Posts Tagged ‘head up’

World Cup ‘Towers’ Worth Watching: Fernando and José Torres

June 2, 2010

Had you asked me two years ago who my favorite player was, it would have been Fernando Torres of Liverpool and Spain. Similar to Italy’s Luca Toni in height, size, and a nose for the goal, every time Fernando touched the ball inside the opponent’s penalty area, he seemed to give himself a chance to score.

Injuries slowed him down this season and with it, Liverpool’s season. The good news (bad news for opponents) is that it looks like he is recovered and rested and will be ready to play for Spain in South Africa. How affective he will be is anyone’s guess. But if he is near 100%, it may be the year of “El Niño.”

But this year’s World Cup may also be the year of “El Gringo!” American José Francisco Torres who plays for Pachuca in the Mexican professional league (that’s how he got his nickname) may also be poised to do great things in South Africa. Unlike Spain’s Torres, José Torres is a midfielder and a very good one at that. A midfielder is a team’s quarterback and normally dictates the action on the field.

I have not seen José Torres play much but what I saw in the U.S. game against Turkey was impressive.

  • He has great ball control. His dribbling in tight quarters is superb.
  • He receives the ball so well. The ball settles so softly onto his feet.
  • He is always running to the open space and asking for the ball. This is the telltale signs of a natural midfielder.
  • Though it appears he favors his left foot, he is equally adept with both feet.
  • His head is always up. He is constantly surveying the field, looking for his teammates, knows where the nearest opponents are, and you can tell he is always thinking two or three moves ahead.

This year’s World Cup is going to be exciting. Hopefully both Torres’ do well. If “El Gringo” does well, look for the U.S. to be very successful.

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Fun Practice Games: World Cup Tournament

April 11, 2010

At a recent 360 Soccer Training camp where I was a trainer, each daily session ended with a World Cup Tournament. The tournament pitted four teams of four playing a round-robin tournament. A team received 3 points for a win, 2 for a tie, and 1 for a loss (after all, no one or no team ever likes to receive zero points). The team with the most points each day was declared World Cup Champs.

Like many other trainers, I strongly recommend that each session or practice end with some sort of scrimmage, preferably small-sided to maximize touches. Besides having an opportunity to apply and reinforce new skills that were learned that day in a game-like setting, the players will feel rewarded for their hard work and strong effort they had put in earlier.

Each World Cup team received a different colored pinnie. Each team then had to choose a country to represent. The caveat was that the selected country had to have the same color in their uniform as the pinnie that was assigned to the team. For example, the green-pinnied team chose Mexico one day and Nigeria the next day and the red-pinnied team chose the United States and Japan.

I recommend taking the World Cup Tournament concept one step further. Players should also assume the identity of the professional players that represent each of the countries selected. For example, the United States team of Bornstein, Donovan, Bradley, and Dempsey could play against Mexico and Israel Castro, Gerardo Torrado, Giovanni Dos Santos, and Carlos Vela.

If you are like me, you will quickly run out of teams and players. In this case, assign a different player each week the task of coming up with team names and players for each pinnie. Team and player names can also come from the WPS, MLS, EPL, Bundesliga, and La Liga leagues. If you decide to incorporate the use of professional names, make sure teammates call each other by their new names. This will force players to concentrate more and play with their heads up.

Players should enjoy their own version of the World Cup Tournament. In the process, they will learn more about the game of soccer and some geography. Who knows, maybe a nickname or two will stick as well.

Coaches and Parents and Rhetorical Questions

April 2, 2010

If you are like me, you are guilty of having asked rhetorical questions such as these:

  • What were you thinking?
  • What kind of shot was that?
  • Don’t you know how to stop the ball?

Though these statements were posed in the form of a question, I never expected an answer. Although keeping my mouth shut would have been better, I justified that my rhetorical questions were slightly better than stating:

  • “That was a dumb move!”
  • “That was a terrible shot!”
  • “That was a lousy first-touch!”

Plus, how would I have responded if a player answered one of my questions with a sincere or snide remark?

For one such question, the kids usually had an answer. But the answer was usually a lie. The question was, “Who was that to?” I would ask that question when a player made a poor pass or when he/she simply kicked the ball up-field without looking up first to find a teammate. Typical answers were:

  • “Ryan!” who happened to be the teammate who somehow received the ball by pure chance.
  • “Adam!” who happened to be the nearest teammate in line with the pass even though in order for Adam to receive the ball, it would have had to pass through three defenders.

Rarely if ever were the answers truthful.

Solution

During practice, anytime a ball is passed, the player making the pass needs to call out the name of the teammate he/she is passing the ball to (loud enough so the receiver can hear his/her name). This tactic will address and solve a number of issues and problems:

  • First and foremost, it will eliminate the need to ask the question, “Who was that to?” The player will have answered the question before it was ever asked.
  • If the ball does not go to the intended receiver, the passer will know it without a coach or parent having to bring it to his/her attention. When older players make poor passes, ask them to state why it was a poor pass. For example, “I did not use the inside-of-the-foot” or “I did not look up” are good answers.
  • Speaking of looking up, in order to call out a player’s name, the passer has to look up. Too often, players play with their heads down, don’t see the whole field, and make poor passes.
  • Kickball, which is the act of teams kicking the ball up and down the field with no purpose, will diminish. Long balls will still be kicked, but they will be kicked to a teammate.

Over time, the rhetorical questions will lessen and play will improve dramatically.

Making Players More Vocal

March 26, 2010

As a child and teenager, I was painfully shy and quiet. That is except on the soccer field. While living in Norway, my sister said she could hear me from a half-mile away. One year in Salt Lake City I won the most-talkative award and received a set of chatter teeth. From a vocal standpoint, especially at a youth level, I was definitely the exception–not the rule.

I’ve been asked by a number of people how to get young soccer players to be more vocal. This can be tough because it usually comes down to personalities. Some kids are simply quieter than others. On the other hand, some players can be vocal in a negative or undesirable manner.

Below are some suggestions on how to get players to be more vocal.

  • Start slowly by promoting positive comments. Some examples are, “Great shot, nice pass, and good hustle”. Get players to compliment each other.
  • Stress that communication can be non-verbal. Gesturing with the hands that you want the ball is a great start. Making eye contact with teammates is also important. Stress that non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal communication. What is great about non-verbal communication is that in order for it to work, players, especially those with the ball, need to play with their head up.
  • As a coach, play in scrimmages with your players and set a good example. Call for the ball and let players know if a defender is approaching. Make sure to communicate loud enough so everyone can hear. Use teaching moments to point out to the team when communication would have been helpful. Exaggerate your non-verbal communications. Run to the player with the ball when you want to receive a pass. Point to the spot where you want the ball passed. Wink to acknowledge a good play.
  • Pull the offending player aside when you hear poor or improper communication. Blaming or getting upset at others for mistakes should never be tolerated.
  • Reward players for good communication. At the beginning of the season, stock up on tiny chattering teeth. (If the entire league wants to promote good communication, each set costs $0.60 – $0.70. Stickers could be a cheaper alternative.) When a player exhibits good communication, recognize it with a set of teeth. You will see how quickly other players will follow suit so that they too can get some teeth. At the end of the season, recognize the best communicator with a large set teeth. They will remember it forever.

2010 Soccer MVP: Inside-of-the-Foot … Passing

February 18, 2010

Author’s Note: This post is one in a series of posts that breaks down the 2010 Soccer MVP Tournament competition. Be sure to look at the final results to review how ‘Inside’ was crowned champion. What do you call this part of the foot? Please vote.

Personally, I am a big fan of the pass. It probably stems from having played midfield most of my life where controlling the game and distributing the ball were this position’s primary purpose. When I watch games today, I prefer seeing a nice assist rather than a nice goal.

When passes are made correctly, they look easy and effortless. They are anything but. Passing requires a player to first control a ball that is passed to him/her. Once the ball has been successfully controlled, he/she must know if and where to pass it. This requires playing with the head up (in an up position) in order to see all the players and be able to judge the speed and direction teammates are moving. Most importantly, it requires maturity, confidence, and knowledge of the game. While it is never too early to introduce and teach passing, it is a discipline that won’t become refined and polished until a player is older or has played for many years.

The passing discipline was divided into two categories: accuracy and types. For both categories, ‘Inside’ was the clear winner. ‘Types’ refers to the number of different types of passes that can be made with a surface.


Accuracy

The structure of the inside-of-the-foot is built for accurate passing. The flatter the surface, the more accurate the pass. There is a reason why a tennis racket, a ping pong paddle, and a putter are flat. Imagine trying to hit a tennis ball back over the net using a baseball bat. Or how about putting with the rounded, back end of the putter (see image to the right). In both instances, the required task would become more difficult.

Another factor which contributed to ‘Inside’ having the highest levels of accuracy is the swinging motion of the leg when the ball is passed. When striking the ball with the ankle sweet spot of the inside of the foot (larger red spot in the image to the right), the leg swing should be in a straight plane. It is very much like a golf putt. Ideally, the leg swings straight back and then swings straight through the ball. The straighter the overall swing, the more accurate passes a player will make (green arrow in the image below).

Typically, when passing the ball with the front sweet spot of the inside-of-the-foot (smaller red spot in the image above), the laces, or the outside-of-the-foot, the plane of the swing is more angled. Passes with these surfaces are similar to full iron or wood/metal shots in golf. This angled stroke plane introduces more variables to the swing and, therefore, a higher probability for inaccurate passes (red arrow in the image above).

The top-of-the-foot was the next most accurate surface. To make an accurate pass, the ball had to be struck with the foot’s sweet spot (red spot in the image to the right). Unlike with the ‘Inside’, a pass with the laces required more of an arcing back swing which took away some of the accuracy. An ‘Outside’ pass has a similar arcing swing but this surface is also striking the ball with a convex surface, making it more difficult to control a pass. Passes with the bottom-of-the-foot were accurate but the distances achieved with this surface were short. It came in last place.

Types

Being able to accurately pass a ball to a teammate in a straight line is invaluable. But being limited to only this type of pass is not ideal either. Oftentimes, a defender will stand between a passer and receiver. Except for the bottom-of-the-foot, a player can pass the ball over a defender using other surfaces of the foot. There are times, however, when this may not be possible, especially when the defender is close to the passer. This is where ‘Inside’ has a distinct advantage over the other surfaces.

When the front sweet spot on the inside-of-the-foot is used to pass a ball, it will cause the ball to curve or spin. The technique can be used to curve a pass around a defender. This makes ‘Inside’ the only surface which gives a player 2 distinct options when passing the ball. Most indirect free kicks are kicked with the inside-of-the-foot to deposit the ball precisely to the receiver’s foot or head. David ‘Bend It Like’ Beckman is world-renowned for his precision free kicks and passes.

Conclusions

The ‘passing’ discipline results were not close. In terms of passing accuracy and the different types of passes that can be made, ‘Inside’ was the easy winner.

The other disciplines evaluated in this competition were: structure, receiving, dribbling, shooting, popularity among professionals, and ease of learning.

Fun Practice Alternative: Chess

December 3, 2009

Chess at soccer practice? Sure, why not!

During practice, many youth soccer coaches focus on the physical component of the sport. While this is certainly important, soccer and all other sports have a huge mental component to them as well. This mental piece often gets overlooked.

So why chess?

  • To be a good chess player, you need to have a game plan, you need to have a strategy, and you need to think ahead. Many good chess players have their next 4 to 8 moves planned out. While planning that far ahead in soccer is impossible given the fluid nature of the game, knowing what you will do when you receive a ball is critical. Too many players simply focus on stopping the ball but have no idea what they will do once they receive the ball.
  • Besides developing your own strategy, chess players need to know what strategy their opponent is using. Are they defensive oriented? Do they like to attack? What is their favorite piece? Knowing what strategy the opponent is employing will undoubtedly affect how you play. Same is true in soccer. How fast is the other team? What kind of defensive formation do they play? What are the goalie’s strengths and, more importantly, his/her weaknesses? Who is their most dangerous player? It is important for soccer players to know and understand their opponents.
  • With a bird’s-eye perspective, chess players can see the entire board. While soccer players don’t have the luxury of this perspective, players must be aware of the entire field. They need to know where their teammates are at all times as well as the whereabouts of the opposing players. The only way this can be achieved is to play with the head up. Don’t just focus on the ball.
  • Not all players on a team will know how to play chess. This is a perfect opportunity for players who do play chess to teach and communicate with one another. If you are lucky, some of the quieter more reserved soccer players will be the top chess players. This will give them an opportunity to teach, coach, and be more communicative with their teammates. In soccer, all players need to constantly talk to one another.
  • Chess is definitely different. After weeks and weeks of soccer practice, getting off the field may be in everyone’s best interest. What is great about chess is that it teaches many important lessons that can be applied to soccer.

If chess is not a big hit, checkers, connect-four, backgammon, any combination of these games, or any other games that require thinking and a strategy to win will work. If you don’t want to play these games at the field, either host or have a parent host this ‘practice’. And for good measure, have a barbeque or pasta feed as well. It will certainly make for a fun and memorable practice.

Fun Practice Alternative: Ultimate Soccer

November 29, 2009

There is a game that I see both youth and adult soccer coaches use as a warm-up exercise that I don’t think is very good or effective. I called it ‘Throw-in Keepaway’ but I believe there are other names for it. The game is played as follows:

  • Players are divided into two teams.
  • Using the proper throw-in technique (with the ball behind the head with 2 hands and the feet on the ground), the ball is passed to an open player on the same team.
  • The open player needs to catch the ball to earn a point. A point is earned with each successful catch. Points accumulate as the ball is successfully passed and caught by a teammate. If the passing team drops the ball but retains possession, the point total goes back to zero.
  • If the ball is caught or recovered by the other team, the other team starts passing the ball around and accumulating points in the same fashion.
  • The team with the highest point value wins.

This game does get players loose and it is fun in its uniqueness. But I don’t like some of the negative aspects that are associated with the game:

  • It promotes bunch ball because most players can’t throw-in very far.
  • In the haste of finding and passing the ball to an open player, poor and improper throw-in techniques are often used.
  • Because of the close confines, there is a greater chance of players running into each other and getting hurt.

Instead, I recommend playing a game called ‘Ultimate Soccer’. Ultimate Soccer (US) is very similar to ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ (UF). Like UF, US is played with a Frisbee on a field that looks like a football field, with end zones at either end. A point is earned each time the Frisbee is caught in the opposing team’s end zone. A player who catches the Frisbee outside of the end zone must advance the Frisbee by throwing it to a teammate; the player is not allowed to advance the Frisbee by running with it.

US could be played using UF rules, but I prefer a slightly modified set of rules that make US more soccer friendly.

  • US should be played on an age-appropriate soccer field with the end zones starting on the goal line and extending out to the top of the penalty box (see image).
  • Similar to soccer, US kick-offs (or throw-offs) start at midfield with the Frisbee being tossed backwards (this is different than UF where the Frisbee is thrown downfield by the team that scored a point).
  • Unlike UF which requires the defense to play a man-to-man defense, in US teams are allowed to play a defensive zone if they wish.

Benefits

Sure many players may struggle throwing the Frisbee. To help, make sure that each game begins with a warm-up throwing and tutorial session. Then let the fun and benefits begin.

  • Movement off the ball
    In ‘Ultimate’ if a player stands around, he/she will never receive a pass and if they do, it will be intercepted. In soccer, I have found a lot of players just stand around waiting for the ball to be passed to them. ‘Ultimate’ will help players move.
  • Finding the open space
    Now that there is movement, where should a player move? Simply put, ‘open space’ is any place there is no other offensive or defensive player. Finding and moving to the open space requires looking at the entire field and not just at the Frisbee.
  • Playing with the head up
    To find the open space, a player must play with his/her head up in order to see the entire field. In soccer, players often focus only on the player with the ball and seldom on their surroundings. Ultimate will force players to play with the head up.
  • Passing to the open space
    One of the best parts of ‘Ultimate’ is it teaches the thrower to throw the Frisbee not at the player but rather to the spot where the player will be when he/she has completed a move. I have found that passing to the open space is one of the hardest concepts to learn in soccer. US will reinforce this skill.
  • Discourages kickball and one-touch soccer
    At the youth level, many players simply kick the ball away as soon as it comes to them without ever controlling it first. With ‘Ultimate’, this is not possible. A player has to first catch the Frisbee before a pass can be made. At the youth level, it is critical for a player to learn the importance and skill of ball control.
  • Running toward the Frisbee
    ‘Ultimate’ players will learn very quickly that unless they run toward the Frisbee once it is thrown to them instead of waiting for the Frisbee to come to them, a defender will always step in front of them and intercept the pass. The same thing happens on the soccer field if a player does move toward the ball when it is passed to him/her.
  • Verbal and body-language communication
    The US field is large. The player in possession of the Frisbee can’t see the entire field at once. He/she needs help from teammates. Body language, such as pointing to the spot you want the Frisbee thrown, as well as verbal communication, is an important key to any team’s success. I don’t think there can ever be enough communication on the soccer field, especially between players.
  • Conditioning
    US is a fantastic way for soccer players to get in game shape. It simulates game-like conditions. If US is played at the end of practice, the players are guaranteed to be exhausted by the end. Yet they’ll have had lots of fun!