This article topic can be applied to all talent and age levels. However, the context of this article is not recreational soccer. The level of play described is USSDA or “academy” soccer.
What You Need to Know:
- Technical improvement and training need not be complicated and fancy — it should be simple, to the point, and consistent.
- Mastering the simple will make the complex seem simpler.
- Young players have the creativity coached out of them too early and too often.
- Self-analysis is a skill many players avoid out of a fear of addressing their weaknesses.
- Practice is an act, not a place that fosters the majority of technical and fitness-based improvement.
- Finding creative solutions to technical problems is still lost to many youth players.
- True player development requires creativity.
Lately, I’ve seen discussions and debates of all types regarding player development. Plenty of important topics are ruminating around soccer circles on a larger scale than ever before, which is great. This article is not about the merits of one belief system or style of play over another. This article is about identifying and exploring the ways players approach necessary areas for improvement and providing some contextual explanations that hopefully lead to unique solutions and more clarity.
A few years ago, a former player of mine reached out to me asking for advice — technical in nature. Personally, I breathed a sigh of relief that this player’s problems weren’t along the lines of: “My new coach doesn’t like me” and “I never get to play the position I’m best at” — to me, those are much more complicated and personal issues that I likely cannot (and will not) solve for a player.
Player: “Coach, I need help running with the ball. Like, I can dribble fine, but I don’t think I’m able really run with the ball, you know? My coach has me playing as a right midfielder so I have lots of opportunities to run at players but I slow down for some reason and when I try to dribble, it’s not like it used to be — I think I’m overthinking everything!”
Me: “Well, what did your coach say?”
Player: “He said that I can’t run with the ball…”
Me: “Can’t as in, you’re not allowed to run with the ball, or can’t as in you’re not able to physically?”
Player: “I guess both?”
Versatility is Great — to a Point
Now, anyone who’s communicated with a teenager knows that playing Twenty Questions is exhausting, so let’s process the situation. At the time, the player was 16-years-old and hoped to continue playing at a competitive level. He didn’t play high school soccer because of the rules set forth by USSDA. A utility midfielder by nature, this young man was at serious risk of falling victim to common plight for many young players of being a jack of all trades, master of none. He was experiencing the ebb and flow of a culture of idleness and complacency and what I refer to as: a player’s unwillingness and/or inability to “own” a position.
When a player is less dominant and doesn’t have any definite specialization to a position they are often confined to role playing assignments, which are important but often relegate players to being “fillers” and logging junk minutes. In essence, players who aren’t dominant enough on a consistent basis become afterthoughts in uniforms. Additionally, coaches tend to operate under a sense of obligation to play these players out of fairness and duty (to whom, I don’t know). This happens mainly because coaches often try to spread playing time out as “evenly” as possible for the role players — often to the detriment of the team and the player because they’re equating minutes with quality time. Those two factors are not the same.
Translation: You don’t dominate the position to the point of garnering more quality playing time, respect, and a bigger role in the team’s main tactical deployment.
Clearer Translation: You aren’t consistently good enough to leave NO doubt in the minds of the coach and of your teammates that you are the go-to player for that position.
The Real Talk Translation: He’s too nice and in seeking the approval of his peers and current coaches, he’s not working hard enough, being tough and bold enough to assert himself and claim a better role in the team.
Don’t Make a Problem an Issue
As a coach, I choose to look beyond the problem. So often, we get caught up in figuring out why a player is where they are instead of accepting the “here and now” and looking for solutions. Not once would laughing at him or mocking him for needing work on a skill that many might consider basic (running with the ball with proficiency) have helped him. Furthermore, most people confuse running with the ball with kicking the ball and then running after it. Those are not the same.
Let’s back up, though. At some point along this player’s development trajectory from when I coached him at the U13/14 level to the U17 level, he believed he’d unlearned the ability to run with the ball.
So, what’s the player’s real problem? Simple, he was his own worst enemy. He allowed the subjective assessments of others dominate his thought processes, motivation, and self-belief (or lack thereof). I’m a fan of players being their own biggest critics because it allows room for self-monitoring and gives players a sense of control over the day-to-day and instills a sense of responsibility. What I am not a fan of is players shrinking in the shadow of criticism and letting opportunity slip their fingers because “someone said something”.
The conversation continued.
Player: “We don’t really work on this at practice because…”
Me: “Stop. This is not something you can just “work on at practice” — do you understand?”
Me: “Look, you’re unsure what this coach means about how you “can’t” run with the ball. For argument’s sake, let’s assume it’s not allowed physically and tactically. Why would that be?”
Player: “Because…because the two are related?”
Me: “Tell me how and why…”
Player: “If I can’t run with the ball physically that makes me a liability on the field, right?”
Creative Players are Resilient Players
For those playing along at home, we’ve unearthed a few problems:
- This is all just as much about the mental side as it is the technical side
- Most people don’t know what practice actually is…
- Problem solving requires creativity and critical thinking
This player lost his sense of creativity and in an effort to help , I provided less-than-conventional methods (to some, at least) to [re]acquire the skill. My advice: to literally run with the ball. He was to run with the ball through the neighborhood, around the park, at the school track. If he walked his dog, a ball had best be on his foot. The goal was to make the task as natural as possible. I made it clear, the exercise has no expiration date. Train this skill until this weakness becomes a strength. Then train it some more.
First, running with the ball is a crucial part of the game and he needed hours of practice working on something that apparently wasn’t refined enough to apply to meaningful competition. He also needed to do this on his own time away from his coach. Time and self-motivation doing the unglamorous can go a long way for a player. So, what’s so creative about running with a ball. Nothing really, but I figured if I could get him running with a ball on a variety of surfaces day after day, the process would be less foreign and awkward. Getting him to augment his stride, cadence/turnover, and ability to run with the ball at pace with his head up was paramount. His current coach didn’t have time to babysit him, nor is it that coach’s responsibility to do so. This deficiency was the player’s, not the coach’s.
Practice is an Act
We can hem and haw about sports psychology, coaching philosophies, and soccer politics all we want, but the fact is, for most players, merely “going to practice” isn’t cutting it. This is precisely because practice has become a term paired with a setting. The minute we can view practice in terms of the verb other than the noun, this makes more sense.
If we’re honest and considerate of time constraints, practice is NOT the ideal place to “learn” things. Stay with me, it’s more of a place to try the things you’ve already learned (literally the act of practice). That is, practice is a place where you try the things you’ve learned. Concepts and skills may be introduced at practice, but it’s very rarely going to be the environment those concepts and skills are truly honed.
In fact, at the higher levels of youth soccer practice is actually the congregating of a team to rehearse scenarios to be applied to match play. Training, however, is the grunt work players need to be doing on their own withouts seeking the approval of the coach. There is a big difference between training and practice as detailed here.
Perhaps the biggest issue is problem solving. Young players seek answers without understanding processes. Their approach to the problem presented stagnates them. Oftentimes, rather than first brainstorming ways to improve the one thing they control (the physical), it’s common for players to panic and over-analyze what’s happening and need reassurance along the way. Much of this is a result of their integration of a youth sporting system that hinges and sells itself on things like: winning at all costs, favoritism, and a lack of creativity.
Kicking a ball against a wall for hours helps develop and hone a skill set; and so does running with a ball. Thing is, running with a ball around the park seems “odd” and “unnatural” for many players. Players have been led to believe that dribbling through cones at a training session during warm-ups is sufficient. This is largely due to the absence of and failure to foster creativity in youth soccer. On trips to Europe throughout my upbringing, I saw players dribbling up and down the streets on their way to play street soccer. In Central and South America, I saw much of the same.
My assertion is our young soccer players can learn much from their basketball-playing counterparts. Basketball players truly interested in improving the technique and confidence take a ball with them everywhere they go. They’re dribbling up and down the neighborhood sidewalk, practicing free throws at the park for hours, doing crossovers in-stride as they walk to play pickup ball. Repetition, habit-formation, skill acquisition, consistency — all of these are accomplished outside of formal, organized playing environments.
Creativity is coached out of players early-on in [North] American soccer. Players need to get out and find ways to win, find ways to dominate their positions within their immediate talent pool, make time to train away from the formal team setting, and make problem solving an active exercise. Don’t focus on the fact there is an obstacle in the way; instead, focus on how to make a weakness into a strength.
Remember: It never gets easier, you just get better.