Ways to make a difference
Master Coach & Founder
In the past few weeks I’ve been scouting and attending games of LeftFoot players throughout the state. In some way, it’s been difficult to see that not much has changed in the seven years that I’ve been away from the game competitively. Beyond the coaching points of the MasterMind Coaching program I thought I’d share some perspective on how to make an impact as a player.
It’s the challenge of the youth athlete: how to make up for the differences– and which ones are the difference that make a difference?

Ways to make a difference in the youth game

At a certain level of the game players all have equal strengths and weaknesses. Height, strength, speed and skill begin to level out and subtle elements of game awareness emerge to make someone standout. We’ve all seen the big strong, early maturer get away with certain things. It’s the challenge of the youth athlete: how to make up for the differences, and which ones are the difference to make a difference?

The Primary Objective of the Game


The player who understands the primary objective of the game is rare. Unfortunately, too many athletes think that the game is about possession. Too many coaches think there’s a right way to play. Not enough coaches allow for mistakes to occur and players to experiment. We can discuss that until we are blue in the face.
The Primary objective of the game of soccer is to score more goals than the other team. A player that understands that we are here to score goals realizes that when they have the ball they have the best option to score. When your team has the ball someone else can score, but if you keep giving up the ball and not scoring, or losing the ball, then we can’t score. If we don’t have the ball, we can’t score — we may not win the game. Passing, dribbling, shooting, they are all ideas that compose the skills or parts of the game but they are not the objective of the game.


The Difference between Finishing and Shooting


I define shooting as specific techniques to strike a ball toward the goal with the emphasis to score. Here is a strike on goal, it’s about technique, placement, reading the goalie, understanding how to strike a ball and making sure the goalie has to make a save. Shooting is a technique with an attitude to power the ball past someone or toward something.
Finishing, as I define at LeftFoot, is the opportunity to randomly place the ball in the back of the net successfully. Finishing is random – you can do it with your head, your feet, a toe poke, a belly, shin or a shoulder. The ball gets across the goal line any way possible. Finishing is an attitude, an effort with a science that relates to practice, discipline and the abandonment of safety.
You can’t be careful when you finish the goal. You can be precise, accurate and willing — but you can’t worry about being wrong.
Knowing the difference between creating opportunities for your team to finish and shoot on goal is the mark of a special player throughout the state. There are players who get this, but a vast majority of players struggle with the creating opportunities to finish and properly seeing the shooting angles.


Lines of Engagement


Unfortunately this is where most coaches fail their players strategically. The coach doesn’t set a Line of Engagement for the team and thus creates a random high pressure environment and disorganized defensive presence across the field. Players set about running across and around the field chasing the ball more than they wait for the ball to be given to them. First, the Line of Engagement is an advanced tactic, but just because it’s easy to win the ball at the youth level, doesn’t help the U16 premier player develop a sense of elite tactics.
When players at the Premier, ECNL and C1 status level throughout the state display no concept of a low line of engagement they reduce their ability to truly learn situational tactics. If their coaches spent any time coaching the engagement line and less time arguing with the ref then play would significantly improve. Abandoning unlimited substitutions would force teams to figure this out, until then, the state will play soccer like a hockey game, with substitutes running wild — and U9-U12 exerting high pressure across the field, never learning how to defend as a team.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see a player understand a Line of Engagement when the coach doesn’t set one, but you can see how players defend the ball; do they lose their position, do they understand how to delay the penetration of the ball? Or do they try to win a ball with no support? Do they lack an understanding of pressure, cover, balance and depth? How do they defend as part of a small group or as part of team?
As one Asst. Coaching Director confessed, “we try to apply high pressure around the penalty box”, well that’s just winning the ball in the attacking third, and there’s a time and place for it. It’s not a line of engagement and it’s either cruel or idiotic (I’m not exactly sure, which) to make a team do that for an entire tournament, game or week and think that you’re actually teaching kids to enjoy the game. (The worst is when parents yell out on the sidelines, “pressure”, when there’s no reason to, and it would be better to just “drop”)


Runs off the Ball

I’m not even going to ask for third attacker runs right here. Possession doesn’t last this long in Minnesota. I saw some of the best teams and clubs in the state string less than three possession passes in a row. Two players were typically involved before a loss of possession in the attacking or middle third. Defending third possession requires little skill. Show me a team with attacking third possession score with more than five passes. I’ve seen it, but where are the extra runs? If 98% of the game is off the ball, why aren’t players moving better? They don’t have to, and they can’t.

We need to do to better, and if you’re a player who can understand support angles and distance with movement off the ball, you’ll be special and unique in this state. Unfortunately, the player on the ball won’t see your run though since their head is still down while dribbling.



Communicate – give the ball unselfish directions

As I watched the games, players said less and less the higher the levels of play. While some communication occurred, it was more selfish than naught. “Here!”, Ball!” “ Name of Player, Name of Player, Name of Player!”, Few players gave information that was helpful. These ones that did were later spoken over by their coach. In a licensing course a long time ago, the instructor said, “if you’re talking, they can’t.”
“if you’re talking, they can’t.”