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How To Add More Play To Playing Soccer

Soccer doesn't need to stop when the AYSO season ends. In fact, it's one of the best times for parents and kids to play together!

Former AYSO player Paul Caligiuri is best known for his long-range left-footed goal in 1989 against Trinidad & Tobago that was dubbed, "The Shot Heard Round the World," because it sent the U.S. to the World Cup for the first time in four decades. What is not so well known is that Caligiuri isn't naturally left-footed.

When he was seven-years-old, Caligiuri relayed a message from his coach to his father, "To be a good soccer player, you have to use both feet well," and asked permission to use the garage door as a backboard to improve his weaker foot.

"There was a balcony above the garage door with French doors, and he broke the windows a couple times," said Robert Caligiuri, without a hint of regret about the damage. "The stucco above the garage door started breaking away into a hole about the size of a soccer ball."

Caligiuri, who played left back at his second World Cup in 1994 when the U.S. reached the second round, provides the perfect example of how valuable it is for youngsters to play outside of their teams' practices and games. Whether by honing skills on their own or by seeking out pickup games, players who truly want to excel need to be around the ball as much as possible.

"When I was young, aside from formal practice, I was out on my front lawn everyday, juggling or kicking a ball," says another former AYSO player, Brandi Chastain, who won two Women's World Cup and two Olympic gold medals. "I'd play with the neighborhood kids or my brother."

Like Caligiuri, Chastain became a two-footed player; she converted the penalty kick that clinched the 1999 Women's World Cup title for the U.S. with her "weaker" left foot. But improving individual technique isn't the only benefit of unstructured play.

"Children in sports are often overly organized," said Chastain. "Informal play gives them the opportunity to be independent, creative and self-motivated."

And playing on their own isn't just about becoming a soccer great.

"Playing unstructured, free range, loosely supervised play - is the birthright of every child," says Sue Palmer, British author of child education. "For the next generation to grow up healthy, balanced and able to benefit from their education, we must ensure that children once again go out and play."

AYSO National Coach John Ouellette agrees, "What we tell coaches of youngsters all the time," he says, "is, ‘Just let them play!'" A fun practice environment that emphasizes play over drills, says Ouellette, increases the chances that players will develop the love for the game that will prompt them to play on their own.

But today's children have less unscheduled time than previous generations and more diversions. Getting them to choose soccer over other options-whether it be Guitar Hero or Webkinz-can require prodding from the parents.

"I know a mom," says Ouellette, "who told her son he can have 20 minutes of Nintendo for every hour he plays out in the yard with his friends. Then she said, for every kid who comes and plays soccer with you, you get an extra five minutes of Nintendo. This kid's putting in hundreds of hours outside so he can play X-Box and Nintendo."

Ouellette convinced his own daughter to practice on her own by showing her a fun game: Throw the ball on the roof of the house, and settle it when it comes down to work on controlling and first touch efficiency.

"Top of foot, top of thigh, inside foot, bottom of foot, cut it away, chop it away, whatever," Ouellette says. "She made it such a game that her touch became brilliant. It's kind of like jumping on a trampoline. Once she started, she didn't want to stop."

Here are some methods that parents and coaches can use to encourage children to play on their own, and games they'll enjoy while improving their skills:

"Children in sports are often overly organized," said Chastain. "Informal play gives them the opportunity to be independent, creative and self-motivated."

Always Have A Ball Around
Take a ball everywhere when you're with your child. It doesn't have to be a soccer ball; in fact, those red, bouncy ones used for schoolyard dodgeball are perfect. At the playground, kick around with your child whenever she feels like it. She may want to kick for a few minutes, and then hit the swings. Over time, you're likely to find her enjoying the ball more and more. And chances are other kids will migrate to the ball, and you'll have started a little soccer game.

Bouncey Pass Back
Pass the ball back and forth with your child while keeping it bouncing. Count how many passes you can hit before it stops bouncing or you lose control, turning it in to a contest.

Kick And Catch
Play kick and catch with your child. Kick it so he can catch it (start with a very light kick). Then he drops it and kicks it back.
Soccer Tennis

Take your child to a tennis court with a soccer ball. Try and kick it back and forth over the net. You can bring tennis rackets too, and mix things up. A little tennis, a little soccer tennis.
"Indoor" Soccer

There are many balls in the market that are soft enough so they won't do too much damage to the house. If you have a den or a hallway, let your children kick around in the house.

The Newspaper Ball
Combine art and soccer. The first page of the newspaper needs to be crumpled up and squeezed tightly, because that's the core. Wrap three more sheets around the core and tape a big cross around the orb. Athletic tape is best. Add three more sheets of newspaper. Then wrap tape around it until you can't see any of the newspaper. Give the kids colored markers to decorate the ball. Kids love making their own custom-made ball, which they can kick around inside and outside.

Ball Net
Get your child a ball net. It's virtually guaranteed that a child holding a ball in net on a string will kick it about, which means she's developing a feel for striking the ball.

Incentives To Juggle
To tap the ball in the air over and over means you're learning to hit the sweet spot. Juggling with feet and thighs trains players to be comfortable with the ball and develop striking and controlling skills. Besides helping with foot-eye coordination, juggling is a great way to work on balance. It also develops the weak foot.

You don't want to force children to practice their soccer, but you can create an environment that entices them to play.

Coaches and parents can motivate players to juggle on their own by offering small rewards when they reach certain levels, for example, soccer ball stickers for five; soccer ball key chain for 10, etc.

It's difficult at first, so let them bounce the ball in between. Ask them to drop it on their thigh or foot once, and then catch. Then go for two, and so on. The more they advance, the more fun it gets, and the more they juggle.

Even if you don't have a soccer background, learning how to juggle will help motivate your child when you do it together and compare each other's progress. Try team juggling-keeping the ball off the ground as long as possible, and count how many times you and your child can do it. She'll soon be wanting to aim for more and more.

Nothing's as exciting as shooting a ball into the net, so set up some small goals in the backyard.

Organize "Unorganized" Play
Find a field on a Sunday morning, set-up a couple of goals and gather children of all ages. You're setting up the pickup game that kids of yesterday created on their own. Don't coach! If adults play along, do so as teammates, not as instructors.

Create Soccer Culture
Getting young children to watch a 90-minute game on TV may be too ambitious, but with digital recording it's easy to show them some spectacular plays and goals. Rent age-appropriate soccer-themed movies-there's a bunch out there. Research star players, like Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan, show your child their photos and highlight clips, and tell them stories about the stars' childhood soccer. When Ronaldinho was a boy, he played soccer with his dog, Bombom!

You don't want to force children to practice their soccer, but you can create an environment that entices them to play, especially when you're willing to play along. If they lose interest after a few minutes, no big deal. Just keep the opportunities coming, and chances are the amount of time a child wants to play will keep increasing.

"These casual skill sessions don't have to last for hours-even 15 minutes a day of juggling or footwork can be a significant addition when compounded over time," says Chastain.

A fun practice environment increases the chances that players will develop the love for the game that will prompt them to play on their own.

Playsoccer Winter 2008 Issue
By Mike Woitalla

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