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Cognitive Soccer Skill Development – Exerlights

In our Seven Speeds Of Soccer I emphasize the importance of four cognitive skills (perception, anticipation, decision-making, reaction) and their speed. Our Soccer Drills & Practices incorporate the development of these critical speeds into training programs for all ages.

When the technical, tactical, and physical fitness components of the Four Pillars of Soccer have been developed to the near optimum level for individuals or teams, then the difference will be in the mental, or cognitive area, of the game. This is a realization of many national and professional team coaches. What this implies is that cognitive development lags the others, regardless of age and competition levels of the teams and players. This is why so many teams have benefited from our practices.

We have just leaned about a brand new and revolutionary training tool from Germany called Exerlights. Typically players wear pinnies to create small groups or designate roles within soccer drills (blue vs. red, green player is target, etc.). Exerlights uses LED strips on players with the ability to change colours instantly. There are also LED strips that can be attached to goals, again with goals changing colours instantly. All the activity set-ups are programmed into an App which is controlled from the coach’s handheld device.

Here is how it works:

Imagine a small sided game, 4 “red” vs 4 “blue”. There are four goals, two at each corner of the playing area. Team Red attacks the blue lit goals and team Blue attacks the green lit goals. So far it sounds like a typical soccer practice activity. The coach may introduce variations, such as asking teams to attack the other goal now, introduce a neutral player, rotate players between teams etc.

Exerlights has pre-programmed changes to both player and goal colour. If a player’s colour changes, they now belong to the opposite team. If a goal colour changes, teams have new targets. This forces players to always scan their environment (360 degrees) to be aware of which team they belong to, which goal to attack, which function to perform. At the same time they may be moving with or without the ball and make regular game action decisions. It is easy to imagine how the cognitive skills are first challenged and then developed.

Watch a You Tube Video and be amazed.

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National Soccer Development vs Pro Clubs

Probably starting with Holland in the 70s, many nations have embarked on national soccer strategies. These strategies typically include:

  • An overarching philosophy of how the game should be played. It has included possession soccer, counterattack soccer, prescribed tactics, player decision-making, certain systems of play, or a balanced approaches between skills, tactics, physical fitness, or mental training.  Ultimately it is driven by how the governing body envisions the national teams (now from U15 to adult) to play, and play consistently. Regardless of a particular country’s vision, having one is a better than having none.
  • A player development path starting with toddlers all the way to professionals. This typically includes development targets at various age levels. It addresses when and how skills should be developed, when tactics are introduced, when is full field 11 a side started, etc.
  • A coach development program to ensure that coaches understand the vision and are training their players and teams in accordance with the vision and player development path.
  • Professional club academies to ensure the best talents are honed and prepared for professional and national team play.

All of this has yielded positive results at youth tournaments and adult tournaments for some countries, and not for others. Germany, Spain, and Iceland are examples of success. Holland, the pioneer of national strategies, has struggled recently.

Up to the professional team level these national strategies work extremely well. Consistent player development at local clubs, regional select teams, and youth national teams ensures that players understand the requirements and are able to seemingly migrate to more competitive environments.

But once they enter the professional team academies, things may change. Now the club philosophy, which is based on competitive success and making money, takes over. It is dictated by technical directors and head coaches. These leadership positions, particularly head coaches, are quite often occupied by individuals from different countries. They have grown up in a system that could be quite different from that in the country they coach in. They may struggle with local players and often look to retrain them to comply with their vision. That is difficult. Or they buy players from their nations to have players that understand them better. This leads to a mix of players with totally different training and game philosophy backgrounds. I believe this is why some excellent players from one nation can’t get any traction under certain coaches at the club level.

National teams may also face a challenge. They are made up of players who grew up in the national system and understand the philosophy. But then they play on club teams and get retrained only to come to the national team and be expected to play what they learned in the first place. This is likely why some national teams (often with foreign coaches) struggle, even though they have excellent talent.

So what is the solution?

Having national programs of player, coach, and national team development is good and cannot be changed.

Pro clubs may need to rethink their strategies. Do I buy the best coaches and players and hope that they will retrain themselves to align with the club philosophy? Or do I

  • align my club program with the national strategy
  • hire coaches and technical directors that understand the national strategy
  • focus on local national talent
  • add select import talent who is intelligent and able to adapt their entire youth training to a new strategy quickly.

When you look at star-studded teams fail and “average” teams succeed, look behind the curtain at their strategies.

For national teams, coaches have to stay true to the nation’s vision and systems. They must rely on, or quickly retrain, their players’ ability to remember what they learned, regardless of how they are coached at the club level.

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European Soccer Transfer Fees Skyrocket

With the close of this summer’s transfer period in Europe a new record was set.

Just looking at the top five leagues (England, Italy, France, Germany, Spain) an astonishing $ 5.2 billion USD was spent, and that is for only one of the two annual transfer periods. The five-year growth in these five leagues is exactly 100%, starting with $ 2.6 billion in 2013.

The breakdown by league in 2017 is as follows:

  1. England: $ 1.8 billion
  2. Italy: $ 1.2 billion
  3. France: $ 0.8 billion
  4. Germany: $ 0.7 billion
  5. Spain: $ 0.7 billion

A single player record was set by Paris St. Germain acquiring Neymar from Barcelona for $ 262 million. That more than doubled the previous record $ 120 million Man United paid for Pogba in 2016. Ronaldo at $ 110 million in 2009 looks like a bargain, even adjusted for inflation.

These transfer fees are fuelled by foreign ownership money flowing into clubs, mostly from China, the Middle East, and the USA. There is a financial fair play system that is supposed to keep this escalation in check. The system is intricate but in essence it requires clubs to spend no more than $ 45 million more on transfers than they take in over the past three years. I am not sure how that is supposed to help as it only enforces a difference, not any maximums.

The result is that the clubs who attract the most money are buying the “best” players. The players take a significant share of the fees and huge salaries. Most important, player agents are making exorbitant commissions. Will buying expensive players win championships? Not in my opinion. It still takes good coaching, team chemistry, and 11 players on the field supporting each other. How much does the potential money from transfers play in the players’ heads? Will a player really support a Neymar so that Neymar’s value and income increases further?

The other side effect is a whole new economy in soccer. Clubs can make more money through transfer fees than through ticket and merchandising sales. Some examples:

In 2016 Borussia Dortmund paid $ 18 million for Ousmane Dembele and sold him for $ 120 million to Barcelona in 2017. That’s more profit on one deal than the club made in the past five years combined through soccer operations.

This year Dortmund paid $ 8 million for 17-year-old talent Jadon Sancho to Man City. The strategy is to develop Jadon and then generate a transfer fee of $ 100 million or more in three or four years.

And lastly, clubs are recruiting and developing local talent in the hope of hitting a future transfer jackpot.

So while the fans are cheering their team and enjoy high quality soccer on the pitch, club management are focusing on growing transfer fees, or growing soccer players’ value. At some point we need to wonder about the purpose of soccer. Is it sport or corporate business? Can it really be both?

 

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FIFA Soccer World Cup 2018 QUALIFIERS

Soccer World Cup 2018 is going into the final qualification games. Here is an update as of 5 September 2017:

UEFA (Europe – 14 Teams)

Qualified: Russia (host), Belgium

Virtually qualified: Switzerland, Portugal, Germany, Northern Ireland, England, Spain, Italy

Notable nations at risk: Netherlands

Notable nations not qualified: Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria

CONMEBOL (South America – 4 Teams + 1 Play-Off Chance)

Qualified: Brasil

Virtually qualified: none – tight race between Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador

Notable nations at risk: Argentina, Chile

Notable nations not qualified: none

CONCACAF (Central/North America – 3 Teams + 1 Play-Off Chance)

Qualified: Mexico

Virtually qualified: Costa Rica

Notable nations at risk: USA

Notable nations not qualified: none

CAF (Africa – 5 Teams)

Qualified: none (only five group winners qualify)

Virtually qualified: Tunisia, Nigeria

Notable nations at risk: Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Ghana

Notable nations not qualified: Cameroon, Algeria

AFC (Asia – 4 Teams + 1 Play-Off Chance)

Qualified: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia

Virtually qualified: Australia & Syria will be in play-off to determine who will play 4th place CONCACAF team

Notable nations at risk: Australia

Notable nations not qualified: China

OCEANIA (1 Play-Off Chance)

New Zealand will play the 5th place team from South America in a play-off. That could be Argentina !!!

The draw for the 2018 tournament groups will be December 1, the tournament will run in 2018 from June 14 to July 15.

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Coaching Soccer Players 1 on 1

I just received a complimentary e-mail on our soccer web site and training materials from the owner of Coachable in Australia. Allan Edwards also pointed me to a very important concept he is advocating: The benefits of coaching athletes in a 1 on 1 environment. You can find more about that here: 1 on 1 Soccer Coaching.

This caused me to reflect on my own coaching experience, including my current role of being the goalkeeping coach for a competitive U 12 team. I realized that the one experience I haven’t shared much is the 1 on 1 coaching I have done to supplement team training sessions. It’s not that I haven’t done much of it, quite the opposite, I have done lots of it. But until I read Allan’s material it didn’t occur to me that coaches MAY NOT be doing this.

WHY 1 ON 1 ?

In team training sessions we tend to run soccer drills in various size groups. It seems the most practical way to teach a team and the most relevant to incorporate game situations. However, at any level of soccer, even at the Pro level, it becomes fairly obvious that not all players execute technique or tactics in the same way. Some are better than others, some are more motivated for certain drills, some are physically more suited for certain exercises. Which gets me back to our FOUR PILLARS OF SOCCER (TM) – Technical Skills, Tactical Development, Physical Fitness, Mental Fitness. All soccer players are different in how they learn, process, and execute any four of these pillars. So augmenting team training with individual coaching is critical. It allows you to understand what prevents an individual from perfecting a particular aspect of the game.

HOW 1 ON 1?

What I have always done is keep notes on every player. I evaluate them against the FOUR PILLARS, scoring then against various technical skills, tactical understanding/execution, physical condition, and mental approach to games and practices. I have done this in an age and competitive appropriate level from U3 to University teams. This provides a fairly robust understanding of the priorities for each player.

I then plan some individual coaching into a practice session. This is where a knowledgable assistant or co-coach is extremely valuable. One coach can run the team drill while the other can take individuals aside for some 1 on 1 coaching. In addition I have offered individuals to stay after practice/game, come before practice/game. I have also slotted special sessions focussing on a particular element of soccer, such as shooting technique. The players requiring extra development are invited.

The key is to understand why an individual is challenged executing a certain skill or tactical move. It could be lack of comprehension, body mechanics, lack of experience, etc. Once the reason has been identified then the proper corrective actions can be developed and trained. At this level of detail it is easy to understand that 1 on 1 coaching is not a common occurrence in a team practice environment. So some structured thought and plan has to be incorporated into the soccer seasonal plan.

The one position that makes it somewhat easier to coach 1 on 1 is that of goalkeeper. Typically a youth team has two keepers, a pro team three. Smart teams will have a goalkeeper coach and there is typically a fair amount of goalkeeper training set aside during a team practice session. By definition it is 1 on 2/3 and there is plenty of opportunity for some 1 on 1.

Case Study

I will use my current example of goalkeeper training as a small case study.

Regarding technical skills my two goalkeepers were dropping catchable high balls consistently. On first glance nothing seemed wrong. They got in position behind the ball, reacted fast enough to the ball, and had their hands on the ball at the right point. They were correctly taught the theory of forming a W with their hands and upon close inspection consistently formed that W. Until I realized that their hands were too small to get a good grip on the ball with their thumbs as closely together as shown in this picture. 

So I suggested to “open up” the W a bit, spreading their thumbs and getting their little finger around the ball more. After a few tries to get used to it they stopped dropping the ball. So what happened with these competitive U12 keepers who had received specialized training in soccer goalkeeping academies? What happened was that the academy has adult instructors who showed them the proper W grip, with their big hands. The group contained players of all ages and sizes and the larger players had no problem. But the instructors never realized that the precise hand position might pose a problem for players with smaller hands and fingers.

Another example was focussing on the ready position for various type of game situations. Goalies know that the closer the attacker is the more they have to crouch down, bending their knees. One of my keepers couldn’t crouch as low as necessary. I thought there was some laziness or lack of comprehension involved. When I took the keeper aside and talked about it new information came to light. The hamstrings hurt when crouching. There was no prior injury and I hadn’t observed the issue earlier in the season. An examination by a physiotherapist revealed structural problems in the lower body which was getting worse with growth spurts, but which can be addressed with therapy. In the mean time the keeper and I developed a different technique of stopping close-in shots to compensate for the lack of “crouchability”.

I am sure that you will have ample examples of players not doing exactly what they should. Before you pass judgment on their abilities, find out what is causing the issue and offer the player some methods of correcting it. The player will develop to a higher potential and the team will be more successful

Coach tom

 

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Soccer Injuries

Pro soccer player kicking a soccer ball. Link to soccer practice book for U16 to adult.

A major European soccer league analyzed frequency of injuries for soccer players. This information can be used for coaches of all teams to put injury prevention programs in place where possible.

Injury Frequency:

  1. Upper Thigh/Quad 26.4%
  2. Knee 18.0%
  3. Ankle 13.1%
  4. Lower Leg/Calf 10.1%
  5. Back 9.1%
  6. Foot 6.6%
  7. Head 4.5%
  8. Hip 2.5%
  9. Shoulder 1.9%
  10. Pelvis 1.8%
  11. Groin 1.6%
  12. Neck 1.2%
  13. Hand 1.0%
  14. Buttocks 0.8%
  15. Arms 0.8%
  16. Stomach 0.5%
  17. Chest 0.2%

Not surprisingly 67.6% of injuries are to the legs, with muscles accounting for 36.5% and joints for 31.1%. The muscle injuries can occur as a result of overuse or impact. Overuse can be prevented by proper stretching routines as suggested in each of our practice books. Impact injuries are not preventable by stretching per se, but stretching can help with a speedier recovery process. Joint injuries tend to be the results of accidents (poor landing after jumps, impacts from fouls, but also overuse). The same can be said for the injuries to other body parts.

It has also been observed that injury profiles vary greatly between teams. Some teams lose significantly more player-games due to injuries than others. Many theories have been postulated but nothing conclusive has been published.

My personal belief is that the entire program of balancing practice intensity, injury prevention programs, nutrition, and injury recovery programs can make a significant difference.

No matter at what level you coach, develop a program for the health of your players. At the very minimum have your players stretch before games and practices, have a cool down routine after a game, and have an injury treatment program in place (ice packs available, tensor bandages, etc.).

 

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World Soccer Update July 2017

As noted earlier this year the summer of 2017 is full of international soccer competitions. Here is a summary of results and progress to date.

U 21 Mens EURO

Spain defeated Italy 3-1 in semi-final #1 and Germany defeated England 4-3 on penalty kicks after a riveting 2-2 extra time tie. In the final Germany played a disciplined defensive game to hold on to a 1-0 lead and win the championship.

Confederations Cup

After battling to a goalless draw after 120 minutes Chile defeated Portugal 3-0 in penalty kicks in one semi-final. In the other Germany’s team of FIFA 2018 prospects ran over Mexico’s A-Team 4-1. The final was a group stage rematch between Germany and Chile with Germany emerging victorious 1-0.

U 19 Mens EURO

Portugal defeated Netherlands 1-0 and England defeated Czech Republic 1-0 in the semis. England went on to win the tournament 2-1 against Portugal.

Concacaf Gold Cup

With the group stage completed the tournament is set for the quarter finals. The match-ups are:

Costa Rica v. Panama

United States v. El Salvador

Mexico v. Honduras

Jamaica v. Canada

Although ranked lowest in FIFA (100), watch out for Canada to provide some upsets.

Women EURO 2017

Group stage play started this weekend. Look for Germany to run the table all the way to the finals.

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Women’s Soccer – A Success Story

I thought it is time to pay tribute to the continued growth and success of women’s soccer. It is not too long ago that young girls had to play on mixed teams and once they became teenagers there were very few options. There were no women’s teams at the professional, college, or amateur levels. No Women’s World Cup, Euro, or Olympic soccer.

So here are some statistics about women’s soccer today.

The women’s FIFA world cup started in China in 1991. Average attendance was 19,615 and the final game drew a spectacular crowd of 65,000 fans. The ensuing world cups were also successful, average attendance in brackets:

  • Sweden 1995 (4,316)
  • USA 1999 (37,319) – Final 90,185
  • USA 2003 (21,239)
  • China 2007 (31,169)
  • Germany 2011 (26,428)
  • Canada 2015 (25,664) – opening game 53,058

Around the globe there are now professional women’s leagues in over 70 countries. This provides a development path for young aspiring soccer players that never existed before. Attendance at professional league games still has room to grow. It will take some time until the excitement from major tournaments or national cup finals takes a foothold. Here are some leagues with approximate average attendances:

  • USA (3,000)
  • Germany (1,500)
  • England (1,000)
  • Sweden (1,000)
  • France (500)
  • Italy (500)

From my own experience as youth and university women’s team coach I encourage everyone to attend games. The pace is slower than the men’s version and that is often misinterpreted as a lower level of soccer. That couldn’t be more wrong. The competition is just as intense, emotions run just as high, the desire to win is second to none. The slower pace in many ways allows the demonstration of skills and tactics more so than in a high paced game. You can see plays develop and techniques being used without the harsh pressure of the men’s game. So for students of the game it is definitely worth watching high level women’s soccer.

Let’s hope the success story continues and that there will be attendances in the 20,000s in a few years.

Coach Tom

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Choosing The Right Soccer Goalkeeper Gloves

As a trained goalkeeper I enjoy coaching goalkeepers of all ages, but in particular young and motivated youth goalies. Currently I am coaching the keepers for a girls U12 competitive team. As we were doing drills one goalie wasn’t comfortable punching the ball because her gloves hurt her hand. The gloves she had were of the style that has air cushioned plastic inserts on the top of the gloves including the fingers. The pressure of the plastic hurt her hand when punching the ball. So we decided to set out and find a new pair of gloves.

That wasn’t an easy task since the variety, styles, brands, and prices were incredible. She tried on many different ones to find the ones that work best for her. As we went through the process I suggested some criteria for selecting gloves to help with the decision and I recommend using these for any goalkeeper. In order of priority these criteria are:

  1. Fit
  2. Ball handling, control, feel
  3. Dry grip
  4. Wet grip
  5. Cushioning

Fit

It is really important that the glove fits the hand perfectly. Remember that gloves were an invention to help goalkeepers. When I played we didn’t use gloves and our hands directly handled the ball. There was immediate ball feel and control. So from a fit perspective gloves should be as close as possible to giving the feel of “no gloves”. That means they should fit snug, not too tight and not too loose. This is particularly important for kids and youth players. Quite often I see gloves that are too long in the fingers. The rationale is that the keeper will grow into them and they should last a few seasons. Financially understandable but not good for the keeper. As the hands grow, the gloves need to grow with them. If that means to buy a new pair every year, or even every six months, so be it. There are other ways to save money. So try lots of gloves until you find a few pairs that fit just right.

Ball Handling, Control, Feel

The ultimate ball handling, control, and feel is with bare hands in dry conditions. Fingers can flex without impediment, grip is perfect, and feel of the ball is accurate. If you wondering what I mean by “feel” ask any goalie and they will explain it. Some of it is physical and some of it is mental (confidence). Therefore the objective is to find gloves that mimic bare hands as much as possible. That means the gloves should not be too thick and padded such that bending the fingers is too difficult. Lack of flexibility results in goalies parrying or dropping the ball more than they should instead of holding on to it. The plastic air cushions on the back of the glove as described for my goalie need to be considered carefully. The theory is that they provide extra support to avoid overextending or breaking the fingers and to help with punching the ball. But they can also be stiff and reduce flexibility or hurt the hand when the ball hits them. So be sure that your goalie is comfortable with them and can handle the ball properly. Don’t be afraid to toss a ball at the keeper in the store and let them catch, pick up, and punch it.

Dry Grip

The gloves should allow the ball to be gripped without slipping off or through the gloves. The actual soccer ball construction plays a role in this as well. Especially in youth soccer ball surfaces vary from shiny/polished to ribbed or embossed. Any surface other than shiny should not be a problem for any glove. So try them with a shiny ball. I have observed many goalies put water or spit on their gloves in dry conditions. I don’t see a technical reason for it but as long as it does no harm I have no objection. I believe it is more psychological than practical. Dry grip ranks ahead of wet grip because more games are played in dry conditions than wet conditions.

Wet Grip

Gloves should absorb some water and their surface should remain “sticky” to handle a wet ball. This is probably something you can’t test during the purchase process, but it shouldn’t be a major issue either. Most gloves will be fine. This is the one area where soccer gloves outperform bare hands, and it was one of the original reason for the invention of soccer goalie gloves.

Cushioning

You may be surprised to find cushioning at # 5 of my list of priorities, particularly since all gloves are cushioned and often sold on that benefit, performance, and difference to other gloves. But remember cushioning was secondary in glove development to wet grip. In my experience cushioning has not prevented any broken bones. Goalies can break wrists from hard shots, but there is little cushioning on the wrist. There are straps and they are for stability, which is good. A hard shot and unfortunate hand position may still cause breaks. The top of the hand rarely breaks. Fingers do break or overextend but that is mostly an unfortunate position of finger relative to the ball. Cushioning will take the sting out of hard shots and avoid some minor potential bruising. It is therefore a source of comfort and confidence. So cushioned gloves are a good thing and I recommend cushioning highly. But not at the expense of fit, ball handling, or grip.

Conclusion

Like getting the right shoes for optimal ball control and kicking, getting the right gloves to optimize goalkeeper performance is critical. No matter what coaches, parents, or peers think it is up to the goalkeeper to determine the right pair of gloves for them. They may not be the fanciest or most expensive, or they may be. Have your keeper try them in store. If they turn out not to be the best, buy another pair considering what you learned. You might want two pairs – one for practice and one for the game. Chances are that gloves get used more in training, which means they must be the best possible, just as for the game.

Check out our soccer goalkeeper practice plans & drills: Soccer Goalie Practices

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Global Soccer Update 21 May 2017

European soccer leagues are winding down and international tournaments are starting up. Here is a recap of what’s happening in the world of soccer.

Europe:

England: Chelsea champions and joined by Tottenham and Man. City in 2017/18 Champions League. Liverpool needs to qualify for CL. Arsenal. Man. U, and Everton qualify for Europa league. Hull, Middlesborough and Sunderland are relegated.

Germany: Bayern is champion and joined by Leipzig and Dortmund in the CL. Hoffenheim needs to qualify. Cologne and Berlin are in the Europa league. Darmstadt and Ingolstadt are relegated, Wolfsburg will go into relegation play-off.

Spain: Real Madrid clinched the championship, Barcelona and Atletico joining in the CL, Sevilla needs to qualify. Villareal and San Sebastion are in the Europa league. Gijon, Osasuna, Granada are relegated.

Italy: One match day left, but Juventus has clinched the championship, AS Rome (2nd) or Napoli (3rd) will directly go to CL or to qualifier. Lazio, Bergamo, AC Milan will play in the Europa League.

The Champions League final between Juventus and Real Madrid in Cardiff takes place June 3rd. The Europa League final between Ajax and Manchester United in Solna takes place on May 24th.

International:

The  UEFA U17 Mens Euro finished on 19 May Spain defeating England 4-1 on penalties after a regulation 2-2 tie with Spain equalizing in the 6th minute of added time. England defeated Turkey in the semi-final and Spain defeated Germany on PKs.

The FIFA U20 Mens World Cup has just started in South Korea. It is played in 6 groups. Four groups have played their first game and a few upsets have already happened: Venezuela defeated Germany 2-0, Sambia defeated Portugal 2-1. Follow the tournament on http://fifa.com.

The Confederation Cup in Russia starts 17 June, featuring all continental champions plus the world cup winner and the 2018 world cup host. Group A features Portugal, Russia, New Zealand and Mexico. Group B contestants are Germany, Cameroon, Chile, Australia.

So stay tuned this summer – plenty of soccer to watch.