Practice, Parents & Technology
It's beyond any reasonable dispute that behind the world's most skillful soccer players is a history of countless hours spent playing with the ball on their own. Club soccer training is simply not enough. Its a question of time and passion. The passionate player makes time to practice on their own with the ball. In theory, its a pretty low-tech, low-cost proposition: a kid, a ball, maybe a wall and a friend or two.
But times have changed. Many shiny things now compete for childrens' attention. Smartphones, social media and cinematically compelling video games gobble up our kids' free time. The world is wired in ways no one could have imagined in the 1940's when Pele spent hours training with his father, Dondinho. Then, it was a luxury just to have a proper soccer ball. In his autobiography titled Why Soccer Matters, Pele claims his training "ball was sometimes a pair of socks tied together, a grapefruit, or anything else he could find." With no media to entertain them save maybe a transistor radio, Pele had plenty of time to work with the ball.
Today, working with a soccer ball is just one of many things competing for the extra 15 or 20 minutes over-scheduled kids might have each day. If we are honest, we must admit we are losing the battle with social media, mobile phones and video games. Increasingly, parents report their child is dropping out of the sport because they need their free time for "other things", and needing more time to play video games is one of the most common reasons we hear. More often, its not that players are dropping out of the sport, but rather they are choosing to spend those precious 15 or 20 minutes on Instagram or Snapchat. It's easy for coaches to tell which kids are putting in time on their own with the ball and those who aren't, and those who are represent a distinct minority. It's all about passion and time. Passion can be cultivated, but, sadly, time cannot be cloned. So, as soccer coaches, we need to everything we can to win back a bit of our players' spare time. We need to find solutions, new tools with which to fight the battle for time.
In his famous (and highly recommended) book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posited that at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required in order to become world-class in any field. Gladwell's book is well worth the read. The figure of 10,000 hours, however, has been heavily debated, as well as the concept of "deliberate practice. Perhaps the best extension or refinement of Gladwell's thesis can be found in Anders Ericsson's 2016 book titled Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Ericsson's chief premise is that 10,000 hours, or any number of practice hours for that matter, is not enough. He picks up on the concept of "deliberate practice", something Ericsson feels Gladwell did not pursue enough, explaining that the purpose for the training is vastly more important than just putting in hours. Essentially, practice time is more beneficial when one follows guidelines or targets established by an expert and using feedback to identify weaknesses and then work on those areas.
There is nothing wrong at all with encouraging our kids to just go outside with their friends for a game of footy. Nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, we need more backyard play and scrimmaging if we are going to grow the soccer culture in this country and match ubiquity of garage-mounted basketball nets and driveway hoops games. Player skills will improve in neighborhood scrimmages. But for the player who craves more skill development and looks to take their individual game to the next level, purposeful, deliberate practice is what's needed.
How to practice? From Gladwell, Ericsson, Pele and others, we can distill a few key concepts that can drive deliberate practice. Subject matter is key. What are we working on today? Guidelines or instructions are also important. How do I perform the skill or technique I want to master? Targets and quality. How many repetitions should I do and what kind of quality should be required of each repetition for it to be valuable. But perhaps the most important aspect of deliberate practice is feedback. Feedback is what allows a player to refine their efforts, make corrections and work to improve the quality of their repetitions. But feedback varies qualitatively, and therein lies the secret to accelerated skill development. The exercise itself provides instant a form of feedback, but its of relatively low quality. For instance, if a player is learning to juggle and loses control of the ball, they'll know instantly that their touch was wrong. What they saw and felt is visual feedback. What they may not know is why their touch was wrong and what can be done now to correct it. That kind of feedback is qualitatively superior and usually requires a coach, personal trainer, or a knowledgeble parent or friend. In other words, a human being.
Can Parents help? This brings us full circle to Pele. His father had a specific purpose and objective for the boy's training. He wanted him to be equally skilled with both feet and keep the ball close to his body while dribbling. So the considerable time they spent training together was focused on those objectives. We can imagine the kind of active feedback Dondinho gave his son and how Pele must have used that feedback to make instantaneous corrections to his training. Is it any wonder, then, that Pele grew to become a world-class player known for his skillful two-footed play?
It matters a lot that the feedback and corrective guidance provided be sound, if it is to lead to proper skill development. Today, we have a modern example of expert parental feedback in Cristiano Ronaldo. While Cristiano's father was a huge supporter of his and encouraged his son to play for the local youth club, we don't hear much about whether he was actively training with his young son. That's certainly not the case with Cristiano Ronaldo and his son, Cristiano Jr. Through social media, we can see, almost in real time, Ronaldo actively playing with his son and encouraging his development in a positive way. Known for his prowess as a free kick assassin, Ronaldo naturally wants to pass on that skill to his son, as we see in the video below, and actively provides feedback and positive correction.
Then, as any proud parent would, Ronaldo lets us know the training has paid off and that it was no accident.
What about parents who are less skilled than Cristiano Ronaldo, which means all the rest of us? Can we help? Absolutely. Coerver coach Tom Byer thinks so as well. Byer spent years in Japan, bringing the Coerver Method to Japan teaching fundamental technical skills to soccer-mad Japanese kids. He even starred in his own TV show teaching basic follow-along technical skills. Along the way, he he became a soccer celebrity and influenced the development of world class Japanese players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. Byer's real impact in Japan, however, was inspiring children to practice on their own.
The real trick now is coopting parents to assist their children's at-home practice and technical skill development. Through his 2016 book, Soccer Begins At Home, Byers looks to encourage parents to take a leading role in their child's early acquisition of fundamental techniques. Its a great read and a low-cost investment for parents who want to pay more attention to their kids' development. Important to Byer's philosophy is that parents must be educated so that they aren't steering their kids in the wrong direction. In other words, parents must be able to provide qualitatively sound feedback.
“This is the missing link to what’s happening in the United States. If you go out to many parks throughout the U.S. on any given weekend, you’ll see them filled, usually with parents, and they’re basically kicking the ball back and forth with their 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-year-old. So they’re conditioning them from a young age that it’s a kicking game. What I say as a challenge is: Kicking shouldn’t be the first technique you teach a kid. In fact, it’s detrimental to them. If you take a soccer ball and give it to a little Latin kid and try to dispossess the kid by lunging at him to try and take it away, he’ll either pull the ball back or he or she will try to beat you. Now you give that ball to a typical American kid or Canadian kid or Chinese kid and challenge them for the ball, and they’ll either bend over and pick it up or they’ll kick it and chase after it and freeze.”
At the core of Byer's philosophy is the idea that young children can be taught fundamental technical skills and that technical skill acquisition should be at the root of player development in the United States. We agree with Byers, but then again Eagleclaw Football Club has consistently taken the view that our youngest players should be training in a positive, academy-style environment focused on technical skill development. We pioneered the modern academy-style model of youth club where technical skill development is core and a serious responsibility of the club, not something to be left to chance or an outside supplemental program. We've long argued that the traditional American youth soccer club, focusing so heavily on team development at the youngest ages, has deprived generations of young players from an opportunity to develop technical skills at young ages. That's why Eagleclaw was, from the beginning, intentionally designed differently We've been focusing on technical skill development with our youngest players since 2010. In our Primary Academy, players as young as 5 years old display amazing levels of skill and through our Tiny-Eagles Pre-Academy program we are bringing technical skill development the youngest soccer-mad children. But fundamentally we agree with Byer that a modestly knowledgeable parent playing with their young children and providing sound qualitative feedback, support and encouragement can dramatically improve the technical level of American children and their enjoyment of the game.
Byer recently received a grant from US Soccer Federation to implement a pilot program in Washington state to provide training to parents who can in turn play and engage in deliberate practice with their young children. The process involves online media, in-person clinics, meetings and training sessions with parents. We think youth soccer clubs are where such initiatives should begin, and Eagleclaw is already working on a parent education component geared to parents of children between the age of 3 and 7.
What about Technology? With older kids, keeping them practicing on their fundamental skills is more complicated. The players' time outside of club training belongs to homework and family obligations. If there is any extra time in the player's schedule, soccer competes with an ever-increasing array of digital devices, social media platforms and video games. Sadly, youth sports are not winning this fight. When given the choice between going outside to play soccer with their friends or play a video game, the overwhelming majority choose digital media.
But there is hope. Through an interesting mix of technology and sport, we are seeing an increasing number of "smart" technologies designed to help the individual player engage in deliberate practice. These technologies appeal to our kids' fascination with apps and devices, while at the same time directing them to useful and athletic pursuits. We call it "gamifying soccer training". Gamification is the process of taking something that already exists and integrating game mechanics into it to motivate participation and engagement. At Eagleclaw, gamifying soccer training simply means using technologies that appeal to kids' interest in digital media in order to make players better. In other words, turning boring drills into modern games that are more fun. By gamifying, however, I don't mean to suggest that the quality of the training obtained through these technologies is in any way less beneficial than lower-tech practice tools. On the contrary, modern technologies for soccer training tend to be qualitatively superior than training alone precisely because of the real-time feedback they provide. Metrics provided in real-time are feedback that allow players to instantly adjust and correct their technique. Yet, its the gamifying aspect of these technologies that draws in the kids, grabs their attention and gets maximum effort from them. At the same time, these technologies and give coaches a unique set of tools with which to recapture practice time from all the other mobile apps and video games devouring our kids' free time.
At Eagleclaw, we've been able to go one step further and combine professional coaching with gamifying technologies to effectively supercharge the training experience. For example, in our Player IQ Development clinics, Eagleclaw coaches use SmartGoals, a high technology tool that allows us to zero in on developing spatial awareness and improving visual scanning rates. The ability to scan the field quickly, intake information and act upon that information is the hallmark of the most effective players in the game, like Xavi (see video), Andrea Pirlo and Iniesta.
SmartGoals consist of gates that feature blue and orange LED lighting and are controlled by a mobile app via Bluetooth. As the ball passes through a gate, sensors switch of the lights or change the color of the lights. Coaches can use the gates to create automated targets for players to seek and pursue. While looking for the targets, players are forced to keep their head up and on a swivel and they scan for the next target. The system allows coaches to add time pressure by setting the amount of time a goal will be remain lit. This forces players to scan quickly and ahead of time and play faster. The interactivity of the system is fun and deeply engaging for the kids and we see dramatically measurable improvement in the players visual scanning rates.
One of the downsides of the SmartGoals system is the cost. It's very steep. For club use, the typical 6-gate system with a remote control runs about $3,850 without a trolley, which is absolutely essential in our view for transporting the gates. At Eagleclaw, we currently own two six-gate systems with trolleys. We find that is the minimum equipment required for a 20-24 player training clinic. As the product currently ships from the Netherlands, you can count on significant shipping costs as well. Although still a bit pricey, SmartGoals offers a 3-gate SmartGoals system (without a remote) for around $2,075 and $2,300 if you add the remote. The benefit of the remote is that it allows you to switch the color of the lights (blue/orange). Without the remote, you'll be stuck with only orange lights.
Another amazing technological tool is the TOCA Touch Trainer. Developed by for USMNT star Eddie Lewis, the TOCA is a ball launcher designed to help players work on the quality of their touch on the ball by delivering a high volume of balls to the player in a relatively short period of time. The focus here is on repetitions. The machine works only with a special Size 3 soccer ball that creates a smaller target area. The machine works with a mobile app via Bluetooth and can deliver the ball on the ground or in the air with a variety of trajectories. Its a fantastic tool for developing a first touch, getting better at bringing the ball out of the air and working on volleys. It truly delivers a workout as well, since the pace of the deliveries can be increased which forces the player to be alert and on their toes ready for the next ball. It can also be used
Like the SmartGoals, the major negative of the TOCA Touch Trainer is cost. The machine runs around $8,500, not including shipping. At Eagleclaw, we own one machine and have found it to be extremely effective for developing first touch. We have also effectively combined the TOCA trainer with SmartGoals to develop training exercises that simultaneously work on spatial awareness and first touch. More than anything, the kids just love it. It's so much fun and the kids affectionately call it their "soccer robot".
But you do not need to spend a fortune to get high quality training technology for your player. One of the most innovative of these "gamifying" technologies is the Adidas Smartball, which is designed to help players work on how they strike the ball. The Smartball appears to be an ordinary size 5 soccer ball, but it has several Bluetooth sensors suspended inside. These sensors communicate with a separate mobile app to provide immediate feedback about a kick's speed (power), spin and curve. It can also tell the player the location on the ball where the player's foot struck. This kind of instant, measurable feedback helps a player immediately correct technique and help players avoid bad habits. It can also integrate with the mobile phone's camera, allowing players to record their shots and then study their technique.
A major component of the Smartball app is the content provided to the player. The app includes technique videos that allow players to see how to properly execute a particular shot. Its an expert demonstration. Players can record their shots in digital 'logbook" and scratch that social media itch by sharing their progress with friends. For those kids whose parents are not as skilled as Cristiano Ronaldo, the Smartball provides a pretty good substitute teacher. In our experience, the Smartball is a powerful training tool. The only negative about the Smartball, and its not a major one, is that the ball requires periodic charging (on the included charging stand). Its not a major drawback at all, but does mean players need to plan ahead and make sure the ball is charged before going outside to train.
At Eagleclaw, we've found a way to make working on shot technique with the Smartball even more immersive and beneficial by combining it with a low-tech tool like the Sklz Goalshot Target Net. In tandem, the Goalshot provides a visual target cue for placement of a shot. It takes only a few minutes to set up the net (much easier with a parent's help), and with just these two tools and 30 to 60 minutes a player can on their own design a comprehensive, deliberate training session that includes real-time feedback. The four openings in the net are the areas where a player is most likely to beat the keeper and score.
Another amazing new bit of tech is the DribbleUp Soccer ball. Unlike the Smartball, the DribbleUp is a regular soccer ball except that it has an optical code printed on it. The optical code is read by a smartphone or tablet which can then provide instant feedback about the quality of of the player's performance. The system works with a mobile app that provides over 100 technical and fast footwork exercises ranging from juggling to toe taps. It comes with a mini tripod that can hold a mobile phone. The player places the ball in front of the camera so it can read the code, then the training session can begin. The system includes virtual coaches to encourage players or motivate them if their work-rate is not satisfactory. Augmented reality on-screen cues guide the player. For example, digital cones appear on the screen and serve as a guide to help players work on close control by keeping the ball between the digital cones. When an exercise ends, the system provides a grade from A to F where A is awesome and F is, well, not that awesome. The system is available in Size 3, 4 and 5 soccer balls, so an age-appropriate version can be found for any player.
A major advantage of the mobile-app driven technologies is that new exercises and drills can be pushed to the system though simple software updates. Currently, the system focuses on juggling and technical skills where the ball is on the ground. However, DribbleUp says a software update will be released after Christmas (2017) that will allow the system to track shots taken on goal, perhaps similar to what the SmartBall does. And since the app allows for the creation of multiple accounts, more than one player can use the DribbleUp. This means, siblings or involved parents can set up accounts and challenge each other.
Like any technology, there are pros and cons to to the DribbleUp. Since the system requires the players to train in front of a screen, bright lights or sun glare will make it difficult for players to use it outdoors on sunny days. On the other hand, it seems ideal for indoor training in a bedroom or basement. We envision tools like DribbleUp becoming a way for players to receive specific technical training assignments from their coaches, then training on their own and reporting results/scores to their coach.
Get out there! Club training is critical for modern players in the U.S. Without a doubt, that is the environment where players will receive the majority of their soccer education. With increasing demands on players' time and attention, dedicated training time with their club coach is still the best way to ensure they are developing critical skills. But club training is just not enough. The individual player with the passion and dedication to put in the the hours on their own will always have the best chance at becoming a world-class player. With deliberate practice, and an involved parent and perhaps a few smart tools, perhaps we will be able to keep more kids in the game, developing!