Playing Next to One Another vs With One Another
It takes human beings a few years to figure out that there are other humans in the universe. When kids are young - in the earliest years of soccer development - kids do what's called parallel play. We witness this phenomenon as kids playing next to one another as opposed to with one another.
This happens with all soccer players in the beginning. They're head's down, searching for the ball, watching their foot make contact, seeing what happens to the ball, etc. I probably see this phenomenon the most among developing players and it's one that I'm most sensitive to.
I'm sensitive to it because it isn't limited to 3-6 year olds. New players coming onto the pitch go through a period of individual play just like young kids do. If we don't deliberately make corrections to help players become aware of one another, bad habits can form.
It takes some evolution, some comfort on and around the ball for players to allow themselves the mental bandwidth to lift their head and see other players - let alone recognize how another player's movement is related to their own movement. Lifting player's heads is an early step towards connecting players together.
A Few Ideas to Help Lift Player's Heads
Lifting a player's head helps that player to see other players, but to truly realize the power that can be unlocked by playing with one another as a unit, players need to first establish good team (connecting) habits, then experience the benefits of working together to accomplish goals (pun intended). Once a few players start to see the value in the team approach, we hope they either have or can develop the leadership skills needed to bring the rest of the team onboard.
Besides establishing an environment conducive for learning the power of the team approach, the coach's influence can extend onto the game pitch - for better and for worse! In a case where a coach deliberately seeks to recognize and reward good team dynamics, the team approach to soccer can be enhanced. But what does a counter productive strategy look like?
I've seen coaches - many coaches - get focused on putting the ball in the net and not pay enough attention to how the ball gets put in the net. It's forgivable when parents do this, in my opinion. They are not expected to have the training or bigger picture. "Shoot!!... Shoot!!" coming from a parent sideline sounds much less destructive to the game to me than it does when it comes from the coach's bench - especially when the players are prepped for it.
Don't think me too simple to realize that there is a time for shooting and often the window to get off a good shot is closed down quickly. Sometimes coaches need to to prompt a player to take advantage of the moment and not lose it. But there is a difference between yelling "Shoot!!... Shoot!!" to an attacking player inside the 6 who just beat a goalkeeper, two defenders are closing ranks, and the keeper is getting back to his or her feet; and "Shoot!!... Shoot!!" from the 40 yard line with two open attackers in the middle, no pressure, and a scrum of well organized defenders above the 18.
Players need to be taught how to use their teammates to play a ball out of pressure and give the rest of their team a chance to get organized for an attack. In the absence of these instructions, players - especially those who have not mastered the team approach to soccer yet - can and will simply hit the ball in the direction of the opponent's goal. This, more often than not, results in a simple turnover and puts an attacking team back on defense.
The 50/50 Ball
What happens when a goalkeeper boots the ball way down the field? In a youth match, a kick like this is usually followed by parent-side gasps of appreciation and some commentary like "good boot," "yes!" or "Great clearance, keeper!"
It's true, a long ball from the keeper can be a useful addition to a team strategy. Knowing that a player has a strong kick in their tool box makes parents and coaches alike smile.
There is a dark side to the long kick though. It's sometimes called the 50/50 ball. That's because when a long boot has no purpose other than to launch the ball as far down the field as possible, the team that booted it has a 50% chance of maintaining possession. Of course, the opponent also has a 50% chance of taking possession and returning the ball to that keeper 30 seconds later in a well coordinated attack.
A good alternative approach to the big boot is something we call playing or "building" from the back. Moving the ball from the back through a series of coordinated passes has some advantages. It draws the opponent (if they take the bait) out across the field. This can create a lot more open space for mounting an attack. The attacking team is always looking to create space and spread out defenders. Building from the back can have that effect.
Building from the back also gives the possession team a greater than 50% chance of keeping possession. If players have practiced working with one another to move the ball around the field, then this technique can also work to tire the defending team, demonstrate control, and help the attacking players to find their rhythm. Ideally, everyone on the attacking team has their head up, is maneuvering into position to either receive a ball, make the defending team think they are going to receive a ball, or draw movement and attention of the defending team from the attacking play that is unfolding.
As with everything, that which gets rewarded gets done more. First, explaining the advantages and disadvantages of the "big ball" from the keeper goes a long way in helping players to make their own game-appropriate decisions. After all is said and done, we want our players making that call, right?
Along with the explanation, players need to understand what it means to build from the back - as well as they need to understand what they need to do when the "big ball" is played. This means practicing & demonstrating. Attacking teams need to do everything they can to avoid the 50/50 ball. If a big ball is preferred, then they need to know how to mitigate the 50/50 ball. If playing from the back is preferred, then they need to know how to move to allow the building play to unfold.
Too often, I see coaches ignoring the building play in favor of the 50/50 ball. The keeper is conditioned to simply boot the ball down field and both the keeper and the attacking team players hope for the best. A good defending team will see these big goal kicks as a good opportunity to win the ball and mount an attack.
I'm personally in favor of the building play over a big boot play nine times out of ten. About the only times I favor the big boot are:
- if the defending team is playing too high up (towards our goal), and a big boot will put the ball over their heads and into a group of my players.
- If our players are in good attacking position, the defending team will get caught out of play, the numbers look good, and our players have momentum to mount an attack right away.
- We're dealing with a "Bezo."
What the Heck is a "Bezo?"
A "Bezo" is a term I admittedly made up. It's short for Berserker - as in the Norse Warrior that fought with a trace-like fury. It's meant to express an energy condition on the field when our opponent is amped up on positive energy from recent critical scores or other good fortune they've had in a game.
Soccer is very much about group energy management. The group's mood affects how the group plays. One or two players or events can bring a teams energy up or down dramatically during the course of a game.
When we recognize asymmetrical energy on the field and the other team has a high level of positive energy vs our low level, a good boot down the field can be a way to take some energy out of their attack.
It's My Foot Skills, Coach
I had an opportunity to ask a young man what tools he had in his toolbox that would allow him to solve a problem he was facing on the field. His reply: "My foot skills, coach."
While this young man was technically competent on the field, I was hoping for a little more. His confidence in his foot skills was, in fact, part of the problem. He was operating alone - in his own head, anyway - and he seemed to think that despite getting beaten over and over again at attempts to turn the ball into pressure and plow through two or more opponents, that his foot skills would get him out of the mess if could just be a little more technically strong. I see this mistake a lot on the field.
Soccer is a team sport. The strongest asset each team member has on the field with them are 10 other players. Instead of hoping to magically become one of our world's greatest, it's not a half bad idea to consider the open player without the ball as a support.
As we talked through his problem, I asked him what he was seeing out there. He said "They're not passing me the ball, coach." Those of us reading this after the fact might think - of course they're not passing him the ball, he keeps trying to plow through defenders and losing it, but that's not where he and I were that day.
I was more concerned about this player's view of the game with him at the center. He truly expected others to be serving him up the ball, and he truly expected himself to be the play maker that everyone celebrated at the end of the day.
To be fair, this player was in a #10 position - which to me means he is a play maker. #10 is responsible for orchestrating plays with an eye and hopefully deep understanding of his/her wingers and striker capabilities. It also means, however, that the player in this position is often very selflessly distributing the ball to others who actually make the plays. Of course, the #10 has great opportunities to clean up or finish plays in spectacular ways, but I was looking for this young man's connection to his team to take priority over the connection to his own feet.
I asked him what he thought the fastest thing on the field is. He said "My mind." I actually loved this answer and gave him props for it, but I was searching for something a little more apparent to the rest of his team.
He followed with "The ball." Another good call, and the one I expected from him in the beginning. We teach players early on that the ball is the fastest thing on the field - faster than a runner dribbling - even faster than a runner without the ball. But I was hoping to add a new tool to his toolbox.
"Bad guys can run fast, but no one can outrun the radio." I've often said to my players in practice. "How about your voice?" I asked him.
This young man was frustrated that things were not happening the way he wanted them to during their attacking plays. As a #10, he was within his rights to be frustrated with that and also uniquely positioned to do something about it. I wanted him thinking about how best to use his team to make plays happen.
Many #10 players will develop signals with their team mates over time, but we didn't have the time for this on game day. He could, however use his voice to connect with his wingers and striker (we were playing a 4:2:3:1) and help what he was thinking become reality.
There are several coaching styles - very successful styles - that teach to develop the individual player technically. I believe that developing technical skills in players is an important part of coaching and should be a component of training. However, when we emphasize technical ability over team dynamics and strategy, I think we set ourselves up for a lot of missed opportunities.
Kids who learn that the team is stronger than any individual, who learn that support roles on the field are as important and sometimes more important that ball carrying roles, and who learn that the game is more than kicks and surfaces have an advantage over those who don't. As coaches, we can structure the practice environment to develop whatever our team needs. We owe it to them to help them to get the fact that teammates are a huge asset.
When I'm wearing my futsal coaching hat, I teach that the first shot on goal is almost always going to be blocked by a good goal keeper. The net is small and the keeper is balanced and ready. The second and possibly third shots, however, are the ones that go in the net. The ball carrier is delivering the ball to a rebound for the second attacker to put it in. They always shoot at far post to come across the keeper and give a second player a chance to get into position. Scoring is a team effort - as it should be in soccer.