Training soccer in America. Gob-smackingly obvious – or is it?

A long time ago I was a soccer Head Coach – I still am – but since I’m not actually coaching now I don’t have the agony of making tough decisions anymore – that’s down to others.  

That said, my inactivity as a coach doesn’t keep me from adding my own two cents/tuppence worth every now and then.

This is one of those “thens”…. and what I think ‘right looks like’ when it comes to training soccer here in America.  To lend balance of my thoughts I’ve asked Coach Reed Maltbie (a current coach with affiliation to US Soccer) to submit his additional thoughts at the end of this article.

Resources that may add value before, during, or after you read this are the US Youth Soccer Coaches manual and the U-12 training activities; a prime age, I think, to begin in-depth mentality training.

In addition – here’s a summary (verbatim) from US Soccer on the U-12 training activities:

  • In an effort to understand and improve the U-12 player we have to begin opening the player’s eyes to the thinking aspects of the game. These areas that count on players seeing and responding depend on the concept of decision-making. In the end, all players must constantly be evaluating the entire field and making decisions related to offensive and defensive situations that are occurring. Each player must add to the team effort. To accomplish this, each player must be astute enough to assist.
  • The philosophy behind this book is to provide activities that will place the U-12 player in an environment in which he will have to make proper decisions. If a player is placed in this type of environment over many years, he can develop the vision play at top levels. This decision-making process does not develop in a training environment that is drill-like in structure. Fitness and technique are very important concerns as well, but tactical awareness can only develop with repeated practice in a thought-provoking environment.
  • In closing, let’s just remember that tactics involve a great number of factors, but that for the U-12 player, tactics are related to the area of decision-making. Without thinking and proper decisions, we have something that resembles soccer, but not soccer!

My observations for your consideration:  

  • Young players are actually smarter than we think they are.
  • An adult game of soccer goes for 90 minutes with two 45 minute halves; those numbers get smaller the younger you are.
  • In 90 minutes – one player touches the ball (on average) 1/22 of the time compared to everyone else; varies given skill levels.
  • In terms of time that means, within the 90 minutes of a game, the average player possesses/can directly influence control of the ball for two-to-three minutes.
  • f a player averages 50 possessions per game that equals (on average) about three seconds of controlling the ball per possession; not much time.
  • What, on average, can a player accomplish in 2.93 seconds of possession?
    • a first touch?
    • a second touch?
    • a turn?
    • a dribble?
    • a pass?
  • When excluding striking the ball on goal that’s pretty much what happens during those 2.93 seconds of control.

So if you’re breaking down a training regimen, the most frequently occurring event is ‘first touch’.    

Why is it when I view the U-12 training plan there isn’t one session called ‘first touch’?  There is passing, turning, dribbling, and heading but the MOST important part of the game – first touch – is only referenced within the depths of the training plan.  And if you read the summary provided earlier it’s not mentioned at all!

A comment about dribbling – I’ve read that the average distance a player dribbles the ball in a soccer match is ~ 180 meters out of roughly 10 kilometers per game.  Just curious why we spend so much time learning how to dribble the ball when the frequency of that event in a game simply doesn’t warrant the high level of time expended in training it.

If you’re going to allocate training times to key aspects of the game then it seems to me first touch, second touch, turning, and passing are the most frequently occurring events – so for me 90% of all ‘on-the-ball’ training should focus on those aspects of the game and only short periods of time would be devoted to dribbling challenges.

Moving on to the other 87 minutes of the game where the player has no direct control of the ball.

Not one training session for U-12’s is titled “playing without the ball” – yet the MOST frequent event a player encounters on the pitch is — playing without the ball.

Can you train this activity?  I think so – but I would offer part of this training plan includes homework…  actually watching and listening to soccer games.

I would submit this training plan needs to capture non-ball activities for all primary positions on the soccer pitch – and as the players get older video analysis should be added to see how those same positions have different roles in different formations.

I’d also offer part of this training plan needs to include asking the player some questions relative to your teaching points:

  • Was the player creating space for others by entering a new space?
  • Was the player adjusting their position based upon their opponent’s movement without the ball?
  • When that player made an adjustment – did any of his/her teammates/opponents make an adjustment as well?
  • I’m sure there are many questions a coach can develop to stress a specific decision-making learning point.
  • For example – if you are teaching players how to create width on the pitch having someone stand near each sideline is not a bad thing – it does actually help stretch out the opponents defense.  (i.e. – the appearance of ball watching is not always a bad thing).

In closing:

The bottom line – training soccer needs to include as much, if not more, training without the ball as with the ball…

The other aspect not discussed here is fitness training – conducting fitness training without the ball reinforces the mental part of the game and supports players understanding that ~95% of the game they will play is done so without the ball.

Here’s what Coach Reed Maltbie had to offer:

The enemy of progress is perpetuating the assumptions we have always held but never tested. In coaching, we believe we need to spoon feed young players because they are not ‘mentally ready’, yet we also ask them to help us with our smart phones because they can figure out complex technology in seconds that we cannot figure out in weeks. Maybe we should stop assuming and empower them to show us how capable they really are. Every license course I have ever taken is focused on how smart us adults are and doesn’t even consider the child. It is not youth sports, it adults playing with puppets.

To paraphrase – US Soccer focuses on winning the World Cup. …….. Instead – a worthy objective is to establish true development.  Maybe we should actually put the player in the center of the decision-making matrix when building out mandates, training programs, evaluation standards, etc.

Add to the mix we added two more players to the playing surface and did not proportionally increase pitch size, and we will have a pinball game. Panic at the pitch! Less space, more bodies, no emphasis on technical development spells disaster.

Why do we insist on rending technical away from tactical? Intelligent players are taught in a holistic environment that combines the two so they understand how and what to do but also when and where to do it. We cannot separate out the two components. Watch any session by the world’s greatest teams and the sessions are technical and tactically balanced. Rondo is a great example. It works on both aspects in a game situation.

We still teach soccer in a vacuum. We still expect children to develop at the rate of the world even though we don’t live, breathe, and exist in a soccer culture. They go to games, watch them on TV, and play them on the pick up fields.  We don’t encourage this. We hope 2 days a week will suffice.

We are not Socratic enough in our coaching process.  We always solve the puzzle, spoon feed the answers, and never ask enough questions. We should teach like Socrates to let them form their own thoughts and develop their own analysis.

I think we emphasize soccer too much in the licensing process. We do not teach our coaches to look outside the game. To learn development, psychology, education, ethics, communication, culture, etc….The more we approach educating players as a holistic practice, the more we create holistic players.

This can be done without sacrificing the “game situation” concept. Incorporate fitness characteristics into game situations so they are intermittently with ball and without ball working both. Get creative. We expect it from the players, we should be more creative in how we coach them.

Best, Chris

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