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The world's best finishers

"The environment is everything, mess with it, have fun with it, take care of it. "

Change the ball, change the surface

An interesting thing happened one day. It was hot, mid nineties and humid. Outside we placed a large sheet of canvas, put goals on them kept the hose running and the kids cooled down on a splash court. As the kids filtered back inside the gym they stayed barefoot. The game going on was a pick up game of 7 v 7 in the gym to futsal goals (3 x 2 meters) with a soft play practice volleyball. This ball is very soft, it is very safe, and the kids had discovered perhaps the most surprising teaching moment of my career.

We have all seen it, the kid who breaks away through three defenders, facing the goalie they drill a perfect strike right into the the keeper's belly button. So this lefty, faster than a jungle cat, broke free and nailed that play volleyball at a good 50 mph right...into the smiling face of a six year old.

For a second I was worried. But the 6 year old was smiling even larger now, he had just made a save vs the best shooter in the gym.

"Finishing can't be taught," this is coaches speak for "I have no idea how to teach it." Current methods put kids in situations to replicate the situation, and pare down the decision making process "Low to the far post, high to the near post." We train functionally, with pressure, with loading, conditionally, and still the highest level of skill in players, putting the ball in the net, remains a general mystery.

So the lefty turned the corner again, this time he took something off, but he still pinged it, the little 6 yer old stayed active and went for it, deflecting it away at the last second.

The gym went crazy, this goalie was hot!

Now the lefty comes again, but this time he saw the keeper cutting off the angle, a very soft chip. The six year old, slow to recognize the vector backpedaled late, the ball dropped just over both arms outstretched, no chance to jump the 6 year old picked the ball still smiling...he know it took a great finish to beat him.

In a "Finishing environment" their are two antagonists, the keeper and the attacker. Perfect learning situations involve simple to complex game theory. It starts out with the very rudimentary "I am just hitting this as hard as I can." 99 percent of our players are in this category. But to progress you need the problem to progress. In typical systems the keeper is the variable. Most teams have one keeper who does only a so so job of staying active as players are in close, they are too smart and don't feel like getting hurt with a size five ball from five meters into their stomach. Certainly they can not keep this up for the hours and hours required for a player to repeat lots of chances. On top of that keepers at 9-12 years old they are not keeper sufficient enough to require anything but a mediocre finish to guarantee that the ball goes into the net.

So at the wheelhouse of learning U7-U13, We don't have situations real enough to reward high level finishing.

This is where the ball came in. It made every keeper great. Even a six year old stays active at the final finishing moment. This requires the shooter to present a better solution in order to solve the finishing problem, not just any shot will suffice, it has to be finished, and with this ball, that is what the kids do they chip, tuck, slide, power, roof, drag, back heel, rainbow, to get the ball into the net. They are becoming finishers.

Kids are smart...here is a good example of them teaching us. I could easily have commanded that a regular or futsal ball was used that day in the gym. They wanted to use that ball to learn something more! They knew before I did, though they could not articulate it, they understood that this ball would teach them finishing.

So my great learning moment was not how the ball helped to create finishers, but how the environment helps come up with the right questions. Without those questions there are no great answers, no genius, no invention.

Three lessons: 1) get a ball like this, it's fun and the kids love it. Then collect as many different balls you can and see what is learned from them. 2) let kids pick the ball rules and parameters of the game. They are smarter then we are.. 3) The environment is everything, mess with it, have fun with it, take care of it.