If you play soccer, you’ll be aware there are many attributes and abilities that you need to have in order to play well. Things like fitness, passion, desire, motivation and speed all contribute to how good a player you can be. However, the most important element of how well you play will always be the skills that you have.
When we say skills, there will be many who read this and automatically assume we are referring to someone’s ability to skip past their opponents as though they weren’t there. A useful skill, but the reality is to be a good soccer player requires a lot more than just the ability to go past your opponent.
Depending on the position you play, the skills you need will vary, and it’s important to have an understanding of what all these skills are and how to improve them.
For the purposes of this article, we will highlight 8 different skills which we believe are the most important for soccer players. These skills are:
- Ball Control
- Free Kicks
With the exception of goalkeeping, all of the other skills should be practiced no matter what position you play in for your team. For example, defenders should seek to improve their shooting ability, even though the opportunity to do so might not arise very often. When it does, you’ll want to be able to hit that shot as cleanly and powerfully as you can.
Similarly, forwards might not think they need to practice tackling, but in the modern game, defending starts from the front. Many a match has been won following a forward tackling a defender, winning the ball and running through to score a goal.
So, now that you know why you need to practice every skill, let’s get started.
With the goalkeeper being the last line of defense their ability to stop shots and headers crossing the line for a goal can mean the difference between winning and losing a match. It is a unique position requiring a very specific set of skills, particularly in terms of using your hands to make saves, although saving with other parts of your body is important too.
To help goalkeepers improve their skills here a few simple drills to try out.
Drill #1: Sit and Save
The purpose of this drill is to improve your reach, hold and speed.
- Sit down in the middle of the goal.
- Have your training partner shoot at goal from around 10 yards away.
- They should place it close enough that you have a chance of saving the shot.
- Try to reach and save each shot, and bring the ball securely into your chest.
- Your training partner should vary their shot direction and placement.
- Continue this exercise for 60 seconds per shot trajectory.
To make the drill harder try the following:
- Have two training partners shooting from each corner of the goal area.
- Sit next to the post, and get them to shoot at alternate sides.
- Move as fast you can from one post to the other.
- Do 5 sets of 10 reps on each goalpost.
Drill #2: Crossfire
This drill helps you to deal with crosses and also tests your reflex reactions to shots
- You need two training partners for this drill.
- The first should cross the ball across goal, which you should come out and collect.
- As soon as you have caught the cross, your second partner shoots at goal from the edge of the area.
- You then try to save this shoot.
- Do 10 reps of this drill.
An advanced version of this drill is to have a third training partner challenging you when the cross comes over. Another tip is to get the person shooting to vary the type of shot i.e. chipped, volley, along the ground.
Drill #3: Spin and Save
This drill has been around for many years, but it is still used today by all the world’s top goalkeepers. Its purpose is to improve your reaction time.
- Stand on the goal line, with your back to the playing area.
- Have your training partner stand between 12 and 18 yards out from goal.
- Just before your partner shoots at goal, they should shout.
- Your task is to turn, react and save the shot.
- You should do 2 sets of 20 reps of this drill.
To vary the drill your partner can shot from different angles, or you can start from different positions on the goal line. To make it really challenging you could start from a sitting position.
Controlling The Ball
This skill, more than any other, defines the differences between average, good, and world class players. At all levels of soccer most players can pass, shoot and tackle with a degree of success, but when it comes to instantly controlling the ball there is a huge gulf in class. If you can master the art of ball control, then you are well on the way to becoming an accomplished player.
Here are 4 simple drills which will help you improve your ball control.
Drill #1: Tip Top Toe Control
A very basic drill which aims to make it natural for you to touch the top of the ball.
With the ball at your feet, lift your knee and touch the top of the ball with your toe. Place this foot back on the ground, and then do the toe touch with your other foot. Begin slowly, and build up your speed.
Drill #2: Side to Side
Another classic drill, which all top players use to improve their control.
Place the ball between your feet and simply move it back and forth between your left foot and your right foot using your instep to control it. Although this sounds very easy, you are guaranteed to lose control in the early stages as the ball will either get stuck between your feet or you will hit it too hard.
Start off slowly, then build up your speed as you begin to master the exercise. At this stage, it is likely you are looking at the ball, so try lifting your head to look around you. In a match situation being able to control the ball, whilst looking up to see where you are going to pass is a huge advantage.
Drill #3: Side to Side and Forward
This drill is very similar to the previous one but takes even more skill to achieve. You are going to touch the ball from side to side and touch it with alternate feet, but you are also going to move forward as you do so. The key to this exercise is to stay on your toes and keep your movement tight.
Start slowly, and build up your speed as you improve and gain confidence.
Drill #4: Randomizer
For this drill, you will need a training partner. Stand about 10 – 15 yards apart and get your partner to throw the ball towards you. As they throw it, they shout out what part of the body you should control the ball with. Get them to alternate between left and right sides, instep, outside of the foot, thigh, chest and head.
The key to this drill is to focus on the weaker areas in terms of how well you can control the ball. If your right foot is your stronger one, then place the emphasis on your left foot and vice versa.
The ability to pass accurately is one of the core skills which a soccer player must possess to have any degree of success. Short, medium and long passing all require different abilities and techniques so let’s look at some drills which cover them all.
Drill #1: Simple Pass
Probably the most basic drill of all, but one that is still effective. You will need a training partner, who stands about 6 yards away from you. Both of you then pass the ball back and forth to each other as accurately as you can, with a first-time pass. In other words, do not stop or control the ball before passing.
Start off at a slow pace, but then build the speed as you gain confidence. See how many successful passes each of you can complete and attempt to beat this score on each rep.
Drill #2: Long Pass, Short Pass
This is a drill you and two other training partners can work on together. It is designed to help with short, medium and volleyed passes plus improve your ball control.
Two of players stand about 18 yards apart with the third player standing midway between them.
Player #1 plays a lofted pass to the other outer player, who controls the ball and then either plays a volley or a pass to the player in the middle. The middle player turns and passes to player #1.
Repeat this for 20 reps and then rotate. Repeat again, until each of you has been in all three positions.
To make this more interesting use a stopwatch to time how long it takes for the 20 reps and then try to improve your time.
Drill #3: Piggy In The Middle
This is very similar to drill #2 and once again you’ll need two other training partners but instead of one ball, you’ll need two. Stand in the same positions, with two of you 18 yards apart and one in the middle. The difference is the two outer players both pass alternately to the player in the middle. This player turns quickly to receive and pass the ball back to whichever outer player passed to them.
Players are allowed to control the ball before passing but should try where possible to pass the ball first time. Any type of pass is acceptable, so volleys, chips and driven passes all count.
Repeat for 20 reps then alternate who becomes the ‘piggy’ in the middle.
To increase the level of difficulty, gradually increase the distance between the player in the middle and the outer players so that eventually you are all playing long passes.
Some of the most admired players in the world receive the adulation they get because of their ability to dribble with the ball. It is a skill that gives a player the opportunity to get past their opponents and either shoot at goal or set up a chance for a teammate.
Drill #1: Cone Zone
If there is one image across the world that identifies a soccer training session it is that of cones, and for this exercise, you are going to need between 6 and 10 of them.
Place the cones 5 yards apart in a straight line. Then weave your way through the line of cones, whilst dribbling the ball with the inside of your foot. Repeat this for 3 or 4 runs, then do the same but using only the outside of your foot to dribble the ball. Vary the exercise further by circling left and then right around each cone before moving on to the next one.
Drill #2: Dribble Triangle
A very simple drill requiring 3 cones placed in a triangle, and spaced just 2 feet apart. Dribble in between the cones in a fixed pattern and repeat 3 times. To vary the exercise, do a full rep using only one part of your foot, and then do full reps using all parts of your foot.
The objective of this exercise is to improve your close control with all parts of your foot and increase your ability to dribble within a tight space.
Drill #3: Five In a Row
This is another classic drill which not only helps you to improve your dribbling skills at pace but is also a great cardio workout too.
To set this drill up place 5 cones in a straight line, with each cone 5 yards apart. Starting from cone #1 sprint with the ball to cone #2, dribbling it with only your left foot. Dribble around cone #2 and sprint back to cone #1. Then dribble at speed to cone #3, run back to cone #1 and continue until you have run to all the cones and back. Now have a 50-second breather!
You should aim to do five runs with your left foot and five runs with your right foot.
There are all sorts of ways to vary this exercise, such as increasing the distance between cones or increasing the number of cones in the line. You can also add some fun competition by challenging your teammates to see who can complete the run in the fastest time.
Tackling is a skill which can improve with practice. We will look at a couple of drills, but we believe it will be beneficial to firstly explain the principles behind tackling and how to do it effectively.
The most basic requirement for tackling effectively is timing. Mistimed tackles can bring all sorts of consequences, and all of them are bad.
- Free-kick from which the opposition can set up an attack or worse, score directly
- Penalty-kick, which they are 85% likely to score
- Injury to yourself
- A caution
- A sending off
So no positives whatsoever from mistiming your tackle, so let’s consider how you can improve your timing.
The first piece of advice is you should seek to tackle your opponent before they have had an opportunity to control the ball properly. If they are given that time, they will find it much easier to pass accurately or balance themselves in order to dribble past you. On the other hand, a quick, unexpected tackle, gives you a much better chance of winning the ball or of them not controlling the ball and giving up possession.
If your opponent already has the ball, then rushing in with a tackle is not advised. Hold off from the tackle, and instead put pressure on them by staying close, with the intention of inducing them into a mistake. Try forcing your opponent to the touchline where they have less room and do it aggressively, without actually fouling them.
Drill #1: One-on-One
A very simple drill which you do with a training partner. Staying within the penalty area your partner dribbles the ball towards you. Your job is to tackle them in an attempt to win the ball. To increase the intensity of this exercise for yourself, have two or even three teammates, each with a ball, and tackle them in turn. Continue for 10 minutes before having a break for 1 minute then resume.
Drill #2: Three Against Two
This requires five of you, split into two teams of 3 and 2 respectively. Working within the penalty area the team of three pass and dribble in order to retain possession. The two defenders work together to try to force the attacking team to misplace a pass or when the opportunity arises to tackle them and win the ball. Rotate the teams so everyone has an opportunity to both pass and tackle.
For defenders, the ability to head clear a corner kick or beat a forward to a high ball which has played forward is vital. In midfield, being able to challenge for high balls whether in defensive mode or attack makes you a better player. Last but certainly not least we have the strikers and forwards, who are presented with golden opportunities to score with their head.
If there is one bit of advice which we would ask you to follow at all times, it’s to keep your eyes open as you head the ball. If you want to head the ball cleanly, and in the direction it is supposed to go, then get in the habit of having your eyes open as you head it even if you have to force yourself to do it.
Here are a couple of simple drills to improve your heading.
Drill #1: To You – To Me
A very simple exercise which you do with a training partner. Standing about 3 – 5 yards apart, throw the ball in the air for each other to head back. To vary the exercise gradually increase the distance you stand apart. Another variation is to stand with your back to your partner and turning round when they shout out as they throw the ball.
Drill #2: Head or Hands
This requires a minimum of three other teammates, although it is more fun if you can get more, with seven being the ideal number. One of you is designated the ‘coach’ who stands in the middle whilst the others all stand facing them at equal distances apart. The coach throws the ball to each teammate in turn and shouts out either ‘Head’ or ‘Hands’.
The player the ball is thrown to must follow the coach’s instructions and therefore head it back to them if the shout was ‘Head’, or catch the ball if the shout was ‘Hands’. This drill is great fun, especially if you vary it by making the required action the opposite to the shout i.e. Catching for ‘Head’, and heading for ‘Hands’. Turn up the intensity by having two coaches in the middle, each throwing a ball randomly to each player.
When a soccer team gets close to the opposition’s penalty area, or better still, into their penalty area, the hope is they can get a shot on goal and potentially score. To achieve this the shot has to be accurate and, to have the best chance of beating the goalkeeper, hit with considerable power.
Shooting is such a valuable skill, that many of the most expensive players in the world have been those whose shooting ability was exceptional. Many factors play into whether the shot you hit is going to beat or even trouble the goalkeeper or not. These include:
- Clean strike
- Curve or spin
Many of these are skills which occur naturally, but you can always improve your technical skills by practicing so let’s have a look at a couple of training drills that are designed to increase your shooting ability.
Drill #1: Pass, Receive, Shoot
This drill can be done with just one other training partner, although it is more fun if several are taking part.
Your starting point should be a couple of yards outside the penalty area, with your teammate standing just inside the area, and to the right. Begin the drill by passing the ball to your teammate, who then lays it off towards the penalty spot. You continue your run and hit your shot with power and accuracy.
This drill doesn’t need to have a goalkeeper on the goal line, but it is a greater benefit to you if you also have to try to beat a goalkeeper too.
To improve your shooting ability with both feet, alternate whether the player laying the ball off stands to the right of you or to the left. You can also vary whether you are allowed 1 or 2 touches before shooting.
Drill #2: Multi-Ball
For this drill, you will need to have at least 6 soccer balls available. To start, place the balls, in a straight line along the edge of the penalty area, with an equal distance between them. Starting from the furthest point of the penalty area arc, run forward to the first ball and shoot towards goal. Run back to your starting point on the arc and then shoot with the second ball and so on until all 6 have been hit.
As the angle at which you will be running from to the line of balls changes, you will be forced to switch from shooting with your right foot to your left, and vice versa.
If possible, ask a teammate to act as the goalkeeper to make the exercise more difficult.
Make this more fun by getting other teammates to try the drill and see who can score the most.
The art of taking a direct free kick and scoring is one that many players try to master, and when it comes off, it is spectacular. Many superstars of the game have been those who have the skill and ability to hit a dead ball up and over the wall, past the goalkeeper and into the net to score.
Of all the skills you could improve, this is the one you’ll hear professional players talk most about in terms of how much time they practice. There are plenty of examples of some of the world’s best players staying out on the training field for hours practicing free kicks long after their teammates have all gone home.
We are not going to go through any drills as such because they are more useful when you want to practice free kick routines. In these scenarios and your teammates seek to bamboozle your opponents with decoy runs, quick movement and clever passing.
In terms of striking a free kick towards goal, it is more beneficial to consider the preparation before you take the free kick starting by taking aim at the goal. When we say take aim, what we mean is you must choose or identify, exactly what spot on the goal you are going to attempt to hit. Don’t rush this, but instead eye up where the goalkeeper is positioning themselves and look where the wall is, including which defenders are short and which are tall.
Next, you want to address your run up. This is often a way of fooling the goalkeeper as a short run up can make them think you are going to chip the ball rather than shooting at goal. If you need to take a longer run, then ensure you pace it out first so when you plant your standing foot it is as close to the ball as possible. One other tip is to check that the surface around the ball is firm so you don’t slip as you strike the ball.
Now you know where you want to place the ball, and have decided on your run up, what’s next? Well, here is where you are going to mentally prepare yourself. Block out all distractions and visualize in your mind’s eye the ball going in the direction you want it to. All the best free kick takers in history have relied as much on their mental strength, as they did their physical talent, so don’t underestimate the power of focusing and visualizing.
Finally, you have the taking of the free kick, the success of which will be determined how well you are able to replicate all those hours of practice we mentioned previously. How well you hit the ball over, around, under or even through the wall in front of you, and how accurate your shot at goal is, relies on your commitment to practicing taking free kicks, over, and over, and over again.
Practice might not make perfect, but if it can make you better to the extent that you score more free kick goals than you did before. Then all those hours on the training field will be worth it.
Everyone who participates in a sport wants to improve their ability to play it, and thankfully, with soccer, there are literally hundreds of drills and practice sessions you can undertake to improve your key skills.
In this article, we have only really scratched the surface in terms of the coaching sessions and drills that are available. Whether you use the ones we’ve shown you or have others you want to try doesn’t matter. The key thing we want you to take away from this article is the need for you to practice consistently.
All the best soccer players don’t simply turn up for a match and start playing like superstars. They may make it look easy sometimes but believe this, in between games they are on that training field, going through rigorous training routines and honing their skills. Even if they only achieve a 1% improvement, that could be what makes them better than their opponent in their next match and in turn what helps their team to win.
That fact is what should drive you to want to improve. Aim for continual and steady improvement of your soccer skills through regular and consistent training drills. It’s what winners do!