Rapid Skill Acquisition in Soccer: Can players learn technique in games?

Now that I am a soccer parent, I officially get to bring my son to his local town practice, and just sit back and watch what is going on. I walk him to the field, which has something like six or seven practices going on at the same time. As I look around, I notice a lot of technical exercises, as kids are doing moves based off the coaches command, “Do #1 the scissors, do #2 the double scissors”. Every Saturday is what the program calls “skill days”, where these types of exercises go for around an hour, making up the entire session. The following day is called “game day”, where the kids play 60 minutes of small-sided games.  For years I have seen kids ages 4 to 18, taking part in these types of team or group technical trainings. It makes me think, that if I was 4 years old and had to do that same scissors move for the next 14 years, I would be so bored! Yes, the kids are getting a lot of touches on the ball, but is it actually beneficial? Can they develop that same skill by playing in a game? When is it enough with the technical training? Those are the questions I am going to attempt to answer in this article.

Personal Case Study:

One of my first jobs as a kid was working on the grounds crew at a local golf course. I would watch the same golfers play day after day, year after year, with no sign of improvement in their game. I would think to myself, why wouldn’t these golfers get a lesson? It was pretty obvious that self-correction in the sport of golf, evidently leads to even more in-consistency. One of the perks of my working at the golf course, was unlimited free golf. I wasn’t a very good golfer, so one day I asked the Pro to give me a lesson. That one lesson broke my swing down into a couple key segments, established a rhythm to my swing, and gave me a routine to follow. From that point forward, I focused on my hip turn, while getting the club in the correct position at the top of my swing, all that was left to do was to let the swing unwind naturally, it was so simple, yet so valuable. That was my only lesson in golf, and it made me into a 90-95 golfer, which is alright. Before I took that lesson, I was trying to adjust my swing in crazy ways myself, needless to say the results were poor.

Another hobby of mine was the martial arts. I studied under numerous instructors, entering all the tournaments, and earning belt after belt. However, it wasn’t until I met my last instructor, that I improved dramatically. My last instructor taught me technique that was scientific, effective, efficient and intelligent. After studying for just one summer with my that instructor, I was able to go back to my old places of training, and compete and beat some of their best students.

As a soccer player, I grew-up in a town that had little soccer culture, qualified coaches, top players, or street soccer games to take part in. The internet was not around, digital content not created, at best maybe one or two soccer videos were available at the town library, and on Sundays “Soccer Made in Germany was on TV”. I literally learned my technique from a Wiel Coerver picture book, along with analysis of from any soccer game I could tape on the VHS recorder. Every day for a period of 4-5 years I worked on my technique in the backyard, and at the local field. I learned direction changes, fast foot work, 1v1 moves and kicking technique, virtually all by myself. However, even after all those years of training, something was missing. I was 16 years old when I really dedicated myself to training, which is like an old man in the soccer world, so that meant I was way behind in my soccer development. However, by the time I turned 23, I was a very good player. The reason it took me so many years to play at a very good level, was that most of my training didn’t include decision making and strategy of when to and how to use the technique that I learned. That type of training can only be done by playing the game.

Let’s review all three examples to see if we can gain some insight: The golfers who never train the proper technique, because they don’t really know the proper technique, never got any better. Studying with a top martial arts instructor led to dramatic improvement in ability. This training was both technical and the real application in the ring, sparring with top opponents. Training soccer technique in isolation was beneficial, but without frequent real game applications, progress was limited.

Before I summarize what I personally believe about skill acquisition and training, let me share with you a conversation I had in the 1990’s with my college soccer coach. In the 1990’s with the exception of the late 1990’s, England was not the best National Team, and are still trying to get to the top (making progress as of late). I would debate with my English Coach about the reason, and the reason was all about technical ability. If a player had limited technical abilities, it means the player would be operating with limited choices and solutions on the field, at some point it didn’t matter about game experience.

Recently, I hear the argument more and more, whether the game teach technique? A regular game, I say no. A conditioned game can require a certain skill to be used more, but you still need to have learned the proper technique. Take the technique of a side volley. How many times in training or even in a season of games, does a player hit a side volley? Almost never is the answer. Than how can a player develop that skill? The side volley must be isolated and trained! Of course there are exceptions, Johan Cruyff did his first Cruyff turn out of instinct in a game, but we are talking about one of the world’s greatest players. When a player is so comfortable with the ball, they will be more inclined to successfully improvise in a real game, but these are players with a close relationship to the ball, that has been trained over time.

Here are my suggestions for acquiring a skill in the quickest way possible: Pick one skill and completely immerse yourself in that skill. Train it every day, hours a day. It might take 2 days or 2 weeks, but once you learn it, it will be yours!!! Hard wired into your brain and body. No need to do isolated training anymore once you learn the skill, just practice it to fine tune it. When you see a soccer player practicing free kicks, that’s not to re-learn the skill, it is just to stay sharp. However, players do not need to train a direction change, scissors move or Cruyff turn once they learned it well. At that point is all about the when, where, how to adapt it, the “Strategy” behind how to use it, and that is accomplished by playing in games!

The other day I was working on a simple Rondo with a new group of 8 year olds. After a couple minutes, it was apparent that they were new to the game, even controlling a simple pass was a huge challenge for them. I ended up stopping the exercise, electing to do some technical training for passing and receiving. This is an example where basic technique is needed before we can progress. We do eventually make it back to rondo a week later, after the basic technique was improved.

Ultimately my preference is not to do technical training during training sessions, unless the players need it. At the younger ages it is fine, but I would teach only one or two skills at a time, while making sure the kids play games every training session, players love to play, and they don’t always love technical training. As the players become technically proficient, the training should shift to allowing players make decisions on the ball in game situations (playing), using the techniques they learned through the years. If a player is still doing the scissors move, they learned 3 years ago at soccer practice, I would say that is not productive by any means.

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