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CHAPTER NINETEEN
SOCCER ACADEMY

We started our first Academy in 2002 with 12 players. Last year we had over 100 players participate. The purpose of the Academy is to offer a higher level of training to players ages 5 to 8 than what is commonly found in most recreational programs. The players train with us when they wish, usually once a week, and then play with their teams. The training is all on technical matters.

We charge a minimal amount for our Academy - enough to cover registering the players with the State Soccer Association so there is insurance and for field rental. There are no league fees, uniform fees or other charges.

While the players get a much higher level of training we benefit from seeing the more serious players who maybe interested in joining our club.

The players who desire more soccer are offered the opportunity to join Academy teams, play indoor 4v4 or 3v3 soccer in the winter, and summer at various Indoor Soccer facilities. For these games, we provide the coach at no charge. The only cost is a prorating of the Indoor League fee.

Since we started offering the Academy about half of our U8 and older players started in our Academy and moved to our teams. Here are some sample lessons from our Academy:

Soccer Academy Week One

What we focused on this week:

Balance.

Just about, everything a player does in soccer requires a well-developed sense of balance. From shooting to receiving a pass to dribbling, each movement is done balanced on one foot.

So that we can tailor how we teach various skills to your children, we needed to learn how well they can balance. Most did fine. It is not unusual, however, for one or two to have problems. This is nothing to be concerned about, but it is best addressed early, for with some simple exercises a child can quickly learn to be properly balanced while doing any soccer skill.

Here are simple exercises for children age 5 to 7 that can lead to a significant improvement in balance when done for five minutes a day:

  • The child walks up and down a low ramp, increase the slope (rake) of the incline as the child improves.
  • Sitting on balance balls can also be used to help improve balance, or standing on boards with a rounded bottom.
  • Practice walking smoothly up steps, curbs and parking blocks. As the child improves, have them walk backwards along a curb.
These exercise are taken from Abatzides, G.J. and Kitsios, A., "The role of rehabilitation in the treatment of balance disorders: Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation 12:101-112 (1999); and, Herdman, S.J. Vestibular Rehabilitation, 2nd ed. Contemporary Perspectives in Rehabilitation, Philadelphia: F.A Davis Co. (2000).

The skill we work on to test their balance was a simple pull back, immediately followed with cutting the ball behind the planted foot. Sometimes called a "pull back L" you can see a video clip of this "move" here.

This move is a good basic skill to practice shielding and turning away from an opponent while developing balance. The move begins with a rapid movement with your right foot to the top of the ball and stopping briefly with your cleats on top. This fake kick motion should make it appear like you are passing the ball, or taking the ball to your left side, across your body. Instead, keep your weight on your left foot and pull the ball back while your right foot slides over the ball from the inside to the outside and behind. When the ball gets slightly behind your left foot, tap it behind your left leg to the left side. Turn to the left and dribble off in that direction.

For children having trouble maintaining their balance or in pulling the ball back far enough so that it can pass behind the planted leg, it is helpful to break the move down a bit further. Rather tapping the ball without placing the right foot down, pull the ball back a step behind the left foot and stop the ball with the right foot on the ground, then tap the ball with the right foot behind left leg. This extra step takes additional time, but can provide the stability a beginning player needs.

If possible, have your children "teach" you these skills and others we will demonstrate in future weeks. Teaching is a good way to reinforce what they have learned. Dribbling and Cuts.

The second area we worked on was dribbling. This is one of the most basic skills. There are many ways to dribble. We like children to start by dribbling slowly, toe down, knee over the ball, pushing the ball forward with the shoe laces. This is done to keep the ball under control and yet move with speed. The key is control.

As the players progress we want them dribbling with their head up.

We followed this with how to "cut" the ball. The cut is done in the same manner as the dribble except we turn our leg so that our shoelaces approach the ball at a 90-degree angle and gently tap the ball to our other foot.

The key things to watch for in both of these actions are the knee over the ball and the toe pointed down, followed by a gentle touch.

Keeping the toe down insured speed - sprinters and soccer players run on their toes. Keeping the knee over the ball as the ball is pushed forward allows for a broad surface to contact the ball - the shoe laces - making for surer contact and greater control.

We like to practice dribbling on an outdoor track for two reasons. First, the smooth surface will magnify any mistake and reward control. Second, the lanes give good guidance to the players as they dribble allowing instant feedback on the quality if the touches; touch the ball wrong or too hard and it quickly moves out of your lane on a track.

Next week: The basic push pass.

Week three: How to receive the ball on the ground, movement and turns.

Soccer Academy Week Two

What we focused on this week:

The Basic Push Pass.

The push pass is the basic method of passing the ball in soccer.

To accomplish this a player should:

  • Open their hips to the field, with one shoulder angled slightly in the direction the pass is intended to go;
  • Place the plant foot next to the ball, with the toe of the plant foot pointing directly at the target of the pass;
  • Knee of the plant leg should be slightly bent;
  • Head down and eyes over the ball as the ball is struck;
  • Finally, strike the ball with the side of the foot, in the cup shaped depression directly below the ball of the ankle, with the toes slightly raised to tighten the ankle, and the kicking leg following through so the player lands on the kicking foot.
The motion is simple once it is learned. Before then it will seem awkward to the player and young players especially will have a difficult time "opening their hips", in part because the ligaments that girdle the hip will be too stiff. By age six and a half, most players will have outgrown this.

It is very important that after the pass is made the passer move. Many passing drills are done between two stationary players. This can lead to the poor habit of a player standing and watching their pass. Soccer is a game of movement and we should always encourage the players to move after their passes. The drills described below you can do at home and watch us use at practice. Each involves movement after the pass.

It is also important for a player to learn to pass with a purpose and not just kick the ball. Purpose requires that the passer know where the ball will go before they pass the ball and know how to aim the ball so it goes where they want it.

Drills.

First Drill. Pass and move with three. In this drill, we have three players pass the ball amongst themselves. To keep the players from running too far apart we confine them to a grid 10 yards by 15 yards in size. The players are to constantly move. The movement can be a walk or a jog, but they are not to be standing. Play starts with the ball being passed to one player, who must in turn pass the ball to the player who did not pass it to him. This means the players must be looking up and watching both the person who is passing to them and their target.

Young players can quickly grasp the purpose to this exercise. As they gain confidence and ability we will complicate the drill by:
  • Adding a second and then a third group to the same grid;
  • Imposing a touch restriction, so they can only touch the ball twice or three times (this is done so they cannot take extra touches to give them the opportunity to look up and see where their target is);
  • And, finally, we will add first one and then a second defender to pressure the ball.
One key is to watch the player's head. If they are always watching where the ball is they will not know where their target is until they gain possession of the ball. That is too late and in a game the defender will make life difficult. Watch for encourage the players to be constantly scanning the field as well as looking at the ball.

To effectively scan the field and be ready for the pass, the player should have their body open. Watch their shoulders. If their shoulders are generally in line with the length of the field, so that by simply turning their head a player can see the whole field, the player is standing correctly. In this posture, they can see the whole field and quickly, with only a half step be in position to make a pass in almost any direction. If their shoulders are square to the ball and their back is turned toward the direction they will want to go or want the ball to go, they will not see the whole field and they often will need an extra step. That extra step is often all the time the defender needs to shut down the play. Often this results in the player's only option being a quick pass back in the direction from which the ball came.

Second drill. Here we will place the players on the four corners of a square. The players will begin by passing the ball around the corners, chasing their own pass until they reach the next corner, where they remain. The square is initially five yards to a side. As their skill increases, we add balls. Ultimately we want the players to have four balls and in constant movement. At each corner where we initially start a ball, we will have an extra player. Therefore, if we start with one ball we will have five players on the square, two balls six players and so on.

If a player arrives at a corner before the next passer has passed the ball we start over (and have the players do push-ups).

We again have movement and players passing the ball to someone other than who passed the ball to them. By placing the players on the corners, we naturally encourage them to open their hips.

These drills are simple and you can easily do them at home with a few friends.

Common mistakes and how to correct them.

The ball veers off to the right when struck with the right foot (or left when struck with the left foot). - 95% of the time this is caused by a player miss-hitting the ball with the side of their toe rather than with the area below the ball of the ankle.

The ball veers off to the left when struck with the right foot (or to the right when struck with the left foot). - 95% of the time the player has not swung their leg straight in to the ball, but swung it across their body.

After hitting the ball they will usually be standing with their legs crossed. The player needs to swing straight through. It is often helpful to have them step through the shot with their kicking foot stepping in the direction they want the pass to go.

The ball does go where intended. - Look at the plant foot. Is it pointed in the direction the pass was intended to go? Remember we aim with our planted foot; the big toe should be pointed where we want the ball to go.

The ball is going up in the air and not staying on the ground. - This is usually caused by one of three things. Either the player's head was up, which causes their balance to shift back and they strike under the ball causing it to go high. The same result can happen if the plant foot is behind the ball; the foot rather than striking the ball level will be rising causing the ball to go in the air. Finally, the ball is hit with the point of the big toe, rather than with the side of the foot, will often go in the air. We want the ball to stay on the ground where it is easier to settle. A toe ball you can often hear for it makes a "plunk" sound, whereas a properly struck ball sounds more like "thunk".

As the players age we will want them to hit flighted balls and planting the foot slightly behind the ball is an easy way to do this. This comes later after the players have learned to master controlling the ball on the ground. Because of this we do not tell the players it is wrong to hit the ball in the air. Instead, we tell them for now we want them to hit in on the ground.

Next week: How to receive the ball on the ground, movement and turns.

Week four: 1v1 and Dribbling feints - step overs.

Soccer Academy Week Four

What we focused on this week:

1v1 and Dribbling feints - step overs.

We introduced a basic misdirection move - the scissors. The scissors starts with a step over move by one leg and is completed by brushing the ball to the outside with the other leg.

Many moves begin with a step over. In each case, the player will bring their leg over the ball with the foot immediately in front of the ball. The bottom of the foot should be at level that allows the foot to lightly brush or sweep the top of the grass. We want the heel down.

With the scissors step over the foot that will step over the ball will move:

  • first behind the ball and next to the plant foot;
  • second, this foot will move quickly in front of the ball and with this movement the player's hips and shoulders should turn in the direction of the step over;
  • and, third, the player, as the step over foot completes the step over, will lift the plant foot and cut the ball in the opposite direction.
Here is a video clip of a scissors step over.

As you watch the video notice how the players are dribbling, using the front of the foot at the base of the shoelaces with the toes pointed down to push, not kick, the ball forward.

Common flaws to look for in a step over include raising the knee and foot too high. The foot should pass in front of the ball and lightly brush the grass. Another flaw occurs when the hips do not turn, but remain in line with the previous direction the player was moving. The turn of the hips and shoulder and the motion of the leg together sell the feint. The turn should be almost a lunge from the hips to the shoulders.

To practice this motion we have the players stand over a stationary ball and alternate moving the legs in a step over around the ball. This can be done easily indoors.

To perfect the move the player needs to work with a moving ball outdoors as in the video clips.

We will warm up each week with the Seven Minute/Fast Footwork Drill, adding new moves each week.

Next week: How to tackle and defend 1v1.

Week six: Dribbling feints - Attacking the defender's forward foot and Explosive movement after we go around the defender.

Soccer Academy Week Eight

What we focused on this week: More dribbling moves - the Matthews, the hop, and the fake shot.

We continue to teach new moves to the players. The moves this week are variations on what we have worked on before.

The Matthews move: Named for Sir Stanley Matthews, a true great of the game, the Matthews begins with a dribble forward and then with the inside of your right foot, touch the ball slightly to the left, as if you were going to cut that way. Instead, push off the left foot and take the ball back to the right with the outside off the right foot. It is essential to add a "little hop" to the left (with both feet) when beginning this move while you are lightly touching the ball to the inside. This keeps the left foot out of the way and in a better more balanced position to "drive" off sharply to the right. KEY POINTS: This is a different approach to the basic "lunge" move, which we worked on earlier with the step-overs. The little movement of the ball in the wrong direction is essential to "sell" the fake.

The Fake Shot: We will also introduce the fake shot. This is a lunge type move but instead of a lunge to the left by stepping out with the left foot, you fake a kick to the left using your right foot. Then before putting that right foot back down, push off your still planted left foot, and take the ball to the right with the outside of the right foot.

The fake is sold with the entire body. The arms should dramatically move out as if for balance and the kicking leg swing back.

A player can add variety by slamming their foot on to the ball, pulling it back, and then pushing it to either side. Variety keeps the defenders unbalanced and makes the fake much easier. An example of such a variation, named after another soccer great, is the Puskas demonstrated here: Puskas (You can learn about Puskas and the "Magic Magyars", the first great modern soccer team, here.)

As with all moves, the only way a player will become proficient with these moves is to practice, practice, practice. We will introduce them in the Academy sessions, but the players need to work on these at home. Have them add each of their moves to the seven minute/fast footwork drill. Also, learning about and watching the truly great players from the past is one of the best ways to improve our own games. What was revolutionary for Matthews in the late 1930's, unique for Puskas in the 1950's, and amazing for Ronaldo ten years ago is common for u9 and u10 players today.

Next week: More dribbling moves - the Maradona.

Week ten: Putting it all together.

Through these four example lessons, you can see what we teach and the progression through the ten-week Academy. Each week a similar description of the week's course is emailed to the parents in the hopes they practice with their children. Our coaches make every effort to attend Academy members recreational games to assess their progress. The progress players make is very noticeable.