Of Course Not. We're Just Doing It Wrong.
Last week, I published a post titled “Is Possession the Anti-Development Model?” I suggest reading it before continuing. In that article, the underlying principle was that dribbling is the foundation upon which all else is built. The word “possession” was used almost synonymously with “passing.” But does possession really equal passing? Absolutely not. All skills are required to possess the ball. In fact, someone could dribble, shield, or juggle for the length of an entire match. If that person never loses the ball, he/she will play a 100% possession game – they did what was necessary to maintain possession of the ball. There are two reasons why I used “possession” and “passing” interchangeably: 1. Many (possibly most) coaches think possession equals passing. I was playing off of this. 2. Realistically speaking, a team that wants to control possession of the ball in a match will pass – a lot – because that is usually what it takes to not lose the ball: give it to someone who has space, and when he loses his space, he finds someone else with space (this is also why many coaches understandably – yet mistakenly – equate possession with passing). This brings us to our current post. The answer to the question “Is possession the anti-development model?” is “Of course not. We’re just doing it wrong.” Basically: Possession, in itself, is not a bad model for development. In fact, I believe it is the best model. If we want to score and don’t want the other team to score, and in order to score a team must put the ball in the net, then we better get the ball and not lose it. Many people take the above logic, add it to the statement in bullet point #2, and then go back to their teams and say: “We want to possess. Possessing requires a lot of passing. So we will work on passing.” Seems logical. But it’s wrong. And this is why: In order to control possession of the ball in a match, a team must have a high level of technical competence and a high level of tactical competence. So in order to achieve this ability, we must ask: “If we want to control possession, and possession requires a high level of technical and tactical competence, what must we do to develop these competencies?” The answer to this question is: Develop the necessary skills and understanding – in the right setting, in the right order. I cannot stress the order aspect of this enough. Much like a baby cannot properly walk before crawling – even though they are seemingly not the same thing – players cannot pass and work on “possession” type concepts before learning to dribble and learning the concepts associated with dribbling. Generally, here is why: 1. Players need to develop comfort and confidence on the ball. Players will get stuck in numerous situations they cannot predict, at varying levels of pressure, requiring a variety of skills. They must stay composed, figure out how to get out of or capitalize on the situation, then be able to execute that idea. Dribbling is the skill of touching and manipulating the ball, which is the foundation for developing the other skills needed: turning, faking, doing moves, shielding, receiving, and yes - striking. Dribbling builds confidence, comfort, and an ability to manipulate the ball in any situation. It must be learned before the other skills.
2. The tactical concepts involved in dribbling are a microcosm of bigger tactics. A player cannot understand how an entire team or group of players should be positioned or move around the pitch unless they know the basics of positioning, spacing, and decision-making. Dribbling teaches these basics: Go to goal or to space to not lose the ball. If the space closes, where can you go? If you change direction to go there, what does the person near you do and how does that affect your space to get to goal? If my teammate has it, where can I go to make his space as big as possible? Can I go somewhere where he has space but can still see me? Slowly add in more players, options, and moving parts, then players will understand the basics of angles, runs off the ball, how their decisions affect others, etc.
3. Possession is worthless without scoring. What’s the point if you don’t actually score and win? Scoring requires penetrating. Sometimes, the best (or only) option for penetrating is to dribble. Players must be able to do it if needed. Once coaches understand this, many of them begin to put together a timeline, which is great. Here is what many of us do:
We want players to know W, X, Y, and Z by the time they are 18 years old. They need to learn these in that order. In order to have enough time to learn advanced concepts Y and Z, we need to start working on them by the time they are 11 years old. Therefore, by age 8, kids should learn and know W. By age 10, they should learn and know X. By age 12, Y, and by age 16, Z. Enter a newly-introduced coach to a U11 team. He looks at his timeline and says: we will begin working on Y, since these kids are U11 and should be learning it at this age. Little does this coach know is that many of these kids did not start playing until U9. Those that played earlier than that played for an uneducated coach who stood them in lines and practiced positions and running. The coach wonders why they struggle to grasp concept Y. They are old enough. They are smart enough. When we go over it on a white board, they can recite what they’ve learned. Why can’t they get it? Well, they eventually do – mostly – but only to a certain extent. And it took them multiple years. These players did not learn W and X sufficiently. Therefore, they did not have the proper foundation to learn Y. If they would have learned W and X first, Y would have come much more naturally and quickly. They also would have been able to learn more in-depth concepts of Y. Just because a player or team is a certain age, does not mean they are ready to learn concepts commonly associated with these age groups. The timeline is about the order, not the age. And yes, this does mean that some players will not get around to the later timeline concepts before age 18. So be it. Development does not end at adulthood. The skills and ideas in these players’ mayonnaise jars may not be touching the top, but at least there are no holes in them. This concept may seem obvious, but it is likely that more of us are guilty than we realize. Consider this: When someone asks you “At what age should players start to learn combination play?” What is your answer? If you’re first inclination is to say “around U9 or U10,” you are guilty. Your answer should sound something like: “Once they understand the concepts of individual decision making and can execute the skills involved in dribbling, turning, doing eight moves, striking, and receiving.” Age has nothing to do with it. This has led the vast majority of coaches to believe that it takes years to teach a passing-based possession style. Technically, it does. But most of that time is spent teaching more basic concepts like: Technically: Dribbling, turning, moves, striking, receiving, etc. Tactically: Individual decision making (involving each of the above skills), decision making involving one teammate, then two teammates, then three, etc. Physically: Coordination, balance, changing direction, proper running technique, jumping, etc. Psycho-socially: Confidence, composure, positivity, resilience, etc. Each of the above concepts have multiple layers within them. They also take years to obtain full comprehension and sufficient enough understanding to move to the next steps. Once the right foundation is laid, players will - without a coach ever talking about passing to possess or requiring a certain number of passes to score – begin to play what many call “possession”-oriented style. At this point, once the coach begins to actually talk about and teach these bigger-picture concepts, players will easily understand them and seamlessly begin to master them very quickly.