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Improving skills on your own

By Claudio Reyna


A player can always improve his fitness by working out hard. He can comprehend certain tactics by studying the game. But how far he goes will be determined mainly by how well he has mastered ball skills. Those are acquired by playing, day after day, year after year.

A player who really wants to excel will spend as much time as possible playing small-sided games when he has playmates, and juggling and kicking against the wall when he’s on his own.

I spent a lot of time hitting the ball against the side of the house when I was a growing up. If my mother complained about the noise, I’d hop down the retaining wall at the end of our property to the office-building parking lot.

I’d use that wall -- hitting the ball with both feet, seeing how long I could return the wall’s passes without losing control. I found out later that so many pros spent lots of their childhood doing that.

Dennis Bergkamp, the great Dutch striker who scored and set up hundreds of goals for Ajax Amsterdam, Arsenal, and the Dutch national team, said that when he was a youth player at Ajax, they had little three-foot-high walls. He would knock the ball against the walls for hours. Every time he hit the ball, he’d know whether it was a good touch or a bad touch. He’d do it over and over, trying to establish a rhythm.

Whenever I saw Bergkamp slotting a perfectly placed ball past a goalkeeper or making a precise pass, I thought of him practicing against the wall.

Kicking against the wall is an excellent way to work on improving your weaker foot. You can back up and practice shots on goal, or move close to the wall and work on passing, because where there’s a wall, there’s a teammate.

You can practice trapping and work on your first touch by controlling the ball before you kick it, or hit it back first time.

Passing the ball against a wall from close distance takes timing and coordination. Hit the ball faster, and you’ve got to react faster and get a rhythm going. It almost feels like you’re dancing.

Practicing the correct striking of the ball over and over helps it become second nature. It has to be, because in a game a player doesn’t have time to think about his form or approach. Under pressure, everything is more difficult. Mastering technique while playing on your own is the first step to being able to do it right in a game.


(Excerpted from "More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition" by Claudio Reyna, courtesy of Human Kinetics.)


(Claudio Reyna was named the U.S. Soccer Federations’s Youth Technical Director in April 2010. Reyna played nearly 13 years in the top-tier leagues of Germany (Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg), Scotland (Glasgow Rangers) and England (Sunderland, Manchester City). He represented the USA in four World Cups, and captained the Americans to a quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup, where he became the first American selected to the FIFA World Cup all-star team.)




Letting the Players Play
By Alex Kos


I first heard the term "Joystick Coaching" a few years back. What a wonderfully descriptive term. As with video games, joystick coaches want to dictate and control the movement of all players on the field. Hence the term "joystick."

However, there is very little joy to be had by players when they are coached in this manner. 

Joystick coaching has reached epidemic proportions (and parents are just as guilty). Why is this happening? 

* Look at other popular youth sports such as football, baseball and basketball. Football and baseball coaches are joystick experts. Even in basketball where the game is more fluid (like soccer) and, therefore, more difficult to control and manipulate, coaches still try their best to dictate the action. Since many soccer coaches come from these backgrounds, it is only natural that joystick coaching carries over into soccer. 

* We are a sports nation hung up on X’s and O’s. Joysticking is a natural by-product of this fascination. How many times do you see defenders standing in one spot because that is where the defenders were positioned on the dry-erase board? 

* Soccer is not an easy sport to learn. No matter how many times coaches tell young players to spread out and not play bunch-ball, they still do. As such, coaches feel compelled to ‘help’ position and move their players about. 

Besides early player retirements, there are other consequences of this "helping" behavior. 

* In a sport that is very fluid where the action happens so quickly, players must be able to think on their feet and solve or address problems immediately. However, the more players are told what to do, the less they will be able to think for themselves. 

* Players lose their sense of purpose. They are out there to play a game and try their best yet are constantly being told how to play. 

* Once one adult starts maneuvering players on the field, other adults feel empowered to do the same. Soon, players are being told how to play and where to stand by coaches, parents, and complete strangers. And often, the three groups are giving three completely different instructions. What is a player to do? 

These are some simple tips that will help coaches curb the joystick epidemic and truly help players. 

* Lead by example. Limited joystick coaching during games as much as possible. 

* Set ground rules for your assistant coaches and parents. Explain the drawback of joystick coaching and having multiple adults "help" players with conflicting instructions. 

* Rather than telling players what to do and where to play, ask them how and where they should be playing. Let them think of the answer and assist only if they don’t know the answer. 

Coaches (and parents), leave your joysticks hooked up to your game consoles at home for use with FIFA 10. If you don’t, you’ll be using the actual joystick much more since Saturday mornings will soon be free. 

(Alex Kos' experiences as a player, coach, referee, parent and fan are shared in his blog, Improving Soccer in the United States, where this article first appeared.)