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Over the twenty two years of coaching soccer I organized the LeftFoot theory of player development into segments of qualities that I observed from coaching great teams. From the seven qualities of great players, only one of the qualities relates to Ball Striking. However, it’s the most desired session from new students and current students in year seven of LeftFoot Coaching Academy—yet it’s the most misguided assumption that if “I only go to Ball Striking sessions then I’ll get better at Ball Striking!”

Obviously, great players make great teams even better —and our thinking that focusing on adding skills to our toolbox will make us better is simple and reasonable. It’s pretty simple to take a “parts” analysis and think that you can address “parts”–  great teams need to add great players with even better techniques. Think of the team that needs to add a striker, or a team that really needs a goalie. At some point you can directly address your weaknesses through segmentation and focus.

However, in childhood development geared toward athleticism— this type of specificity can hurt a player and lead to a loss of confidence, depression, and overall joy within the game of soccer. Focusing on the weaknesses of a player in terms of skill development can limit their expression of strengths and “wholeness” as an athlete. In our upcoming announcement of our most recent Hall of Fame graduates for the Class of 2015, three of our students added Mental Toughness Coaching to their skill set. It wasn’t just the technical skills that limited them from their performance standards or reaching their goals of playing soccer in college — it was seeing the athlete as a whole person and working to blend the aspects of physical, technical, and mental skills to their understanding of playing soccer.

Focus and Tempo – Maintaining One Develops the Other

But let’s go back to Ball Striking… To strike a ball the LeftFoot way takes a range of mental and emotional skills related to athleticism that most parents and students don’t understand. Striking a Low Instep Drive takes the full expression of our body in terms of acceleration, a full range of motion, focus, physical force generation, a strong mental concentration, and fluid movement. You can’t develop that in only Ball Striking sessions. That’s why part of developing focus and mental concentration is within our Footskills progressions.

In any Ball Striking progression the maximum effort to produce force in a repetitive fashion wears down the physical energy of the student; enough that they can’t maintain a high concentration of mental focus to strike a ball consistently. As the physical intensity rises, the mental clarity decreases in relationship to the energy demands required to fully execute the Low Instep Drive. However, to strike a ball with no spin and keep your ankle locked “all the way through the strike”, a player needs to focus on the placement of their foot as it strikes the center of the ball while still fully generating and releasing a maximum of power expressed through their body.

That’s why in our Footskills progressions we work so much on creating “rhythm and power.” Most athletes struggle with maintaining a consistent rhythm while executing simple repetitive actions. For example, going through ladders seems simple enough in terms of an action, however maintaining tempo through the exercise is the ultimate goal of ladder development as well as hitting all the “steps”.  But think of how long the student must concentrate on finding the proper tempo and maintaining rhythm through 3-5 seconds of technical development.

If we can extend that tempo through a ladder and then distract the students by introducing a ball skill then the tempo should be maintained. This results in stronger concentration skills, faster feet, and consistent rhythmic expression and transitions.

Power Leaks, Proprioception, and Complex Movement

Ultimately this is exactly when and where most athletes fail in the mastery of ball striking. Have you ever seen your athlete or another athlete take “a hop” or stutter step prior to striking a ball? This “power leak” is seen in the “hop” –our physical energy goes up and down thus resulting in stabilizing issues related to striking through the ball in a different vector. The hop is detrimental to the overall power vector. You can’t fix the hop in a ball striking session – you can only fix the hop with rhythmic and fluid footwork. The player has to trust their movement on a linear plane without going up and down. —Most of this work is done in the “entry way” of the LeftFoot Footskills progressions.

At the same time the stutter step is not a Footskills or Ball Striking issue, it’s a Spatial Awareness issue. How far am I away from the ball and what’s my timing related to tracking an object in time and space? This fundamental athletic question is addressed in Aerial Warfare. Where am I in relationship to the ball and how much power do I need to generate to keep the ball close to me and how much force do I need to generate as I “see my foot hit the ball”. In athletic development terms: proprioception is the awareness of where my body is and how much force I need to employ in generating movement of my body. The challenge for developing soccer players is then to connect proprioceptive awareness of the body and extend it to the ball.

The question the body and mind are asking in a juggling exercise is: How hard do I need to strike the ball and where can I generate that movement in my body as it relates to the momentum of the ball as it travels in time and space? This is one of the reasons players hate Aerial Warfare or juggling so much! It’s incredibly complex to measure time and space of a moving object and connect it to my developing body! From a 10-year old perspective – “I can barely control my body! You want me to control a moving object too!?”

That’s why as a coach we need to blend and disguise these athletic questions through the development of a whole player. As an athlete learns how to develop “ rhythm and power” through our fundamental Footskills and lateral deceleration we can then move through linear deceleration principles with more force generation. However, force generation needs simple techniques to teach through our Aerial Warfare progressions. Techniques like jumping and landing properly will help players learn to “load” their body to produce more force. If I can’t “load to explode” (a funny coaching point of mine…) then I won’t be able create power in a one step approach of the low instep drive. But we don’t teach “load to explode” in Ball Striking sessions. We teach it in Aerial Warfare “entry way” sessions so that we can generate power in heading techniques.

But I Really Want to Get Better At Ball Striking!

Now that I’ve brought everything together in terms of Ball Striking and the subtleties of the complex techniques, how then can you help your player become a better Ball Striker?

Make them a better athlete. As one parent asked me, can I just do One on One Coaching to get better? Honestly, no. You need diversity in learning, experience, and communication. What I can learn from one activity and apply that to the next activity will help me in terms of overall development. But it takes time. You can’t develop rhythm overnight. You can’t learn how to generate force in one session. You have to experience soccer and athletic development as a whole. Part of our overall theory and method of developing players takes this into consideration as we roll out our curriculum each season. Our Aerial Warfare, Spatial Awareness, Footskills, and Ball Striking sessions have an underlying theme that is woven between Entry, Academy Series, and now will be applied to Semi-Private Coaching and One on One Coaching sessions. We’ve noticed that parents are taking “too much” control of their player’s learning and it’s creating lopsided players.

We saw in Promotions, recently, that players have great Ball Striking technique but can’t dribble or play the ball in the air. Or, they have great foot skills but can’t shoot. That’s not the LeftFoot way… that’s not a LeftFoot player. And so I was asked to address this overall issue from coaches and our team…you don’t get better at Ball Striking by only going to Ball Striking sessions. And that’s the point of LeftFoot. We’re trying to develop great players that can contribute to their teams in ways that role players can’t and won’t. We’re trying to develop the whole person as an athlete first, and a soccer player second.

The Academy Accelerators

In essence, one of the reasons we developed the Accelerator programs for the summer was that in the past we wanted to consolidate learning for athletes that needed to see the “big picture.” How do we connect what we’ve learned in Footskills, Ball Striking, and Aerial Warfare with Spatial Awareness to complete the player? I’ve referred to Accelerators as “drinking through the fire hose of techniques”. It’s such a compact and intense methodology of learning that players can see their way forward through the Academy or can wrap up their experience in the past couple of months to “bump” it forward.

Unfortunately, it’s become a “camp” and I never wanted to create a “camp” at LeftFoot — But after the amount of requests and being a parent myself, I’ve noticed the benefits of creating the Accelerator to help players get a firm foundation and introduction to the Academy.

So I invite you to experience the Academy Accelerators if your player is still within their first year or wants to start the Academy. Everything we teach in the Academy year is “downloaded” in one week. Many of our best students have completed Accelerators over the years as a way to get a head start on the summer or a tune up.

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