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5 Tips For Effective Ball Mastery With Young Players

Updated: Apr 12

Young player ball mastery

What Is Ball Mastery & Why Is It Essential For Young Players?

Ball mastery is the ability to manipulate and control the ball with both feet using a variety of techniques relevant to the game. It is vital for players in the foundation age groups to not only develop their agility, balance and co-ordination skills but also develop the skills to be able to change direction, stop, control and shift their body whilst maintaining control of the ball. Having a good technical base has never been more important than in the modern game and to better understand this we need to look at modern trends. At the top level of the game, every player on the pitch requires technical excellence. Just look at the two dominant teams in the Premier League over the past few years. Both Manchester City & Liverpool possess goalkeepers that play with the confidence in possession of central midfield players and both sides regularly retain possession for between 70 – 90% of the game in comparison to their opponents. The demand for players that can handle the ball under heavy pressure, find solutions in 1v1 situations to open up defences and outplay their opponents is increasing. How We Deliver Ball Mastery Exercises

At EPC, the ball mastery part of our sessions is made up of four key segments: Keepy Ups, Skills, Turns & Ball Manipulations. Players attending all our various weekly sessions will work on a different component each week on a rotational basis and the various activities help players to develop their balance, first touch, control, and ability to move in different directions in possession of the ball – all key attributes of the modern-day footballer. We have found that rotating the activities each week freshens up the session arrival for players each week and gives them a longer window to practise and develop each specific segment before testing themselves again in a months’ time which in turn helps to develop their confidence. In terms of our contact time with players, dependant on the age of the players and the specific coaching programme, we currently only have up to an hour and a half with each individual per week, which equates to up to thirty minutes each session dedicated to working individually with the ball. To put this into context many of the professional clubs that our coaches have worked with have their youngest foundation phase academy players in for training up to four times a week and will place a massive emphasis on mastering the ball during each session, therefore this is something we challenge the players that we work with to be practising from home at every opportunity. Taking this into consideration, when working with players we want to maximise the quality of our work and the time that players spend with the ball at their feet which is why we ensure our coaches follow the pointers below to ensure players can practise purposefully. Tips For Purposeful Ball Mastery Practises 1 – Add-in Direction & Interference When Working On Skills And Turn’s An important consideration on skills and turns particularly is to add direction into the practice to make it as realistic to the game as possible. I’ve seen a lot of ball mastery type activities from coaches where players are dribbling around an area aimlessly and waiting for a command from the coach on what move to carry out next which has very little transfer to the game. Simple methods of adding this into your exercise might be for the players to dribble their ball as close as they possibly can to another player, without touching their ball, before performing a turn to get away or adding in a cone or mannequin if you have access to them so that players must time their skill to get around the interference without touching it. Another effective practise design that I have witnessed being used to good effect previously is adding in a start, middle and endpoint for each player in the activity for example: travelling from a cone through a circular coned area to get out to a new starting point. This can help to challenge the players to not only thing about the move they are going to practise but also the timing of their dribble, awareness of other players in the area and their ability to lift their head and find a free cone to travel to. The timing, speed and quality of the action are the real key points that it is difficult to develop without adding in direction or interference at some stage after the player can perform the relevant move. 2 – Getting The Timings Right – Make It Fun! Ball rolling time is a common theme that has been prevalent in all the recent coaching courses that I have been on and it is vital that with ball mastery activities you keep the coaching interventions to a minimum and allow for players to repeat the actions as frequently as possible. Players need to develop an appreciation of the ball and to do this practise, touches of the ball and repetition is essential. Saying this there can be a very fine line between stopping practice and activity too soon and letting it run too far losing the tempo, fun and motivation from the players performing the moves. Personally, as a younger and less experienced coach I can remember delivering ball mastery activities with players, but not getting the intensity I was after from the players after a while, purely because I was running the same activity for too long. Staying on the ball, changing direction and speed and performing skills is physically demanding and I have found that by breaking down a move into a number of ‘rounds’ with short rest breaks in between helps to give players a greater focus which in turn helps them to perform at a higher intensity. Most players love being given a challenge and you can use shorter rounds to set players with a target number of skills, turns or manipulations within that time frame which they can use to compete against themselves or a friend within the group to add a fun element. Another important consideration on getting the timings right is not to focus on too many moves during one session, better to spend more time and grasp one or two during each session in order to help develop the player’s confidence. Spending more time on a particular skill allows you as the coach to monitor progression and increase or decrease the challenge dependant on how the player is finding the move, for example progressing to a double or triple stepover whilst the ball is still in motion. 3 – Maximise And Encourage Home Practice

As mentioned previously we can only impact the players so much with the contact time that we have available, therefore it is imperative as coaches that we inspire our players to grow a desire and love for the game so that they want to develop, practise, and master the skills in their own time outside of our environment. We ask our coaches to deliver the ball mastery parts of sessions with high energy and include as many individual player interactions as possible. Examples of this might be finding out the players favourite player so that you can link skills and moves or even just spending the time to add in an additional part to a move and break it down further for players who might need to go away and practise further, both are a good starting point to be able to set challenges that are individual specific. With our academy players, we have previously run ‘Keepy Up’ leader boards whereby players have after the first block of practice been told that we will record their best score over three attempts across the season. This adds a real competitive element for players to go away and practise outside of training time to develop their own score and compete with their peers. Our coaches have also flooded our YouTube channel with as many skill, turn, ball manipulation possible along with various keepy-uppy tutorials to enable our players to access this from home and see our coaches demonstrate the skills in detail which has helped us to foster a collective environment – you can find these on our YouTube channel. Giving the ownership back to the players is another great way of inspiring them to practise with the ball, whether that be by selecting players who have shown a real improvement to demonstrate moves to their peers during sessions or putting the onus on them to come up with a new move in time for their next session. 4 – Balls ALWAYS Out Before Players. As a rule, as soon as our coaches arrive, we make sure that the first thing they get out and set up in the playing area is the footballs so that those players first to arrive at sessions can immediately start to benefit from additional practice. May seem like a small point this one but if players know that they minute they get to sessions they will be able to get a ball immediately the chances of them being there before the session starts to increase no end! The other thing to consider is that when you multiply the additional 5 or 10 minutes ball contact time each week with the number of touches that the player can get in, these marginal gains start to add up to a lot of time spent with the ball and improvement over the course of a season. 5 – Working Off Both Feet/Sides Most young players will as a matter of habit mainly practise moves with their predominant foot, so how can we as coaches influence and encourage them to work equally off both sides? Firstly, it is important that the player realises the importance of being comfortable with the ball at either foot and also how it will positively impact their game. Once this is understood it is much easier to use a range of coaching interventions and strategies to support players. The biggest asset that comes with being able to perform techniques with both feet is the unpredictability it can add to your game which can buy you more time on the ball. We always link working off both feet to role models within the game when working with young players as the Messi’s, Ronaldo’s and other top players of the world can go both ways to beat an opponent which opens up the pitch and the game for them as a result. Younger players sometimes have an ‘I Can’t’ approach to practising with their weaker foot which is why having a patient and encouraging demeanour when coaching is so important along with subtle uses of terminology such as replacing ‘weaker’ with ‘other’ foot which can be impactful. Some of the tactics you can employ to good effect in ball mastery exercises might be to give players double points to their tally when using their other foot, for example, to encourage them to try and to have a go and building in timed rounds whereby players are only allowed to use their non-dominant foot. There’s no doubt that ball mastery activities when delivered effectively can help profoundly in developing a player’s technical competency and it is our duty as coaches, especially when working with players just starting their football journey to see the value in player and ball practises.

_____________ Adam is an experienced UEFA B licence & FA Advanced Youth Award coach and the co-director of Essex Professional Coaching. After obtaining a BA honours degree in Sports Management, Adam set about establishing a company that aims to engage individuals in sport and physical education, combining this with coaching positions within the professional football academies at Colchester United, Ipswich Town & most recently Arsenal FC. Adam is passionate about helping young people to develop and reach their potential and has been fortunate enough to lead and support in a wide range of community coaching and development roles across his career.


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