How do you become a better player without coaches? I’ve struggled since leaving college. Sure I work on details like first touch and accurate shots, but it feels too small scale. And “better player” is too big picture, I need steps in the middle. For example, stop reading and in 15 seconds, name the highest paid players in the world.
Got some? Good. Now 15 seconds to name highest paid players in the English Premier League.
Notice a difference? Players in the second question fit in the first, so the first should be easier. But I got four in the first question and seven in the second. Turns out that because the second question is more defined, it focused my brain more. It’s a cool brain hack.
Defining the pieces
Wayne Harrison (ex-Youth Coach Director at Blackpool) defines a good player as an “aware” player. Someone who understands available options and knows what to do before and when they get the ball. His book Soccer Awareness: Developing the Thinking Player says that with the rapid increase in physical and technical skills shown by pros today, the difference maker is mental speed. Analyze information around you quickly and act quickly. His steps include:
Look – Observing and finding the best option. Is the best option the safe move or the risky one?
Body Position – Are your feet ready to receive the ball?
Communicate – Verbal, eye contact, or gestures. Can be directed towards the guy with the ball (pass!), the guy you passed to (man on!), or someone you want to pass to next (go wide!).
Control – Your first touch if you’re going to do more than one touch
Technique – The pass, shot, or dribble.
Skill – Using the right technique at the right place, right time.
Mobility – Immediately moving to help the team.
Wayne takes it a step farther and defines the order these skills should be done. Here they are, with #1 a good player, #7 needing improvement.
- Look -> Communicate -> Position -> Technique -> Skill -> Mobility
- Top level. You assess your surroundings, move to the right area with the right body angle, execute a technique after you get the ball, and move to support teammates afterwards. You always play one touch soccer if you get this right.
- Look -> Communicate -> Position -> Control -> Technique-> Skill -> Mobility
- Notice he controls the ball first before playing. So requires at least two touches.
- Position -> Control -> Technique -> Look -> Communicate -> Skill -> Mobility
- Receives the ball first, then looks. Now he has less time to make a decision, but skilled players can still make this work.
- Position -> Control -> Technique -> Look -> Communicate -> Skill -> Stand Still
- Same as #3 but lazy or tired and doesn’t move after passing. Or he doesn’t know where to move.
- Position -> Control -> Technique -> Look -> No Communication -> Lose Possession -> Transition
- Too slow and loses possession. But chases the ball after losing it, which is a good trait.
- Position -> Control -> Technique -> Look -> No Communication -> Lose Possession -> Stand Still
- Doesn’t fight for the ball after he loses it.
- Poor Positioning -> Poor Control -> Poor Technique -> Don’t Look -> No Communication -> Lose Possession -> Stand Still
- Extreme, but shows what to avoid.
Which sequence happens to you most often? You can check by forcing yourself to play one touch all the time. Direct play requires quick thinking and awareness, pushing you to perform these tasks at a high level. Play risky passes or play in the attacking third and the difficulty further increases. Judge critically as you make mistakes, and you’ll find your level.
Becoming a better player
For each trait, players can vary from “needs improvement” to “amazing”. All of my Under-9 players still need to work on fundamental techniques. However, while I watch them scrimmage, it will be easier to catch these patterns and see which ones need work. Instead of seeing a missed pass and thinking I need to do more passing practice next, I might see feet not ready to receive the ball (flat footed) or body position tilted so they trap themselves in a corner. By breaking down “possession soccer” into a concrete sequence of events, I can focus on details of each piece. The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly, at a higher level. To coach youth soccer, I need to pull myself down from abstract thinking and focus on details kids can sequence together and improve.
This past Friday in indoor pickup, a player timed his run well and had an open shot in front of goal. As he swung to shoot, a defender stretched his foot and barely blocked him. This time I didn’t see a player who “needed to shoot faster”. This time I saw his head move to see the ball, then the goal, then the ball again, meanwhile shuffling his feet to match the ball. He was playing at Level #5, and I knew what practice activities he needed to move up a level. I can’t wait for the season to begin to use this while actually coaching.