In a recent webinar about my new book, I was asked to share a few coaching secrets. This question led to a lively discussion on the proper way to shoot with the big toe-knuckle, i.e the 'instep.'
In the spirit of this discussion, I have listed below my top five discoveries coaching soccer over the past 30 years.
#5 - Ball possession is more than simply trapping and passing quickly
It is common for coaches to teach ball possession through one- and two-touch passing patterns and small-sided games. Playing with one- and two-touch limits can improve a player's ability to play quickly, but there are other skills required of players to keep possession besides passing and trapping. In my first practice with a group of new players, the first skill I teach them is how to turn away from pressure using the roll-back. Teaching young players the ability to turn away from pressure improves ball possession dramatically, as they no longer feel required to force the ball in the direction they face. Ball possession requires both passing and dribbling skills, and touch limitations can actually impede the development of player confidence in relation to ball possession.
The secret of teaching players how to dribble away from pressure led my teams of all ages to keep possession of the ball much better than other teams. My players also developed increased in-game confidence from being able to maintain possession for longer.
#4 - Not talking about winning helps players become more competitive (and win more)
The goal of coaching is to improve players' abilities to stay focused in the game. The over-emphasis on a future outcome, winning, does not motivate but distracts from being present in the game. A player can't think about the potential of a distant event and the current movement of play at the same time. Discussing the importance of winning also confuses players. If a coach tells me to 'go out and win,' should I run more and be more aggressive or run less and think more - maybe both? The term 'winning' is an abstraction that does not convey information that can help players in the game.
Additionally, not talking about winning can reduce player insecurity since the players' focus can be directed toward something tangible and in their control (playing better), rather than on a distant possibility that is not in their control (winning). Trying to control something that is not controllable elevates anxiety which reduces performance.
#3 - A true instep shot is actually performed with the top of the toe-knuckle
It is a common mistake to assume that the 'perfect instep' is struck with that actual thicker front part of the foot called the 'instep' or area of the laces. Shooting with the actual instep/laces requires the player to point the toe away from the body in order to lower the foot closer to the ground so the toe does not strike the ground when shooting. This foot position creates a wedge which can lead to the player kicking the ball high over the goal.
The ideal instep shot should be performed with the end of one's foot, i.e the top of the toe-knuckle. Only by striking the ball with the end of the foot can the shooting foot remain parallel to the body which allows the knee to stay over the ball.
This secret allows even the youngest players to shoot the ball with real power. Also, with this technique, players can hit the ball squarely so the ball does not spin, making it even more difficult for the goalkeeper to stop the shot.
#2 - Young children can learn a lot more than we think!
When I first began coaching children I focused on playing games and having fun. Over the years, I introduced increasingly difficult skills and tactics as I grew more confident in my coaching abilities. Now I teach the essential coaching elements to children of all ages and rely less on games to fill up the practice time. My practices with a U8 team do not look that different in style and format than my practices with a U18 team. It turns out that kids, in some ways, are actually like little adults who can learn and retain advanced concepts.
The discovery that even young children can enjoy learning a wide variety of skills and tactics has accelerated player and team development in the teams I coach. This mindset also helps develop more emotionally mature players. A key to teaching young children advanced ideas is utilizing the most effective coaching approaches, such as neuromuscular training for skill development. Poor coaching leads to player frustration and eventual burnout regardless of the player's age.
#1 - Coaching is the most important variable in determining a player's success
Although genetics, family resources, and team competitiveness can all play vital roles in assessing a player's potential, the number one factor in determining a player's future success is the coaching environment they learn to play in.
I have found the human nervous system to be very adaptive. With correct coaching, even a clumsy, unskilled player can develop into a top player on the team when the player is motivated. This transformation typically takes two years.
So don't worry about having the best recruits or trying to poach other clubs' top players! Focus on improving your coaching and the results will follow. Trust the remarkable nervous system to adapt to the conditions you create. These 'conditions' trump genetics in my experience.
This little secret has large implications and helps explain how small countries like Belgium and Uruguay can compete with much larger countries like the US. There are better conditions to create soccer players in Belgium and Uraguay - not better athletes or more resources.
If you find yourself coaching a losing side, trust that correct coaching will eventually bridge the gap between you and your opponents. When our local club began, we lost every game for two years, before winning became routine and expected despite our limited player pool. I often joked that we didn't choose our teams but the teams chose us (since we usually took almost every player that came to a tryout). We never had the opportunity to pick the 'early developers' and best athletes. We picked those players that wanted to play, i.e. the ones that signed up. Create the right conditions at practice and players will continue to improve over time, eventually surpassing players born with more talent or playing in a more competitive league.