Why play futsal? Why train futsal? Futsal develops excellent footballers. That's the bottom line. You can take it to the bank. At Eagleclaw, we've seen firsthand how futsal flat-out transforms young soccer players along multiple dimensions. Technique and technical skill development is accelerated. Spatial awareness is sharpened. Hunger, grit and tenacity boil to the surface. Reaction time is shortened. Speed of play increases. Perhaps most importantly, futsal is fun and keeps the young players coming back for more.
For years, Eagleclaw has been intent on establishing a year-round futsal academy precisely because of its unique player development benefits. We've finally done it! In 2016, the club offered a 10-week futsal training program in the winter months and formed futsal teams to compete in the only futsal league available in the Seattle area. It was a success. As interest in our futsal training and futsal teams began to swell, we offered a 10 week program in the fall/winter of 2017, followed by a 12 week program in Spring 2018. Our club-neutral approach to futsal allowed us to welcome all players, regardless of which soccer club they belonged to, and interest continued to grow. Now, 2018/19 will be the inaugural season for Eagleclaw's year-round Futsal Academy. The program is structured with a Fall and Spring semester, each 17 weeks long.
Eagleclaw Futsal is not a clinic. It is core training. In our view, it is fundamental to the development of a complete football player. There is a deep connection between futsal and soccer that goes beyond just the superficial similarities. Yes, the futsal ball looks the same as a regular soccer ball, but its different. A futsal court looks like a soccer pitch, but its different. Futsal goals look like soccer goals, but they are different. Look deeper, beyond the superficial differences, and you'll see that organically embedded in futsal are constructs, concepts and environments that match up perfectly with the best practices for soccer training.
The Perfect Constraints-Led Training Model
There are many ways to learn and develop skills and abilities, some more efficient and effective than others. When it comes to sports training, there is near universal recognition of the value of imposing "constraints" as a way to accelerate and improve the athlete's performance. In simple terms, by imposing rules, altering the performance environment and changing the objectives, we can focus the athlete on confronting specific problems and finding new and creative solutions.
Take another look at the photo above. We are all guilty of romanticizing street soccer as the gritty crucible that formed the world's best players. We focus on the spontaneity of street soccer and the fact that no adults are required. We also praise street soccer for being unstructured, but that's where we'd go off the rails. There certainly is structure to street soccer, but its the kind of structure that children impose. Its not adult structure. Children will organize teams, develop a process for selecting a team, define boundaries (out of bounds, etc.) and rules to determine winners (e.g., first team to 5 goals, winner stays on, etc.). But you have to really look at the picture to understand the secret to street soccer. Everything is smaller. The surfaces are not ideal. The midfield line is right next to the penalty spot. Part of the goal area features water drains and raised curbs. You can imagine how kids might pick their teams for playing in this street, which really looks more like a courtyard. How many players do you suppose would be on each team? 11 a side? Not likely. Now have a look at the kids in the photo. They are working so hard to recover that ball from the second floor balcony. I imagine them reminding each other to keep the ball down next time so they won't have to go through this hassle again.
Now imagine a different scene: Two soccer teams, 11 players on each team, playing on a regular grass or turf soccer field. A coach notices one of his players has really poor control of the ball. When a defender closes in on the player, they become nervous and uncomfortable. The player has very few ideas for dealing with the pressure in a way that allows them to keep the ball away from the defender, whether by use of his or her own technique or by making a quality pass to a teammate. If the player stays on the field, they'll get better at it. But how long will it take to see improvement? How many times will the player have the ball in that specific type of situation, with a defender bearing down on them? Not that many. In fact, they won't even touch the ball that much at all. Some famous research studies show that ball possession per player at one soccer match ranges from 0.3 to 3.1 minutes per 90 minute game and the average time a player has the ball at their feet is 1.3 minutes. If your training program consisted only of playing 90 minute 11v11 games, learning would happen, but very slowly.
And that is why you hear people talking constantly about touches on the ball and how to get more touches on the ball. In the end, its about creating a higher volume of experiences for learning. Its about repetition! To get more touches or more soccer learning opportunities, many coaches properly rely on small-sided games, rondos and other similar exercises in smaller spaces with fewer players. By imposing a few constraints (e.g. smaller playing area, fewer players, etc.) the number of learning experiences increases exponentially. Another way of thinking about it is "Channelling and Challenging". By channelling the player into intentionally constructed learning environments with boundaries and rules, we can present desired challenges and cause them to appear more frequently so the player has many more opportunities to experience them and find solutions.
This is called a constraints-led approach to soccer training. There are three basic types of constraints to consider: the Performer, the Environment and the Task. The Performer is our young soccer player. We need to take into account important realities about the player, such as their age, psycho-social level of development, current physical abilities, existing skill level and so on. The Environment is a big topic. It can be obvious things like playing surface, whether the training is indoors or outdoors, temperature and so on. It can also be more subjective, such as the training attitudes and philosophies of the soccer club. Does the club provide a learning environment or is it focused only on the results of the weekend game? The Task is all about the exercise we want the Performer to participate in. It involves rules, the size of playing areas, number of players, and so on.
A great example of constraints-led training is a simple 4v1 rondo. Its a great tool for focusing players on fundamental techniques of passing, receiving, supporting movement and doing all of that in the face defensive pressure. How? We constrain everything. The playing area is ideally an 8m x 8m square. There are only 5 players: four attackers and one defender. Passes can only be made to adjacent players, not through the square. Passes should be received across the body on the back foot. Body position should be open. At Eagleclaw we require that beginners always use two touches, receiving on the back foot and passing with the other foot (notice how the task constraint here takes into account the skill level of the performer). In this rondo exercise, each player will get an exponentially greater number of touches on the ball under pressure than they would in an actual game. We have recreated the experience so that it occurs repeatedly, giving the player repeated opportunities to find solutions.
Now let's go back to futsal. If you think about it, the entire sport is a highly constrained version of soccer. Only 10 players are involved - 5v5. The playing area is small and the surface is hardwood. The ball is constrained as well. It is heavier and doesn't bounce as much. The characteristics of the futsal ball causes players to mainly keep the ball down on the playing surface, in turn causing them to learn ways to control the ball in tight spaces. The goals are smaller as well.
Futsal naturally helps young players develop and sharpen technique for controlling the ball. Its just a natural by-product of the game. Remember that technique and technical skill are different but related concepts. Technique is the mechanical process of how a player controls the ball. Technical skill is when, where, how and why a player decides to use their technique to solve problems on the field In futsal, players play with a heavier ball on a field the size of a basketball court. As a result, the speed of the game is greatly accelerated, forcing the players to speed up their decision-making and the speed of their technique.
Futsal also accelerates tactical skills development. This is really useful to a soccer coach who is interested in developing a possession style of play. Because the playing area is smaller, the players are effectively much closer to the goal. In fact, every time a player touches the ball in futsal, they are closer to the goal than they would in a regular soccer game. This creates a very natural relationship between possession of the ball and using that possession to create scoring chances. It brings an attacking mentality out of all the players, including the keeper!
Futsal also naturally encourages rotational movement by players without the ball. It is not surprising that many people think of futsal as basketball played with feet! As a result of all the rotational movement in futsal, we see dramatic improvement in off-the-ball movement by young futsal players when they return to the soccer field. Really dramatic improvement. That is why Eagleclaw has created such a close connection between its soccer training programs and its year-round futsal academy.
Sergio Gargelli is someone who believes fervently that futsal should be intentionally used as tool for developing soccer players. Gargelli currently works for the Chinese Football Association, but has been the head coach for the national futsal teams of China, Norway and Vietnam. Recently, he has been more outspoken about the role of futsal in the development of “modern” football players. He is on a mission to persuade national federations around the world to make more and better investments in futsal precisely because of how it positively accelerates player development. And he sees the benefits of futsal not only for young players in the formation stage, but also for top-level elite professional players.
Gargelli's aim is to show professional and youth coaches how all of football - technique, technical skill, tactics - can be taught in a focused way through futsal. Futsal develops better footballers; that's Gargelli's core belief. I share that belief. But Gargelli goes futher. He believes that futsal is critical to the development of players on teams that feature Positional Play (Juego de Posicion). He is absolutely correct! Gargelli has even developed a futsal-based methodology for training soccer players that has been adopted by professional clubs Juventus and AS Roma and integrated into their training methodologies. In a recent interview, Gargelli listed 10 ways in which futsal improves soccer players, and 7 ways futsal is directly relevant to training players in Positional Play. Its a terrific interview and I recommend it to coaches who are truly curious about how futsal will make their players better.
In futsal, we have a blueprint for improving and accelerating the development of youth soccer players. Its a blueprint that is consistent with the constraints-led approach that already dominates modern youth soccer training. Its not only consistent with that approach, its the near-perfect embodiment of the constraints-led approach. Now, we need soccer coaches to fully embrace the training and player development benefits of futsal and encourage their players to train and play futsal. Don't treat it as a way to fill-time during the winter months. Make it core training. Explain to parents and players why futsal is not only relevant to developing soccer players, but effective. If we do this, we will develop better footballers. Isn't that our job as coaches?