“I fear not the man that has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
– Bruce Lee
As Director of Coaching for Lexington United Soccer Club, I often get asked by coaches, “How can I make my team better?” Although on the surface this seems to be a perfectly natural question to ask, when dealing with youth teams, the more appropriate questions should be how can I make the players within my team better. This isn’t to dismiss the notion that team play is important, but when a coach makes the development of the group the priority at too early an age the technical development of the individual players is often what gets sacrificed. This “team” focus may help improve the match results over the short term, but as the game evolves the time lost on the individual player’s technical development can’t be recovered.
If we make our players aware of how to create good supporting angles for their teammates (certainly an important concept), but we haven’t provided them a technical skill set to pass the ball accurately what have we accomplished? If we, as coaches, grow frustrated that our players don’t “switch the field” or “change the point of attack”, but we haven’t placed them in a practice format where they learn to receive the ball with various surfaces to develop a proper first touch who should be frustrated the player or the coach? Have we allowed for our players the opportunity to fail when learning a move to “take a player on” or given them an escape move to change direction, or do we discourage creativity at the first sign of trouble and ask them to play safer? My point isn’t to diminish the tactical aspects of the game, but without the technique to carry out the larger tactical plan, that plan is bound to fail.
How do we coaches develop players that can incorporate team concepts at a high level? Make ball mastery our first priority when dealing with young players. Until a player has established a comfort level with the ball where they aren’t fighting to control it, the ability to get their head up and process tactical decisions will be a nearly overwhelming task. The more time we spend at the youngest ages instilling good habits in our players the better the team play will be at the older age groups since players will no longer struggle to command the ball and will now be able to process situations that are unfolding around them.
How do we make ball mastery a priority?
We select activities that provide maximum ball contacts for all of our players. Although I’m not a huge fan of the word “drill”, in essence the value of repetitive exercises (drilling) that demand proper techniques over and over can’t be underestimated. This doesn’t mean we need to run the exact same exercise over and over where boredom sets in, but instead keep the focuses of our activities the same while offering a variety of exercises that “drill” home the same good habits.
I think I speak for all coaches when I say that we all want to see our players develop so that they can continue to compete and enjoy the game as they become older, but for this to occur they need to acquire a skill set that allows this to happen. If we cut corners on the individual player’s development to achieve team results, we do a disservice to the development process and in turn create limited players down the road. Let’s make sure that our youngest players enjoy having the ball at their feet as they learn to manipulate it and enjoy the struggle to achieve a total command of it. It doesn’t happen overnight, but when it does happen we will have done a great service for that player. Then and only then, that player can go forward and focus on the tactical aspects of situational play confident that the opposition and not the ball is the real opponent.