Train the 90

By Tony Earp

In business, an “80/20 rule” is often talked about in regards to productivity and profits. It is believed that 80 percent of a company’s revenue/success/profits comes from 20 percent of its activities. Now, when thinking about soccer and what helps a player be successful on the field, how does that translate? This stat made me think about the way I train players and where do I focus their energy during training sessions. What activities and game situations do I put them in to help them improve their level of play and be prepared for the game? Over the years, it has changed the way I approach my training with players. I decided to spend the vast majority of my time with players to “Train the 90” during my training sessions, not the 10.

I believe high level players are high level because they can do the basic and consistently used skill movements the game requires of them at an extraordinary level (the 90 percent). Both the speed and effectiveness of their ability with those skills makes their level of play beyond the common player. Simple tasks in the game are done with very few errors, and are performed without much thought… almost subconsciously.

If you watch a professional match, you see all players doing the same things 90 percent of the game. Receiving the ball, passing over different distances, dribbling, moving off the ball, and defending are the most common activities of each player on the field. When players are excellent in these areas, they can do what the game requires of them 90 percent of the time. Often progress and development in these areas comes in three forms:
  1. Speed in which these skills are executed.
  2. The less time and space needed to execute them.
  3. Recognition of when, where, why, and how to use them.

During training sessions, I tell players all the time that if they can do the simple, every game activities, with consistency and speed, they can be a higher level player. I tell them to “Train the 90” on their own as often as they can, and spend less time on the 10. Frankly, when the 90 can be done at a high level, the 10 is much easier to learn and perform when needed. Unfortunately, with a generation of YouTube watchers and street soccer style moves, the players tend to spend more of their time on the 10 when training on their own. I believe all practice with the ball is beneficial, but what type of training is the most effective? What gives the best return on your time?

Think of it this way… if you go to the gym, that is obviously better than not going. But when you are there, do you make the most of your time and effort to see the results you want?

Now, as I said before, I think many of the YouTube channels with crazy skill moves and trick shots do serve a great purpose for players. It provides players with ideas and spurs imagination and creativity with the ball. Although, many of the activities are overly complicated or require a lot of expensive equipment to do on your own, and I think it has re-focused players on training and practicing the 10 percent (or sometimes 1%) of skills they rarely ever use in a game.

Why do I say that? I have worked with players (and played with players) that can do some crazy tricks with the ball, but lack the fundamentals. They struggle to receive and pass or even run with the ball at speed while keeping it under control, but can dazzle you with a couple juggling tricks, and fancy lift, or one “sick” skill move. All while their passing and receiving, two areas that are critical for a player to have success, are not at the level required to play the game at an average level. Although the tricks are fun to watch and impressive, it does not make up for how often the player loses the ball.

In short, when the whistle blows, it is not a YouTube trick competition. It is the game, and if you are not prepared to do what the game requires you to do, “The 90”, the game will expose your lack of ability in the fundamental areas of the game.

I know the basics are not as much fun as the fancier skill moves to do in training, but then again, you have to consider what you are training and practicing to do. Are you training to be able to perform tricks or are you training to improve your level of play? It is not always the same type of training.

As coaches, our goal is to help kids play the game at a high level. It is not to help them perform training activities at a high level or be great on video clips. With that goal in mind, what do our training sessions look like? Are the activities all about improving skill areas and movements commonly used in the game? Does the activity look and feel like the game?

As I tell players all the time in training, I am not trying to get them to improve their ability to do a training activity, I am trying to help them improve their ability to play the game. Within each activity, I ask them not to focus on the activity, but play the game within the task. Nothing is done in a vacuum in the game. Every movement and action in a game leads into another movement, has a consequence, and requires adjustments (constantly). This is how I ask players to train. It is always about what is next, what was the result of their action, and how they can adjust when needed.

I am not demonizing the teaching of tricks and complicated skill combinations as I teach those as well. BUT, and this is important, I think these items should make up a very small percentage of a training session. Let’s say about 10%. When you consistently “Train the 90”, the things your players will repeatedly and consistently be asked to do in the game, they will be more prepared than players who spend too much time on the 10%.

Now if you are training the next generation of YouTubers, than spend more time on the 10%. But if your goal is to help develop the next generation of high level players, you should be focusing on the 90%. “Train the 90” and make sure your players are prepared for what they will be asked to do when they step on the field to play.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@superkickcolumbus.com
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