Training at Home: Targeted Training

This is part 2 of a series on what type of work I think players should be doing at home. With many clubs in California on a break, this is the perfect opportunity for players and families to take individual development into their own hands.

In the first post, I covered Volume Training, where general technical development is the priority, and players form a relationship with the ball. In this post, I want to cover more specific Targeted Training.

As players get older, the tactical and technical demands on them becomes higher, and more distinct. The requirements for a left back are not the same as for a central attacking mid, for example. While general technical development will always have a place in a player's training regimen, targeting and rehearsing specific skills, patterns, and movements can lead to greater improvements in a narrower skill set, at a faster rate than more general training.

For example, everyone in world football is aware of Arjen Robben's signature move: as a left footed player on the right wing, he will try to start wide, cut inside onto his left foot, and shoot. Despite the countless number of top-level defenders who have been roasted by this seemingly simple move, it continues to be effective. Here is a 5 minute video of nothing but that:

Here is a video of Robben continuing to hone that exact move, even at the age of 31 (when the video was taken 3 years ago):

Rene Meulensteen, a former assistant coach at Manchester United, credits Cristiano Ronaldo's rise from inconsistent winger to world class goal scorer to the amount of finishing work he put in outside of team training:

We worked on positions, which zone he was in, 1 (in front of goal), 2 (to the sides) or 3 (further out). We worked on what type of finish. One-touch. Do you need to control it? Volley it. Pass it in. Side-foot it in. Chip it in. We worked on certain goalkeepers. Did they have a certain trend? It’s details. When [post-Ronaldo] we played Schalke away in the Champions League semi [in 2011], we knew that Manuel Neuer, a good goalkeeper, was like Peter Schmeichel and would come out with a star jump [spreading himself]. So we worked on finishes low to either side, low through the legs.

This type of training does not only pertain to attacking play. Here is a clip of Atletico Madrid's coach, Diego Simeone, working with the backup outside backs on some specific movements and skills for their position:

Practical Recommendations

The key for getting the most out of Targeted Training starts with correctly identifying the skills, scenarios, and area of the field that a player needs work in. Take a winger for example. Most people would agree that wingers need to contribute goals and assists. But how? The exact method is different for every team. Some wingers supply crosses, some cut inside and shoot, some make runs off the ball, some are expected to dribble the ball and beat players, some check inside and play through balls for their teammates... The possibilities are endless. Through rigorous self-evaluation and conversations with the coach, a player needs to understand their role in the team, and the skills they need to excel at, and execute on game day. Without correctly identifying areas to improve, any targeted training will not be maximized.

Once you have identified exactly what scenarios need work, designing an appropriate drill is the next step. The most useful starting point for this is to imagine a scenario straight from a game, and slowly remove players and complexity until you have a situation a player can work on individually, with 1 other person, 2 people, etc. As an example, let's continue with the trademark Robben goal. This sequence usually starts with Robben checking in and receiving the ball from a center mid, while the outside back overlaps him. The striker will run in behind the backline to the left or right of Robben to occupy the backline. Depending on how the defense reacts, Robben will have two options ahead of him to pass to, a clear shooting lane inside, a lane to dribble outside if the defense overcompensates towards the middle, or options behind him to recycle possession. Feasibly, in this situation, Robben needs to be able to pass into space, shoot from distance, dribble inside, dribble outside, or pass into feet. However, to maximize the time spent, it is best to focus on just a couple variables. I am sure that at team training, each of these options is rehearsed, but during Robben's personal sessions, the options are more limited, and therefore more focused. He could have chosen to work on the dribble to create the shooting opportunity, and added in a defender. He could have added 2 pug goals to pass into to simulate teammates. He could have added in 2 training dummies so he could work on dribbling down the outside and crossing. He could have added 2 more pug goals so when the trainer shouts a certain color, he turns around and passes into the pug goals. He could add a million pieces of equipment and a million variations, and none of it would really help him improve. Choosing what to NOT focus on is just as important as what you ARE focusing on. Again, rigorous analysis and conversations with a coach are very important for this.

Lastly, the time and intensity spent on a particular skill is a the final piece of the puzzle. Working on a skill for a couple weeks and then moving on will not lead to much improvement. Working the same drill for two hours in one day will also not lead to improvement in game-speed execution. The best strategy for improving a targeted area is a medium to long term focus, using short intense intervals of training in a given session. I can guarantee Robben was not working on full-speed dribbling and shooting for two hours because of the simple fact that you can't maintain a high, explosive intensity for that long. This is a common mistake in goalkeeper training for example, and one I have made myself as both a player, and a trainer. We ask goalkeepers to dive at full stretch up and down the penalty area for 5 minutes in a row, when they rarely exert themselves longer than 5 seconds in a game! In targeted training, the quality of an action should take priority over the quantity. In a drill like Robben's it is better to get 25 repetitions at a game-like intensity, than to do 100 that taper down in quality. A simple strategy for the above drill would be to do a repetition at full intensity, then walk back to the starting point. Continue this way for maybe 5-10 minutes, and take a water break. Come back, tweak the exercise a little (instead of dribbling through the cones, maybe combine with another player), and continue for another 5-10 minutes.

Along with this, a given skill needs to be given time to improve. A finishing session once a week for a month won't turn a player into the top scorer next season. If you do the proper prep work and correctly identify a given skill to focus on, design a realistic drill, and bust your ass 2-3 days a week on every rep, you still won't notice significant improvement for at least month. It's important NOT to go with whatever flavor-of-the-week skill you see in a highlights video, and focus on a skill or scenario that crops up consistently in games for your player. You can absolutely tweak an exercise, alter the dimensions, etc. but never lose sight of the core skill you want to improve.

Training at Home: Volume Training

With most clubs in California taking a month or so off for the summer, and the World Cup on TV, players and families of all levels should be taking charge of their own development and education over the next several weeks. Coaches always want to try and find the players with a passion for the game, and a hunger to improve on their own time. An area I haven't done well enough as a coach is guiding players and parents on how to best spend time on their own. I have given players assignments, even going as far as dividing them up by position, but I haven't gone about it in a systematic or detailed way. I am looking to change that this summer, and below is my brain dump on the types of activities players should be doing at home.

Volume Training

A good portion of any player's work at home should focus on pure volume, meaning lots of touches on the ball at varying intensities. I would put lunch time games at school, kicking against a wall, juggling, and different pieces of footwork through cones all in this category. The type of training one does most will have a heavy influence on their style of play, and their own individual flavor. Moussa Dembele, a center mid for Tottenham developed his own dribbling style this way:

As a youngster in Antwerp Dembele would play without goalposts, meaning the only way to score was stopping the ball on a line at either end of the pitch.

This is where he developed that trademark turn that wouldn’t look out of place in the figure skating world.

With a drop of the shoulder and a chop back on the ball with the outside of his foot Dembele regularly acts out Swan Lake with boots on.

Dembele is known for his ability to dribble even in a crowded midfield, an ability honed while playing pickup as a player. However, due to the fact that they played without goals, he never developed a strong ability to score. This is despite the fact that he has likely spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours at organized training in front of goal.

Another example is Santi Cazorla, a player able to dribble, pass, shoot, even take set pieces with both feet. While players are encouraged to work on using both feet in every organized training session, that alone is not nearly enough to develop world class ability like Cazorla's:

I always preferred my right foot,” he says. “Ever since I was young that was my preferred foot. Once I was a little bit hurt in my right ankle and therefore I started to use my left foot a lot more.

“What I would do after training is stay half an hour and kick the ball against a wall with my weaker foot over and over again to make sure it gets stronger. And young players should remember that everything comes from the base of hard work, so never give up. Being able to use both feet was something that came quite naturally to me ever since I started playing. However, it’s something I work on all the time to make sure that level never gets any lower.

The pickup soccer culture isn't the same in America as it is in Brazil, or the Netherlands. Players may struggle to find games to play in at a moments notice, but that shouldn't stop them from inviting friends over to play with, or organizing them on their own. I coach a U12 player who will play with grown men on Fridays at a park to get a game in! Playing in the backyard with parents or siblings, getting the neighbors out to play, or organizing games at lunchtime at school are also good alternatives. I would also include joining a futsal team, Sunday League team, indoor team, etc. in this category of informal/pickup play.

Regardless of the method, players need to find a way to get thousands and thousands of touches on a ball at home. I have found Beast Mode Soccer to provide some quality free content, and they also offer premium paid training plans as well. The link to their YouTube channel is here. The drills are easy to do at home, and add your own variation to.

Kicking against a wall is another staple in every soccer culture out there as a free way to get lots of reps, and get a feel for the ball with both feet, and every surface of the foot. Passing and shooting technique, first touch, receiving the ball to turn, juggling against a wall... the possibilities are limitless. Here is an example from pro women's player Yael Averbuch:


The main function of this type of training is to eliminate the ball as a variable in the decision making process. At the professional level, when the ball is passed towards a player, they don't need to think about how they will control it, which foot they will use, how to counteract the spin on the ball... all of those details are processed instantly because of all the time they have spent with a ball their entire lives. This is backed up in part by a study examining Neymar's brain activity while moving his foot versus other soccer players, athletes, and regular population. This frees up players to focus on the positioning of the opposition, their teammates, where the goal is, etc. We have all seen a young player receive the ball under pressure, and turn right into a defender. We all know the player made a poor decision, but more often that not, it is because they had to focus so much attention on controlling the ball, that they were unable to perceive the defender closing them down.

For younger players, up until maybe ages 12-14 (depending on the level), it is my opinion that most of their time outside of team training should be spent on 'volume training', involving the activities above. Just the player and a ball should be enough most of the time, along with some form of pickup or other informal play peppered in.

Practical Recommendations

For the very youngest players (1-6), Tom Byer has more understanding than anyone else I have come across. This article presents his views very well. His advice is simple: always have some small balls (all the way down to the mini size 1 balls) around the house, and teach them the sport is not a kicking game. Encourage them to dribble, stop, and turn with all parts of their foot, and with both feet. These are things even parents who did not grow up playing the game can do. As they grow in skill and confidence, they will be more likely to play and train on their own.

For older players, identify an area inside or outside the house as their designated training area. Show them some of the above videos, provide them with a ball and maybe a couple cones, and replicate them exactly the first couple times. Once they get the hang of them, encourage them to find a way to increase the difficulty, or complete the footwork at a faster speed than the day before. Encourage them to time themselves, or reach a set number of touches, so they can measure their progress. Find a spot at the house, or at a local park or school, where they can kick against a wall. You can also build one out of plywood, or invest in a rebounding net.

It also helps to have a set schedule. Maybe their individual training time is in between World Cup games, or before lunch, or when they get back from school or daycare, or for 15 minutes before they leave for school. Maybe they will ask you to drop them off early at training, or stay late, so they can work on their individual skills.

Keep a soccer ball or two in the car, so if there is some downtime somewhere, they can pull it out and juggle, or pass with a sibling, or play 1v1 with whoever else is around. Make the ball an ever-present wherever you travel. It will be a good way for them to blow off some steam on car trips, and get away from any handheld electronics. If they can, they should keep a ball in their backpacks or lockers, even if it is just a size 1 or 2 mini ball.

Encourage the players to set up their own regular games at your house, a friend's house, or down the street. For example, every Wednesday at 4 pm, Jacob and Jimmy and Johnny will all meet me at the park and we play until 5 pm.

All of these different activities are part of a virtuous cycle: as they get better and improve, they will enjoy playing more. If they enjoy playing more, they will do it more often. If they do it more often, they will get better... This carries over to team training as well. Players will go to and leave training in a better mood, more excited to play, and more motivated.

The dirty little secret about player development is that so much of it happens at home, away from a coach, and away from organized play. Somebody like Messi or Neymar or Hazard didn't develop to a world class level because they played for the local academy 3 times a week for 90 minutes when they were 10 years old. Coaching absolutely plays a role in developing these players, but it is simply the tip of the iceberg.