What’s the best way to get better at soccer? Is there a short cut to success? Everyone says there are NO SHORT CUTS in life, but there’s an exception to every rule, right?
It’s true that the best way to get better is to spend time with the soccer ball on your own, improve your touch and skills with the ball by playing soccer day in and day out in pick up games, juggling on your own, and knocking the ball against a wall. Training on your own with the ball is crucial to become a great soccer player. However, there is actually one short cut to getting better at soccer: play with older and, most importantly, play with players who are better than you are.
The better than you are part is important. Since, of course, some older players might not be as good as you are. And just as importantly is to play with players who know the game better than you do. But you’ll need to master the fundamentals of soccer first, and for that there is no short cut. You’ll have to put in the time with the ball before you can jump to the next level.
For the most part though, older soccer players have a certain amount of wisdom from all their years of playing the game that comes through in their play and young players might not grasp this right away – but you’ll soon pickup those tricks and moves the more you play with these better and, most likely, older players.
If you play with players who are better than you are you can suck up all the knowledge they’ve gained over the years, from feints, to runs, to the way they cut or the way they shield the soccer ball. Little aspects of the game that you might not grasp right away but will filter into your own game the more you play with them.
Playing soccer with players who are better than you are is sort of like compound interest, but in this case it’s not money but your skills that are growing. Essentially, your skills will start to compound and grow exponentially over time. Through playing with better players your skills will improve at a faster rate and build up on top of one another – you pick up one skill that results in your ability to do another skill.
It’s like with money in the bank, as you gain more money over time via interest, you make more and more money. In this case though, your soccer skills just get better and better.
Along this line of thinking, why not play with players who play differently than you do? Play with players of different cultural backgrounds, from Mexican players to Italians to Germans to Russians. I know plenty of Californians who group up playing with Mexicans and stole a lot of their moves and incorporated them into their own game.
Landon Donovan for one has said that’s where he learned to play the game early on and also picked up Spanish. Same goes for Clint Dempsey over in Texas, where he learned the game playing in Mexican leagues, which were more intense and competitive than the American youth soccer leagues.
Branching out can also mean playing with players who have had different coaches and or play different styles. The idea is to not be afraid to branch out and learn from other players and coaches. There might be a rival team in your city, it can’t hurt to play with some of these players in the off-season. Don’t close yourself off to other teams or styles of play.
Speed of Play
One thing you’ll also find when playing with players who are better than you are and more experienced, is the speed of the game picks up. They play faster and simpler which will force you to do the same.
Interestingly though, at the same time, the game sort of slows down. The game becomes more like chess. Methodical. Where the ball moves at a faster clip but players around you aren’t running around wildly like chickens with their heads cut off.
Instead, runs are timed and gauged at just the right moment, players check back to receive the ball, lay it off, and then make another run. Players make hard charging runs into the box at the right moment. The game becomes one and two touch, with all the dribbling taking place at those ideal moments where a player is one versus one and there’s space behind the defender to attack. There’s a purpose behind all the runs and passes. It’s a less is more type of thing, where you dont rush things or force things. If it’s not on, you play the ball back or switch the ball to the other side of the field.
Next, and one of the the biggest differences in lower level soccer leagues from more experienced elite level leagues or players, is the way top level players communicate.
You’ll notice that players demand and want the ball when playing at a higher level than you’re used to. Players shout turn, man on, hold it, take them on, you’ve got time. Players are more vocal and demand the best from their teammates.
Overall, there’s just much more vocal direction going with experienced players. But don’t let this intimidate you, take it in stride as players around you trying to help you and learn to give direction when you make a pass yourself.
One thing you’ll also learn quickly: if you want the ball you need to demand it.
The Soccer Mentor
But again, the key is to play with soccer players who are better than you and to find a mentor – that’s the short cut to getting better.
Model your game after someone whose style of play and skills you look up to. At Barcelona, Guardiola, when he was playing, was a mentor to Xavi. When Ronaldinho played at Barcelona, he was a mentor to the a young Lionel Messi. Messi had this to say about Ronaldinho a few years ago:
But it’s good that Messi didn’t pick up some of Ronaldinho’s traits, too. As in the partying lifestyle of the Brazilian, the samba, the all night discos, and the bongo drums – going out every night. Well, Messi could have picked up all the the bongo drums but not the partying. Yes, mentors can have some bad habits that you shouldn’t pick up.
If you can’t find a real life mentor, maybe you can mimic the playing style of a player on TV. Watch all their games and search for information online for how they reached their goals in the game. What did they do to become a professional soccer? How did they achieve their dream? How often did they practice on their own?
While many players might not think they can learn anything from a soccer coaching DVD, there is one training DVD that’s received a lot of positive feedback, and that’s the Coerver Coaching series, and specifically, the Make Your Move DVD series.
This 5 DVD set is all about dribbling with the soccer ball and becoming more comfortable on the ball through a series of footwork drills. For a young player who’s trying to get better, it’s something you can refer back to and use to build up a good daily routine of drills to focus on.