Big, strong and fast.
Those are the traits that dominate youth soccer in America.
If you don't have them, there's a good chance you'll get overlooked.
Despite all the lip service paid to development over winning, too many coaches still want the fast kids who make it easier to win.
It's a simple formula: play kick and chase, swarm to the ball defensively, and you win a lot of games. What you won't do is develop players who have the ability to play at the next level when they get older.
It's true that big and fast overcomes a lot when players are young. The ones with size and speed look like future stars. But not every kid is going to be among the big and fast, and that's OK.
One of the great things about soccer is that a player can excel at the beautiful game in ways that have nothing to do with these athletic traits.
These are things all players can do to become significantly better at the sport, regardless of their athletic genes. And truth is, they can absolutely make the difference between being a great player and an average player.
Train Yourself to Think Fast
One of my favorite quotes comes from the great midfielder Xavi Hernandez.
Xavi said, "Most of (my opponents) were quicker and stronger than me. Decision-making is what controls our actions. Some players have a mental top speed of 80 while others are capable of reaching 200. I always tried to reach 200."
Simply put, think faster and you will play faster, even if your physical soccer skills haven't improved. Soccer IQ and decision-making play a huge role in the success or failure of a player or team.
How exactly do you train yourself to think fast? Much of it revolves around the skills of vision, awareness and anticipation.
The most important "skill" in soccer is analytic ability. If you want to succeed, you need a high level of soccer intelligence.
To make good decisions with the ball, you need to know what you're going to do with it before you receive it. Even a player with a fantastic first touch will struggle if they wait for the ball to be at their feet before they start analyzing their environment and thinking about their next move. The game is too fast to try and figure everything out after you've already received the ball.
Thinking fast is knowing your situation before you take that first touch on the ball. If making your one and only touch a pass creates opportunities for your team, you must be prepared to do so.
If your eyes simply follow the ball the entire game, at some point, it'll inevitably wind up at your own feet.
But if it's only then that you take the time to look beyond the ball to your surrounding environment, you'll be under constant pressure and struggle to make good decisions. Quite simply, you'll be thinking slow.
This leads to the concept of checking your shoulder.
Check Your Shoulder
The idea of "checking your shoulder" is something I rarely hear coached in youth soccer.
To check your shoulder is to simply take your eyes off the ball so you can glance at your other surroundings. This quick mental picture allows you to see where the space is and where your teammates and opponents are positioned.
Great midfielders like Frank Lampard or Andrés Iniesta have been tracked checking their shoulder roughly every six seconds for the entirety of a 90-minute match. That works out to 800 to 1,000 times per game!
The video below is only about 17 seconds. It's a clinic in simple movements off the ball combined with awareness of the available space to be able to receive and deliver a valuable pass:
Note that checking your shoulder does not require super speed or prodigious strength or intimidating size—just working eyeballs and a functioning neck.
Far too often, from the younger ages all the way through the late teen years, soccer athletes become spectators and just stare at the ball. They might "wake up" when it comes in close proximity, but by then, it's too late. They've lost the chance to better position themselves and they have no idea of the space or players around them.
The result tends to be a turnover or them booting the ball away in a panic.
Checking your shoulder constantly and then adjusting your movement and decisions based on what you see can completely change your game for the better.
By always seeing and evaluating what is going on around you, it becomes much easier to anticipate what will happen next. This helps to increase your speed of play while giving you more time to make good decisions.
Understand Passing Angles
Too many players believe they are open when they actually aren't.
In many cases, taking one or two extra steps can easily create a better passing angle for a teammate.
Many young players don't give much thought to passing angles, but they have a huge impact on your team. Think about how you can be "more open" for your teammates, or how your own passes can play a teammate into being more open.
While a lot of youngsters like to spend hours blasting shots on goal, practicing your passing will pay dividends. Learn to hit all types of passes at all sorts of angles. Train different passing speeds and trajectories. Learning to pass with both feet.
The better you understand passing angles, and the more equipped you are to take advantage of them, the more valuable you'll be to your team.
Always Be Moving
Soccer doesn't stop.
What was a good position one second might not be the next. Good passing angles and seams (the space between defenders to play a pass) appear and disappear in a flash.
If you're standing flat-footed staring at the ball, you're letting the game pass you by.
Move to create space and find a way to support the teammate who has the ball, while also noting what you might want to do next when a pass arrives.
All great soccer players, whether they're elite athletes or not, read the game well and make sound decisions both with and without the ball.
Moving without the ball is a struggle for most players to turn into a habit. So start with something simple. Every time you make a pass, even in a simple passing drill, take three steps in any direction (credit to Coach Dan Blank for that one).
When you commit to a run, commit to it!
Don't go through the motions of a run because you aren't sure if you'll get the ball. The run must come before the pass for it to work.
And even if you don't get the ball, a committed runner can create space for a teammate.
This is a very good thing, and making those unselfish runs are a mark of a good player. Be that player.
Watch More Soccer
As strange as it may sound, simply watching the game being played at a high level will improve your level of play.
In America, young basketball players actually watch basketball. Then they go out to the courts to play pick-up games for hours, trying out the moves, shots and passes of their favorite players.
Watching and then playing helps them understand the game better and be more bold and creative. Same goes for soccer players.
Here's another tip: play FIFA.
Yes, the video game.
This is almost another way of watching soccer. It can be difficult to get players to watch the pros play. But playing a video game? That should be an easy sell.
Players will learn a lot of the same things playing FIFA they'll learn from watching the game. And it might just stick a little better in their brains because they themselves are making the decisions!
Get Quality Touches
Technical skills are very important, and you don't need size, strength or speed to develop good touch on the ball.
I'm not saying athleticism doesn't matter in soccer. That would be a lie. But I am saying you can be a high level player without having blazing speed or explosive quickness, and being comfortable with the ball at your feet is essential.
You don't have to have fancy moves with a high degree of difficulty, either.
You simply need to be able to stay composed under pressure and find a teammate (or dribble out of trouble) without panicking and losing the ball or making a poor decision.
This is a skill you can build at virtually any time whenever you have a few free minutes. All you need is a ball and some stuff to dribble around (cones, socks, sneakers, etc.).
With a good foot skill program, you can get 500 or more touches in as little as 10 minutes. Do you have 10 minutes a day to improve your game? Sure you do! That's 15,000 extra touches in a month!
Here are some of my favorite ball mastery patterns to get you started.
Check out thesoccerspecialist.com for a complete ball mastery training session.
Be the Most Focused Player on the Pitch
This is the key that ties everything else together.
By being mentally engaged, you will rapidly improve your technical skills with the ball, dramatically improve your game without the ball and you'll do all the little things that get big results on a consistent basis.
Many "average" athletes make it because they are willing to do what others won't.
Too many athletes go through the motions and cruise along on auto-pilot.
With players who are truly mentally engaged, even their warm-ups have an air of intensity and focus.
Every time you train, it's an opportunity to get better. Elite players take advantage of that opportunity.
Average players go through the motions.
This time is a gift. Athletic careers are all too short.
If you're not out there trying to get better, just know that someone else is. And one day, you'll compete against them, either on another team or for a roster spot.
You can have less natural talent and athleticism. But you cannot let someone want it more than you do. There is not a program or coach in the world who can help you if you don't approach your training with the intensity, focus and determination it deserves.
Be mentally engaged in what you are doing. If you want to know why a player still receives a pass with the wrong foot after years of training to do it right, it's because they've never been mentally engaged in the process.
Be in the moment, every moment.
Maybe you're not the biggest, strongest and fastest player on the team. But you can strive to be a reader of the game like Lampard, Hernandez or Iniesta.
Why not, right?
You can quickly become a much better player than you are right now, but it will take focus, determination and mental effort.
It's easy to stand around on the field and only come alive when the ball gets near you. You have to constantly be asking yourself questions during the game as to what you should do next or where it is you should be on the field.
If you can keep yourself engaged in the game and make the effort to do the little things that don't require physical talent or athleticism, you'll be well on your way to becoming a much better soccer player.
Photo Credit: Tempura/iStock
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