Receiving, retention, and mastery of the ball are critical skills for young players to learn. An individual’s first touch and overall ball control will have a massive impact on both their competence and their confidence when playing the game, and it’s vital that we can effectively help kids develop these skills. Below, we examine why it’s so important to help players improve their ball control, and discuss some of the best ways to help kids build a connection with the ball.

In This Article

Helping Kids to Love the Ball

According to PDP Technical Advisor Dan Cooke, an invaluable step to helping young kids improve their first touch and ball mastery is encouraging them to fall in love with the ball itself: “It’s all about building a relationship with the ball. If you fall in love with the ball, you’re going to interact with it more often in your free time — at school, in the garden, inside the house — and improved ball control will likely be a by-product of that.

“The informal learning that happens away from training is where the magic happens. We need to inspire young players to do that on their own.”

Coaching Control Across the Practice Spectrum

One way we can coach ball control in our sessions is to move across the practice spectrum, from opposed to unopposed drills. “Essentially, one end of the spectrum could be kicking a ball against a wall, and the other could be 11-a-side games,” explains Dave Wright, Co-Founder at PDP. “In an organized environment, we might start with a relatively isolated practice in the warm-up — one that gives them a high volume of repetition and touches while still providing variety, such as passing and receiving in pairs — before moving to small-sided games.

“Small-sided games would still allow plenty of opportunities to practice ball mastery, but provide more realistic pictures of the game.” The next step, according to Wright, is transitioning to larger games, such as 7v7s, in order to allow players to continue working on these skills in practices that are more representative of the full-sized game: “We’re still creating realistic pictures, but we’re also connecting the dots by bringing in other performers around the periphery of the player; they’re getting time on the ball, but they’re playing the game and making decisions within it.”

By moving across the practice spectrum like this, we can give players the benefits of both isolated and opposed practices, and provide them with realistic experiences that will help them to transfer their learning to match situations.

Coaching the Whole-Part-Whole Approach

Another approach could be to use the Whole-Part-Whole methodology — the process of coaching a larger game, breaking it down to focus on a specific area of learning, and then returning to the larger game to apply that learning.

“Take an endzone game where players have to dribble into the endzones to score,” suggests Wright. “You have the game, and you have a constraint that encourages players to dribble the ball — that’s your Whole. The Part would look more granularly at that skill, perhaps stripping the activity back to 1v1s or something semi-opposed. Then we’d return to the game and see how the skill looks after we’ve worked on it.

“The Whole-Part-Whole approach is great because it enables us to start at the realistic end of the practice spectrum, go back down to repetition, and then return to realism.”

Manipulating Other Variables

Finally, we can help our players to work on their first touch and ball control by creatively manipulating other variables. As Cooke explains, one simple way to change the constraints of a task is simply to alter the size of its playing area: “If you have a 1v1 in a 4×4 grid, players will have to work hard to protect the ball. But if you double the size of the area, players will have different opportunities to move; you’ll change both their behaviors and the challenge points of the task.

“Alternatively, you could change the number of balls used, or the size and type of ball. There are so many factors that we can adjust within the activity design in order to affect the development of ball control.”

“There are loads of ways we can provide variety and opportunities for experimentation,” agrees Wright. “And that’s of significant value to our players.”

The Key Points

  • Encouraging kids to love the ball is crucial to helping them develop their first touch.
  • We can coach across the practice spectrum to give players both repetition and realistic experiences.
  • With the Whole-Part-Whole approach, we can use constraints to help players develop ball control.
  • By manipulating constraints such as playing area and ball size, we can give players variety and valuable opportunities to experiment.

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