Skill Acquisition in the Girls Game
Are enough young female players getting the required skill instruction and acquisition to play soccer at a proficient level, let alone elite level? When you watch your daughter play the game, is she aimlessly kicking the ball when confronted with pressure or is she trying to solve the problem by deftly escaping pressure through dribbling or by passing to open teammates? To begin with, it’s impossible to properly answer that question unless you have an adequate sense of what the game is supposed to look like. In the same way, you cannot fairly judge your daughter’s writing skills if you’ve never actually read a book. Unfortunately, you also cannot solely rely on the assessment of others nor adequately judge her ability within the context of her peers. If everyone around your daughter can barely scratch out a sentence then your daughter may indeed seem like Margaret Atwood or Jane Austen.
POSSESSING THE BALL
When you watch the game at a high level such as the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain, or the Bundesliga in Germany, it’s unmistakeable that the best players/teams can keep the ball for long spells. This is achieved through a combination of passing/receiving and dribbling. Even teams with a more direct style of playing longer balls down the field can still keep the ball when required. This is really the foundation of the game. If neither team nor its players can keep the ball, soccer becomes nothing more than a game of chance or a game whereby the fastest, most athletic players win the day. I’m sure that sounds familiar to many of you. Now that’s not to say that possessing the ball will always win you soccer games. Certainly not. In the younger years when skill is in its infancy, trying to possess the ball may actually lose you more games than you are comfortable with. But the act of trying to keep the ball exercises just about all the skills required in the game such as dribbling, passing, receiving, awareness, decision-making, etc. Kicking the ball aimlessly exercises none of those skills. In other words, possession is a reflection of ability, and ability is what everyone should be cultivating at the youth level.
Far too often, young female players are told that “soccer is a passing game” and therefore dribbling is strongly discouraged. This type of thinking destroys skill acquisition. We are not disputing that soccer is a passing game. It most certainly is. But there’s often a failure to understand the fundamental role that dribbling plays in passing the ball. At TSS, we firmly believe that you cannot efficiently keep the ball as a group through passing until the individuals in that group are proficient at keeping the ball as individuals through dribbling. This is a big misconception in the game at the youth level. Dribbling and passing are not two solitudes. They are inextricably linked. Young players need to learn how to dribble evasively, escaping pressure in order to create passing angles or goalscoring opportunities. I would argue that dribbling is the most under-coached skill in the girls game. The reason why your daughter kicks the ball away aimlessly or attempts a pass with a zero chance of connecting with a teammate is because she is stressed. She is stressed because she has not been given the tools nor the latitude to dribble evasively away from the oncoming pressure. The ability to dribble evasively buys her a few additional seconds, changes her angle, and allows her to see different passing options. It removes or, at minimum, greatly reduces here stress on the ball, makes her far more creative, and ultimately boosts her enjoyment of the game.
So how does a player learn how to dribble? Firstly, she needs to learn the mechanics of dribbling. There are a variety of different evasive dribbling skills such as outside cut, inside cut, u-turn, twist off, etc. There are also a variety of invasive dribbling skills such as scissors step, croqueta, drag and push, etc. This refers to dribbling that allows players to get beyond an opponent (invasive) rather than just away from an opponent (evasive). All these skills need to be learned without opposition at first, breaking down the components so the mechanics are understood and built into muscle memory over time. It’s critical that opposition is also introduced at the right time so players can learn to execute these skills in game situations.
This is the type of instruction you should be seeking as a parent. Girls will not pick up these skill magically just from playing the game. Boys are a little different in that regard. For whatever reason, boys in general tend to take more risks when learning a sport. They are more explorative and often mimic what they see on television or what they see from teammates. Most girls don’t watch any or enough soccer, and if they do, they rarely try to mimic what they see. But make no mistake, everyone needs good, detailed instruction regardless of gender but girls tend to suffer more from the absence of that instruction. There are exceptions of course but we cannot build large pools of skillful young female soccer players on the exceptions.
Lastly, your daughter needs to be given the latitude to dribble. If she is continually told that the most important thing this weekend is to beat the local rival club, you will not see her dribble. Soccer at the youth level should be about taking risks and having the courage to try to execute techniques learned in training. Beating the local team is not the priority. Developing ability is the priority.
ATHLETICISM vs SKILL
Another important consideration is your ability as a parent to distinguish between athleticism and skill. If your daughter has grown earlier than other players, has a 20 pound advantage, longer stride, and more strength, it does not necessarily mean that she is a better soccer player - no matter how much the coach may gush about your daughter. This is one of the biggest illusions in the girls game. When skill is absent, the stronger, faster athletes have a field day. The problem is that these players, and their parents, tend to have a false sense of their abilities. They are rarely asked to solve problems by executing skills since their superior athleticism gives them all the advantage they need. The awakening comes once the other players start to catch up to your daughter’s physicality. Now her size and strength no longer work and she is left with no other tools. The coach stops giving her more playing time and stops heaping on effusive praise. Sadly, many girls quit the game at that point. To avoid this pitfall, you have to focus on what your daughter is doing with the ball. Is she developing her first touch? Is she developing her evasive dribbling skills? Give her measurable objectives for each game in terms of demonstrating certain skills. How many goals she scores is not necessarily a marker of success, particularly if she is simply outrunning everyone to get to goal.
WINDOW FOR SKILL ACQUISITION
Lastly, every parent needs to be aware of the window for skill acquisition. Soccer is a foot-eye coordination sport. That is very unique to us Canadians, given that the vast majority of sports we play involve hand-eye coordination. Everything from hockey, basketball, baseball, American football, field hockey, lacrosse, etc. are all hand-eye coordination sports. These activities tend to come to us humans more easily by virtue of what we do with our hands every day. We eat with utensils, tie our shoes, type on a keyboard, text on our phones, change a lightbulb, brush our teeth, fold our clothes. This list goes on and on. But what do we do with our feet everyday? We put one foot in front of the other. Not very dynamic. Not very challenging. So when asked to manipulate a ball with our feet with the same proficiency as our hands, the demands placed on us are far greater and likewise the amount of practice and commitment required is far higher. Soccer requires a great deal of commitment in terms of detailed practice just to reach a level of proficiency. Excellence is a whole other matter.
In order to master the ball, you must take advantage of your daughter’s vital years for skill acquisition. These generally take place from about age 8-12. These are the years you simply cannot get back in terms of developing a comfort with the ball. When girls receive good technical instruction and guidance at these ages, their skills become solidified or “entrenched” as we like to say at TSS. They become the foundation on which additional layers can be built. Missing that window is not necessarily fatal but it becomes much more difficult to reach the technical comfort required to continue progressing in the game.
As a parent, you play a vital role is ensuring your daughter gets the most development out of the game. If the instruction on your club team is not at the level you would hope then, at minimum, give your daughter personal measurables on which she can focus when training and playing. Celebrate with her when she has the courage to try a particular skill in a game - regardless of whether it succeeds or not. Discourage her from aimlessly kicking the ball. Ignore the parents on the sideline who keep yelling “pass, pass!" The objective of the game at the younger ages is for everyone’s daughter to cultivate their skill and creativity on the ball. From that pursuit comes joy in the game.
Brendan Quarry is the co-owner and girls technical director of TSS Academy. He has been coaching girls for the last 17 years and has helped numerous players progress to the collegiate level, including a number of players who went on to the national program.