By Tom Turner
Contacting the Ball
How many ways can the player kick or dribble or control the ball? There are six surfaces (inside, outside, instep, sole, toe and heel) used for kicking, dribbling or controlling a soccer ball. The ball can also be driven, chipped, volleyed, half volleyed, side-volleyed, curled and lofted. The U-8 player should be challenged to expand their range of surfaces in an ongoing process of technical experimentation, with half-volleys and techniques for bending the ball least likely to appear at this age.
Is the player two footed? Juggling and dribbling practice should always involve the use of both feet and young players must be encouraged to experiment with all six contact surfaces. For the more motivated players, juggling, kicking and Coerver’s* are essential “homework” activities for developing a comfort level with the ball. *Coerver’s are individual dribbling moves named after the Dutchman, Wiel Coerver, who created the training program.
Does the player purposely pass the ball towards teammates? Players should be asked to control the ball and look for teammates rather than imply kicking the ball forward or to safety. It is often necessary to remind young players that the goalkeeper is always the most open player to pass to when they are under pressure and no obvious forward passing or dribbling options are available. At this age, the “thinking” behind a passing decision is often more telling than the outcome and young players must be encouraged to attempt to maintain possession by passing (or dribbling) even as their limited range of techniques fail them.
How far can the player kick the ball accurately? Players should be encouraged to pass within their technical range. Technique, physical strength, and the size and weight of the ball all impact kicking distance and accuracy. In the small-sided games environment, shorter passes should be expected and encouraged, with aimless “boots” to safety, or to the opposition regarded as wasted possessions.
Does the player use disguise and deception when passing? Encouraging more frequent passing (and dribbling) with the outside of the foot will help improve the level of subtlety in young players.
Does the player shoot, when possible? A player’s first thought in possession should always be “Can I score a goal from here?” Goals in practice should be wide and high enough to encourage shots from various distances and angles, and coaches should reinforce to players through their practice activities that the objective of the game is to score more goals than the opponents in the time allowed. Soccer games and other activities with no stated “outcome” are less motivating than activities that provide a way to win.
How many touches does the player take to control the ball? The earlier a player decides what to do with the ball, the faster they will play; however, virtually all U-8 players will not look up before they have secured possession because their skill level will not allow them to concentrate on two things (the ball and the next action) at once. Time, space and repetition are the most important elements for improving comfort level and reducing the number of touches necessary to control the ball.
Does the player have the skill to dribble out of pressure, or past an opponent? Dribbling practices should include activities that encourage children to use changes in pace and direction to maintain possession or beat an opponent. While presenting a variety of moves to young players certainly has long-term benefits, creating a positive attitude towards dribbling is a more important element to coaching U-5/6’s. As the most artistic aspect of soccer, young children must not be discouraged from learning to dribble the ball through early and repeated failures.
Does the player run into open space with the ball? Running forward with the ball is important for making defenders commit to the ball, for shortening passing distances, for changing the rhythm of play, and for creating shooting possibilities. Players must be encouraged to quickly dribble the ball into open space, with the outside of the foot recommended as the best technique for improving “speed dribbling.”
Does the player dribble with their head down and rarely look to pass or shoot? While it is important to encourage young players to quickly dribble the ball into open space, past an opponent, or away from an opponent, players must also be aware of their passing and shooting options. Given that the ball can travel faster when kicked, it is important to encourage dribbling players to look up during those moments when they are in open space and not touching the ball, and when they are momentarily clear of opponents.
Does the player use disguise and deception when dribbling? The most difficult opponents are “wrigglers” who are unpredictable in their dribbling. Players should be encouraged to combine dribbling moves and become comfortable making multiple, abrupt changes in direction.
Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.