Long ago, when the mountains were young and the seas were just filled, I was a tank company commander. I was blessed by the Gods of War to command 14 tanks, and it was called a company. Ok, keep reading, I promise that this will get to soccer shortly. Have faith.
So, within a week or so after taking command of my tank company we went to one of the Army’s premier training centers. We fought a highly trained opposing force and did remarkably well. Three of our crews did particularly well. They were nearly always the last to “die” in these training battles and always accounted for at least 75% of the company’s “kills”. When we got to home station, I drove the company back out into the field and for the next six months we trained hard. We mastered moving as a company. As a company we kicked (please notice that the tank company is about the same number of tanks as players on the field for a soccer team). Our ability to move and fight as a company was excellent. Our company tactical operations were very good. Our ability to establish a night-time position to rest or to fight and then rapidly move somewhere else was excellent. We got better and better at bringing in artillery and aircraft to support our operations. I drove us to focus on our company tasks and we were away from home for weeks on end as we perfected our company level tactical tasks. I was convinced we were ready to go and win at our next training center rotation.
Blessed to have the opportunity to go again as a company, we went again six months after our first rotation. We were amazing at our ability to move and fight as a company. With that said, we were no more lethal or survivable. We were only a slight bit better at killing or surviving. All of our hard work came to little effect on the battlefield. The same three tank crews got all the kills and were nearly always the last three to die. I had not created one single more “killer tank crew”. As I sat in the final After Action Review (the Army’s brilliant and brutally honest version of guided self-learning), I realized that I had failed as a company commander to make my tank crews more lethal or survivable. As a company (soccer team), we were much better at our tactics, but in the end the individual tank crews could not kill more or survive longer so as a company we did not get markedly better. This was a huge learning point for me. A tank company cannot significantly get better if the individual crews in company do not individually get better. This truth of team success heavily depending on individual readiness and training, I now believe applies to all collective operations to include soccer teams and individual players. Individual skills are critical to team success and player development.
The Need for Rethinking Individual Skills Training
I have been blessed to see hundreds of elementary age youth soccer practices. I have watched as eager soccer coaches follow my company commander desire down the same path and to achieve the same end. Over and over again they create tactical drills to develop their young teams to improve their tactical play only to discover with great frustration that their players lack the skill to execute the required skills to accomplish their tactical objectives. Players move to space and the pass goes array and the tactics fall apart because the players’ skills cannot accomplish the desired tactics. Not only does the tactical play fail, but the players learn that these tactics are “no-good” because it does not achieve the desired goal and that they would do better following their untrained natural existing approach. Let me say this again, this practice methodology conditions them to revert to their incorrect technical skills because their old approach is working! So, in many ways, these drills are working against the desired outcomes of these coaches. These drills teach the players that doing it the “wrong” way brings the results they desire. So, it should be no surprise that when the players go to play the game they revert back to the wrong ways that feel so natural to them.
In addition to this, we have US Soccer’s push that “The Game” is the primary teacher for the player. This is a risky approach. Time and again we can go to nearly any youth soccer game and see the “Game” teaching young players over and over again with bad technic. This bad technic then leads to them not being able to accomplish the desired tactical style of play, so they adapt the “tactics” to their limited skills. All of this leads to an “ugly” game with players not playing up to their potential. As this continues season after season the player falls further and further behind those players that are developing her foundational skills until the point that she can no longer effectively compete and she leaves the game.
Good Skills Training
Soccer is a competitive sport. There is an opponent trying her best to keep you from succeeding. Unlike sports like golf, softball or horseshoes, soccer skills are done in contest with an opponent. So, not only must a player be good at performing the skill, but the player must be good at performing this skill in competition with an opposing player or players. What does this mean? It means that the player in a game like situation must be able to execute the skill quickly, in a non-ideal condition and while making decisions. This is the environment in which the skill must be executed.
With this game environment in mind, it is important to understand that when a player begins her path to soccer greatness, all of these skills are unnatural. When a player begins learning a push pass, an instep shot, passing with the outside of the foot, etc all of these soccer actions are UNNATURAL. By unnatural, I mean that is not how the player will respond under the stress of the game. Under the stress of the game they will revert back to the poor form they have when they began. So, the challenge for every coach is to turn the unnatural feeling soccer action into a natural feeling so it is the natural response in the competitive environment of the game. With this challenge in mind, how do we get there? Well, this is a pretty natural process for a young baby learning to walk, but this seems to run counter to the way we as a nation believe youth soccer players should be developed.
The Army has a methodology for training that applies perfectly for soccer skills and it is called the Crawl-Walk-Run methodology. Let me rephrase this, the Army at least had this methodology long ago when they accepted me in their ranks. I will now adapt this methodology to my understanding of how this should apply to soccer skills training.
The Crawl phase is when the player does the task with no time or opponent pressure. The purpose of this phase is to enable the player to develop the sub-conscious feel for what right feels like. The coach can help by pointing out the different components of the soccer action and helping the player position her body so she effectively plays the ball as part of the task. It is important to highlight that “right” is defined as the ball predictably doing what the player wants it to do. So, in an uncontested environment the player does the task until she can consistently get the ball to do what she wants it to do. That form should now be understood by her conscious and subconscious mind as right. We want to make that new form as natural to her as walking. She should not have to think about it. It is just her natural response to that stimulus.
The purpose of the Walk phase of training is to incrementally make it closer and closer to game like situation. It is important in this phase to not progress too quickly otherwise the player will revert to her natural unskilled response to the stimulus of the situation. In this phase, the coach increases the challenge by one or more different aspects.
In the Crawl phase, the player learns to do it without any pressure of time or opponent. In the Walk phase the player executes the skill under conditions that are more game-like conditions though not quite as challenging as the game. Game like conditions are faster, less controlled conditions and done while making related tactical decisions. These three aspects make the soccer action more difficult to execute than in the Crawl phase. The most likely effective training environmental condition to change is the speed at which the skill must be executed. Create the drill so it challenges the player to execute the task under a time pressure. Once she can to-standard execute this task under this time pressure, challenge her by making it faster and or under a “non-standard” condition. Cause her body to be in an awkward position or an awkward direction. Make it just a little off “ideal” and force the player to adapt. Potentially, add a decision-making component to this to make it even more realistic. It is important in this phase not to overwhelm the player and thus cause her to revert back to her old form. We want to continuously enable her to use her new and more effective form in more and more game like situations.
Here is an important point. During the Walk phase if we discover a fundamental flaw in the player’s technic causing her to fail to execute the soccer action to-standard at the Walk speed go back to Crawl phase and go over the task again. Repeating bad habits will get bad results. Once she can execute the soccer action to-standard in Crawl phase come back to Walk. Repeat this until she can consistently executes the soccer action to-standard under Walk conditions.
The final phase of this particular skills training is the run phase. It is done in an environment that fully replicates the game like situation. It is important to create a game like environment where the player can over and over again repeat the skill we are training. If she fails to accomplish the task to-standard in a game like environment, return to the Walk phase and enable her to develop her skill and build her faith and confidence in this new skill.
Tactical success, whether in a tank company or soccer team, is heavily dependent on the foundational skills of the individual players (or tank crews). Players do not learn good skills by accident, the Game or tactical drills. Skilled players require thousands of hours of focused, effective skills training. Rarely will the Game itself create these skilled players. As coaches, we are obligated to do our best to help untrained players become mentally and physically prepared, trained, and tactically astute players. The Crawl-Walk-Run skills training methodology is an effective approach to training that will build a very solid foundation of skills for youth soccer players and should be one of the primary training focuses of every youth soccer coach.