Does this sound like a bad thing?
It may seem like it at first, but in fact it is a good thing when youth soccer players can actually stop thinking.
Follow along and what you will grasp is the key aspect many developing players, parents and coaches are missing.
Watching the Greats Play
The other night I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I took my son to watch AC Milan play. You could tell he was truly engaged by the power of this experience. We had the opportunity to watch Ronaldinho play and see Oguchi Onyewu, only the second American to play Serie A, make his debut. What a night--we had no idea that both would be on the field together in their first game.
As I watched the match I was once again truly impressed how natural everything seemed. A ball sent in from 60 yards away was touched once and was sitting at the player's feet. Coming into three defenders Ronaldinho simply stayed centered on the ball and waltzed though them gracefully, escaping the pressure. Every pass was at perfect pace and rolling smoothly on the ground. The overall first touch of these players would amaze anyone.
After the game I reflected on what a technical director from England and I had talked about last year. This "perfect touch" and all the technical skills didn't just come naturally and they didn't come from just playing pickup games. The majority of these players had these skills engrained into their souls by repeating them hundreds if not thousands of times on the practice field, day after day, year after year. They performed them without thinking--they were instinctive.
Every good youth soccer coach and trainer should understand this definition...
Instinctive: "A behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level."
In other words, we perform these skills and react without having to "think" about them.
How Do We Make Something Instinctive?
Just think about tying your shoe. Well, maybe I should say think about the fact that you DON'T have to think about it. It can take months for a child to learn it and even longer for it to become a thoughtless act. The same applies to skills in soccer. One of the key principals of the SoccerU.com training series is this learning process. Not just the skill, but how this skill is learned step by step.
- First we must learn the skill broken down and step by step. Each step of the skill is vital and if not perfected, will break down the overall movement and result. We must show it in slow motion, give a visual example and also explain the why, not just the how.
- Next we must make sure the player is performing the skill properly. We don't want the player repeating the skill improperly or that is the way it will be engrained. You can see this on every soccer field in the world. Kids repeating a bad shot on goal time after time, hoping it somehow improves. This takes patience and must be done in slow motion, but after a while the good skill will come through.
- Then we repeat the skill over and over without pressure. We want the mind to be clear and focus on performing the skill at game speed. We repeat this over and over, day after day.
- Once this step has been completed we add the pressure if it applies; a closing defender or another player that is nearby. This step is critical so that the player feels the real game situation in which the skill will be used. This game-like replication, with pressure, is a critical part of learning the skill for use/recall in a game.
Why Should These Skills Be Repeated Often?
Last year I was on the practice field with a team and their 30 professional players. I couldn't help but notice the warmups and touch drills they ran through over and over. These were not high-end technical skills but basic core touches and raw skills. These were skills that they would use in a game over and over, yet they were repeating them in a practice setting.
Look at professional golfers. Why do some of the greatest golfers in the world go to the practice range every week and some even every day?
We need to revisit each skill time and time again. Teach a child how to receive a ball on their thigh when their 9 and by the age of 10, this skill will be forgotten or not be instinctive. Revisit this skill once a week and by age 10 it will be ingrained into their subconscious and be "instinctive".
At Home and Away From Practice
Look at the amount of time you, your team and your child has to practice these skills in a "structured soccer environment".
In many countries players show up for soccer practice five days a week and these practices sessions last for three hours. In the U.S. and many other countries we have about two hours a week during a 12-week season. Within this time we also have to work on learning the game, fitness, set plays, formations, scrimmages, and many other aspects.
This leaves little, if any, time for repetitive skill training. Not a problem for those who play for "fun" or recreational purposes. However, a large percentage of players leave this recreational level and move to a competitive, academy and travel level. These players want to compete, focus on the game of soccer, and improve to be the best they can be at this sport. These players must have the assistance of their parents. The parent must make time to work with their child in a private or semi-private training time away from the "structured practice". We can then focus on technical skills that are specific to that child and their needs.
Parents, You Don't Have to Be a Pro.
At home or on the field, parent/child training sessions should be fun but also focused on repeating and improving skills. The parent doesn't have to be an ex-pro soccer player to do this. Any parent can learn right along with the child while practicing. It might be a bit humbling, but watching Mom or Dad fail and struggle often makes the "medicine go down" a bit easier.
Believe it or not, this is how many of the great youth soccer coaches in our system are born. They start out knowing little about the game and devote a great deal of time and energy to learning about development of young players, rather than winning. They often devote years and hundreds of hours of their time becoming better trainers, coaches and builders of young minds and bodies. So regardless of your own skill level as a parent or coach, you can teach young players skills. Simply learn how to teach them and then invest the time.