Saul Isaksson-Hurst is an experienced premier league academy coach having spent 6 years at Tottenham Hotpsur FC and 4 years at Chelsea FC’s Academy as a Foundation Phase skills specialist and is founder of where he is director of coaching. Saul talks about the importance of Ball Mastery during training sessions and how to make them effective for your soccer players.
Using Ball Mastery Effectively to develop Elite Soccer Players
Ball Mastery has become an important staple of football for many coaches. There is little doubt that this individual training time is key as the player builds a relationship with the ball and works towards mastering it. The rationale is that the more touches the player has on the ball, the better they will be at controlling it in the long term. But critics may argue, “does this translate to the game?” where my answer is a resounding Yes based on my opinion and backed by experience. It must also be mentioned that it is not just about the number of touches of the ball, its about quality touches! Just because I drive my car every day for my whole life doesn’t make me an F1 driver like Lewis Hamilton, shows us where we coaches must stretch the player’s ball manipulation to make it deliberate practice.

How do we make ball mastery sessions deliberate practice?

It pains me to see Academy coaches doing ball mastery sessions which are hands off “show me your ideas…” and that’s it! Whilst it is imperative to let the players show what they can do, we must look to challenge the players and take them out of their comfort zone. It is only then that we can qualify this as deliberate practice. This is not just to improve them technically, but as we know the opportunity for physical gains at this young age are vast.

 “it’s generally excepted that childhood offers a key time frame to learn and improve fundamental movement patterns and develop neuromuscular coordination” (Lloyd & Oliver)

We are doing a disservice to young players if we don’t support them with their dynamic movement on their weak side for example. Just as we make young children do handwriting practice daily to improve their control and dexterity of their hands, for this very same reason ball manipulation and dynamic movement with the ball is imperative to improve a players ball control and movement patterns. Movement development has become a key part of academy football as sport scientists create programmes to enhance this area.

As we now know, ladder work and other similar activities are unlikely to transfer to the game. That’s why you will more and more see games like bull dog and other tag like challenges to promote good movement. I argue that ball mastery should also be included in this, as we demand the player to move explosively with the ball on both sides, making them do movements that they wouldn’t normally do.

Having an environment that is integrated with a dynamic movement training programme will not only enable children to exploit the natural windows for learning but may also help to achieve a level of motor performance that is beyond their expected future potential (Myer et al). We talk about making our sessions more game realistic and for this reason I argue our movement programmes should also include dynamic ball mastery like this.

Dynamic Ball Mastery

Dynamic and explosive movements on both sides

The challenge for all coaches is making the unopposed ball work challenging for the player keeping them engaged and focused.

Ball Mastery sessions should be at a high intensity to try and replicate the speed of a game with the players continually working at their maximum, challenged to control and manipulate the ball. Can you add interference? Move to working in tight spaces surrounded by team mates so players have to play with their head up. If is not challenging for the player it won’t be beneficial!

1v1 Technqiues are key

1v1 techniques are an important part of ball mastery, as we develop functional explosive movement patterns in players but also expose players to different 1v1 techniques used by players in the pro game. I read a blog previously that regarded showing player’s 1v1 techniques as stunting creativity. I talk about this extensively in a 3 part series to refute this and I would argue that this author doesn’t really understand primary age players and how they learn and develop. Children learn from seeing others doing things, whether it is watching Gareth Bale dominate in games or simply seeing how adults communicate with each other.  As adults we are always modelling and children are always watching.

Combining Ball Mastery with 1v1

Sue Cowley, ( the FA’s creativity expert and like myself a qualified Primary school teacher agreed with me that showing new techniques doesn’t stunt creativity, it can actually help enhance it. Just as when you show children new art techniques such as shading, they can then go on to explore and develop it. Our role as coaches is to guide and stretch players, helping them fulfil their potential. The art of the coach is to show and reveal and never impose.

So, next time your planning your sessions, don’t only look at ways players can take ownership and make decisions, look also how you can support positive changes in a players functional movement patterns and technique.

Saul Isaksson-Hurst

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