Ball mastery and skill acquisition are crucial themes when coaching young players. But how complex should we make our practices when working with younger age groups? And how can we optimise these sessions to give kids the best developmental outcomes? Below, Gabriel Flores, Youth Development Phase Coach at Fulham FC, discusses the importance of technical coaching, its role within the wider context of player development, and how, by manipulating environmental constraints, we can use ball mastery sessions to help develop confident, adaptable players.

In This Article

Skill Acquisition in Younger Age Groups

In order to develop the competence and confidence required to learn more complex technical and tactical elements of the game later on, kids must first build a relationship with the ball. “The Foundation Phase [normally comprising kids aged 8-12] is an invaluable opportunity for young players to be creative, find themselves as individuals, and build that relationship,” explains Flores. “When we’re young, our creativity is at its highest; we want to stretch things; we have a natural curiosity and desire to experiment.”

Tapping into that curiosity is key to Flores’ approach; he doesn’t just give young players plenty of time on the ball — he encourages them to play with it in different ways, within a range of different environments: “Our ball mastery sessions include lots of twists, turns, and skills. Players explore the relationship between the ball and their feet, whether it’s ball manipulation with the outside, inside, laces, sole, or the heel of the foot. That complete array of work then progresses to understanding the different ways to dribble.

“For example, there’s the ‘Messi dribble’, which is lots of tight, controlled touches, and the ‘Mbappé dribble’, which focuses more on physical qualities and bigger touches in order to cover ground quickly. It’s important for players to understand all the different layers that come within ball mastery and dribbling.

“Then we let players experiment with it — in both chaotic and structured environments. We give them a wide array of experiences — chances to try, fail, reflect, and do it all again.”

Preparing Young Players for the Future

Flores’ methods are underpinned by an appreciation that football is ever changing; we don’t know what the game will look like in the future, so it’s vital that we help players to develop a wide range of skills and an understanding of when to use them, not simply teach them to play in a way that’s suited to the present moment.

“We can’t just prepare players for what there is now,” says Flores. “But we can expose them to different things — for example, interference-based dribbling, where it’s just them and the ball, equal dribbling (1v1s and 2v2), or even overloaded and underloaded scenarios.”

Crucially, this mix of experiences can help us to encourage decision-making within technical coaching sessions; as well as learning the ‘Messi’ or ‘Mbappé’ dribbles, players will develop an understanding of when to use them.

“We like to blend ball mastery work with creative environments,” says Flores. “It’s about stretching players so that they experience a mixture of success and failure.”

Coaching Ball Mastery in Changing Environments

Flores believes that there are immense developmental benefits to adjusting environmental constraints within technical practices: “You could do the standard grid with a goal at either side, but you could also change the angle or the starting pass,” he says. “You might make the pitch longer (which could encourage the ‘Mbappé dribble’), or could use a horizontal pitch.

“These different formats and settings can help players with things like learning to change their speed, understanding different types of pressure, and thinking about different ways to manipulate opposing defenders; they can help players to develop their overall understanding of the game.

“If we can relay these messages to players at really young ages, they will not only benefit from ball mastery and touches of the ball, but from an improved understanding of their environment. And that can have some really positive tactical and psychological benefits as they grow older.”

Technical Coaching: The Key Points

  • We’re naturally most creative during childhood; we should encourage children to experiment and try new things during these crucial early years.
  • A good relationship with the ball is essential to being able to learn more complex technical and tactical skills later on.
  • Ball mastery can encompass many different types of ball manipulation, with different parts of the feet.
  • We should help our players to be adaptable in order to prepare them for whatever the game looks like in the future.
  • Exposing players to many different environments and challenges is key to helping them develop technical skills and become proficient decision-makers.

Image Source: matimix from Getty Images

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