Recently I have read some articles suggesting that there is no substitute for pick-up or street soccer when it comes to player development. It’s even been pointed out that you never really see kids in the street doing technical drills etc. All very good and valid points for sure, but in my opinion it is way to simplistic a viewpoint. Earlier in my coaching career (about 14 years ago – where has time gone) I was asked to work with a talented senior national team professional player. I had seen him play many times live in games, but it wasn’t until I put him through a complete skills assessment that I was able to identify some of the areas he was technically deficient in. I served him ball after ball to strike left footed half volleys, he struggled to execute the technique with precision or consistency. His volleying technique was poor but his touch and dribbling ability were excellent. He was a gifted athlete with natural speed but rarely did he tackle or use his speed to beat people 1v1. If you saw him playing in the park (which he grew up doing), you would without a doubt be impressed with his silky smooth dribbling, great first touch and natural athletic ability. However, how many times in the park or in real games did he hit a left footed volley? I would guess he hit a left footed volley a couple times a year (if he didn’t back out of the technique and use a different technique). I hope you can see where I am going with this now. This pro player had deficiencies that limited his effectiveness on the field and the only way he was going to improve those areas was by technical training with a good coach. Of course street soccer or pick-up games are awesome and are a very important piece to the developmental puzzle but lets not think street soccer alone is the “Holy Grail”. The book “Deliberate Practice” makes the point that feedback from a highly skilled master coach is needed in order for a person to become an expert or top performer in any field. Street soccer often lacks the formal qualified feedback component. Of course players get their own feedback by figuring out what works and what doesn’t but it is not the same as a highly qualified coach. By no means am I advocating over-coaching and non-stop constant feedback. In fact training sessions that require players to find the solutions to the exercises and strategize are essential. But I am placing a high value on specific instructional feedback at the right time. Another factor that determines the benefits of street ball is the skill level of the players you are playing with and against. The book “Bounce” illustrates the benefits of playing with top players on a regular basis. If you are playing against low -level players every day, don’t expect big improvements. There is a reason why a small town in England has produced so many world-class table tennis players. All the players were given keys to a clubhouse (had the tennis table in it) so they could play anytime 24/7, the coach who owned the clubhouse facility was world-class and they players were all highly skilled. In a scenario like this it is easy to see why the players become so good. Look at the recipe for success: highly skilled players playing & training obsessively at all hours of the day and night against each other with instruction, feedback and the training of a highly skilled master coach. That is a great developmental environment. The reality is that becoming highly skilled at something requires a formula. That formula can be adjusted and adapted but in the end it must contain certain important aspects. Let me give you a quick real life golf example to illustrate the point. When I was 16 years old I started working at a public golf course on the maintenance crew. For eight years I observed the same people coming out to the course and repeating the same poor swing every day! Their scores never improved and I often wondered if they even wanted to get better? At 16 years old I figured out that if these people kept repeating the same swing over and over they would get the same result over and over. That’s my point of the article really. The actual game will not make you better by itself. These golfers needed lessons to improve their technique as well as applying the technique on the course. I feel the same way with soccer development. It is essential to work on your technique and ball mastery, much of which you can’t do in a game (3 left footed volleys in a season) and must do separately, so yes kids in the park should be doing left footed volleys into a wall and practicing their 1v1 moves instead of just playing street soccer! Players who work on their technique outside of games will have more tools (skills) to use in the games. Of course skilled players will improvise, create and maybe develop a new skill when playing in the game but the foundation of those skills were more than likely a combination of playing & practicing outside of the game. The reality is, elite soccer development is not simple. Look at the fact that the United States has never produced a world-class striker, ever. Think about that for second, with all the resources the country puts into the game, the United States has never produced a world-class striker. The Croatian National Technical Director made the point that the United States has never lost to Croatia at the U14 level but Croatia has never lost to the United States at the U18 level and above. He stated the reason for this is the United States athletic ability was enough to win the lower age group games but between 14 & 18 years old our players do not develop compared to the rest of the world. As the players got older the Croatian’s technical ability far surpassed the US players. He even went on to debate the usefulness of street soccer and whether it is as valuable as everyone says. It should be start to become apparent that becoming highly skilled in sports is far from simple. Take a look at “TheDanPlan” on the internet. This is a fantastic story about a guy that decided to quit his job at 30 to pursue becoming a professional golfer. The issue is that he never played golf before. Dan commits to practicing for 10,000 hours under the guidance of a highly qualified coach. The results are really amazing.
I hope you found the article somewhat useful! I am passionate about player development and could write forever on this subject. We didn’t even get into things like rapid skill acquisition, brain structured learning, cognitive soccer development, the 10,000 hour rule, why elite athletes are top problem solvers, eye pattern scanning of high level players compared to lower-level players, peer-learning, minimally invasive learning, self-organized learning environment’s and much more. I don’t claim to have all answers but at the very least I hope this post stimulates your thoughts on the subject. If you are interested in knowing more about developing highly skilled players all my “Cognitive Soccer Instructor Diploma Course Manuals” are available on amazon.com and www.soccersmarttraining.com – the information in those five books is a culmination of my research over the past few years. It is the first series of soccer instructional books that focuses on developing the players brain compared to the body!