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.

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