Check, Please

The single biggest thing that can improve a young player’s game isn’t being taught
by Ken Sweda   |   Monday, September 17, 2012

Technically Speaking - column on player development, coaching & youth soccer

Like many of you, I’ve heard all the arguments about what North American players lack the most.

One main camp says our players fundamentally lack technical ability, which forces us to remain tactically simplistic.

Another vocal camp says we have plenty of technically sufficient players, but they just aren’t valued or being chosen in large enough aggregations (i.e. only “one here” and “one there”), and that we have simply chosen to play simplistic football because the majority of coaches have no tactical complexity and have always won with a very basic, athlete-driven approach that gets the most out of their athletes, but not their “players.”

Neither camp is entirely wrong, and there is a chicken-or-the-egg aspect to this as well. As usual, however, I find myself falling somewhere in between both camps. Let me explain.

Good technical players around the world usually develop the majority of their technical competence by playing informally. This is also true of their basic tactical understanding and awareness. Consequently, they usually discover the “true” game before they find the “formal” game. On their own, they learn the methods and necessity, but also the joy, of protecting the ball, finding space, and being proactive, not reactive.

When these players are “discovered,” their talents are honed into a professional career path, rather than developed from scratch.

The main issue in North America is that our young players’ first introduction into football is in an overly organized way. The vast majority of our players don’t come to a team or club with any foundation whatsoever. They join a program and literally have to be taught everything about the game, from the technical components to the tactical ideas.

And therein lies the problem we have addressed before.

Most coaches don’t do nearly enough to develop the technical aspects of their players because their immediate concern is to find a way for their current squad to win games and keep the parents happy. The technical and tactical deficiencies go hand-in-hand and are a result of the same problem. The coaches don’t have a lot of tactical sophistication, therefore don’t need to develop any technical abilities in their players. It becomes a vicious cycle that can’t fully be broken until a generation of players comes to the organized game with a better self-developed foundation.

Should players ideally come into a team with some foundation, as in the rest of the world? Should the majority of their pure technical development fall on their own shoulders, at home, by themselves or with friends? Of course, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

So how do we deal with this issue within the system we have?

Fundamentally, the argument of the first camp is true: we do lack the appropriate numbers of technical players, on a percentage basis, within individual clubs and teams. As a country, we probably have enough to compete but there is no critical mass where these players are becoming the predominant members of our pool.

The second camp also has an argument, however: because so few individual clubs or teams have a broad base of technically competent players, they are limited tactically. Combine that with a coach/DOC who doesn’t value a possession ethic anyway, and it’s a recipe for disastrous footy. That hinders the ability of our NA programs to move forward in any meaningful way, as there are so few coaches who have worked in an entirely possession-based program.

In short, clubs must do a better job providing technical training to their players, as the players aren’t developing those qualities on their own. But clubs and coaches must also value and utilize those players in much more tactically demanding and expansive systems, resisting the urge to win the old ways. Winning and development can and do go hand-in-hand if you commit yourself properly.

This entire discussion, however, is already old territory for this column. So what’s the real point of this piece?

Check the title once more, please.

A few years ago, when my older daughter first began playing club soccer, we met a family on the team who quickly became good friends of ours. The father, Ryan Aoki, was quite a club player in his day (at roughly the same time I was playing rec ball). He went on to a very nice youth career that ideally should have led to a college scholarship, but given the preferences of our development system, that unfortunately did not happen. He tells a great story, though, about playing on an intramural championship team at Michigan State and offering the MSU coach a chance to play them in a friendly, only to be turned down, with the coach admitting the intramural champs would beat them handily. That says all you need to know about soccer in the United States. What wins in the Big 10 (or the college level as a whole) doesn’t quite translate to the world game.

Anyway, back to the title of this piece. During his middle-school years, Ryan attended a camp at Eastern Michigan that was organized by field position. Ryan participated in the midfielder’s camp and learned what might be among the most important, but least-valued and least-taught aspects of the game. Shocker, right? Didn’t I just say that our development system left a lot to be desired? Yes. But as they say, even a broken clock…

What is this seemingly magical part of soccer than so few players in NA, even at the highest levels of our national programs are taught, and even fewer actually do?

Checking their shoulders.

Next time you watch Barcelona, watch how many times every player “checks their shoulders”, i.e. how often do they look to the sides, and behind them, to know precisely where they are in relation to everyone else, adjusting their position, even slightly, based on the new information. The beginning of the video below is a great example which shows Xavi doing just that. The rest of the video is well worth watching too.

While we all know Xavi’s level of intelligence and technique, but how much better is he because he constantly has up-to-date “intelligence” (in the “military” sense of the word) on the field?

Now as a comparison, watch other professional European teams. You’ll see a slight drop-off, but still plenty of checking.

Now watch MLS. Are we starting to see the importance of this simple action yet?

In the past six months, I have focused on very little with my now U13 daughter except for this concept. I cannot over-emphasize how much her game has improved due to this one behavior, and she was a pretty decent player to begin with (see video from 1 year ago):

And another video from a few weeks ago:

The added time and information gathered by simply looking over each shoulder before committing to asking for, and receiving, a pass is nothing short of being revelatory and transforming.

Driving this simple task into every one of your young players will compound exponentially their ability on the ball. The extra ½-1 second it provides a player can literally make all the difference in the world, and the information gathered can be the deciding factor between turning into pressure or away from it, or between delivering the perfect pass or not even seeing the run.

Even my own playing, now limited to fun pickup games with my team, has improved by adopting this habit. Imagine what I could have done at ages 12 to 15 if someone had even just mentioned this to me. I shudder to think what a smallish, technical player like me could have done with an extra second of time and some advanced intelligence. All you 46 year old former youth players in Illinois, consider yourselves lucky!

Final Check

Like anything, habits take time to become ingrained. Weeks or perhaps months of constant reminders, worked into passing/receiving/turning drills is required.

When this habit begins to take hold, however, you will see a multiplicative effect within individual players, as they will now have time and space and information at their disposal that they never had before. Taken with similar improvements from other players and you aren’t simply adding levels of sophistication, you are dealing with factors of two, three maybe four times worth of improvements as the gains build on each other.

I’ve seen the change in my own “game” (such as it is) as a grown man, but the improvements in my daughter’s game have me absolutely convinced of the genius of this simple action. My sideline commentary these days is usually limited to a quick shout of “Shoulders!” as an occasional reminder, and even that is becoming more and more unnecessary. Now it’s up to you to plant that seed that in your players.

Great soccer awaits.


U of Illinois, Urbana
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire
Club Foreign:
Column on progressive youth training, development and coaching topics. Private skills instructor, Coerver Coaching (C) diploma holder & U9 coach. Abashed Holland supporter. Raising two beautiful daughters in the beautiful game.