The typical youth player that plays at a "high level" has the latest cleats, unique hairstyles, and if extreme, have an intense parent. They don't know the history of the game and of course know players like Alex Morgan, Ronaldo and maybe Messi. Those wannabe highlight players are products of the consumer environment that is making it hard for US youth players to succeed, but I believe there is a deeper rooted issue with why we struggle to develop players that excel at the highest level. Besides greed, we believe it lies in the definition many have in the word “skill”.
Skill means “decision making,” what decisions are you making during game scenarios that are leading to success. Recognizing the situation and having the “ability” to beat a player 1v1 in the right situation is a characteristic of a skillful player. The vision to see an open winger and the ability to drive a forty yard pass from the back to an open winger is skill. Having the ability to play the first time and not give the ball away in tight areas, but also having the recognition and composure to take multiple touches when given space and time is skill. Movement on and off the ball is skill!
Watching Thiago Alcantara recently during a Champions League match completely changed my opinion about the Spaniard, I never noticed how much influence he has on the match and how much skill he has when he is “on and off” the ball. He is constantly orchestrating the play even without the ball, suggesting what passes should be made to teammates with his movements, ensuring the ball is moved quickly and away from pressure. He plays first time when he needs to with precision technique. His ability to splitting the opposing midfielders at every opportunity to advance the ball to the attacking third was what drove Bayern Munich forward. He is one of the most skillful players in the modern era. Can Thiago Alcantara do a double step over? Of course he can. Did he do a ton of double step overs in the match? No, because the he handled evaluated the situation and made a better decision. Thiago Alcantara possesses the brain to be a successful midfielder at the highest level, similar to Xaxi for Barcelona or Modric for Real Madrid. Thiago now plays at Liverpool by the way. All of these are examples of players who possess skill, they are superior decision makers, not the athletic highlights reel or commercial stars that are flaunted to the young players.
US soccer has favored "athletes" over brains for a majority of the past decades especially at young ages, where quick wins were favored over long-term development of the players. I think there are great coaches but not many environments around US youth soccer that develop these types of football players at a young age. Hence why the current best USMNT and USWNT go overseas to play at a young age. The days of the early developer being looked on as the next superstar seem to never end with all the "car salesman" on the US fields. Hopefully, you'll find an environment that values players who enjoy to use their technique, orchestrate a play, not lose possession rather than the “goalscorer”. No college or pro coach will ask you how many goals you scored at U13. Of course goals are needed in the match but think about this, would Messi of succeeded in the US due to his size? Don't lie to yourself and if you do not know who Messi is, why are you still reading this?!
Anyway, players will learn real skills when they execute their technique in a realistic match scenario during training. Then they will be able to break down how to what, where, why, etc., during the match consistently. That is skill! The more players can play in these game scenarios the more they will develop an understanding of the correct decision, technique and get experience in various situations that come about in a real match. Thus why every training session should start with technical skills and end in some form of the actual match. Also real ballers of the game should want to watch as many higher level matches as they can to learn what high level skill really is.
To truly develop skill, players must fall in love with the process and the results will come.
Highlights on social media, scoreline, parent sideline, prizes for individual stats, the opponent style of play, time left on clock etc... all force you to make a decision of how to play during the match.
The correct decision, by far, is the one that retains possession. Here are examples of risky decisions...
The most important thing every player should understand is, in general:
That is the process to the top.
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The first touch is arguably the most important skill in soccer. Without a good one, you won’t ever have the opportunities to use your other skills because a DEFENDER will have already closed in. Unfortunately, the first touch is also one of the most difficult skills to learn — it makes the difference between good players and great ones.
Be Aware of Your Teammates. No matter how you plan to control the ball, you need to know where you want to put it. The point of a good first touch is putting the ball in space and getting it out of your feet so you can deliver a crisp pass or take a clean shot. So in the moment before the ball comes to you, take a peek around. It’s as simple as putting the ball where a defender is not. And as your touch improves, your confidence will, too, and you will be able to look up sooner.
Get the Ball Under Control. Once the ball reaches you, you have several options. Take the ball with: Cushion the ball with the inside or outside of either foot, thigh, chest, head or any part of your body but hands. Track the ball in movement, put your body behind it, and don’t remain stiff. The same way your hands move back to soften a catch, cushion the ball with whichever part of your body you are using. Ideally, you should be on your toes, knees bent and arms out for balance.
Bring the ball down! The first thing you want to do is get the ball on the ground if it isn’t there already — that’s where it is easiest to handle. Doing that requires a soft touch and a generally downward motion of your body. With your foot, almost sweep the ball to the ground when it comes to you. With your thighs or chest, the goal is to provide a cushion for the ball to land on before letting it drop in front of you. You can control the direction of the touch by turning your hips or your shoulders.
Once you have the ball in your possession, you need to be looking around to either run with it, pass, or shoot — so keep your head up. Then, with a tap from the outside of your foot or your instep, push it a couple of feet in front of you to give your kick some room or starting your dribbling. From there, its up to your creativity. The quicker and more natural your first touch becomes, the more time it will give you to plan your next move. The best players always seem to have time and space on the ball because of the quality of their first touch.
Practice makes perfect! All you need for the easiest first-touch drill is a wall and any kind of ball (even a tennis ball works). Throw or kick the ball at the wall from a variety of angles and bring it under control as it bounces back — left foot, right foot, thighs, chest, even shoulders and head. There really is no secret to it. It may sound simple, but it’s the best way to develop those instincts alone. If you have the luxury of practicing with someone else, the drill doesn’t change much. Your teammate takes the place of the wall and have fun with the ball.
How is your first touch?
Learn The Process, Click HERE
Details matter. Notice when he touched the ball, he changed the game every time. Enjoy Leo's debut for Inter Miami.
Many coaches and trainers have been saying that phrase quite often but most are missing a ton of depth and nuance. As a result, we’re not correctly identifying this player attribute.
By far, most players [outside elite pros] you identify as ‘checking their shoulder‘ are doing it to see if there’s pressure nearby. By far, they are not scanning the field to assess what their next decision is – not to mention what 2 or 3 moves into the future could be. Focus on what space to attack (run or pass), body position/movement to receive, type of touch (away from pressure, pass or dribble) and most importantly, the technique (surface of foot etc) to execute the play.
That, my friends, is truly ‘checking your shoulder‘. Those are details that matter and that’s what separates special from average. That's the difference is saying something and explaining something.
Learning to ID these players who are next level takes a ton of experience. But at least now we’re aware there’s more to it than witnessing a simple head swivel, "check your shoulder!"
With all these training sessions, leagues and showcases from club to school to pro, recovery is key for a player to continue to play at their full potential all season long. Check out these great recovery sessions.
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