10 Phrases I use in training
Way before the concept of hashtags, I developed a set of simple phrases that I used in training to help my players understand some key principles of soccer. In this article I wrote a long time ago, I talk about the top 10 phrases I use in training with my players. I think it will be helpful to you as you work on communicating more effectively with your players. Remember that your goal is to do less talking and have the kids play for longer periods of time. With a few good memes, you can easily accomplish this goal.
Now on to the phrases:
I have noticed that many times I say something and I assume that the people I am speaking to
know exactly what I am talking about. Somebody pointed this out to me one time when they
asked what “playing good soccer” actually meant. For years, I would say we want out players to
play good soccer without ever defining what I thought it meant. It was up to each person to
interpret that in whatever way they could.
This is not a good teaching technique. Being vague is great if you want to convey multiple
meanings to the same words, but most of the time, the simpler you say something the better. We
could improve out coaching by stating specifically what goals we want our players to achieve and
giving them advice on how to make it happen. Most of us think that we are doing that, but
unfortunately most of the time we are not.
Over the years, I have developed some phrases that are short hand for what I want the players to
be doing. Some of these phrases are technical and some are tactical. Most of them tie into each
other such that there is a bit of repetition. I don’t mind that because the concepts need to be
reinforced in order for the players to internalize them.
I think the point of this is to get you to think about how you communicate with your players and
what kinds of points you are emphasizing. What phrases do you use and do your players know
what they mean?
I probably use this term in teaching attacking more than any other simply because players can
develop bad habits that are impossible to break. When the ball is traveling towards you, you must
prepare to receive the ball by opening up your hips away from where the ball just came and in the
direction you want to go next. This means that you have to turn your body to receive the ball with
the foot farthest away from where it was just passed.
Look at the way our players usually warm up for practice. They kick the ball back and forth to
each other while standing in place. I have lots of problems with this activity, but the primary
problem is that it establishes the body position where the player faces only the passer and not the
rest of the field. This is a habit that is hard to break. Look at any professional game and watch for
five minutes. Count the number of times the receiver take the ball with the foot farthest away from
where it came. It is over 80% of the time in most matches. Now look at a youth game, almost
every time a player doesn't do that he loses the ball. Make sure your passing exercises DO NOT
include passing back and forth to a stationary target.
Even if the player plans to pass it back to the same area, opening up your hips allows you to
cause the defense to hesitate. They don’t know which direction you are going to go because you
have more than one option. If you hips are closed (you touch the ball BACK in the same direction
it just came from), then there is only 1 direction you can play the ball in to and this will allow them
to compress the space.
Opening up your hips also has implications for seeing more of the field of play. When players get
tunnel vision, it makes them very easy to defend. If you central midfield players do not open up,
then you have lots of play on 1 side of the field and lots of turnovers.
You must incorporate into your training some exercises that develop this crucial skill. The more
ingrained this skill is, the more successful your players will be.
This phrase addresses the idea of shape and support. Young players are all crowded around the
ball. As they get older and a division of labor begins to form, players realize that they don’t have
to be next to the ball to be helping their team. However, players on the outside, especially wide
midfielders in a 4-4-2 want to “help out” their teammates by moving in closer in support of the
This has the effect of compressing the field. Most of us play games on fields that are too narrow,
more suited to American football than to soccer. Players compound this problem by “pinching in.”
In trying to support the attack, they make the field narrower and more easily defended by the
other team. If they are patient and wait for the ball to work its way to them, then they are
rewarded by having lots of space to work with and few defenders around.
When a player is wide and the ball is played to her, she can close on the ball and still be facing
the goal. This makes it easier for her to dribble, pass or shoot. When she is not wide and the ball
is played wide, she has to run out to get it. When she does get it, she is facing the sidelines and
has to turn just to have the option of passing or shooting. If she does try to cross the ball after
getting to it, she usually has to kick the ball across her body. This will result in a cross that never
makes it past the near post if it does stay in bounds.
Show your teammates your frontside (hips) and show the defender your backside
This is actually covering two aspects, but I liked the symmetry so much, I decided to combine
them. Showing your teammate your hips means that you are facing them. You are available as an
option to him. He doesn’t have to choose to give you the ball, but simply having the option to pass
to you might open up some other avenue of attack.
When players try to create space between themselves and the player with the ball, they often do
it in the most direct method possible. This means running in a straight line to get to a point. It also
means taking your eye off the player with the ball. You don’t know whether a pass has been
made or not, but the defense does. They can predict with 100% accuracy where you are going to
be simply by looking at the direction you are running in. Then they can see the ball being passed
and they can react to it much faster than you can.
Runs to create space must ALWAYS be curved or run on a diagonal. Some part of your hips
must be facing your teammate so that you can actually see when the pass is made. However,
curving the run also gives the passer more space in which to pass you the ball. When you run
straight ahead, unless the player with the ball is moving at an angle, there is almost no angle to
pass you the ball other than in the air. A good covering defender will cut out almost every one of
Showing the defender your backside is the best way to shield the ball from the player. Now make
sure that you don’t interpret this to mean “put your backside into the defender.”This is not a good
technique because then your shoulders and the defenders are parallel and he can poke tackle
the ball away from you. When shielding, your shoulders should be PERPENDICULAR to his. This
keeps the ball on the far foot as far away as possible from a poke tackle.
When making a dribbling move to beat a defender, your move is set up by fakes with both the
shoulders and the feet. However, no matter what move you make, you will always be using your
body to keep the ball away from the defender. Therefore, your backside is what the defender will
see most of as you make your move.
Shake and bake
This emphasizes the fact that most players who are good dribblers have excellent body fakes and
ball fakes. Showing somebody some shake and bake is to give them a good move. With our
younger players, you may have to emphasize this point because they will try to rush through a
move without a very good fake. Since the fake makes the move possible, it must be emphasized.
My wife thinks it is a silly phrase, and you are not obligated to use it, but remember the idea. And
don’t forget that people need little hooks of vocabulary to easily remember concepts. I chose
shake and bake because they rhyme with fake and because I can still see the chicken in the bag
flying back and forth as I shook it to coat it with the flour concoction.
Play the way you face
This phrase is taken from some coaching course I took years ago, and I have heard it so often
that I couldn’t tell you who taught it to me. It simply means that you should pass the ball in the
direction you are currently facing, even if it is back towards your own goal.
Passing the ball to a player who is facing the goal you are attacking, even if he is farther away, is
almost always a smart choice. You can still get the ball back once you have turned to face the
This has direct implications for all of our defenders who are running on to a ball as they face their
own goal. Instead of trying to turn against the high pressuring forward, simply pass the ball back
to the goalkeeper. He is wide open and can help get you out of some dangerous situations.
This one can also be called “don’t turn into pressure.”This is for the players who must ALWAYS
try to go forward with the ball even when they have pressure all over them. You can be
successful beating a defender occasionally, but if you try to turn into the pressure every time,
then the defender just waits until you make your move and then she takes it from you. Midfielders and forwards do this a lot at the younger age groups.
The concept of unpredictability comes into play here as well. If you always make the same move,
then you will become very predictable for the other team to defend. If a defender doesn’t know
whether you will pass or dribble, then she is less certain and hesitates. This uncertainty is usually
enough to allow you to win most of your 1 v 1 challenges.
This also covers the concept of shielding the ball as well. The point of shielding the ball is to keep
it away from the defender. If you turn into the defender, you are exposing the ball to him and your
chances of successfully beating him are low.
Stand your ground
This is my introduction to players shielding the ball from an aggressive opponent. Most players
when pressured by the opponent will try to immediately beat her with a move or kick (sometimes
pass) the ball away. What we want players to do is to feel comfortable no matter how much
pressure is applied. This is how the game can be slowed down. If our teammates are not in a
position to help, then I can hold the ball until they are ready.
What we want our players to do is have the ability to change the pace of the game. Sometimes
the game is slow and other times it is fast. If we are less predictable to the other team, then we
are harder to defend. Development of the confidence to hold your ground against any opponent
will help us do that.
If you gave the ball to a player and told her to keep it away from the defender, she will usually do
so by running back towards her own goal, basically running away from the pressure. She is doing
what you told her, but in the process she is giving up space to the other team and compressing
the space that her own team has to use.
The concept of "stand your ground" is simple, initiate contact with the defender and establish
good position, then stay put. By extending your arms and keeping the ball on the foot farthest
away from the defender, you should be able to hold the ball for as long as necessary. If you put
your shoulder into the sternum of the defender, you can use her weight as a third point of
If you keep moving the ball and your body as the defender moves, you can get the defender to
over-commit and then you can beat her. The key is confidence in your ability to hold on to the ball
against pressure. If you are sure you can keep the player off the ball, then you can wait until the
time is right to make your move or get rid of it. Developing this confidence takes time and
experience. Lots of my activities are geared around stand your ground simply because it helps
the player to develop confidence. It is also one of the ways that you can make a training session
more game-like. 1 v. 1 battles are at the heart of the game. Confidence in your abilities 1 v. 1 can
carry you a very long way.
Don’t dive in
This is simple 1st defender stuff. Most of our players when in the position of being the defender on
the ball will automatically challenge for the ball no matter what the situation. This leaves them
open for getting beat easily and creating trouble for the rest of the team. Once the 1st defender is
beaten, our team has one less defender and their team has one more attacker.
With our younger players, we need to teach them to close quickly on the attacker. We want our
defender close enough to reach out and touch the player with the ball. This limits the time that the
player has to think about what she will be doing with the ball. This is the first step in good
We also need to teach them to approach the attacker at an angle. If she runs straight on to the
attacker, then the attacker can still go in any direction to beat her. We want to cut off at least half
of the field from the attacker by approaching from the side. This reduces the amount of ground
that our team has to defend. The rest of the players can then defend a smaller part of the field
with greater numbers, thus increasing our chances of success.
The key for the player is patience, first set up the attacker before challenging for the ball. This
increases your chances of being successful when you do try to win the ball. By approaching from
the side and quickly getting close to the attacker, you can limit her options. This makes the
defenders job easier and increases the chances for a successful challenge.
Don’t chase the ball
This phrase applies to when I am teaching players about the transition from 1st defender
(defending the player with the ball) to 2nd defender (defending players near the ball). The most
natural instinct in soccer is to chase the ball. If you are defending the player with the ball (the first
defender) and that player passes the ball to another player, naturally you will follow the ball.
This is a problem only when the player you were just guarding moves to a new position and
immediately receives a pass back. As the defender, you have just turned to chase the second
player and now the ball is back with the first player and you are behind him. This is called being
penetrated by a wall pass and the effects can be devastating to your team. You are trying to help
out and giving the extra effort, but two players from the other team are working together to get in
behind you. When they succeed, your extra effort chasing the ball was actually wasted.
So what do you do when the ball is passed off? You step back and become a second defender.
You first turn in towards the attacker who just gave up the ball. You get your head around so that
you can see the ball and you try to keep hand contact with the player as they penetrate. If a wall
pass comes, you will be in good position to intercept it. If it doesn’t, then you can support the 1st
Make diagonal passes
Players are often enticed into kicking the ball straight up the field. This seems to be the most
direct way to advance the ball. However, it is a trap that defenders set for you, here’s why...
As the ball is played forward, the defense can predict with accuracy where the ball will end up.
This means that the team can shift over and compress the space. It also means that they are
more likely to intercept the ball and create a counter attack. The defense loves when the ball is
played straight. With the exception of the ball moving closer to their goal, it is almost always a no
If the ball is played on a diagonal instead, not only does the ball move, but also the defender has
to turn to see it. If several diagonal balls are played, then the defenders have to turn each time a
pass is made. If they are not perfect, then gaps will open up in their defense. This creates
opportunities for penetrating passes or 1 v 1 moves with good attackers against weaker
defenders. Any time we can make the defense turn and face their own goal, we are in a very
good attacking position.
Forcing players to make diagonal passes makes them see more of the field as well. This can only
be good for your ability to possess the ball. Add the diagonal passes to players opening up to the
field and you can greatly increase your chances of retaining possession of the ball. If players are
confident attacking by dribbling as well making diagonal passes and opening up to receive the
ball, then you can move directly on to shooting because they are ready.
Don't kick the ball away
While you may get into the details of this phrase depending on the situation that a player is in at the time (facing their own goal, under a lot of pressure, playing against a superior opponent) and use that to argue that it is appropriate for the player to kick the ball away. However, I am going to argue that at the level of development that you and I are working at, there is not situation on the field where a player needs to kick the ball away. In fact, every opportunity that a player uses to try to solve the problem in a way that doesn't involve kicking the ball away is one more opportunity to learn how to play soccer.
Often, I will compare kicking the ball away to a player taking his or her head off of their shoulders and putting it on the ground and kicking the thinking part of their body as far away as possible. Instead, I encourage the players to think about how to solve the problem and to use their skills to make it happen. They won't always be successful, but they will learn the game faster than if they simply kick the ball away.