What You Need To Know:

  • Communication and passing are inextricably linked. Any player can do one or the other. Players and teams that master the use of both are well-suited to produce better results, attain a better level of play, and have happier players with more involvement in the play.
  • There should be no conflict between passing and dribbling. Both are integral parts of the game — each skill has its use during match play. Although dribbling and passing are important, the ability to discern when and where to use each is equally important.


“If you cannot pass the ball then you must find a new sport to play.”

I remember that phrase from a coach in the Netherlands when I first arrived. I looked around at the mini-grids and stations for the morning’s technical workouts and found the systematic layout daunting. Each drill stressed a few core principles:

  • Clean technique
  • Repetition training
  • Proactive instead of reactive movements
  • Attention to detail
  • Complete focus
  • Staying active the entire time

Players took pride in their ability to pass the ball. Was every pass perfect? No, but the intention to play quick, technical soccer was evident.

“Players who cannot pass the ball must learn. Players who do not pass the ball are bad. Try not to be a bad player.”

After a few training sessions, the value of passing and moving was stressed; not merely passing then moving. Not watching my pass the ball, move, repeat. The game we were taught was centered on possession. Should the opportunity arise to dribble, a player seized the opportunity to 1). beat the opponent so he could then look to pass the ball, or 2). beat the opponent to open up space for a teammate to occupy before releasing the ball, or 3). beat the opponent to shoot, cross, or continue forward advancement toward goal

Given the option to dribble or pass — most players passed the ball depending on the ‘zone’ they were in on the field. Training sessions revolved around these ‘zones’ where the emphasis changed depending on what zone a player found himself in.

Zones in the attacking third and on the wings encouraged dribbling as the opposition was isolated. Here the risk of losing the ball is lessened by the distance from one’s own goal and having players able to get numbers behind the ball to mitigate counter attacks.

All the drilling, extra training, ‘wall ball’, and direct/indirect instruction told us one thing: Passing is not optional.

During games, players refused to be known as “black holes” — the ball enters and has no hope of ever coming out. The collective attitude curtailed any selfishness as passing the ball produced winning soccer. Players who chose not to pass simply were excluded from the team sheet or removed from the team entirely.

That doesn’t happen here.

Exhibitionism is a problem as is the over-complication of a simple game. Here, soccer suffers from a “copy and paste” syndrome. Coaches attempt to implement something they’ve seen at a seminar, online, or on television without fully understanding the how and why of the process. The cart before the horse approach to the game stunts growth. It seems here that passing is a secondary option to dribbling for American players. The problem doesn’t just plague young players — it affects all ages. Dribbling out of bounds, into traffic, onto the highway (I’m kidding, but you get the point) — it’s all praised in American soccer. People actually think a player who dribbles at the wrong time, is doing the right thing.

“Good job!” and “Great effort!” followed by, “Dribble out of danger!” are common phrases that accompany dribbling attempts resulting in less than stellar results. Parents, coaches, and players love a one-trick pony. And, no, I’m not devaluing the skill and importance of dribbling. I’m calling out a major problem that needs to be addressed: Selfishness.

Personally, I believe this comes down to two things — ignorance and arrogance.

It’s ignorance that allows players to bypass mastering the fundamentals of passing and receiving. It’s coaching ignorance to allow players to take shots at an empty goal for a warm-up. It’s ignorance for a player to place more value in learning a complicated move over mastering the ability to distribute the ball consistently and with clean technique. Ignorance is defined as a “lack of knowledge or information” and in this case, there is always an opportunity for learning and improvement. As a player, I had no problem with mistakes as they are part of the game and the learning process. Some people truly need a formal and rigorous [re]education in the game. As a coach, I have no problem with ignorance as long as it’s true ignorance.

What I don’t have time for is arrogance. Arrogance is selfishly playing well beyond one’s capabilities. Arrogance is the refusal to play in such a way that benefits the team before the individual — it’s the refusal of instruction and teaching. Arrogance is the rejection of all input as an individual prefers to do it “their way”. Arrogance is deciding not to do the right thing because one doesn’t feel like it’s in their best interests to do so. Arrogance is repeatedly trying to dribble out of the back and getting stripped when passing options were on. Arrogance is not taking pride in one’s performance and making the same mistakes over and over expecting a different result. Wait, no, that’s insanity.

The “me first” mentality hamstrings American soccer. A culture built on entitlement, elitism, ignorance, and arrogance undermines progress. From the lowest to the professional levels players still don’t take pride in mastering the basics. The amount of time players put into supplemental training directly correlates with how much and how fast they improve. I often wonder if people think effort is measurable? Effort is nothing without application.

Communication is a undervalued skill in American soccer. As a coach, I have a rule: No shouting the name of the player with the ball. Growing up, the ability to communicate effectively was drilled into us by a coach from from Arnhem who played for Vitesse. He taught us to communicate where we wanted the ball with simple yet effective words: “To feet”, “to space”, “bounce back”, and “trail behind” — these were all phrases we used instead of shouting a player’s name. Only directional/instructional communication was allowed. For example, the cacophony of “Mike!” from every player tells poor Mike nothing. Don’t believe me? Watch a soccer game and you’ll hear the constant stream of inane shouts of the player’s name who has the ball. It’s much harder than shouting a teammate’s name, but it’s much more effective.

Why is that important? If that habit is broken, players learn how to pick their head up, think a step or two ahead of the play, and give actual useful input on the field. Another rule I had was players weren’t allowed to say, “my bad”. What the hell does “my bad” mean? Lose the ball, put your fire out. Win possession back, stop the attack, get your shape, get organized, then take the blame if you’re so inclined once the play is over.

Players who say, “my bad” are frauds. Of course it’s “your bad” when you mess up — why say it? This lesson was learned the hard way. I recall an episode where a teammate didn’t recover once he lost possession, opting instead to put his hand up and shout “my bad” as a cop out. This happened every single time this particular player lost the ball or made a mistake. It didn’t take long for us to tell him we didn’t care whose “bad” it was because it doesn’t matter.

A few years ago, I played on a men’s team vying for U.S. Open Cup qualification. It came as no surprise that we lost the game when a player decided to “do his own thing” and attempt to dribble out of our own box, get the ball taken, and say, “My bad!” as the opposition scored. Mistakes happen. Even though he had options to do anything but what he ended up doing, that’s the game. It’s unforgiving. Myself and the other midfielders made runs, found open pockets he should have passed to, but he had one thing on his mind — dribble.

The other team qualified for the U.S. Open Cup. We went home.

I’ve often tried to find real reason players say this ad nauseam. Perhaps, in some crazy universe, there exists a law where self-acknowledgment of an error makes it acceptable to play lazy, selfish, or reckless soccer. Make the mistake, own it through your play and effort to recover. That speaks volumes more than some adolescent phrase designed to let players off the hook.

You might be thinking I’m getting a bit crazy with such rules (or suggestions, because “rules” indicate punishment…) but there’s a method to my madness. More than the uselessness of the phrase is the damage it does to players who have neither the technical ability nor the nous to play effectively with useless talk directed at them every time they get the ball. When a player gets the ball and his or her name is shouted by ten other players and numerous more parents — that player panics. Watch it for yourself. Juxtapose that chaos with only functional/directional/instructional phrases and the player usually plays more composed. When players panic they concede possession, get frustrated, dribble recklessly, and performance suffers.

The takeaways here are simple:

  • Passing is not optional. Players who opt to continually dribble over passing with poor results are choosing arrogance — they’ll feign ignorance, but it’s a conscious decision for them to ignore instruction.
  • Passing and receiving should be trained together. Players who can’t pass and receive need to work on these skills to the point those players can achieve proficiency — this is achieved through supplementary and increased frequency and duration of passing and receiving work. The onus is on the player to improve on their own.
  • Remove the fluff talk. Vapid talk in the form of “my bad” and shouting a player’s name sans directional/instructional input is useless and increases the panic in players.
  • Players who pass well, play well. Teams that pass well produce winning soccer.

Published by Jon Townsend

Jon is a long-serving writer for These Football Times and the Original Coach and is the author of the upcoming book "It's Just a Ball: Exploring the Complexities of a Simple Game". Jon is a supporter of Liverpool Football Club and AFC Ajax. Based in the U.S., Jon is involved in promoting grassroots football and specializes in player development writing and coaching. He is the co-founder of Year Zero Soccer, a non-profit grassroots football organization that is partnered with TFT. His work has been featured on the Guardian Sport Network, Inside Soccer, NSCAA Soccer Journal, White Lines Magazine, and Spartan Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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