Guest Blog: Written by Robert Kleemaier (Recently featured on Year Zero Soccer)
- Practising the basics without inspiration can make the game stale.
- Small-sided games like futsal are vital to developing a dribbling mindset.
- Cultural deficits can be overcome through targeted ‘carrots’.
Soccer has been a major part of my life since I can recall. My dad, an Austrian expat, was a major culprit in this regard: back in the day German-speaking relatives would periodically place expensive phone calls or spend weeks visiting us, at times seemingly having nothing better to do than talk at length about those mysterious yet intriguing words such as ‘Fussball’ or ‘Bundesliga’. In addition, my dad & I would religiously participate in an important weekly procession – the Sunday morning saunter to the TV to watch PBS broadcasts of Soccer Made in Germany and listen intently to Toby Charles regale us with his insights on Franz Beckenbauer’s FC Bayern Munich, among other teams. Immersed in this North American sub-culture, I lapped it up like a sponge; soccer unavoidably became part of my life.
Nostalgia, niches & futsal
So it was with a sense of nostalgia that I realized in my early forties that the game had become stale for both my players and me. Whereas practising the basics is the foundation to developing good players, the old way of practising was, well, ‘bland’ to use a culinary term. This realization was a bit unsettling to be honest, but:
an indisputable disconnect had arisen between what people with decision-making authority at various levels of the broken Canadian soccer pyramid were telling me how to coach and what I was experiencing on the field.
Somehow, somewhere along the line, an important ingredient went missing, but I didn’t know precisely what it was or how to get it back. Two events in my life, however, coincided to ultimately change my outlook on how to augment the basics to enhance the game for youth players in my neck of the woods.
First, my eldest child was having a difficult time finding his niche at the start of a new year of elementary school. Accustomed to running small-sided games, I proposed to the school principal that I help out by volunteering some of my time to ensure everyone who wanted to play this way could do so without being shunned. He approved the idea, it was implemented & the problem was dealt with in a subtle and appropriate manner.
Around that time I was also introduced to a new form of soccer. Mind-bogglingly quick and featuring unbelievably skilled players that had amazing composure under intense pressure, futsal left me mesmerized. It was an easily recognizable version of soccer, but futsal had the end-to-end action of hockey or basketball – without the bastardization of the walled version I was used to – plus a zest about it that I desperately wanted to share with the kids in my area.
So when the Canadian winter announces in advance its inevitable arrival, what better time than to start a futsal pilot project indoors? Soon 30 futsal balls were ordered with the generous financial support of the school’s parent advisory council and so began what ultimately turned into a successful six-year volunteer project.
In spite of the good start, three other ‘problems’ quickly emerged:
- While futsal definitely gave the kids a bigger bang for their buck, it wasn’t enough to inspire them to practise or organize pick-up games on their own – something that generally nips the Canadian Soccer Association’s Long-Term Player Development plan in the bud. This is not really surprising, as footy tends to be regarded where I live as nothing more than a glorified babysitting service and/or filler for the main event (hockey) or for other attractions somewhat lower on the Canadian sporting totem pole (basketball, baseball and gridiron football).
- What’s more, I noticed that although the kids were full of endeavour, almost every single player lacked flair; the style of futsal on show was far removed from the highlights of kids I saw from countries with long and well-developed traditions in the sport.
- Even worse, the kids seemed to be conditioned to shy away from taking acceptable risks in the right place at the right time.
It was clear to me that in order to overcome this cultural deficit, the threshold to risk-taking – & by extension to creativity – needed to be lowered, specifically by giving the kids some kind of ‘carrot’ directly related to taking on a defender and going past him/her with confidence.
Impact of the trey
This is where I am indebted to basketball’s trey. Shooting from beyond the arc comes with a certain amount of risk attached. Nevertheless, the rewards make the attempt of trying to make a field goal too enticing to pass up & since its introduction the three pointer has become an integral part of that sporting culture. In short, basketball made itself more appealing to everyone simply by tweaking the rewards system.
So with this in mind, I set out to modify the reward system of futsal to promote a dribbling mindset amongst my players. After all, in mature futsal cultures around the world tremendous value is placed on making a defender look silly – almost as much as scoring a goal! This was nothing less than the futsal equivalent of hockey’s breakaway; all the kids needed to understand this was an enticement to make the link between the two forms. Two key modifications bridged the gap for them:
- Adjust the points system to invite justifiable risk-taking. Needless to say, a single point is awarded for a goal, but the same goes for simply trying the Move of the Week. If the kids execute the Move of the Week properly (or something pretty close to it), give them a point. If, however, the players can do the Move of the Week properly and go past a defender with the ball still clearly under their control, they earn three points. Finally, if players do all that and goes on to score or set up a goal immediately afterward, they earn a total of five points for their team.
- Give the kids more time & space at the start. In futsal, when the ball goes out over the end line, the keeper has 5 seconds to in-bound it by rolling, throwing or passing the ball. But this is difficult in the face of a high press. So a half-court-press rule was introduced to allow kids on the defending team more time & space to try the Move of the Week anywhere in their defensive half. After the break, however, the relevant bonus points can only be earned in the attacking half of the court and within two-and-one-half arms’ length of a defender. This effectively draws the kids into the right area of the court where they should be looking to try to dangle the defender and gain the corresponding extra rewards.
To be clear, the kids are given time during the warm-up to work on the Move of the Week. They are first shown it at speed and then in slow motion before being given the opportunity to experiment a wee bit. After a few minutes, call them in again to deconstruct the process and let them experiment further, paying particular attention to those who are struggling more than others. Then wrap it up by putting it all back together and letting them get on with playing as set out above.
Inevitably, for any new group I spend the first couple of weeks giving the kids regular reminders that it is easier to try the Move of the Week than to try to score a goal. Admittedly, it will take a bit of patience on the part of the coach before the penny drops for most of the kids. But when it does, the change in mindset is truly something to behold and flair starts to enter the equation. Where the kids once didn’t have a clue as to how to wrong-foot a defender and go past him/her with confidence, over time they become more daring & more confident – and all this under pressure and/or in tight in the attacking half of the court.
The groups I’ve had over the past 10 years just love this modified version of the game, are keen to learn a variety of feints like the Ronaldo Chop, the Rivelino Stepover and the Prosinecki, show a fearless willingness to risk failing when justified, and go at it with a gusto that was absent in my practices years ago. Eventually they make me largely redundant by encouraging each other to try the Move of the Week and appreciate it in the right way when an opponent successfully pulls one off. And once you experience this shift in mindset, you and your kids will want more of it because it’s just that much more fun.
So if you’re missing the joy of the game in your youth team’s practices and games, dare to spice things up (again) by adding futsal (street soccer). You and your kids won’t regret it.
For more information on the nuts & bolts of how to set up & run such a futsal activity or if you’re inspired by this article to suggest an improvement, feel free to contact Rob via e-mail: sawmillfc [at] icloud.com.