By Ken Ilchuk
I heard a coach say it. This was a couple weeks ago, on one of the many fields I was visiting, taking pictures for the Petro Club Weeks Photo Gallery on LIJSoccer.com. This coach was imploring his defender to get the ball out of their defensive end, and quickly. There wasn’t any real offensive pressure. It was just one of those reactionary things – I don’t care how you do it, just get it out of our end.
This was a U12 girls travel game, and at first I thought, well, maybe the coach is trying to keep pressure off a backup goalie, or maybe this defender is a weaker sub on the team and is just looking to build some confidence in the girl. But the longer I stood there watching the game, the clearer it became that this team just didn’t have much in the way of soccer skills, and unfortunately it didn’t seem that they had spent much time with their coach on any sort of skill development. The game plan was pretty much kick and run; get the ball downfield and take a shot…any shot, and I didn’t hear anything in the way of promoting ball control.
Those girls should have been at the fields in Bay Shore this past weekend. I was actually there to watch my nephew play. He’s four years old, and while my own kids did it, in hindsight I still wonder whether 4-year olds need to be playing organized anything. But what I saw at the fields was a real pleasant surprise. In about an hour’s time, only about 15 minutes were spent on “game” play. The first portion of the session focused on skills – dribbling, passing, receiving, shooting. There were a couple relays mixed in, and some basic warm up type drills. The kids had a great time, they learned a little something, and my nephew dribbled the ball all the way through the parking lot and back to the car, a skill I didn’t see much of on the field a few weeks earlier with the U12 girls.
I know the hope among most soccer professionals at the higher levels is that more of this type of training will be taking place.
“Ball drills are really critical to player development,” LIJSL Select PDP Director of Coaching Ronan Wiseman has told me. “If we can improve players’ comfort level with the ball that will give them the strong foundation of soccer skills they’ll need if they hope to play at the higher levels when they get older. Seeing who won the U10 game that week is not as important as seeing who is working on developing skills in game situations. Those are the kids you’ll see still playing a few years down the road.”
Of course, Ronan is right. But some will argue that maybe there are U12 players who didn’t get that kind of early skill development? My answer is that skill development doesn’t need to stop at U5, U6, or U7. Skills are an “all the time” thing. Tom Howard, a legendary high school football coach and athletic director here on Long Island for years, was a big proponent of continuous skill development.
“When I was coaching, I didn’t care if we were coming off an undefeated championship season, we always went back and started with the most basic skills on day one of camp,” he explained. “We went over how to get in a proper stance, footwork, basic blocking and tackling drills, and all those things that are at the core of the game. Good fundamentals are the foundation of any good player or team.”
So the message for coaches and players is keep working on those skills! Incorporate them into your practices, spend 15 minutes a day working on them on your own, and don’t be afraid to use them in a game, regardless of the consequences. If you can do that, the next “boom” you hear on the field could be the sound of your game taking off to the next level.