If you have a child playing youth club soccer chances are you’ve seen some kids playing the game that have excellent foot skills.

 

At times, you may even see some teams that, collectively, are great with the ball at their feet.

 

As a coach, I’ve seen it too. Clubs and teams heavily promoting foot skills. Games where players seem to want to take as many touches as possible every time they receive the ball. I’ve seen plenty of training sessions (even run some myself), where the kids spend large amounts of time focused on nothing but executing skills or moves. They are training in isolation and usually dribbling at cones… at flags… or just off on their own or in a group.

 

There are clubs out there whose primary focus is to enhance the foot skills of their players, especially at the youth ages.

 

Recently, a few of our youth teams played against teams that are foot skill focused. It was a great experience for all the kids (on both teams) and I noticed some very important things happening.

 

Let’s take a look…

 

Here’s what I saw from players on foot skill focused teams:

 

  • The players had very good ball control with all surfaces of their feet
  • The players usually had pretty good balance and were effective at changing direction with the ball
  • In many cases the players could carry the ball at speed and maintain good control
  • The players were generally comfortable with the ball under pressure
  • In some moments the players were very effective at beating defenders in 1v1 situations

 

These are all positive things and illustrate the benefits of having strong control of the ball. In addition, it looks great when a player wins a 1v1 encounter and beats the defender.

 

But…

 

That’s not all that I saw. Take a look at what else was happening:

 

  • Most of the players played with their head down and were focused primarily on just the ball
  • When moments arose where the player could play a key pass or shoot, many of those moments were missed because the player had their head down
  • There were an unusually large number of times when the player performing the skill used it at the wrong time or for the wrong reason and dribbled directly into pressure or dribbled out of bounds
  • Players chose taking extra touches instead of setting up a teammate or working with a teammate to beat pressure or create opportunities to score. This often times resulted in losing the ball to the other team

 

While there were some times that foot skill focused players executed some great skills and ideas, there were far too many times when a lack of perception and awareness led to careless giveaways and missed opportunities.

 

So how do we manage this situation? How can we merge having excellent foot skills with awareness and exceptional decision-making skills?

 

Let’s reframe playing the game and foot skills within soccer decision-making…

 

Executing A Soccer Decision

 

Soccer is a game of transition and constantly changing variables (the opposition is always moving, teammates are moving and various situations arise constantly throughout play). Because of these two factors it’s a game of almost constant decision-making.

 

Here’s a look at the decision-making and execution process within the game:

 

  1. Observation: At all times, an elite player is proactively observing and perceiving their surroundings. They are looking for where the defenders are, where their teammates are and where space is (and where space will be created or how they can help create it).
  2. Creation: As they are observing and perceiving they are reflecting on what’s possible. Based on what they observe, players are creating possible solutions about what to do next.
  3. Decision: After reflecting and considering the possible options and solutions they create, players make a decision.
  4. Execution: Once the decision is made, it’s time to execute. Players can execute a wide variety of decisions – dribble 1v1 to beat a defender, receive and turn away from pressure, pass back to the goalkeeper and hundreds of other possible actions.
  5. Reflection: Players, especially developing youth players, need to assess their decisions and execution. Was it appropriate? Was it executed impeccably? Etc.

 

Now let’s see where foot skills fit in. Based on this decision-making model, foot skills fit in to step #4, execution.

 

No doubt about it, the execution step is an extremely important one…

 

But…

 

It’s still only one step of the process.

 

I don’t think our youth soccer players can become elite players on a global scale if we only focus on one small part of the soccer decision-making process and deprive them of all of the other parts.

 

Our youth players need to develop every step in the process. They need to master observing play. They need to master conceiving and deciding in a matter of milliseconds. They need the impeccable technique and ball domination to execute flawlessly. And they need to assess their decisions and execution to engage in deep learning and develop.

 

I would say that what we don’t need is having our young players practicing 50 different moves (most of which they’ll never use) against cones during training sessions, something that doesn’t even remotely resemble the game. Yes, execution and ball skills are extremely important, but we can do a much better job of teaching them. We can teach them within the decision-making model. We can help our young players understand why, where, when and how to use appropriate foot skills, and do so within an environment of changing variables to replicate the game.

 

Moving forward, I don’t think we can continue to isolate one part of the process. We can’t just practice foot skills and not pay attention to observing, creating solutions and making decisions. Not if we are committed to helping our young players develop to their fullest potential.

 

There’s a skill most kids practice called the Cruyff turn. It’s named after Johan Cruyff, one of the best players to ever play the game. On a podcast I was listening to recently, Cruyff’s son-in-law told the story of Cruyff’s reaction to learning he has a move named after him. Cruyff said he never practiced the move. Rather, it was a solution he conceived in the moment to solve a problem on the field. He wasn’t executing a rehearsed skill, he created a solution based on what he observed and the possibilities he conceived to handle the situation.

 

While watching one of our youth teams play against one of the foot skill focused teams a couple weeks ago there was a play that happened worth mentioning…

 

Our defender was on the far right side of the field with the ball. He was in our end of the field between the half line and our end line. He looked up and saw he didn’t have options to play forward so he passed the ball across the field to our left midfielder. Our left midfield was looking up while the ball approached. When it came he received it cleanly and looked up again. He saw he didn’t have options to advance so he passed back across the field to our defender (who originally passed him the ball). Our defender took a clean first touch, looked up and again saw he didn’t have options going forward. So he passed the ball back across the field to our left midfielder who again received cleanly. But this time he had space in front of him. He dribbled forward and as the next defender approached he passed forward and diagonally to our striker who received the ball clean and went 1v1 vs the last defender. He got an edge on the defender and then shot wide.

 

That one passage of play had all of the soccer decision-making process present – observation, creation of possible solutions, decision and execution. Based on the looks on their faces after that passage of play, they were certainly reflecting on what they had done.

 

And…

 

That was our U8 team.

 

Our young players are ready and capable of handling more than we are currently giving as clubs and coaches. It’s time to look past the focus purely on foot skills and help our players develop a deep understanding of the game.