The Ball is a Toy

By Tony Earp

With the competitiveness and pressure around sports, it is easy to forget that every sport is just a game. Not much different than jumping rope, tag, or hide and go seek, soccer (like other sports) is a game to be played for fun. There are winners and losers, but the goal is to play, get exercise, and enjoy the time with the friends. It is sad when sports moves from this view into more of a “job” or work, both in which a game was never intended. Even when players play a sport for a living, for the most part, the best at the game still play it because it is fun and they love it. Like most games, when the game was invented, I am confident the “creator” did not do it so one day those who play this game at the highest level will get paid to do it. This means, at the heart of every game, every sport, and in soccer, the things used to play the game should be seen as toys.

Ask a kid to show you his toys. What do you think he will point to? Most likely, the child will point to a video game system, maybe some board games, an ipad, dolls or stuffed animals, but I highly doubt that most children would point to their soccer ball. To me, this is a very sad thought. As a kid, my soccer ball was always in my “toy bin” in my room. That is exactly how I saw the ball. It was not something I would go “train” with or use to “practice.” It was just a toy, and something I would go to have fun and entertain myself. It was no different than my Atari, Pogo Stick, or Voltron action figures (I will pause and allow for Google searches).

This is a change that needs to occur in the youth soccer culture. The soccer ball cannot be seen as a work tool, or something that is only used when asked by an adult or coach. That is not how toys work. Think of anyone who is amazing at what they do (an artist, writer, programmer, mechanic, architect, etc… ) and I bet those people see the “tools” of their profession more as toys they get to play with everyday, and that is the reason why they are the best at what they do.

When it comes to toys, what do kids do with them? Well, for one thing they tend to use the toy in way that it was probably never intended, or in other words, they find creative ways to use the toy. When it comes to soccer, this is a key thing that is missing with kids and their relationship to the soccer ball. Many kids will only do what they have been told to do with the soccer ball. This is rarely the case with something a kid sees as a toy. If anything, parents often, and even to the point of frustration, have to keep reminding a child what a toy should be used for. For example, I was constantly told, “Your sister’s Barbies are not Frisbees.” Although I think I proved my parents wrong by successfully throwing them over the house to my friend.

If we want players to be imaginative with the ball and creative when they play the game, they need to view the soccer ball as a toy, not just at home, but at practice and in games. It is something they play with and needs to be treated accordingly. It should not be something a child dreads to have during a game, or something they are asked to get rid of right away. Frankly, they should never be discouraged from “playing with it” for too long. This is why I think the soccer ball should always be part of activities during practice and the player’s should be around it as often as possible. No one likes waiting their turn in a line to play with a toy.

As adults, we forget how to play with toys. We tend to use things exactly for what they are designed for and use them how directed to make sure we do not break them or use them incorrectly. Unintentionally, we sometimes force kids to share our same way of thinking when they play. We ask them to see the soccer ball, or the game, through our eyes and share our views, but is that what we really want for the kids? Do you really want the kids view and understanding of the game limited by your understanding and view of the game? I think most parents and coaches hope kids discover the game in their own way, and their understanding and joy to play it surpasses their own.

The only way for this to happen, for kids to regain their freedom and enjoyment of playing the game, is for them, and all of us, to view the soccer ball in its purest form… as a toy. As such, parents will allow a kid to interact with the ball like it is a toy, and the child will play with the ball like it is a toy. This will unleash the player’s love to play with the ball and unlock the possibilities of what the player can do with the ball. Like with any toy, once the imagination becomes involved, there is not much a kid cannot do with it.

From now on, when a parent tells their kids to go play with their toys, hopefully the soccer ball (or the football, baseball, bike, skateboard) is considered to be in that category. Yes, it may still take a back seat to the PlayStation or Xbox, but maybe the players will consider playing with it if the power goes out.

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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Tactical Regurgitation

By Tony Earp

What is most important? Teaching young players individual skills or a tactical understanding of the game? It is a debate many coaches have, and often a stark contrast you can see between two teams when they play against each other. Although both sets of coaches want their players to be successful, there may be a difference between WHEN they want their kids to have success and the type of “tactics” being taught.

So, what is more important? Simply, it is not one or the other. The answer is both are important, but too often, it is the “tactics” that takes precedent over skills.

It is critical young kids develop necessary skills to play this game in order to be successful later on. If you cannot control the ball, you do not have a mastery of the skills, you cannot play this game to your full potential. With that said, as you are teaching young kids the skills to play the game, you also teach the ability of how to use those skills in games.

When you are working on 1v1 skills, it is not just how to beat the player, but WHY and WHEN? Is it best to dribble or pass in that situation? When working on passing and receiving it is not just the technique of how to do it, but WHY and WHEN did you take a certain type of touch in a certain direction with a certain foot, or why did you play that pass, at that angle, at that moment, in that direction, with that speed or with that texture.

When playing and training, you talk about finding space, and helping them see what is going on around as part of the skill development and ability to use them and that is learned over time. The biggest complaint I hear about coaches of older players is not about the players’ understanding of the game, although it can always be better, but their lack of ability to do the simple things well enough, all the time, to play at a speed that is necessary at higher levels of competitions. Their control touch and competency on the ball is not good enough to deal with the high speed, unpredictable, pressures of the game.

With that in mind, and I think this where some coaches of young players make a huge mistake, sometimes a false or “rehearsed” type of tactics is taught to young players trying to learn to play. Players only move and stay exactly where the coach asks them to, not having to think, make decisions for themselves, or respond to what is happening in the game. It cosmetically looks great when you watch the team play, and it is often assumed that the players have a great understanding of the game. But the understanding is shallow, it is only on the surface, as it does not show a strength in competency, but rather a demonstration of the players ability to follow instructions. The players cannot solve the problems of the game. They can only do what the coach asks.

It is like teaching a kid that 2 + 2 = 4, but that is it. You never teach the child why, so he has no idea why that is the case. The kid has no idea about the actual value of each number, or that you are adding up its value to get to 4. So if you phrase the question differently, “If you have 2, but you need 4, how many more do you need?”, the kid would not know the answer. All the kid understands is the statement that 2 + 2 = 4 because that is what he was told.

At times, coaches with young teams will teach the skills needed only to play the way the coach wants them to, and only allow the players to do exactly what the coach wants. But what about when the coach is no longer the coach, and the next coach asks them to do more? Or what happens when the game evolves, and there are more players, playing in different positions, more decisions to make, and the speed of the game is increasing? In the moment, a very well organized U8 year old team can have a lot of success in terms of results, but how many of those players have the same type of success later on as circumstances change and the game gets harder?

Helping players use space properly and how to make decisions on the field can start at an early age, but it cannot be done in a way that limits players options and ability to explore and learn the game by trial and error. Simply, neither skills or tactics can be taught in a vacuum, and both need to be done at a cognitive level that is both appropriate and promotes growth.

As kids move up levels, coaches will continue to look for important qualities in players. Do the they have the skills required to play the game? Are they intelligent players who understand the intricacies of the game? Can they make decisions on their own? Can they learn from mistakes and make adjustments? Can they compete and mentally handle stresses of the game?

The goal is for any player who is willing and works hard enough to have all those things by the time he is in his competition years (15+). All the years before that are part of the process in getting there, so nothing can be skipped or prioritized in the wrong order for short term results, UNLESS the coach’s end goal is different.

Long term development is not everyone’s goal. And if it is not, then that process does not have to be followed. Since only less than 1% of kids will ever play at the highest level, many would argue that it is more important to just make sure the kids are having success and winning. Give them the best chance to win now. I understand the logic, but do not agree with it. I believe you teach every kid like they will be a professional because we have no idea who that will be, and I do not want a kid to miss the chance because of something I did to meet my own short term goals.

To use another school analogy, it is the same reason why you teach kids letters and sounds, and then teach them how to create words, that can be used to make sentences, and then can be used to write paragraphs/stories. It is a progressive process builds on itself. You can instruct a young kid to copy a long sentence down, and show that to someone else and say, “look what this kid just wrote”, but the kid has no idea what the letters, words, or sentence means. They are “just copying” what they have been asked to copy. What might look to be impressive is really not. It is just regurgitation of what was asked of them to do, and does not show meaningful understanding.

So in short, skills are critical to be taught at a young age and the game should be fun. It has to be fun or the kids will not play very long. Within that context, the kids can be taught how to play with other players and work as a team. In smaller numbers at the younger teams (pairs), then progressing into threes, and then into larger numbers as they get older.

An older player with great skill but no understanding of how to play will struggle just as much as a player who has a great understanding of the game but lacks the skill to execute a decision.

I have heard an overemphasis of “tactics” at a young age defined as teaching “smart” soccer. I am not sure how you teach “smart soccer” without teaching skills required to play that way. “Smart soccer” with the youngest teams translates to “mistake free” or “paint by numbers” soccer where little learning and development is taking place. Just a regurgitation of rehearsed soccer from a practice where kids spent most of their time listening to instructions and walking through set plays versus actually playing or practicing (or learning). Like rehearsing for a show, the kids go over their lines each practice and are asked to stick to them when they get to the game. Any deviation from their scripted roles is punished.

Now, I have heard a coach use the term “Brain Ball” with his players. This is something completely different. He asks his players to make choices in the game based on what they see. He asks them to solve the problems of the game using their brains and the skills learned in practice. For me this is “smart” soccer because the coach is asking the players to think for themselves, make mistakes and learn from them, and use all the skills learned in training during the game. The result? Players with the skills needed to play the game and ability to think for themselves when they are older. The players will not be like many who have no idea what to do unless they are told. The players will not be those who can regurgitate tactics when it is clearly defined for them, but have not idea how to apply them on their own.

Unplug the joystick and the player will stand idle.

I will end with this though… there is no set formula/timeline. Coaches will constantly debate the delicate balance between the time spent on skills and tactics in training, and debate is always good. It usually breeds new ideas and innovation in pedagogy. But in the simplest terms, at the youngest groups, if they are learning good habits in training, the skills needed to play the game, having fun, and at each practice and game learning a little more about how to play, the players and coach are on the right path.

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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Who Wants It the Most?

By Tony Earp

There is no way to predict which players will be the ones who will end up playing at the highest level or achieving the most over their soccer careers. As coaches, we like to think we are good at identifying the soccer stars of tomorrow, but we are often wrong. There is just no way to know how a player will develop and change over time. Too many unknown variables lay ahead of each player that will directly or indirectly affect his or her path and where that path eventually will lead. With that said, with any team or group of players I have coached over my years in this profession, I can easily identify the players who WANT TO BE THE BEST by their focus and effort during training. It is easy to see who wants it the most!

You might be thinking that I am talking about the player who does exactly what is asked and is never a “behavior issue” in training, but I am not. Although that may fit the description of this type of player at times, it is not a defining characteristic. I have coached many players who other coaches would describe as being inattentive, disruptive, and stubborn, but I saw something different. I saw a player who was inattentive because they wanted to play, disruptive because they came up with their own rules, and stubborn to be the type of player they wanted to be. No matter how a coach might label this player, there is no denying that this type of player would put his heart into everything he did. Passion and desire is often not obedient and structured. Some of my most passionate players and those who wanted to be the best, were also the most difficult to manage in training and in games. This is the type of player who does not stick to the path, but creates their own.

On the flip side of the coin is the player who never takes his eyes off the coach and is zeroed in on absorbing as much information as possible during each training session. This player is a coach’s dream in training and in games. He will do whatever is asked and more, while taking advantage of every opportunity to get better. It is obvious this type of player is determined to be the best and his actions show he wants it more than others. Like the player who is driven by passion and desire, this player is driven by other forces. This type of player is fueled by purpose and the quality of each and every action. He wants to be the best and will jump through any hoop, leap any wall, and overcome any challenge to move closer to the goal. This is a player who sticks to the path, and runs through anything standing in the way.

A player who “wants it” is a player who does the little things right all the time. The player who does not take a second off during a training activity or game. A player that is driven to improve and is actively working towards that goal. Most importantly, these players do the most of their “work” when no one is around. They do not just work hard when people are watching, or do what is asked for the proverbial “good job” from a coach or parent. They don’t care about that. They just care about their ability to play the game. Since that is their goal, they take every opportunity possible to work on their craft. They do not just do it when asked to do it by someone else.

When kids are young, the better players can sometimes be the players who have just developed physically or cognitively faster up to that point. There can be as much as a two year difference in physical and cognitive ability of players of the same age group. We point to the players who are more mature in those age groups as being the stronger players. We assume those are the players who be the best in the future, and some may be. But, we must also give our attention to those players who seem to want it the most, who love to play the most, and who have the most passion, drive, and purpose when they play. These players may need time to physically and cognitively catch up to their peers, so they cannot be overlooked. When these players develop, hopefully they received the same coaching and attention needed along the way to help them reach their potential.

Let me give you two examples of what I am talking about….

My first example is a player who I have coached over five years starting at age 8. He was always a “wild one” on the field and showed a tremendous amount of passion and joy to play the game. He was never happy unless he was competing, playing, and winning. He has never had much patience for standing around and listening for instructions, but I could always tell he was listening. When working on one skill, he was always the first player to try the skill his own way. It was common to hear, “What about this coach?” while he tries a heel pass versus the inside of the foot passing the rest of the team was working on. When I called the group in to talk, he used that time to work on his favorite skill move or start an impromptu 1v1 challenge with a teammate by megging him. Although the behavior could be seen as distracting at times, I understood where it was rooted. The kid just loved to play.

As he aged, his passion and creativity matured with him. In his age group, he may be one of the most exciting players to watch on the ball and is completely unpredictable (in a great way) on the field. He never ceases to amaze in what he has the guts to try when he plays that no other player would even dare think about trying during a game. The way he moves on the ball and what he is capable of doing was not a product of my coaching. It was a product of him wanting to be the best. What many people do not know about this player is the amount of time he spent at home on his own just trying things with the soccer ball. Lifting, chipping, bending the ball all around the house and backyard, along with many other challenging skills, provides this player with a distinct advantage when he plays. He is capable of manipulating the ball in a way that other players cannot creating a number of options only available to him when he has the ball.

Second example, I currently work with a player who always arrives early for training. When waiting for training to start, while other players are talking and hanging out, this player finds space to work with the ball. Either dribbling and changing direction, juggling, or anything else the player feels the need to work on, gets its needed attention before the organized training session even begins.

During training, he never trains below a maximum effort and he can be someone tough on himself when mistakes are made. Although undeterred, he will quickly use disappointment as fuel to try again and work even harder. When the session stops, and I am talking to the players, he never cuts away from me with his eyes and often asks questions about the training. More often than not, I can count on him stopping me after training and asking specific questions about his performance and ideas on how he can work on skills on his own.

On a final note about both of these types of players, and the players in my example. The players who want it the most, seem to appreciate their coaches and parents who provide guidance an opportunity the most. These players have never left a training session with me, or any other coach, without saying thank you. Of the two players I talked about above, the first always walks by me on the way out of training with a quick “finger point” and says, “thanks coach.” The second player always shakes my hand, says, “thank you” and then usually asks me a question that is based on helping him improve.

Both of these players are very different in almost every way, but both are very similar in where it matters the most, they both want it the most!

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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