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.

What the hell is 'technical ability'?

Technique. Technical ability. Proper technique. SUPER technical. These are all phrases I hear thrown around. In casual conversation, skills associated with 'technical players' are dribbling, first touch, and maaaaybe passing. A kid slaloming through cones super fast is a 'technical player', or the kid who can bring a ball down out of the air with the outside of their foot has 'great technique'.

I don’t believe skill was or ever will be the result of coaches. It’s a result of a love affair between child and ball.
— Roy Keane

The above quote is one I think of often in relation to developing the technical ability of my players. There's only so much I can do at training, and as a result, I have to pick my exercises and emphasis carefully. After hours and hours of rondos, my U10 and U11 boys teams can comfortably receive across their body most of the time. This is a learned technical skill.

1v1 dribbling? We've worked on some of the basics, and they are somewhat less competent, but certain players can beat their man in the right conditions.

Chesting the ball? Eh. The best players are mediocre at it.

Curving crosses around the first defender? No chance.

The longer I've been coaching, the quicker I can identify a player's technical deficiencies and strengths. One that's been made painfully obvious is that my player's lack the ability to clear the ball, to really launch it out of our penalty area and clear danger out. Partly this is because the way we train intrinsically strips them of chance to do this in training on a consistent basis.

This is where the art of coaching comes in. As it's becoming a problem, I could remedy it in 2 ways, as I see it.

  1. We could work on it in training more
  2. I could recruit players who already have this skill

The better you do with the 2nd point, player identification and recruiting, the less training time you need to dedicate to training specific technical skills.

That being said, even the pros continue to work on technique, such as this video of Marcelo Bielsa working on defensive headers with the Argentine national team. The difference between this type of work, and what most dub 'technical training' is that it is incisive. It is directly addressing a very specific moment in the game.

And the ability to identify and interpret what needs work is a key skill in coaching.