Watching U11 and U12 games, whether played in Wisconsin or almost any other place in the country, is always an interesting and entertaining proposition. In these games, players run all over the field – some offsides by miles but excited nonetheless, others hanging significantly behind the play hesitantly, and others simply chasing the ball everywhere. Some players smile when a decision works, or simply at the attempt, and others nervously look at the ball as it gets closer to them with the inevitable crush of bodies surrounding it. Some players throw their bodies anywhere and everywhere with reckless abandon, and others are very circumspect about when and where they will make contact with anything.
On the sidelines you get a similar range of behavior - some coaches excited about every moment in the action, some yelling for shots or “getting forward” or “making a corner kick count”, and even some asking how much time is left in the game in the final minutes of the “big game” they are winning.
None of this background activity sheds much light on whether players are improving in the sport, but it fills much discussion on the sidelines, in post-game, and more. As such, it is important to step away from this activity to recognize what you should be looking for as a parent in this “arena” to see whether development and learning is occurring. What you should be looking for is simple – PLAYERS THAT ARE TRYING TO MAKE A SOCCER ACTION.
A soccer action, for lack of a better term, has two components: (i) a thoughtful tactical decision; (ii) executed with proper technique. To give some context, below are examples of the 3 most common actions (that are not soccer actions), that occur on a U11 or U12 soccer field:
- Actions with No Decision, No Technique. Kicking the ball in random directions forward, with poor or totally incorrect technique is not a soccer action. It is absent of both decision-making and technique. This is clear with players who kick the ball with their toes, with their toes down when using the inside of the foot, with floppy ankles when using any surface, etc., and with no thought as to where or why they are kicking the ball.
- Actions Involving a Decision, but No Technique. Attempting to pass the ball to a teammate, or shoot the ball, but using poor or incorrect technique may be a soccer decision, but it is still not a soccer action – as it is missing the key fundamental of proper body mechanics and control, proper technique.
- Actions Using Technique, but with No Decision. Striking a ball with good (or at least moderate) soccer technique, but doing so without an associated decision (a pass to a specific target or space, a shot on goal), is also not a soccer action – as it is missing a decision-making component.
So what? Why decipher between these 3 situations? How do these 3 common actions relate to eventually making soccer actions?
The key to proper youth development is in teaching players how to make good soccer actions. Doing so requires a combination of teaching both decision-making cues and teaching proper body mechanics – and then shaping behavior to get ever closer in both areas to the desired goal. In this process, the overwhelming emphasis at U11 and U12 must be on body mechanics; in other words, on technique. An old adage states that “there can be no tactics (decision-making) without technique,” and the adage has been around for a long time for a reason. Technique (body mechanics) is the first thing that players must learn in order to have the ability to do anything successfully as they get older.
So, what signs are there that this developmental environment is being created at U11 and U12, and that players are making progress in learning how to make soccer actions?
Players that are slowing down their decision-making – players that look like they are trying to figure out what to do, or how to do something in the proper way. In the short term, these players actually play slower and get caught with the ball far more than “more effective” players that are playing without concern for technique or decisions or both. (On a related note, young players at these ages are very rarely capable of consistently playing in 1-touch successfully (with both technique and decision-making) – most 1-touch play at this age is panic and done without much thought or skill.
Players that are trying to control the ball and make a decision with it – players that look at the ball as something to enjoy, not an object to be whacked. Again, these players often play slower and get caught with the ball as they try to make a soccer decision with a soccer technique – as they try to execute a soccer action.
Players not concerned with mistakes or scores, but totally enveloped in the moment with the ball – players that are focused on the present and what to do, not how far ahead or behind they are, or the time remaining in the game. These players will often make decisions that are not “tactically correct” for winning a game (a square pass in front of their goal, for example), but they are trying to make soccer actions.
When you see the above, you know that soccer learning and development is taking place. So here is a preview of what that development path looks like moving forward:
- First, as players begin to be comfortable with soccer technique, they are able to pass the ball more accurately, shoot it more accurately, and control it more quickly. They begin to be able to hold the ball individually for a few seconds longer, and then find a pass or two to keep the ball. They are becoming technically sound in fundamental skills and techniques.
- Second, as players become comfortable with soccer technique, they are capable of diverting some attention away from body mechanics, and start to look up at the game. In other words, they start to be able to process information to inform their decisions. They see defenders coming a little earlier, they see teammates that are open a little faster, they see spaces to dribble into. They are becoming better at making basic decisions.
- Third, as technique and awareness for basic decisions now start to develop hand-in-hand, individual players start to become small groups of players – capable of sharing the ball, combining with each other, connecting 3-4 passes together, and dribbling with feints and moves. They start to perform soccer actions – technique and decisions applied together.
- Fourth, when technique and awareness of basic situations (1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, 2 vs. 1, etc.) begins to become unconscious, (performed without deliberate thought), small groups of players start to look like a team of soccer players with consistent thoughts, deliberate actions and techniques, and well thought out decisions – in other words, they become a team of players all making soccer actions.
This is the fundamental philosophy of TIP Training at FC Wisconsin Eclipse. TIP Training is designed to get every player thousands of touches on the ball in every hour of work, to educate them on how to replicate this training at home, and to create an environment where ball mastery is prized and celebrated.
Players that come through TIP Training, and who invest their time in the exercises, are laying a foundation of technical skill that will see them successful for the rest of their careers. Count the touches, invest the time, and the rewards of being a skillful soccer player will be collected for years!