Following the second game (and second loss) of last fall's youth soccer campaign, I was analyzing my six-and seven-year-old Stallions' performances and made one of those discoveries that make a coach a "genius." Many of my players were kicking the ball once and then watching as their beautiful kicks were fielded by opponents who then took the ball toward our goal.
My job: teach them that ball control is the key to effective soccer; that simply kicking the ball is a means to an end, not the end in itself.
Dribbling a soccer ball - tapping it from foot to foot while running - is a primary skill in maintaining ball control. It's also extremely difficult for youngsters to learn; adults should try dribbling to appreciate the problems their children encounter at first.
Since it can be frustrating, the best way for a child to begin dribbling is to walk through the technique. Using the inside of his foot for control, he should tap the ball squarely from foot to foot simply trying to keep it within his normal walking stride. He may look a little pigeon-toed at first, but that's okay.
When your Pele-to-be thinks he's too good for the walking stage (for most kids that's after one or two tries), stand about 20 yards away from him, have him dribble while running stragiht toward you, circle around you this drill, if he kicks and then must run several yards to catch up with the ball, he's losing control and defeating the purpose. Slow him down. He must keep the ball within the length of his running stride.
More advanced individual dribbling drills involve setting up and obstacle course, varying the distance between obstacles so the youngster must dribble and cut around them. You might try running alongside or in front of a dribbler, forcing him to switch directions and putting the element of competition into the practice.
But even the best dribbler can't perform until he gets the ball under ocntrol initially. That's where trapping - quickly stopping a moving ball to dribble, pass or shoot - becomes important.
For the six-or seven-year-old the most effective way to trap is to get his whole body in front of the ball. If it bounces, he takes it off his chest and then can use his knee or the sole of his foot to bring the ball to the ground.
This simple trapping technique is easy to practice. Just lob a soccer ball toward your youngster and have him field it off his chest, thigh or shins. The idea is for him to make the ball drop in front of him, so he shouldn't make hard contact with the ball.
Team ball control involves trapping to get the ball under control, dribbling until defenders are off balance, and then accurate passing from player to player.
Style is not of major importance in passing in the lower age groups: Simply work on kicking the ball to the designated spot. Set up some empty cereal boxes in the backyard and have the boy try to knock them over by kicking the ball at them from various angles and distances. Then run at an angle and have him pass to you. A combination of drills involves having a youngster trap the ball, dribble until he's within a stride of you, then pass to one of the boxes.
Effective ball control is difficult to learn. Don't be surprised if after all your drills the lad still launches a few aimless kicks and then explains, "My foot wouldn't do what I wanted it to do."
Even the soccer greats know what that means.