Ah, middle school: where an exciting array of new experiences shapes pre-teens into young men and women of strength and character. Kids often use the academic and social challenges of middle school as opportunities for self-exploration, boundary-testing and mastery of new skills. Not coincidentally, this is also the age at which many student-athletes will transition from recreational to competitive sports.
But be warned – being “ready” for competitive soccer requires more than simply changing teams and donning a new jersey. There are well-defined technical and tactical skills that your child must master before he or she can succeed at the next level. Whatever your child’s soccer ambitions may be, it’s vital that they’re proficient in these 10 fundamental areas whilst still in middle school.
1. Dribbling. Your child should be able to dribble at various speeds with both their right and left feet. Different situations in a game require different dribbling. Getting the ball at your feet, for example, with yards of space ahead requires dribbling at a fast pace, with the ball slightly ahead of you so as to maximize the opportunity. Facing an opponent 1v1, on the other hand, requires your child to dribble with both feet, keeping the ball close to their body.
2. Positive first touch. One of the most essential skills, a positive first touch allows your child to make the most of receiving the ball by immediately going forward. A first touch that sets them up for their next move – be it a pass, cross, dribble, or shot – is critical.
3. Juggling the ball. Juggling helps your child become more comfortable with the ball and allows them to practice judging the height and speed of an airborne ball. These skills are easily transferable to training sessions and games.
4. Using both feet. Being fantastic with just one foot is not special, no matter how skilled that foot is. Encouraging your child to practice with both feet, and even spend a bit more time or an extra few reps of skill drills on their non-dominant foot, will go a long way towards building a well-rounded footballer that coaches will consistently seek out.
5. Playing multiple positions. Each coach has a different style and philosophy, just as teams have unique rosters. Being able to play more than one position allows your child to be more versatile, flexible, and resilient – all of which are important life skills in addition to their athletic benefits. On the pitch, it means your child has made themselves even more valuable as they can serve the team in multiple ways.
6. Tactical understanding of formations. How does a 4-3-3 differ from a 4-4-2, or even a 3-5-2? How does each formation change your child’s role on the pitch? How does it affect the team when it doesn’t have possession of the ball? Your child should be able to answer these questions, both verbally and in their play.
7. Advanced passing techniques. Passing with both feet – and using all parts of your foot, at the appropriate pace – is essential to master before entering the world of competitive sports. Knowing how to add some “English” or curve to the ball using the inside and outside of their feet, how and when to pass with the inside of their foot vs. using their laces, and how to chip the ball above an opponent should be on your child’s checklist.
8. Turning with the ball. Receiving the ball quickly and turning to face a different part of the field will allow your child to move away from an opponent and have space to make smarter and more effective choices on the pitch. Turns can be done with all parts of the body (feet, thighs, chest) and are easily practiced using a partner or a wall.
9. Looking over your shoulder. In my opinion, there is no excuse for a lack of vision – it is simply about effort. A former colleague used to repeat the phrase “Keep your head on a swivel” and it couldn’t be better put. Looking over your shoulders throughout a game – not just when you’re about to receive the ball – is something that all elite players do to gain information that allows them to determine what runs to make, who to mark, and what direction to go in when they receive the ball.
10. Positive decision-making. In this case, positive doesn’t refer to a sunny disposition (though, of course, that never hurts!). Positive decision-making means that your child is consistently choosing to go forward with the ball. While there are times and situations where playing back and “resetting” is the right decision, young players tend to play backwards way too often due to fear, lack of vision, or inability to turn with the ball. Playing the ball forward, toward the opponent’s goal, shows that your child is confident and focused on creating opportunities to score.
While this list may strike parents as ambitious, these items represent the basic skills that high-quality soccer programs teach – and expect players to have mastered – during middle school. You may wish to use this information to facilitate a conversation with your child’s