It’s Still All About The BallPosted: March 14, 2021
To begin this post- a note: as regular readers of this blog know, the writer ( that’s me – the Soccer Yoda) usually writes in the third person. This is an attempt to put the more of the emphasis of the writing on the subject matter and less on the writer. But, for this post, I (that’s me – Alan Goldstein) have decided to write in the first person, since a number of the events being referred to in this post are those that I personally experienced.
In the mid-to late 20th century, as more and more American soccer teams participated in competitions with teams from other nations, it became very obvious that 1) our success rate was poor (like not qualifying for the World Cup from 1954 -1986 and then again in 2018) and 2) it was not because we lacked athletes on our teams. Americans could run and jump as well as anyone… so what was the issue? To those who watched and studied the game, it was obvious – American players could not handle the ball in any way close to the ability demonstrated by players from other nations – almost any other nation. This was apparent at all levels – our youth specialized in kicking the ball as hard as possible; our national teams tried, rather unsuccessfully, to emulate quality play – but without the quality.
Other than a few immigrant-heavy enclaves in our cities and notably St Louis, Missouri where the CYO had sponsored a membership-heavy youth program, there was no youth soccer in the USA until the 1970’s. As interest in the sport grew and youth teams began to flourish – the expected rise in the quality of American teams and players failed to match expectations. Our kids and therefore our teams, mostly specialized in running fast, kicking hard and ( as so many coaches exclaimed loudly from the sidelines ) “beating the opponent to the ball”. As one observer in the Netherlands expressed to me,” we see many American teams here, they like to come to our country. They seem to fight the ball all the time”.
Let’s now jump to present day. A couple weeks ago one of my grandsons, age 4, went to his first “soccer class”. Although there is a number of experienced family members who could provide coaching, his parents felt that the social experience (especially in the pandemic era) plus the authority and knowledge represented by an neutral, trained coach could benefit the little Goldstein more than backyard training by relatives and I agreed. So, he was enrolled in a program with a national presence, marketed as a specialized soccer experience for youngsters – mostly young youngsters -ages 4-8.
Now, little Goldstein is an independent thinker and due to the last quarter of his life in our pandemic-affected society being spent without socialization with many other children, he was at first reluctant to join the group which consisted of 10 kids. The coach gathered them in the middle of the indoor soccer facility, they sat down together, and the coach began addressing them. It was jovial and fun, with lots of laughing and group affirmations. And my grandson wanted no part of it. He went out onto the floor – it was an indoor soccer facility – ran to the balls which were gathered together in a corner of the area, took one and started dribbling around on his own. The coach, to her credit, didn’t push the issue. The rest of the kids were clearly enjoying their group talk. After about 10 minutes, the group broke up and began an organized version of tag. The majority of children ran toward the coach and each other, avoiding tags by individuals appointed as taggers. Small Goldstein, meanwhile, kicked his ball into the goal, pulled it out, dribbled around, beat a couple imaginary defenders and struck it again into the goal – numerous times. After about 10 more minutes of several running and jumping games, the group finally got to the balls. They spent a few more minutes kicking the balls with force , then gathered to sum up the 30 minute class with the coach. At that point young Goldstein went over to the group, listened for a few seconds and then went back to his movement and scoring exercise until time was up.
Of course, the socialization skills( or lack thereof) of my young grandson is a point for discussion by his parents, but it is my purpose in this post to bring up – once again – the issue of effective training to develop quality soccer players and (perhaps more important for overall support for the sport) training that keeps, grows, and rewards an interest in the game. For while 4 yr old youngsters can be entertained and happy with a soccer training session that includes about 10 touches of the ball in 30 minutes – older players are not, especially if that type of training session is repeated at frequent intervals.
The use, or perhaps the overuse, of training exercises that center on physical attributes has been a discussion point since the USSF first introduced it’s National Coaching License program. I know, because I attended a number of them, as early as 1978, while earning my license. From the beginning, the instructors at these programs harped on the need for ball work in training. That is where I first heard the phrase, “no laps. no lines, no long lectures”. The prevalence of abstract cross-country style running during youth soccer training was so high that at one point the national Director of Training at that time – the internationally well-respected German coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott posed this rhetorical question and supplied it’s answer to the license class I was attending: ” do you know what you get when your team does a lot of lap running? … Good lap runners! But if you want to develop good soccer players – they must play a lot of soccer!”
Despite the constant mention of the benefits of training with the ball – both individually and with the team – coaches have been slow to adapt the all-ball type of training sessions that produce the quickest and best results. Actually, many coaches and clubs have incorporated the “agility practice” into their training regimens. This is a session in which players do wind sprints, long runs, push-ups, jumps into the air, and many other exercises, none of which involve a soccer ball. An entire training session without once touching a ball. I discovered the commonplace use and acceptance of the “agility practice” a few years ago when discussing our training with a young teen squad I was coaching. One of the players suggested that a session without a ball would be good for the players. I was aghast … “If I did that I would be the worst coach in America!”. With that response, the players got silent for a number of seconds. My self-critical brain began talking to myself,” hey, maybe they are thinking that you are already the worst coach in America!” Later one of the players eased my mind – sort of – ,” hey coach, do you realize that each of us has had coaches that you just called ‘the worst coach in America’?”
When a coach combines lap running with exercises in which players wait in lines to touch the ball at a ratio of 10 or more waiting minutes to one ball touching minute, it becomes easy to understand why American players, as a whole, still trail their international counterparts as soccer players. Even worse, many of our kids give up the game as their practice sessions become farther and farther distant from the reason they wanted to play in the first place – the joy of working with a soccer ball. It is not a difficult job for youth coaches to use practices in which as many players as possible use as many soccer balls as possible. Or use variations of the game such as small-side games, possession games, variable pressure exercises and so on to emulate game conditions and keep training interesting and fun.
In the above photo there are certainly points to be emphasized – such as the youngsters keeping their heads up so as to view their surroundings. But the major idea is that each player has a ball and they are working with that ball in a manner that simulates the game. In 2016 the USSF changed the rules in which our kids play for every age group under 13. The number of players was reduced along with the field size in addition to some other rules that force players to learn to control, pass and dribble the ball. More touching the ball and less kicking it. More loving the ball and less fighting it as my Dutch observer called it. It is too early to see the results of these changes. But the next few years will be very interesting as the youngsters who have essentially grown up under these rules become teenagers. One would hope that we will see a measurable increase in the ball playing ability of these children. And that the training methods used by the vast majority of our coaches now include using the ball far more and the running, waiting in lines , and “agility practice” much less.
And as for little grandson Goldstein? Maybe he will become more inclined to join the group in his soccer class, maybe not. Maybe his class will play with the ball much more, maybe not. But as far as his soccer development is concerned, if he still enjoys the experience and he still gets lots of touches on the ball , however it happens is ok with his grandfather.