Learning to lead through sports coaching
Five essentials young players MUST learn

Five essentials young players MUST learn

The players in the team I coach are nearing the end of the foundation phase (U7-U11). I recently found myself looking back on their development, thinking about which skills I wanted them to have developed most.

I came up with five skills and techniques that I think are fundamental for developing good young footballers. These are:

  • manipulating the ball while moving (i.e. dribbling);
  • shielding (or hiding the ball);
  • turning with the ball;
  • scanning; and
  • receiving.

Travelling with the ball (or dribbling)

Being able to move the ball, and move with the ball, is the most fundamental skill in soccer. Thankfully it’s now FA orthodoxy that mastering the ball should be the prime focus of early learning in football. (This FA coaching article on coaching ball mastery is typical.) This is something that the Spanish and other footballing cultures have known for decades if not longer. 

Given that moving the ball towards and into a goal at one end of the pitch while keeping it away from a goal at the other end of the pitch is what football ultimately boils down to, it’s difficult to think of a reason why any football training activity should not involve players having balls at their feet – certainly at primary school age and probably into their teens.

A radical idea in the early 2000s

And yet into the twenty-first century that fundamental was still a radical idea in England. In Jose Mourinho’s early days at Chelsea he announced at the end of a day’s training that the following day’s work was on sprinting. Didier Drogba turned up the next day with running spikes expecting to work on a running track. For Mourinho – then an innovative visionary in Premier League terms – the idea of football training without involving a football at all was ludicrous. The session was on the grass, with footballs, in football boots.

I always want to help players develop skills at moving the ball with different parts of their feet – and both feet at that. When to use the instep and outside of the foot (big toe, little toe), the top of the foot (laces) are critical, as becomes the flat of the inside of the foot (what I call the player’s “putter”) as they learn to pass. And, especially through futsal, players should learn how to manipulate the ball with their sole.

Shielding (or hiding the ball)

One of the things I have noticed in the women’s game, especially at regional training centre (RTC) level rather than higher, is a good technical proficiency in shielding the ball. I don’t see it in boys’ football, perhaps because boys grow up with the rough-and-tumble of street football and so develop an ability to protect the ball from other players in a more organic and random way. Girls, on the other hand, are perhaps more likely to learn the game through being taught. Thanks again to current FA orthodoxy shielding is prioritised from an early age and they learn good practices early.

If a player can’t stay on the ball as an individual, they won’t be able to help their team retain possession. Football becomes a game of transitions, fifty-fifties, “winning the second ball” and, at its worst, kick and rush. It’s not fun to watch and nowhere near as fun to play. Shielding then, together with ball mastery, is for me the absolute foundation of soccer.


Turning with the ball is an extension of ball mastery but one that enables more effective attacks. Twinned at its best with ball receiving (see below), being able to change direction quickly and in control of the ball creates time, space and the possibility of movement towards the goal. I try and get as much turning with the ball in practices as I can.

It’s also one of the earliest areas where I believe touches can productively be rationed in young players. In the game in general, restricting players to one, two or three touches in possession isn’t helpful. It wastes time that could be spent learning to dribble or otherwise manipulate the ball skilfully. And it tends to decrease pressure on the ball: players learn quickly that they don’t need to pressure the player in possession. (After one or two touches they can simply go and take it off them.) But encouraging players to take two, one or even no touches when turning is genuinely a useful thing to do. 


I cannot overemphasise the importance of players looking around and building a picture of the game. On and off the ball, especially as team play gradually becomes more important, good scanning is essential.

Scanning is one of the skills that it is impossible for coaches and spectators to actually see. The thoughts and mental processes in a player’s mind as they play are invisible to us. We cannot know whether a player is aware of the position of teammates, opponents, the ball, the goal, space.

What I look for instead is the evidence. I want to see playing with the head up whether dribbling, passing or moving to receive a pass, and – especially when out of possession – not ball-watching. I want to see players out of possession looking around to see where other players and therefore opportunities and risks might be.

Lampard and Gundogan

Current Everton manager Frank Lampard was exemplary at this, as the YouTube video below shows. In the video he constantly looks around while out of possession and continues doing so when he receives the ball:

Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan is a good example for young players to watch in today’s Premier League.

Receiving the ball

Receiving skills aren’t just used for a player on the end of a pass from a teammate. Being able to control a ball with a first touch is critical for intercepting from an opponent or winning a loose ball in open play.

The critical thing for young players to learn is that a good first touch isn’t necessarily one that kills the ball stone dead. That’s impressive, and invariably brings murmurs of approval from watching parents. But trapping the ball completely stops not just the ball’s movement but the game’s movement. I’ve seen many good moves come to an end because a player in a great position has killed the ball dead rather than knock it in the direction they want to move next with it. That’s something young players should hopefully understand. And it should also encourage any young footballer yet to develop the soft touch needed for instant ball-trapping.

There is a before-during-after sequence I’m looking for when players receiving the ball: I want to see scanning (see number 4 above). Here we’re talking especially about “checking shoulders” to look for opportunities or risks behind the way the player is facing. And I want to see a good open body shape. (Standing sideways to receive didn’t quite make my top 5 but would have made a top six or seven!)

Combining skills

During the receipt I want to see evidence of shielding (number 2 above) and after I want to see evidence of being able to move the ball (number 1 above) and possibly turning (number 3 above).

This combination of fundamental techniques may make receiving the most valuable technical skill in the game. Its success depends on and refines so many other basic skills. But it also means that those other fundamentals must be learnt before it can be executed successfully. Developing them means your players will leave the foundation phase with a solid foundation for the future.

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