The case for juggling (a soccer ball)

I run into a surprising number of soccer folks who don’t think juggling helps you become a better soccer player.

Their logic is pretty much: “You don’t juggle in a game, so you’ll be better off practicing the stuff you use.”

That’s too simple. Though juggling isn’t used in the game, it has lots of benefits.

Juggling trains you to use your whole body to control the ball and improves your ability to read and react to it. It also reduces your chance of injury*.

Engaging your whole body and enhancing your ability to read and react to the ball improves all aspects of ball control — 1st touch, passing, dribbling, shooting, winning 50/50s and tackling.

It trains you to use your whole body by training you to stay in the athletic position and light on your toes.

The athletic position is when you could snap a photo from the front of the player and draw a rectangle that intersects shoulders, hips, knees and toes.

This position helps reduce injuries by more evenly distributing game forces across your whole body.

Extending outside the athletic position concentrates forces into small areas of your body, like knees, ankles, hips or hamstrings. Play the tape back on many injuries and you will see the injured player was reaching a leg outside the athletic position.

The athletic position also helps you leverage your body weight and core strength, which improves ball control, strength of tackles and power on shots. Pay close attention to a  well executed bicycle kick. You will see the player did a back flip in the athletic position, driving all of his or her body weight and core strength into the ball.

Juggling has all these benefits, plus once you get half way decent at it, juggling is a fun way to pass the time and it can be done just about anytime and anywhere.

Juggling is not the only thing a player needs to work on to become a complete player. But, players who don’t juggle won’t reach their potential and increase their chances of injury.

Juggling can be learned at any age.

In soccer-playing cultures, it’s common for players learn before age 8 and not remember when they couldn’t juggle.

I learned in my 40s. In a way I’m lucky for that because I got to experience all the improvements I listed above as my juggling improved, so I could tell you about it. Had I learned it when I was 8, I may never had made those connections.

*A side note on injuries: I recall reading years ago about a study that showed that the ‘quickest’ (over short distance) players tended not to make it to the top of the game due to their propensity of getting injury. The hypothesis was that fast twitch muscles are more susceptible to injury than slow twitch muscles.

I have another theory. The quickest players tended to rely on their speed and not develop their skills and athletic position as much through practice like juggling. It could be that is what really causes more injuries.

It seems like there are more and more quick and skilled players coming in the top levels of the game like Vardy, Mbappe and Pulisic. Perhaps the skill work they’ve put in, including juggling, has helped them stay in the athletic position more and stay healthy.

Advertisements

The answer is both: parents and USSF

I enjoyed reading this Twitter thread between Alexi Lalas and soccer fans regarding the role of parents and USSF. This is one of the gems from that thread.

I agree with Alexi. Parents should take more ownership.

But, I also think the USSF is missing out on easy ways to help.

Many parents who spend so much time finding ‘the right’ club and coach to help their child ‘reach their max potential’, miss the lowest hanging fruit — what their child does at home.

As Josh Sargent’s Dad points out about his success, “It was Josh.” I’m sure Josh’s club helped. But, it doesn’t develop all players into a Josh. As his Dad points out, Josh was always working with the soccer ball on his own. Same with Pulisic.

So, if your kid is doing that, then by all means, spend more time finding the best club and coach.

If not, start there. Also, read Tom Byer’s book, Soccer Starts at Home (I didn’t realize there’s Kindle edition!).

What can the USSF do?

This, by no means, lets USSF off the hook.

When I was a know-nothing soccer parent/coach, I visited the US Soccer site in search of answers to basic questions…

What can I do as a parent, at home, with my child to help develop basic soccer skills?

What should I be teaching a group of 6 and 7-year-old’s at practice? (Then later, 8-9 year-old’s, and so on).

I didn’t find the development handbook adequately answered these questions.

Two years into coaching, I joined my independent team to a club.

On day one, the club’s director pulled me aside for 10 minutes and showed me how to teach proper technique on a few soccer basics: inside-of-foot receiving and passing, outside-of-foot dribbling and basic changes of direction.

He said, “We teach them how to keep the ball, then we teach them to shoot. It takes time, but you have to work on this stuff every training. The first step to success is proper technique.”

Direct and simple!

It worked, too. We didn’t win state cups, but the players finally began their journey toward playing real soccer and their improvement was noticeable. Now, several years later, they keep getting better.

I remember thinking, Wow, why didn’t I find that on the Internet? Why isn’t that on the USSF website?

It should be.

How US Soccer sees itself

US Soccer thinks the soccer community exists to provide it with position.

Soccer federations in other countries think their position exists to facilitate the best competition among the soccer community.

This view was inspired by this quote from Braveheart.

 

Misplaced animosity

Ads for the Tru TV channel’s show, Paid Off (where winners get their student loans paid off) ends by asking a contestant what they would like to say to their creditors.

They usually answer with something like, ‘F you! I don’t want to pay you!’

I understand the point is to be funny, but I find it just plain dumb. Seems like a strange attitude to have toward folks who helped you out.

What’s next? A show where charity recipients punch the donors in the gut?

Tom Byer’s Message: Condensed

Children can start learning to move with the soccer ball at their feet as soon as they can walk, or sooner.

It’s exactly what we do in the U.S. with baseball, basketball and to some extent, football.

Do you think most 10 year-old’s in the U.S. can throw a baseball to within inches of a target from distance because they suddenly gained coordination?

No, Dummy. It’s because they’ve been playing catch with stuff since before they could walk. It was the 8-9 years of repetition that built the coordination to do that.

Example of a sport in our culture:

Show a 4 year-old kid playing catch or 1v1 basketball with an adult. Some physician somewhere smiles and thinks, how great and healthy it is for that kid to bond with the adult and get some physical activity.

Example of a sport not in our culture:

Show the same 4 year-old playing 1v1 soccer takeaway with same adult. Same physician has concerned look and thinks, 4 is way too early for such sport-specific specialization, that could lead to injury, unrealistic expectations and burnout.

A fundamental reason kids don’t play pickup soccer

Tom Byer urges parents to lay small soccer balls around the house so their toddlers can start playing with the balls (no kicking) as soon as they they can walk to learn basic ball skills, namely how to move with the ball.

He also advocates that a sport being a part of the culture is vastly more important than anything else.

When I coached soccer, at nearly every practice and game, I encouraged players to work with the ball on their own and play with friends or family.

And I was disappointed because it rarely happened.

I couldn’t figure it out. They seemed to enjoy soccer, but their joy didn’t carry outside of team events.

Byer contends that soccer players often quit the sport between ages of 10 and 13 because they don’t have the ball skills to compete, so it stops being fun.

I think there’s an additional dimension to this.

Somewhere between ages 7 and 10 kids get better at organizing their own play time and games with friends.

They don’t organize soccer games because they don’t have the right set of skills at that age for it to be fun. Kicking the ball into space and running to it is fine in organized competition, with parents and coaches cheering from the sideline. But, it’s just not a very fun game to organize in the backyard.

I’ve seen these kids organize basketball, baseball and football games. It might be a simple game of catch with a baseball or football, or a game of ’21’ on the driveway basketball hoop.

Why are these games more fun for kids this age?

Because culture has given these kids the basic skills in these games, starting at the same ages Tom recommends introducing the soccer ball, and we don’t even realize it.

Throwing and catching is a basic skill used in all three of our main sports. By age 8, many American kids are competent in these.

But, these are rather complex skills. To catch, you have to be able to ‘read’ the ball in the air, project where it’s going and then coordinate your body to get your hands in the path of that ball. To throw, you have to judge the distance to your target and impart the right weight and path to get the ball there.

Many kids start learning how to catch and throw before they can walk, by tossing plush toys back and forth with Mom and Dad. In toddler-hood, this might transition to small, soft toy balls in the yard, eventually to Nerf balls, tennis balls, baseballs, footballs and basketballs.

Playing ‘catch’ with your child is a national pastime. We don’t play catch to create the next crop of pro players. We do it because it’s what we know. It’s a way to connect with our kids, it’s the way our parents and grandparents connected with us when we were kids.

This is what it means for a sport to be in the culture.

An unintended result of this playing catch is that by the time kids turn 8, they are fairly competent in a basic skill required in three sports and pee wee coaches don’t have to spend nearly 100% of practice getting kids up to speed on this basic.

Sure, they can probably use some tweaking to their technique by a knowledgeable coach, but 85% of the work of being able to get the ball to the right place has already been done.

Some believe the competence comes from the kids becoming coordinated, but I would encourage these folks to switch their catching and throwing hands in baseball. If it was just a matter of growing into your coordination, you should be just as good either way, but you’re not because that’s not where your 10s, if not 100s, of thousands of reps are.

It’s muscle memory starting from about age 1 or 2.

Another result, is that by the time the kids start organizing their own games, they have the basic skills to play the games, which makes it more fun for them and more likely that they will play and practice it on their own.

They probably don’t even remember when they couldn’t do the basics. If you ask them, they’d tell you they could always do that stuff and it’s natural — because they learned the basics before their long-term memories kicked in.

This is where the dimension I would like to add to Tom Byer’s observations takes place. The kids who have the basic skills to make playing the game more fun will play more on their own and will get even better, which will further separate them from the other kids.

So, a key problem to soccer development in the U.S. is that kids don’t have the basic skills by the time they hit this age, so they don’t play enough pickup to get even better.

If they get to that age without the basics, then acquiring the basics is too much like work and most kids simply won’t do it.

Anson Dorrance on 3Four3

The 3Four3 podcast with guest Anson Dorrance is a great listen!

I wish I would have heard when I was starting out in soccer.

Anson is good with words.

I wasn’t surprised, deep in the podcast when he explained he had an English major, thinks language is important and seeks to use language to inspire and motivate. It shows. He communicates simply and very effectively.

I thought Anson did the best job I’ve heard, so far, of explaining a few elusive soccer concepts.

Direct vs. Indirect Soccer plus Development vs. Winning

Being able to play both styles is important. But learning to play indirect takes time and patience.

This is him, paraphrased:

At U10/U12 and below wins come from direct soccer and putting a couple fast kids up front and a couple kids with big kicks at the back and sending the ball forward for the fast kids to run onto and finish.

This an example of winning that doesn’t develop.

Direct quote:

“Development is all about creating a philosophy of player development that doesn’t have as its priority the most effective way to win [for young ages] because the most effective way to win at a U12 level is what I described [direct soccer].”

Seven elements of athletic character

He has seen his share of talented players that lacked a few of these and it doesn’t go well. He looks for these traits:

  • self discipline
  • competitive fire
  • self belief
  • love of the ball
  • love of playing the game
  • love of watching the game
  • grit

The importance of 1v1’s

I thought it was a odd sign from the universe that I listened to this podcast on the same day I read about Belgium’s approach to youth soccer.

Dorrance coached the US WNT when the team members didn’t get much opportunity to train together. He encouraged them all to play the game in it’s simplest form — 1v1’s — on their own. Many of them were dating high-level men soccer players, and they played a lot of 1v1’s against them. He credits this as key to the success of his World Cup winning team.