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Possession is the name of the game for 12-14 year olds

(Center Line Soccer's Tim Hanley, a former assistant coach with the Earthquakes, Dynamo, and Galaxy, is preparing a series of columns on coaching youth teams. Today's story, the third in a series, offers tips on coaching players aged 12 to 14. We've also published Tim's tips on coaching four- to six-year-olds as well as players aged eight to 10. — Editor)

If you've done your work in the early stages of player development, this is an exciting age group — 12 to 14 — to work with.  One gets to stretch out a bit and work on aspects of the game that to this point were seemingly so far off in the distance that reaching across the gap was somewhat absurd. Now we have challenging but attainable targets.

In the early teen years of player development, a coach will also be tested, not only by the players' maturity but more importantly, and what we'll deal solely with here, structure, tactical concepts, and the technical savvy needed to pull it all off.  (Both yours and theirs!)  In that there is a great deal to cover, I am going to break this coaching segment into two separate articles.  In this story, we'll deal with some of the technical aspects before we move on the the team concepts in my next piece.

With the play now on a large field, with 11 a side, the introduction of formation and shape as well as subtle tactics will test a coach's knowledge and teaching ability.  If the players have the necessary technical skill sets down pat, one can begin to push the attacking and defending principles.  This is not to say that perfect touch, collection of the ball, or a mastery of every silky trick is absolutely required, but the technical abilities of your individual players will dictate the progress made and the speed in which they learn.

In this age group, a player should be able to competently collect a ball, sweeping it into a position out of pressure in one touch, and pass the ball immediately on the next touch.  The block pass is the simple one but the ability to drive a ball "laces only" is also vital to allow us a chance to bring tactical concepts in to our play.

Here's some technical help on driving a ball.  My players have heard the following over and over again and have no doubt tired of my trite cliches.  I repeat them anyway, early and often!  "The difference between an amateur and a professional soccer player is how they strike a ball."  Most players will take a steep, angled approach to a ball and step too close and behind the ball, so all the momentum is moving away in one direction and yet the attempt is made to have the ball travel in another.  You end up with hooks and chili dips — all ugly.

Picture a PGA Tour player on the range — that's what I seek.  Ping, ping, ping.   Every ball sounds the same, travels straight with back spin only. Yes, back spin only.  Every hook, curve, Beckham bend, is a mis-hit.  Curling free kicks are "on purpose" mis-hits. A golf pro, like a soccer player, has to be able to hit a ball perfectly straight prior to manipulating flight later on.

Have your students work with a dead ball first — no long run ups, we're not concerned with distance — and have the approach be nearly straight at the ball.  A slight angle is fine but eliminate the urge to approach from steep angles.  The run is slow and measured just a step or three, and as the player arrives at the ball they must step away to the left (for a right footed strike) and past the ball with a nice big lean to the left.  I sometimes lie on the floor and teach young players that we are trying to side volley  a ball that is on the ground and not in the air.  The kneecap should be facing the target and the ball is struck with a bent leg. If the step is behind the ball, we see a reach — the leg straightens and the delivery hooks.  One has to really lean away to get laces on the ball, nearly to the point where one would fall over if not for landing on the kicking foot in the finish.

This is a very difficult technique to teach and I would suggest gathering as many pictures as possible from magazines, the Internet, etc.  Try to have the players emulate or duplicate the visuals.  I use analogies from other sports all the time, baseball as well as golf. In baseball, to hit properly one has to be far enough away from the ball, and strike it when it is in the middle of your stance, so to speak.  For your young players, the most common mistakes will be not stepping past the ball, and striking the ball with the dreaded side foot.  Show your players where the kneecap is facing when they strike the ball with the side of the foot.   As I have mentioned in an earlier piece, the push pass is easy — a  proper drive is a game changer.

In order to allow for our tactical work, we need to design training sessions that will get our cumulative skills to a level where implementing the tactics can gain results.  The key that unlocks the soccer door is called "Possession."  Teams that can possess the ball can dictate the tempo,  run the opposition ragged, as well as finish off a game.

I start every session with 5 v 2.  Two in the middle, after that it doesn't matter the number in  your 10 x 10 box.  One touch only and always have boundaries.  10 x 10 works every time.    All too often, I see teams in training or warming up prior to a match , playing keep-away with too large a space and more than one touch. That's a waste of time — you want small spaces, limited time, and limited touches.  No boundaries and more than one touch is the first indication that the coach does not understand the concept.

After fifteen minutes of 5 v 2 combined with small runs and stretches we move on to our technical exercises.   We run with the ball for a bit and then move on to passing grids with changes in direction, wall passes, etc. My goal here is to increase the speed in which we work: Faster, faster, faster!  No mistakes means we are going too slow.  In all the passing drills, I make sure we have limited touches and our eyes are up the entire time. I consider blind passes  a lack of effort and my players earn a chat on the bench next to me for each one.  Once I feel we are ready, we play some form of possession.

We play possession every training session.  The entire principle of possession in training can be summed up as follows: limited time and space based on grid size and touch requirements. The smaller the space, the more touches one can allow, but I usually keep it at two or possibly three. The idea is to get players proficient at playing under a great deal of pressure from opponents.  The key here is each player must know what they are going to do with the ball prior to receiving it.

I tell my players not to ask for the ball unless they know exactly where they are in relation to the opposition and their own teammates.  When I say "ask," what I really mean is the run.  My principle is "make your run be the shout." No arm waving and begging for the ball — the human eye picks up movement quicker than the ear does noise, and this also eliminates dissecting the myriad of shouts.  Try playing silent possession — it's great. With continued work on possession, players learn how to support a teammate through proper angles and runs, sometimes working off the ball for the third or fourth pass in a sequence.

Here's a coaching point:  Support can be defined as "available."  Sometimes being available means to not run!  I think young players are so used to running somewhere, usually at the opponent's goal, that the concept of stopping is a completely foreign idea.  With limited time and space your teammate does not have time to wait for you to get open via a ten yard run.  Just move two feet or a yard or two and one can be available to receive the ball.  Moving in front of an opponent can allow one to be available. I stop play all the time with the same question: "When you gave him the ball, were you still open?"  "Why did you run away then?" Use the Top Gun phrase — Never leave your wing man! The kids always love that one, although the movie is becoming dated — I'll have to think of a new one.

To make this exercise its most effective, do not provide a place to go — i.e., goals. Once you introduce a goal, the heads go down and players seem to just run thinking this is soccer.  The only goal is to possess the ball.  If you simply must introduce some kind of scoring, make five/seven/ten consecutive passes a goal. It's like the old Zen proverb: "No where to go, nothing to do."

Try out all the different games.  Big grid one touch!  Use "free" players, allowing them one touch either in the grid (6 v 6 +2) or outside the grid as one touch  framers.  Try three team keep-a-way — that's a tough one! Transition games are great.  There are a myriad of types so get the books out as to do this properly — as a coach, you will be tested.

Eventually, possession becomes a matter of awareness.  Can we trust you with the ball?  If your players are making good decisions but the execution is off, that's OK. Just get back to the drawing board and do a little more passing and receiving work next time. Sometimes fast, tight and somewhat ugly is OK.  Maybe back off a little, increase the grid size,  but keep trying to put the players under extreme pressure.

The ultimate expression of the possession game, and hopefully you will see this in some of your players, is a back heel and, even more impressive, a "dummy."  If a player can pull this off he is keenly aware of his surroundings — his opponents as well as his teammates.  Rivaldo's dummy to Ronaldo in the 2002 World Cup was sublime.  And who can forget Dwayne Derosario freezing the Kansas City defense taking that little step towards Ronnie Ekelund's return pass, then letting it run by back to Landon Donovan, whose goal beats the Wizards in overtime of the 2003 MLS Western Division Championship match? (See below for video — footage of the goal starts at around 8:20. – Editor.)

The ability to possess as a team will allow the group; to escape trouble deep in you own end, work through the middle of the park in transition creating room for that perfect defense splitting pass as well as creating combinations at the top of the box for goal scoring opportunities.

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