Sam’s Blog will be a weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Director of Coaching Education for US Youth Soccer.
A US Youth Soccer member coach passed along these comments and questions not long ago and I thought the topic would be of interest to many of our youth coaches of teenaged players across the country.
I'm currently working on the importance of free kicks in youth soccer. While getting my C license a few years back, my instructor mentioned that up to 80 percent of goals scored at the college level are scored on free kicks. Now add to this David Beckham's popularity and specialty (think "Bend it like Beckham"). Clearly they're important.
What emphasis do you, and/or your organization put on free kicks?
How important do you rate the need to be successful and execute properly during a free kick/set play?
As far as instruction or education, what do you stress to your coaches?
When evaluating a US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program player, does his or her ability to take free kicks or performance on set plays (perhaps heading, positioning, off the ball awareness) affect selection or rating?
Do you recommend young players developing skills or qualities that can be especially utilized during set pieces?
Obviously heading and positioning are important in all aspects of the game, but what about say, the ability to curl/bend a ball from a dead ball position, recognizing a mismatch in set piece marking, be it the kick taker or a target man?
Thank you for your question and the opportunity to communicate with more of our coaches across the country. Certainly set plays/free kicks are an important part of player, and eventually team, development. The player development part must come first since the most important part of a free kick ultimately is how well is the ball struck. No matter how many players are involved in the play only one will make the final strike at goal. So to begin the journey towards team set plays the coach must first develop the ball skills of the individual players. This is the part that I believe is overlooked as too many coaches are too anxious and put the team before the player.
Once we do start to give some thought to set plays the underlying concept for every age group is K.I.S.S. That is Keep It Simple Stupid…never make the set plays overly elaborate. Simplicity, coming back to that individual ball skill, if the most important principle of a set play for success.
As an organization we put more emphasis on the skill development than on the rehearsal of set plays. If the technique is good then the ability to execute a free kick is improved; having said that certainly Under-14 and older teams should devote time in the player development curriculum to practicing set plays.
As to the selection of a player in the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program based on his or her free kick abilities it is not high on the list. More important is the player’s skill level and overall tactical awareness. If the player is good in those areas then in the short time that the US Youth Soccer ODP player and coach are together a free kick can be planned.
Yes, the ability to bend the ball is important and we do want to teach that skill to our players for both shooting and passing. Teaching the technique of bent balls with the inside of the foot begins in a simple way at Under-12 and continues to be refined in the years thereafter. Outside of the foot bent balls could be taught beginning at Under-14. However it is likely that these techniques will be refined until the player reaches adolescence since bending a ball takes power and acceleration in the leg/striking foot.
As to the awareness of mismatches on the set play for the attacking team to exploit I contend that it is indicative of the player’s overall tactical awareness and mental concentration. Mental awareness is taught in a simple form beginning at Under-6 and is reinforced in every age group thereafter. Certainly the expectations of mental alertness become higher as the player ages.
There were follow up questions too.
I appreciate the extensive response to my query. I have just two quick follow up questions, and it may be easier to answer them if you break up the questions in two ways, 1.) Your recommendations to coaches, 2) Your and the US Youth Soccer ODP's coaching strategies: When it comes to games, after you have selected a team, do you recommend/use one set piece taker, and the same list of players that are usually involved in set pieces? Or do you recommend/use multiple takers and participators in set plays?
Once the team is Under-16 and older, I tend to have a set number of players that are involved in set plays. Prior to that age, I try to involve a variety of players throughout the soccer year so that they can experience being part of a set play and to learn from the experience. Until a coach exposes the players to the various roles in a variety of set play situations the coach will not know who may respond the best to those situations. For example it is not always the center forward who is best at taking penalty kicks.
Once they are 16 years old and older then the most important person in a set play is the one striking the ball. For example the most important person in a corner kick is the person actually serving the ball from the corner arc. If the ball is not sent in at the right height, pace, angle and curve then the runners in the penalty area will have little chance at being first to the ball and striking at goal. The most famous example of this was Argentina back a few years when Diego Maradona took their corner kicks. Here was one of the best goal scorers in the world serving in the corner kick because he was the best player for the job. What did it matter if Maradona was in the penalty area when his team took a corner kick if the ball was not delivered to him correctly?
The answer to both of your questions in a nutshell is technique. The player(s) with the best technique should be the ones involved in a set play.