By Chris Lemay
Like a sweet golf stoke or baseball swing, striking a soccer ball takes a lot of repetition. The problem is that if kids are not taught proper technique for kicking the ball they will most likely be developing bad habits. The more often a player hits the ball incorrectly, the harder the mold will be to break. As a coach it is important that the right direction is being given to the players in terms of body positioning, balance and the positioning of both feet. In soccer, just like golf, there are many different “strokes” and players at the highest level have a solution for every situation. But all players must know the fundamentals of simply kicking the ball with the very common part of their foot, the "laces".
I usually begin with players sitting, with both feet flat, knees bent, back straight, and holding the ball in both hands with straight arms directly out in front of them. I have them bring their kicking foot to the ball, while keeping their backs straight eyes on the ball and, most importantly, ankle locked. Their toes should be pointed and you should not see the sole of their shoe as they make contact with the ball. Players should be making contact with the ball, (but not kicking it into the air), at the point of the foot directly above the toes. This is called the sweet spot. Make sure that the players are leaning over the ball (forward) and that both legs are parallel. It is also important that the line from their hip to knee and knee to toe are in symmetry. Once they appear to have the mechanics worked out, you can then allow players to strike the ball gently from their hands.
If the ball is struck on the sweet spot properly and at the correct angle, it should have virtually no spin and should go directly up and then down for the player to catch and repeat. In this way the coach and players will know if the exercise is being done correctly ─ the ball will tell all. Assuming we are coaching a right-footed player, if the ball spins to the right or outside, the player has missed the sweet spot and hit it off the outside of the foot. If the ball spins to the left or inside, the player has missed the sweet spot and hit it a little too inside. This is an easy adjustment to make and both the coach and the player will know when it has been stuck clean.
The hardest habit to break, and the most common mistake made in young players, is at the point of connection. This is known as, "breaking the ankle". It is easy to spot this, as the player's toe will be straight up in the air as opposed to pointed. Again, look at the spin on the ball. If the toe points up in the air, the ball will have backspin. Try and explain to the players that they need to pretend like they are trying to push their toes though the sole of their shoe. As a coach you can also physically hold their ankle locked as they strike a few balls so that the kids understand the feeling. Another way to communicate striking the ball to youngsters is to compare the ball to an orange and their foot to the knife. They need to, with their foot, strike directly through the middle of the ball as you would cut and orange to get two equal halves.
The next step, after the players are successful on the ground, is to practice this in a standing upright position. All the mechanics are the same. The player has bent knees, head and shoulders over the ball, toe down and ankle locked. Now, while on their feet, they must bring their kicking foot up to, and strike the ball from, their hands. All of the coaching points remain the same. Look for the spin on the ball to help determine if the player has struck the ball with their sweet spot. If you see backspin, immediately let that player know to keep their ankle locked and toe down. As soon at the players are having success with this you can have them attempt to strike the ball twice before catching it. This will provide a more game-like situation because the ball will not be perfectly set when they strike it the second time. The ball may veer to the right or left, forcing players to make decisions on how to adjust their body positioning in order to have continued success.
Finally, transition to striking the ball from the ground without using hands. Start off with the players hitting dead balls (balls that are not moving). Players line up across from a partner 6-8 yards apart. Have player 1 start on a slight angle from the ball they intend to strike to their partner. They should be on their toes and thinking of head and shoulders over the ball, knees bent, toe down and ankle locked. As they approach the ball, the non-kicking foot should be pointed at their target (partner). The non-kicking foot should be placed aside the ball 2-3 inches and the toes should be in the middle of the ball. Teach them to strike through the ball with the ankle locked. All momentum should continue forward so that players land on their kicking foot. This will help them strike the ball firmly and stay over the ball. Use the orange example when observing players striking or swinging their legs across their bodies. It is important that players strike straight through the ball. As players improve, and technique becomes natural, they can distance themselves from their partners. They can also start to take a small touch so that they are hitting moving balls. This will create situations where the players will have to move and perform the same way they will in the game. This skill is important when shooting or playing balls over distance.
Although lengthy in description this can be a short warm-up that can be used for the first 15 minutes of every practice. Be patient as, like a golf swing, it takes time to perfect your stroke.
Chris Lemay is the coach of NCAA Division I Utah Valley State and owner of Soccer in the Sand- www.soccerinthesand.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org