Having a positive 1st-touch is only one fundamental component of a good soccer player. If you are just joining us, this is the third article in a series of the best drills to improve a player’s first touch in soccer. At GFT we teach more than just skills; we have topics like ‘checking to’ the ball and the ‘science behind it’. Today I am going to begin to break down the concept of soccer I.Q. If you are curious to what that means please read on and you will see what I mean and how deep just that one topic can get.
Technique, Tactics & Terminology
There are thousands of soccer teams and players in each state across America. There are also lots of great all around coaches. Unfortunately, there are more bad coaches due to the demand for team coaches. No matter which one you have (or what type of coach you are) there is lots to teach and learn. To be honest I don’t think there is enough time for just one coach to be able to teach everything from technique, tactics and terminology.
A good foundation
One soccer term that needs to be introduced as young as age 7 is ‘checking to’ the ball. I mean why not? These kids are smart and they need to be introduced to soccer terms early. Even if they forget, at least we are doing our best to teach. Teaching basic drills is key, but teaching players young is one way to set a firm foundation. Kids need to be educated on wanting to do things the best they can. If coaches don’t push players to do their best, most will do just enough to get by. Here’s a great drill for novice soccer players learning to control the ball and set a good foundation. Learning to control the ball later helps with wanting the ball, which helps with a good first touch and other skills.
Coach Jones: ‘the Italian’
Growing up I was lucky to have good youth coaches… My first coach was Russell Jones, who was like an Italian style coach, smoking cigarettes during the game and using lots of body language to teach the game and communicate. He had passion and built passion in me! (Side wander: he even got us professional looking long-sleeve jerseys. THAT was cool.).
Coach Jones taught me so much; the main thing I remember is how to possess the ball by swinging it (passing from left to right) back and forth in the back line. Back then you could still pass it to the goalie for them to pick the ball up and change the field with his hands or feet. This rule changed because FIFA wanted to make the game more exciting with more goals.
Coaches Alexander & Barden
Then I had a coach named Alvin Alexander, a guy who STILL holds the record of leading goal scorer at Midwestern State University. Alvin was also wonderful coach that would teach lots of skills like bending the ball and how to turn the corner dribbling at speed with the outside of the foot. It’s funny the things we remember! I think we mostly remember that these coaches take time to teach, to individualize the training, to slow it down. My last year in HS Alvin moved his family to another state, but I was lucky to get another good coach named Shane Barden.
Shane was good with the players and could kind of relate because he was younger and he also was a good player growing up, going to a D1 college and having stints in Europe. Without these 3 coaches I would not know as much as I do now, so I thank them for their time!
P.S. I can’t forget my 1st coach ever: Patrick! Patrick taught me at the age when it’s so important for the coach to teach love for the game and build confident youths.
Once it was time to move on to college, I had my top 2 schools of choice. University of New Mexico (which is D1) and West Texas A&M University (D2). I chose West Texas A&M for two main reasons: 1) the coach Butch Lauffer (whom I have spoken highly of before) & 2) I wanted to be closer to Midland, where I grew up, so that my mom and grandparents could attend more games.
At WT, Coach Lauffer taught a whole new piece that I didn’t get from the other coaches: tactical play and how to be in the right space at the right time. Checking to the ball was something I already knew going into college but Butch would break it down for us, showing me how to position my body so that when I trap the ball I was in a better position to pass it.
The key to ‘checking to‘ the ball
The key to checking to the ball is timing and change of speed! If you check to the ball slow then it will be easy for the defender to stay with you. Time it to where your teammate can pass you the ball as you create the good distance from the defender. Note: there are also times when you want to check to the ball slow but this would be when there is not a defender behind you. Maybe it’s a time when you are reading the play and know it’s going to come your way and you are just slowly checking to the ball into the space you want to receive it.
Keeping up with Roy
As a Pro player the biggest change for me going from college to the pros was change of speed and timing of the runs off the ball. I will never forget the 1st couple days in pre-season camp with the MLS Team Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting KC). I had to mark Roy Lassiter who, at the time, was the leading goal scorer in MLS History and he was on the cover of the PlayStation video game (which was cool). It was a shock to see the timing and the change of speed from the good forwards! The reason is because they knew when to check to and check away with great speed, which meant the defender had to be ready and not only match the speed but the timing.
Breaking it down
Checking to the ball – When your teammate has the ball, you ‘check to’ (go to the player with the ball), calling for it so they can pass it to you. I think most select players who are well trained know what this is and from my experience the kids learn it around 10 years old. Some sooner and some later or never.
Why would a player want to check to the ball?
I have a list for you so check it out and please share it with your kids, friends, players, teammates & fellow coaches.
- In the middle third of the field there is lots of activity and players checking in to receive the ball. Midfielders and Forwards are going to check to the ball more than defenders. Imagine a player in the central midfield with a defender on their back marking tight. If the ball comes into the standing midfielder they will most likely lose the ball. But if the midfielder checks to the ball they create space between themselves and the defender and are able to have more time on the ball to pass or dribble.
- Defenders also check to the ball at times. One specific time you will see is when their own goalie has the ball at their feet, you will see defenders go closer to the Goalie so that the goalie doesn’t have to make a long risky pass or just kick it up and away for a 50/50 ball. However, most of the time defenders are doing the opposite and going away from the ball to create more space to then pass & possess the ball or even hit a long ball to the forwards.
- Forwards often times have to check to the ball and to be honest they might be some of the best at this skill (or at least coach hopes so). Forwards have to be creative OFF the Ball if they want to get more touches because they are most of the time out numbered by 1. So if they just stand around waiting for balls into their feet or long ‘through’ balls they will be limited and easy to mark/guard. When you watch a game on TV you will see the forwards time their runs perfect so that they can create space. Remember this term (Create Space) because this is important if you want to be a better player and have more time on the ball.