Ball mastery is a fundamental part of skill acquisition and football development. The skills and attributes children learn and hone during this part of their footballing journey lay the foundations for more complex team-based and tactical learnings later on. A ball mastery session gives players the confidence to experiment with the ball and enjoy playing — hopefully providing the basis for a lifetime of participation in the sport. Below, we explain the meaning of ball mastery, examine why it’s so important, and look at some of the ways we can effectively introduce ball mastery games to our sessions.
The Importance of Ball Mastery
Developing ball mastery is integral to having a long and enjoyable journey in football. As coaches, we should give players a variety of opportunities to try new things, fail, and then try again, and experiment as they build a relationship with the ball.
But what is ball mastery in football? According to Nathan Thomas, Foundation Phase Coach at Sunderland AFC, it enompasses skills such as scanning, decision-making, receiving the ball with all parts of the body, and passing with both feet.
“At Fulham, when we were focussing on technical competencies, we used the terms receiving, releasing, retaining, and running with the ball,” adds Dave Wright, former Fulham FC Academy Coach and PDP Co-Founder. “How players receive the ball and deal with it under pressure is the first thing that some of the most experienced scouts I’ve spoken to look for.”
Besides providing the foundation for further development, ball mastery skills also underpin the enjoyment that kids need if they’re to have a lifetime of involvement in the sport. “Ball mastery is massive in terms of creating that love,” explains Nathan Phillips, UEFA A Licence Coach with experience at clubs including West Ham United and Chelsea. “Developing that connection with the football improves the confidence of players and creates a bigger love for the game.”
Decision-Making in Ball Mastery Games
While we usually associate techniques and ball manipulation with ball mastery, skills centred on decision-making are equally important. As such, we should encourage players to be creative problem solvers and give them plenty of opportunities to try new things during exercises with the ball.
“That means focusing on intent rather than execution,” says Stuart English, Head of Coaching at Sunderland AFC. “If you focus on execution instead, players can stop trying new things because, ultimately, they want praise and success.” Sometimes, a player making good decisions but struggling to execute them may only need encouragement to keep trying and make some slight technical adjustments in order to hone a particular skill and keep practising until they get it right.
It’s also important to remember that there isn’t just one way to execute something, and designing sessions that aren’t too prescribed and allows players to experiment and find their own solutions. Then, as players advance, we can place more problems in front of them, creating interference, limited or full pressure and requiring them to find the best ways to get around those problems.
One of the best ways to help kids develop skills encompassing both ball manipulation and decision-making is to design ball mastery sessions that resemble the game. This means appreciating that these skills aren’t developed in isolation — occurrences on the pitch will dictate what solution a player chooses — and embracing representative session design in order to deliver practices that expose and challenge our players as they might expect to be challenged on gameday.
Ball Mastery Practices: Some Practical Examples
Passing & Receiving
The purpose of this exercise is to help players hone their ability to keep possession while developing passing and receiving skills.
Players work in three (or four) teams, each in a different colour and with its own ball, with the aim of passing between themselves and keeping the ball inside the playing area without hitting players from another team. This is an interference practice with no direct pressure, but the aim is for care of pass, quality receiving skills and body shape, and accuracy. Emphasis is placed on players’ first touches, so that they receive the ball while moving into space, giving themselves a clear line to pass to a teammate.
See the full practice: Controlling Possession.
This practice is designed to allow players to spend time on the ball with limited pressure. Players attempt to dribble through the circle out the other side to another gate. They may face pressure or they may see space and drive into it. This 1v1 battle is simple in design but allows for a high degree of repetition of close control, touches on both feet and different surfaces whilst trying to maintain the ball under limited pressure.
See the full practice: 1v1 Battle.
1v1 Dealing with Pressure
This practice is designed to provide opportunities for players to work on 1v1 skills with full pressure from a defender behind them. The aim is for the attacker to try and beat the defender by receiving to face forward, or twisting and turning to find space. The practice can be adapted into a 2v1 session to allow for more variety. Defenders focus on winning and securing the ball. This practice exposes players to receiving the ball with their back to goal and manipulating it to beat their opponent. Receiving and dribbling techniques are present throughout.
See the full practice: 1v1 Practice: Dealing with Pressure.
More practices to help players develop the many different aspects of ball mastery can be found in PDP’s extensive library of session plans.
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