By Chris Lemay
The art of passing a soccer ball and the technique to do so properly is a vital skill for any soccer player at all levels of the game. Sometimes we miss what is important as coaches and give positive feedback when our players complete a pass from point A to B. What we can't do is lose sight of the technique that was used. We need to make sure that the players are actually intending to play the ball where it ended up. Often players, especially at the younger ages, simply “whack” the ball in the direction of the other goal. What we need to do as coaches is to supply the right instruction and provide our players the skills necessary to keep possession of the ball, manipulate it and pass to teammates in more dangerous positions. Repetition in practice is key but only if the players are using correct technique. An ex-professional player and coach once told me that “practice does not make perfect but practice makes permanent”. This could not be truer in the training of young players. If they practice passing using the correct technique they will then become good passers of the ball. But if players continuously pass the ball improperly they will develop bad habits that will ultimately become permanent.
The inside of the foot is the surface most commonly used to pass a soccer ball. This is certainly where we as coaches should start with our players. Explain that the players need to open up their hips, keep their knees bent (both kicking and non-kicking legs), head and shoulders over the ball, toe up and heel down, with the non-kicking foot aimed at the target and making contact. This is what a player should be checking off in their head as they approach a ball to pass it. When talking about opening up their hips, the players should be instructed that their kicking foot should be open faced so that it looks like a putter or a hockey stick. This creates the big surface that allows the players to make good contact with the ball and control it easily. For balance and grace purposes the player's knees must be slightly bent. The non-kicking leg should be bent and placed aside the ball. This foot should approach the ball first and the kicking foot should follow with the pass. It is important that the players bend their kicking leg as opposed to sticking it out there straight. This will allow for them to have more accuracy and power behind their pass.
The more compact the player is, the more control they will have and the quicker the pass will be to get off. Players have a tendency to lean back or look up as they are making contact with the ball. This can be problematic for a number of reasons. If a player does not have their head over the ball, looking at it, then their alignment is often off. Just like in golf or baseball, you have to keep your eye on the ball. The other common mishap that can occur is when players lean back the ball will go up or into flight as the player will often strike underneath the ball. When players are instructed to keep their head and shoulders over the ball they are being trained to keep their eyes on the ball and continue in a forward motion after the pass. This will also help them to continue to move after a pass as they become more advanced. You need to make sure that the player's heel is down and toe is up so that the players make good solid contact with the ball. If the player has his/her toe pointed down, there will be a greater chance that they slide the foot under the ball, again lifting it into the air and losing control. The easiest way for players to associate direction and passing is to explain to them that their non-kicking foot is the “pointer” or “aimer”. What this means is that the ball will go where their non-kicking foot's big toe is pointed.
The last component is the actual contact with the ball. It is very important that the players strike through the center of the ball. This is the stroke. If players strike the top half of the ball they will be striking it into the ground and it will not travel smoothly to their teammate. And again, if they make contact too low on the ball or underneath, then the ball will be lifted in the air.
After the players have been given this instruction and a positive demo, it is time for them to apply what they have been taught. Players should start out in groups of two with one ball only 6 yards apart. They should practice getting their alignment in order and approaching and making contact with the ball. All players should receive the ball with the inside of the foot and let the ball settle before they again repeat. As a coach, walk among the groups of 2 and simply provide reminders, “keep that toe up and heel down” or “bend your knees”. As the players become more consistent you can have them move further apart. You can also make a game of it and have the player receiving the pass open their legs making a goal for the passer. If the passer plays the ball through their partner's legs then they are awarded a point. This game can be used a warm-up and a continuous reminder in future practices.
Remember, practice doesn't make perfect, but practice makes permanent. Teaching your players the proper passing skills ensures that they'll do it right – permanently.
Chris Lemay is a USSF A License Coach, and former NCAA Division I and professional coach and player. He is head women's coach at Utah Valley University.