3Four3’s “Follow the Leaders” podcast

I like the framework of five spheres of influence of player development that John Pranjic lays out in his latest podcast, Follow the Leaders.

The influences are:

  • Household/family/parent
  • Playing on your own
  • Pickup game
  • Structured club training
  • Personal training

In my opinion, it’s tough to reach the top-level of the game without some pretty strong influences from at least one, if not more, of the first three.

In the podcast, he examines Landon Donovan’s and Clint Dempsey’s experience with these influences.

Both had some family influence from older brothers that played. They got in on a Latino pickup culture. I presume that pickup culture inspired some playing on their own to be able to hang with the competition and earn respect.

In this post, I took a similar look at McKennie, Pulisic and Sargent. Let me recast that in Pranjic’s framework:

Household/family/parent — I know Pulisic and Sargent both have parents that played soccer college/pro soccer. They likely had a ball of some sort at their feet from early ages. I don’t know much about McKennie’s family background.

Playing on your own influence — Pulisic’s and Sargent’s Dad’s are both on record stating how their sons worked incredibly hard on their own to become what they are.

I will also say that Pulisic’s father said that they did the typical 2 practices a week and a game on weekend and didn’t get too caught up in the club culture.

Pickup game influence — Pulisic experienced some of this when he was young when his parents spent a year in England. I don’t know about Sargent. McKennie spent 3 years in Germany from ages 6 to 9, where he played for a club and presumably experienced some pickup culture there.

Structured training influence — Pulisic had some training experience with top European clubs as his parents traveled to Europe. McKennie had 3 years at a German club at a young age. I’m unsure if Sargent experienced anything other than his youth club, Scott Gallagher.

I don’t know much about any of their personal training influences, though for Pulisic and Sargent, it doesn’t hurt to have former college players who are well over the hump of understanding what’s important to work on and helping guide that.

This shows that this group of up-and-comers checks most of Pranjic’s boxes.

I can attest as a relative soccer newbie, that it took me 2-3 years, with lots of trial-and-error and lots of observing and researching strong soccer cultures just for me to understand what basics were important and how to effectively work on those — and I was into it.

I see people who aren’t as into it who still haven’t figure it out.

I’m still learning, but had I been able to skip past those 3 years and jump right into it by having people and pickup that could have helped guide me on what to work on, I’d be 3 years better than I am today.

Good discussion about true competition on the 3Four3 podcast

Guest Ben Fast and host John Pranjic have a great discussion about the nature true competition that is lacking in soccer in the U.S. and the role of governance in this 3Four3 podcast.

It would make Austrian and George Mason University economists proud.

Help for beginning volunteer youth soccer coaches

Albert Einstein said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

Like many parents who know nothing about soccer, I got the call from the Parks & Rec coordinator to ask to coach soccer.

I was dumb enough to agree. “If you don’t, there are 12 kids that won’t get to play soccer this season.”

The biggest gripe I had as a beginning coach was the lack of resources geared toward beginning coaches and practical advice to help newbies teach soccer fundamentals to beginning players to get players started on the right foot.

I searched high and low and felt that 95% of the stuff was superficial activities that lacked detail on coaching points. Sort of like, “do this and kids will just figure it out.”

Or, it was all over the board. I discovered, strangely, that there’s large disagreement, even among soccer insiders, on what soccer fundamentals are important to work on at what age and order of learning.

Luckily, over the years, I encountered a few folks who, in my opinion, met Albert Einstein’s definition of genius — they made the complex simple.

I thought I would share their resources in this post in case there are any parent/coaches out there, like myself, searching for help.

Inspire love for the ball

Nobody summarizes the importance of becoming a master of the ball or how to inspire it better than Tom Byer in his book, Soccer Starts at Home.

It’s a short book and easy read. It will take you a couple hours to read it. Read it. Encourage the parents of your players to do the same.

Kids cannot learn the skills needed to succeed at practice alone. And, they aren’t likely to do soccer drills at home. So, igniting a love for the ball that gets kids playing with the ball on their own can do wonders.

Build the basics 

Beginning soccer players, like the beginners of anything, need to develop the basics.

I wish I would have discoveredTom Mura’s Coaching Soccer Weekly podcast earlier in my coaching career.

His podcast touches on a wide range of topics and are more detailed than most beginning coaches need, but a few episodes are required listening for new coaches — with and without a soccer background.

I love the simple phrases he uses to coach the basics. For example, instead of “receive across your body” like many coaches say, he says, “receive with your back foot,” which is far easier for young kids to understand.

Here are a few of his podcasts I wish I would have heard in my first season coaching:

#182 Teaching the Five Core Soccer Skills

#178 What to work on with U8’s

#60 Coaching In Short Phrases

Work with teammates

Another genius simplicity is in the free coaching course offered at 3Four3.com.

The whole course is good (how to build from back, break, get the ball to midfield and attacking patterns), but the whole thing is too much for beginning coaches with a young team.

The one activity you can and should get kids started on day one, and repeat every time, is 3Four3’s version of the 4v1 monkey-in-the-middle game (or start with 4v0 until kids can pass). They call it a 4v1 rondo (‘rondo’ means little game).

This activity can go 10 coaching points deep builds the the basis for keeping the ball, communicating with teammates, moving off the ball to create passing opportunities and defending.

Here’s another post that goes into more detail on the activity, coaching points and links to a short podcast that demonstrates how to coach it.

This is also a fun activity that kids enjoy.

Less is more

Another thing the folks above taught me is that less is more. You don’t need a new activity every practice.That wastes time and energy to set up and for the kids to learn.

You only need a handful of activities with a few variations that allow you to go deeper and progress as kids get the hang of it.

Some fall in the trap of lots of activities to keep kids from getting bored. But, kids also like familiarity. And familiarity takes less time to set up and transition and can lead to deeper learning.

What I wish I would have done more from the start

I wish I would have started with 4v0 progressing to 4v1 instead of partner passing.

I wish I would have done more dribbling around a small area where they have to look around to avoid colliding with each other, make lots of changes of direction and worked on specific surfaces and movements in this drill (inside, outside, cut, pullback, shoulder fake).

I wish I would have done more 1v1’s and 2v2’s. A trick I learned from a local club is to have a mini 1v1 tournament, where winners move one direction down the line to face more winners and the losers move another direction down the line to face other losers. Games are short, maybe 2-3 minutes. This gets them appropriate level of competition quickly, while also giving them some feedback on where they stand in the team.

I wish I would spent more time inspiring a love for the ball and teaching kids how to have fun with the ball at home and more subtly teaching them how to play pickup. That last one is tricky. You have to let the kids figure out the rules, and when you correct them, you have to let them know why, so they might think to repeat that adjustment when they are playing on their own.

One example: In practice, the stronger kids always wanted to team up so they could dominate the others. That might work in the practice where the other kids are captive. But, in the yard, the other kids will simply not play. So, if the stronger kids want to encourage the others to play, they have to learn to make the balancing adjustments to keep everyone interested.

I wish I would have instilled the value that practice is where you come to learn to play as a team and that learning basics like trapping, dribbling, passing and shooting is their responsibility and if they don’t fulfill their responsibility, there will come a time that they will not make the cut.

I wish I would have instilled from day one that the point is to keep the ball with the team and turnovers aren’t good. I see way too many older soccer players that still don’t seem to grasp that idea.

A good session

A good session for young kids is 10 minutes of progressives dribbling using the area activity I mention above.

Another 10-15 minutes of 4v0 or 4v1 rondos.

10 minutes of 1v1s or 2v2s

20 minutes of team scrimmage, reinforcing game principles and referring back to coaching points in the previous activities

Example of simple brilliance in soccer coaching

I highly recommend that soccer coaches listen to this short 3Four3 podcast for a good example of how to coach an important, and mostly overlooked, skill in soccer: receiving across the body.

As you learn this activity, there’s at least 10 things it can help you coach. Maintain open stance to maximize next option. Receive across the body. Call for pass. Check to/get open for the pass. Play simple. Play fast. Receive. Pass. Defending, how to apply pressure to force direction of play and mistakes.

As a side note, I’ve used the 3Four3’s versions of the 4v0 and 4v1’s in my practices because they work on more fundamental game concepts than the standard versions.

Here’s an example:

A standard 4v1 has four kids stand on the corner cones of a square and pass to keep the ball away from the defender in the middle. This trains players to stand like statues in games waiting for the ball to come to them.

In 3Four3’s 4v1, players stand between cones, on the side of the square (instead of on the corner), and move side to side between the cones, to check toward the person with the ball to get open.

This provides training on three game skills in addition to passing and receiving across the body — moving to support passes, anticipating the next pass and communicating.

All these things improve the team’s speed of play.

My additional 4v0 and 4v1 recommendations

Use 4v0 is for when kids can’t receive and pass under pressure, yet. That’s when they can’t string more than 3-5 passes together consistently.

But, without a defender, however, intensity and focus drop quickly.

One way I’ve found to keep the intensity up and teach more stuff in the 4v0 is to have the player with the ball pass to the first person who calls for it.

This creates a competition between the two passing options, to see who can call for it first, and they quickly learn the sooner they call for it the better — even before the ball gets to the receiver.

So, this automatically teaches anticipation and communication. It also helps the passer start evaluating options before receiving the ball, instead of waiting to decide after getting it.

Giving the player with the ball a simple decision to make helps things, too. Without that, he or she too often overthinks their next pass, which slows ball movement, and reduces intensity.

By overthinking, I mean that they consider way too much. I can see the wheels turning when they’re deciding who to pass to. It can range from ‘what fancy trick am I going to do to show off’, ‘who’s my best friend right now’ or ‘she dissed me in the last drill, so I’m not passing the ball to her.’

Giving them the simple decision framework cuts out this nonsense.

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.