The ‘knives, forks and spoons’ basics of soccer

As a soccer coach, I see players and parents struggle with knowing which fundamentals to work on.

Parents and players see elite players do a scissors move and assume that’s what makes them elite. So, their player learns the scissors and wonders why she isn’t promoted to A team.

They’re missing the other 95% of what makes an elite player elite. It’s easy to miss because that 95% is the boring, simple basics.

It’s not flashy and doesn’t stand out, except to a knowledgeable eye.

What makes players eligible to be elite is the high level of consistency they’ve developed in recognizing and solving the game’s most basic problems.

Long ago, knives, forks and spoons solved a vast majority of basic food eating problems.

Many coaching manuals recommend letting kids figure out the game. This overestimates their ability.

That’s like hiding silverware from kids and hoping they will reinvent them. You’ll end up with teenagers eating chicken soup with their hands. It can be done. But, it’s dumb.

The authors of these coaching manuals see young players in soccer-playing countries learn the games on the streets and assume they ‘just figure it’ out by playing.

They miss that these players are taught the “silverware” basics of the sport by other, usually older, siblings, friends, parents, cousins, neighbors and by emulating the pros and local first teamers that they idolize.

That shouldn’t be a surprise since that’s how we learned a lot of what we know about baseball, basketball and football as kids. We didn’t just ‘figure it out’ without outside influence, just like we didn’t reinvent forks.

Our parents gave us forks and showed us how to use them, and through practice, the fork became a natural extension of our hands.

We also didn’t learn everything from playing organized sports. We learned some things from that, but I  learned more than 80% of what I knew about the sports above outside organized play.

So, what are the ‘silverware’ basics of soccer?

Adjust to receive ball, across body with inside of both feet, cleanly and can do a variety of things with that touch ranging from stopping the ball dead to playing in a 360 degree radius that is safe from oncoming pressure.

Pass ball in any direction with inside of both feet, with deception.

Use inside/outside/bottom of feet for dribbling, cuts and pulbacks to keep the ball close to them (a touch on the ball with every step) when they dribble and can move, turn and change speeds with the ball without thinking about it

Defend/tackle the ball, get between attacker and goal and stay there until ball is won, pass is made or partially covered shot is taken.

Protect the ball by shielding it with body and turning, moving away from pressure, dribbling laterally and diagonally instead straight at the goal

Talk — specifically, call for a pass and let teammates know if they have time or are under pressure.

Get open for passes.

Basic directional shot.

Basic directional drive/long pass.

Understanding basic roles of positions, options in those positions and their roles in executing basic patterns (e.g. switch through the back, play out of the back) and basics of ball movement (e.g. out away from goal in our third, to the middle in their third) and basic attacking options (e.g. direct, cross, through and give-and-go).

Anticipate what comes next.

I play soccer every week. I’ve developed the habit of going down this list to help me remember things that happened in the game that I need to work on.

I should also point out that these aren’t the only things necessary to be elite. These are basic table stakes.

For example, you also need to develop good first touch with outside, top and bottom of feet, thighs, chest and head.

But, those surfaces are used 10-15% of time combined, while you use inside of feet 85-90% of the time.

If you’re shaky on such a knife-and-fork skill, it looks to a soccer person like you’re eating chicken soup with your bare hands. You will hurt your team more than you help and won’t be near consideration for the A-team.

A-team coaches don’t want players who eat chicken soup with his or her fingers. That just creates a sloppy mess that someone else will have to clean up.


Attn: Soccer clubs/leagues — Simple alternative to participation trophy

I found this on Twitter recently and really like the idea. This is something ALL soccer clubs can start copying NOW!

In 2014, I wrote some thoughts about participation trophies. I still agree with that.

I would add a few things, now.

Participation trophies were meant to build self-esteem and keep kids playing sports whether they won or lost.

The intentions are good.

But, the best way to build self-esteem is to encourage players to build competency and mastery in the skills needed to play.

The best way to keep kids playing, whether they win or lose, is to teach them how to deal with wins and losses, while maintaining a competitive spirit, and use the feedback to improve.

Participation trophies have the unintended consequences of rewarding bare minimum effort and ignore the feedback provided by winning and losing.

When the time comes that winning and losing matters, they will be far behind and won’t know how to to deal well with winning or losing.

Here are a few more thoughts on what to do when giving out the Size 2 balls:

Give the balls out on the first day, not the last.

Set expectations with parents.

  • Tell parents how much time and effort it takes for the kids to gain skills. Consistency over the whole year is important. Be thinking in terms of months and years, not days.
  • Convince them to let their children play with the ball in the house.
  • Show them what their children can work on that’s fun, builds good skills and won’t break things — basic dribbling movements like Tom Byer suggests, 1v1 take-away, etc.
  • Sell them more balls. The more the better. Tennis balls are good, too.

A girl, her ball and a wall

From Be Like Ronaldinho by Lieke Martens (current Best FIFA Women’s Player):

My first memory in life is of my mum taking me to see my older brothers play. I couldn’t wait to run out onto the pitch myself, but I had to wait until I was 4 years old. So I’d take a small ball with me to play on my own. That’s how people in the village came to recognize me: the little girl who was always running around kicking the ball.

And when I say always, I mean always. When we got home from school at three o’clock, and my friends would go play with their Barbies, I’d play football with my brothers and their friends. They were all older than me, but they always let me join in. We just practiced and had fun. Even when I had nobody to play with, I still had my beloved ball — and a special companion.

A wall.

Good advice. HT: Tom Byer.

Culture vs. Everything else

The following is a personal experience that exemplifies the illustration in the previous post.

My son’s soccer team is the typical American suburban, pay-to-play team, where high percentage of what the players have learned about the game has come through organized play rather than culture.

This winter, a kid from an immigrant family joined the team. Several of his friends, also from immigrant families from various places around the world, were interested, as well, and joined in some practices and futsal games.

Most had not played organized soccer, yet their ball skills and game IQ were superior to the rest of the team and were likely good enough to make elite level teams.

While many of our players like to tell us why they don’t need to learn to juggle the ball, the visitor’s younger siblings were on the sidelines juggling the ball.

Kicking and Screaming

“Get the ball to the Italians!”

The writers of the 2005 soccer movie Kicking and Screaming, starring Will Farrell and Mike Ditka, understood what Tom Byer says in his book Soccer Starts at Home.

To improve the last place team, the coaches (Farrell and Ditka) recruit the nephews of the guy who owns the Italian deli.

When they walk into the deli, their kids are in the back room juggling the ball, which is a perfect example of Soccer Starts at Home.

The Italian kids carry the team to the championship game. The team’s strategy was, “Get the ball to the Italians.”

In my early days of learning soccer as adult, I was on a last place adult league team.

One season two French guys joined our team and carried us to within a goal of being champions.

Much like the movie, our strategy was, “Get the ball to the French guys!”

After one of the games, we were chatting. We asked, “How’d you get so good?”

Their answer, “We’re not. We’re average in France. That’s how bad you guys are — even the ones you think are good here! But, we grew up playing football with our pals all the time. We’d make you look like NBA All-Stars if we played basketball with you, because we didn’t play that.”

Clickbait journalism

Recently I heard a radio call-in host debate a caller about media motivation.

The caller thought it was ideology.

The radio host, who has been in the business for a long-time assured him that’s not it.

It’s profit. The stories they carry, the angles they take — for ratings, for profit.

That’s good to keep in mind.