always with an affirmation of the permission to use the individual option.  Over time this helps athletes become “two-way players”, equally capable and confident both individually and “with the help of my teammates.”

Those players are unstoppable.

  1. A FINAL THOUGHT

“I am not a believer in burn out.  I do believe, however, that many leave the sport because we have failed to give them the tools to succeed. I have met many players who thought they were playing soccer only to find when they reached high school that they had been misled.  They leave the game because they cannot compete. They could have competed if trained right from day one. Teach skills and they will play a lifetime.”

 

– Alan Blinzler, Kansas City United Youth Soccer Club