What Am I Teaching?

By Tony Earp

A staple to all soccer training and helping players develop a comfort with the soccer ball is teaching fundamental foot skills and moves. These movements include foundation touches using the inside of the feet, pulling the ball, cutting the ball with the inside and outside of the foot, and many basic movements with the soccer ball. It also includes teaching players “moves” like the scissors, “Cryuff,” lunge and take, and the “Maradona” just to name a few. When a coach is teaching these skills to their players, what are they really teaching?

In a way, the coach is teaching their players how to dribble, but REALLY the coach is really teaching the players skills needed to be ABLE TO DRIBBLE, not actually HOW to dribble. That may seem strange, but let me explain.

If you think of being able to dribble the soccer ball like being able to write a language, what is the first step? The first step is learning the letters of a language. This is the same as a player learning how to manipulate the ball with different parts of their feet. It is the basic understanding of how to move the ball with the feet and make the ball do different things using different parts of the feet.

Next, you learn that putting letters together forms words and understand those words mean different things. With the soccer ball, we teach players how combining fundamental foot skills with the soccer ball can create “moves” that are used to maintain possession of the soccer ball from a defender.

Finally, you learn how the words, you formed with letters, can be put together to form sentences, paragraphs, and stories. This is dribbling! Players must use different parts of the feet (letters) and put those together (words) to be able to successfully dribble the soccer ball in games (sentence). When a coach is working with players on their foot skills and different moves, they are not teaching them HOW to dribble, but are working on the foundations necessary for the player to be able to dribble.

Dribbling is an art form, like writing, all players will do it a little differently and in a way that works best for them. There are some “rights” and “wrongs” and definitely some players are better dribblers than others, but “successful” dribbling is not the same for each player. Once players have the foundations needed, they can use those skills in game situations to figure out how to beat defenders and/or maintain possession of the ball.

To help players learn how to dribble, coaches need to put players in situations that challenge their ability to use foundation foot skills and moves with the soccer ball at the appropriate times in game situations. These activities need to challenge player’s ability to recognize space and time, make quick decisions, move in different directions, change the weight of their touches on the soccer ball, and change their speed of dribbling. Over time, players will learn, with a coach facilitating the process, how to use those skills to dribble with a higher rate of success.

It is common to see players who are excellent at doing foot skills and moves in a training activity, but seem to struggle in games to maintain possession of the ball when dribbling. Simply, the player knows the “letters” and how to put them into words, but the player does not know how to create a sentence with the words. They have the skills needed to dribble, but just have not had enough experience in situations in training to use those skills to learn how to dribble effectively.

This can be caused by a coach dictating what moves a player does in games or only giving the player one option when dribbling the soccer ball in training. In a game, players have many options with the ball at their feet. They can dribble in any direction, try to go past a player, move away from a player, pass the ball, or try to score. With this in mind, can a coach create activities in training that always give the players these types of options?

For example, a common game to teach dribbling is to play “one versus one” and try to dribble past a defender over an end line. Each time, the player MUST try to get past the defender. This is a great activity for players to learn how to dribble past a defender and develop the courage and the “know how” to do it, but how could a coach make this more like the game? If the coach added side goals to dribble through on each side of the field, the attacking player will have the option to either beat the defender OR dribble away from the defender to maintain possession. Simply, the attacking player now has a decision. Try to beat the defender or keep possession?

Beating the defender is better so scoring by dribbling over the end line should be worth more than dribbling through the side gates. But just like in the game, if a player cannot go forward to create a scoring chance, the next best option is to keep possession. The situation challenges the player to make that decision which has to constantly be made each time the player gets the ball in a game.

As coaches, we do not teach players how to dribble. We teach players the tools needed to dribble. The game teaches players HOW to dribble. The game presents the players with different problems in which they will need to use different foot skills and moves to solve those problems. Players will make mistakes and lose the ball, but through those experiences, and successful ones, the player will increase their understanding of how to move with the ball in a game. A coach can highlight the problems the game is presenting and help the player solve those problems by asking questions like:

“Where is the space?”

“Where is your support?”

“Where are you on the field?”

“Can you go forward?”

“How can you protect the ball? Use the body or feet?”

“Where is the pressure?”

Each player will have a different relationship with the ball. Some players will be more creative than others, some will use more complex moves, and some will use simpler moves and be very conservative with the ball at their feet. Just like writing styles, dribbling styles differ from players to player. Each will have different strengths and weaknesses, and it is the coach’s job to help a player to discover and use those areas of their game.

Teach the foundation skills and moves needed to know how to dribble to your players, especially when they are young, but never forget to help them learn HOW to dribble by putting them in many situations that will help them learn to use those skills. It is hard for me to see a player who has put the necessary time in tom improve their foot skills and moves with the soccer ball, but struggle to dribble the soccer ball when they play. Like all technical skills, it is critical for players to have a sound foundation, but the knowledge of how to use those skills is required to play the game.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at

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