At Foot-Tech Academy in Leeds we are firm believers in the idea that practising with a ball that is smaller than a traditional size five football has benefits to learning and skill acquisition. We also use futsals and futebol de salao balls which are heavier than traditional footballs and children will even be asked to practise their skills using a tennis ball!
Why? Quite simply – if you can do it with a smaller ball, when it comes to using a ‘normal’ sized ball everything will be much easier.
I recently came across another example of a player who trained using small balls and who went on to be renowned for their excellent ball control and skill level: Paul Gascoigne or Gazza.
In the documentary ‘Gascoigne’ he speaks about the hours spent outside his house practising with a tennis ball to hone his skills. The hours spent with the tennis ball was more influential than the tennis ball itself, although we do encourage the use of smaller balls when practising, it is the fact that players are practising that leads to the most gains. But combining the hours with the use of a smaller ball will lead to increased skill levels and control of the ball.
Gazza is just another example of many skilful players who describe using smaller balls to practice with – the vast majority of South American players (renowned for their close control and impressive ball skills) speak of playing futsal or futebol de salao when they were youngsters: Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar to name three who were fairly decent!
Application in other sports
The idea of practising with a smaller ball, thus increasing the difficulty of the activity which in turn makes the full size version eventually easier, has also been found in other sports. Don Bradman for example, the famous Australian batsman, is said to have used not a cricket bat and a cricket ball to work on his technique but a cricket stump and a ping pong ball! It seems obvious when you think about it – the hand-eye coordination required to hit a ping pong ball with a stump is much greater than is required to hit a cricket ball with a cricket bat. So, if he could successfully hit the ping pong ball it is no surprise that he became legendary for hitting a cricket ball.
One area in which we find this method of training really helps players at Foot-Tech is with kick-ups. This is always an extremely challenging skill for young players to learn and requires lots of dedication and practice to improve. But to be able to successfully do kick-ups shows a high level of ball control and these players are better equipped to control balls that come to them in the air during matches – which can be frequent! They are also the platform to be able to perform a lot of amazing looking aerial skills such as round-the-world, which although they won’t use during matches, every child loves to be able to do them: they are lots of fun and they look ace!
We have found that players who can only do a small amount of kick-ups who then start practising with a tennis ball can quickly improve their performance. Warning – it can be extremely frustrating for them initially! Doing kick-ups is hard enough and then to start trying to do them with tennis balls commonly results in a lower amount of kick-ups being achieved. But, with perseverance, the results soon come.
After spending an hour or so with a tennis ball and only having limited success, perhaps three or four kick-ups, children have gone on to improve their previous score with a regular sized football by twenty and more! Disclaimer – we cannot guarantee an immediate improvement of 20+ for every child! But we’re yet to see no improvement at all.
Another method we use to improve kick-ups performance is by using size two futebol de salao or samba footballs. These balls, as well as being smaller than a normal ball, are considerably heavier causing them to fall back to the ground quicker, so if a player can be quick enough to keep one of these balls from hitting the ground, then, again, they will find using a regular ball fairly straightforward in comparison.
When there is a certain level of competence for players with their kick-ups we would encourage them to challenge themselves further in a variety of ways: by using different parts of the foot (inside, outside, heel…); different parts of the body (thigh, chest, head…) and varying the height of each touch (low touch, high touch, low touch, high…).
Another good way to improve ball control is to decide beforehand what you are going to do, rather than reacting to where the ball is. It is one thing to be able to keep the ball in the air by reacting to where it is and using the closest body part, it is another level of ball control if a player can say, right, I’m going to do 2 touches with the inside of my right foot, one header, then a high touch with my left thigh followed by a low touch with the outside of my left foot… That shows true ball control!
A word from Zlatan!
This discussion around using smaller balls always reminds me of my favourite Zlatan Ibrahimovic quote. He said (supposedly) when describing John Carew: What Carew does with a football; I can do with an orange!
I love this quote for Zlatan’s self-confidence, I also love it because for some reason I vividly remember not rating John Carew as a player and I also love it because I believe it shows that Zlatan believed in the idea of if you can do skills with a smaller ball then you will be a more skilful player overall, and he is an exceptionally skilful player! Plus I’ll always have a soft spot for someone who idolised R9.
Foot-Tech Academy provides children’s football coaching in Leeds for boys and girls aged 4-14. Our skills-based curriculum guarantees development in a fun, enjoyable environment. Check us out on Facebook or visit our website at http://www.foot-techacademy.co.uk for more info on what we do.