In this blog we will dive deep into Foot Domination: How To Master Footwork In Football to improve players technical ability.

“I learned all about life with a ball at my feet” – Ronaldinho

The best players throughout the course of football history have enthralled millions of spectators with their mesmeric ability to master and manoeuvre the football to outwit and bewilder bamboozled defenders. Think of Cruyff performing his fascinating turn for the first time, the Brazilian Ronaldo rolling the ball across his body and stepping over it with the other foot to outsmart the defender and the compelling way that Lionel Messi simply drops a shoulder to move his marker to one side creating space to explode with the ball to the other.

How do we define what ball mastery actually is? Where is the value in players of all age spending time practising with the ball? What are the different ways in which players can master this co-ordination of the ball? This blog aims to explore all that this is needed to know in the world of ball domination.

The Vision

A vision for all coaches and youth developers should be to create technically proficient players that can master footwork in football using their body and the ball in different match situations. Some would argue against the value of what they deem to be isolated work with the ball, instead preaching the benefits of learning how to master the ball through match play and small-sided games. Whilst of course this places players in environments akin to the actual game itself and adds the relevant context of having to consider team-mates, opponents, space and time constantly being compromised; advocating a programme of ball mastery can only aid the confidence and competence required to be effective in matches. The skill of the coach is to balance the time within their training programme to cater for both technical development and competency along with the game insight learnt through small-sided games and a constraints led approach.

‘Master the body, master the ball’

Repetition of touches and ball contacts over time helps to engrain and encode movement pattern co-ordination sequences in player’s brains. Through a programme of regular ball mastery, the neural pathways that run from the brain to the moving limbs greatly strengthen, allowing sequences and actions to become more autonomous and automatic. The Fitts & Posner model of skill acquisition within motor learning (1967) suggests that the process for an individual to master a movement starts in the cognitive stage where the brain and body are performing an action for the first time.

Here, movements look awkward and ‘clunky’ as the brain and limbs gradually start to build the co-ordination required. In the following associative phase, movements begin to look a little more natural as the individual starts to increase in confidence, but there remains a conscious and pre-thought approach with the player having to still think about what they are doing. The final stage is termed autonomous, and it is here that flow is achieved with smooth, co-ordinated movements being completed unconsciously and with no predetermined thought.

This is the stage we are striving to reach with our young players, allowing them to have more seconds to make informed decisions based on the time and space characteristics which are constantly being manipulated in football – namely position (of team-mates and opponents), moment (the timing of performing an action), direction (the angle upon which a movement with or without the ball is made) and speed (the time it takes to complete an action).

The Main Areas Of Ball Mastery

1. Ball co-ordination (ground) – the ‘floor’ work covered here includes movements such as toe taps, sole taps, inside to outside touches, inside and outside Vs and sole rolls. Upon moving from the cognitive to associative learning stage, players should focus on speed of contact and reducing the time taken between touches to enhance foot speed and co-ordination. It is this slight deviating of the ball that can shift defenders to one side, creating space for the subsequent action to occur, be that a dribble, pass or shot at goal.

2. Ball co-ordination (air) – this simply refers to ball juggling and is a great way to enhance players ability to become more spatially aware of their surroundings. Proprioception is the awareness of the body in space and relates to the use of joint position and joint motion sense to respond to what is occurring within the immediate vicinity. By varying the combinations and surfaces of the body used (e.g foot surfaces, chest, thigh, head, shoulder) along with the height and trajectory of the ball, players become more competent and confident at dealing with the ball aerially which has great transference across to controlling the ball from lofted and chipped passes.

3. Travelling with the ball – this area of ball mastery includes both dribbling and running with the ball. Dribbling involves tighter and smaller touches, manipulating the ball with quicker and more subtle touches to change the movement angle, often when space and time is reduced due to the amount of pressure and level of opposition being placed on the ball carrier. Running with the ball is more linear and results in a larger area being covered in less time with bigger touches of the ball.
This is seen frequently in matches when players are afforded more time and space (especially in wide areas) when free of pressure and advancing the ball forwards towards the opponent’s goal.

4. Turning with the ball – possessing the ability to change direction quickly and with a high level of ball management, is a skill required to evade pressure from opponents. Changing pace after executing a turn also enhances the attacker’s opportunities to escape their marker and then guarantee more time for the following decision and action. Turns for players to work on include inside and outside cuts, the previously mentioned Cruyff turn, drag backs, sole turns and step-over turns.

5. 1 v 1 skills moves – dominating the opponent in 1v1 situations is a key area of player development at all ages and stages. Being able to eliminate an opponent with a well-timed and executed skills move requires many hours of practice to perfect the technique required to perform the move itself as well as learn the timing and body mechanics needed to make it effective. Moves here include single and double scissors where the player ‘draws’ a circle around the ball from inside to out. Side-steps where the ball carrier takes a step with one foot and leans to that side to move their opponent away from a central position thereby creating space to shift the ball to the other side. And the ‘Maradona’ in which players place their sole on the ball whilst at the same time twisting their body and turning around to then change feet and sole roll the ball backwards moving it away from their opponent and using their upper body as a barrier.

Check out these ball mastery practices here

How To Increase Execution And Performance

1. Make it competitive – as coaches, try to identify each player’s individual challenge point. Who would benefit from competing against themselves (e.g how many touches can you get in 30 secs, and then try and beat your score)? Who’s challenge point may be to compete against a team-mate?

2. Timed periods of work – placing pre-determined timings on blocks on work can certainly enhance intensity and effort level. Be mindful though of your player’s relative stage of development as those still in the cognitive learning stage may need less intensity and driving of performance whereas others further down the development pathway, may well be further motivated by the challenge point outlined above, of attempting to achieve a certain number of ball contacts in a set time.

3. Adding contextual interference – when training in groups, performing the same movements and actions as others whilst moving in an area, encourages players to lift their eyes up and develop their spatial awareness.

With constantly changing space, players have to identify where to move their ball to, along with the element of passive opposition that this brings.

4. Technical homework – we only have a small amount of contact time with our players. By providing a technical homework plan for them, we can aid their development greatly as with extra ball contact time, confidence and competency levels can be enhanced.

Key Considerations

1. Make it fun – keep enjoyment levels high, ensure a playful approach to your session design and adopt an encouraging and enthusiastic coaching style. Incorporating invasion, evasion and tagging for instance into your sessions heightens the sense of play within a technical programme.

2. Relate it to the game – make sure that everything that is taught is related back to the game so that that the players understand the ‘why’ behind the actions and techniques. This also helps to ‘paint pictures’ in sessions and allows players to visualise scenarios and situations where they may utilise moves learnt from training.

3. Vary where it’s placed within sessions – traditionally, ball mastery is coached at the beginning of training when the players are fresh. Don’t be afraid to mix this up and place this element of the session at different points. For instance, performing ball mastery exercises at the end of training when the players are physically and psychologically fatigued will elicit great benefits of having to focus more vehemently on technique, along with enhancing football fitness levels.

Summary

For players to become proficient and dominant in 1v1 situations, they must possess a high level of technical ability in terms of their ball mastery. Becoming both ball competent and confident in the areas outlined within this blog will certainly improve a player’s all-round game and effectiveness both as an individual and team contribution. As coaches, it is our responsibility to determine our player’s stage of learning and design and deliver activities that are relative to them. Whether it’s more static ball co-ordination or dynamic 1v1 skills moves, spending time with the ball for players of all ages and abilities is imperative for development and overall enjoyment of the game.