Improving First Touch – Aaron Metzger

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Aaron Metzger has been the ECNL Director for Lonestar Soccer Club in Austin, head coach of the Developmental Academy team at Classic Soccer Academy in San Antonio, and Region III ODP Staff Coach. He is currently Director of Coaching for Girls at FC Boulder in Colorado. Aaron has won ten State Championships, two Regional Championships and the ECNL National Championship in 2010. More than 150 of Aaron’s former players have earned college scholarships or professional contracts. Aaron has his A and Y licenses. As a player he had a successful career at DeAnza College and played professionally for five years, earning USISL All-Star accolades in 1993.

What do you do to improve your players’ first touch?

I think of the first touch as being one component in a larger system – the main one being speed of play. I try to put them in dynamic exercises where they have to move in to a space to take their first touch – often with passive or active defenders or cones adding an extra element. First touch controls vision, so it is important to put them in a position to be able to read the field in front of them and make decisions based on what they see.

Do you monitor the number of touches players are getting within the activity? Where do you position yourself?

I don’t count them, although that is an interesting idea. The technical phase activities are designed to give every player a large number of touches and chances to practice the skill we are working on, but I haven’t tracked it to see how many each get within the time. Where I stand depends upon what exactly I am teaching. I want to be able to see their foot shape, the angle of their body to receive the ball too. If they are receiving with the inside of the foot I want to have a frontal view so I can see the receiving surface. It can also be useful to see from behind too. I’ll move around the group of players to make sure I am coaching everyone.

Are there specific technical components that you look for to correct?

I think we are at a point, especially with American players, where we can almost predict what will go wrong in an exercise. Usually it is the shape of the foot (not having that toe up and heel down approach) and in a lot of cases kids will receive the ball well behind (underneath) their body as opposed to in front of their body. Their general athletic stance often needs correcting – we stand up too tall and are not low to the ground. Players will try to get tall when the ball comes in, instead of having flexed knees and a body shape that is primed more for subsequent movement.

What do you say to them?

It gets to the point with my players that they know what they are going to hear from me. Toe up, heel down; hips pointing to the direction that you want to receive the ball; receiving the ball with the correct foot. That last one is a technical and tactical piece that is very important and a lot of coaches don’t hold kids to it enough. If the player is under pressure they need to receive it on the foot that is away from the defender. Even more importantly though is that they receive it on what I call the front foot which other people call the back foot because it is across your body. In my mind the back foot has this connotation of facing backwards or turning. I see it as the front foot for facing where you are going next with it or where the opportunity is.

What factors do you manipulate to give them different priorities for what to do with their first touch?

I usually just manipulate the pressure. Once I feel like they have a good grasp of the technical components I will put them in a situation where they either receive the ball through a gate, or have to take their first touch around a gate. I’ll put a defender there to give light pressure and force them to take their touch around them. Then over time I increase the pressure as much as is possible after that. I’ll vary where they get pressure from too: I’ll put it behind them, directly in front of them, coming from an angle etc. so they have to change direction. I’ll change the space of the area but I do that more when I am doing technical functional training – say I’m playing a ball to an outside back, can they gauge the distance that their first touch needs to be based on the size of the grid, how far the defender is away, or what I am asking them to do with it.

How much time will you spend in an isolated technical activity to work on it?

It depends on the age group. With the younger kids (10-13) I’ll spend at least 30 minutes of the session on it, hammering technique and adding pressure, trying to make it as dynamic as possible. When I get into the meat of the session it is still something that I am harping on and correcting. With the older kids it is still very important to have a technical component – especially for the American players. It might be more of a situation where we give technical cues during a more tactical activity though so it isn’t drilled as much. They will still have a technical phase that could be 25-30 minutes though.

Will you repeat the same activity throughout the season?

I have no problem repeating activities. I try to keep it as fresh as possible by adding a different twist on them every time (addition of pressure, smaller space etc.). For the younger kids I also look at the warm up time before a league game as being a great opportunity to work on technique for 25 minutes. During the season it depends on the team and their ability. I don’t want to constantly do things that they don’t need, so if there is a team that is more technically competent I’ll try to challenge them in different ways, but there is no set formula – it comes down to evaluating where we are throughout the season.

Where do you take the rest of the practice session?

We try to make it game-like as quickly as possible, so it needs to look like soccer. One of the other parts of the first touch is that they need to be able to make decisions under pressure and have the technical ability to receive the ball on different feet and in different ways as the situation dictates. We’ll put it into a game with live defenders as quickly as possible – numbers up and down possession games, 2v2v2 games where there is some transition in it, quick little possession games that look like soccer. From there we will end up in some kind of end zone game, going to big goals or four goals that add direction and numbers to show the skill within the larger game of soccer.

What do you do if one or more of the players are just not making progress and can’t play at the level of the next progression?

That happens often. We carry on with the session, but I’ll talk to the player afterwards. I wouldn’t pull them out during it – I will let them stay in there – but afterwards I will talk to them about what we need to do outside of training to help them work on whatever they are struggling with. There is no value in isolating a young kid and pulling them out during an activity. Sometimes learning by fire is the best way for them to go. If the whole team is struggling we will manipulate the numbers, stay in an activity longer and generally change the practice to suit what is happening out there. We are not going to put them into an activity where they are not going to be successful. That’s coaching though isn’t it? Just because you are ready to move on doesn’t mean that they are, so we might use a bigger space, fewer defenders or other things to help them find success.

When in the season do you focus on first touch more?

It’s a priority throughout the season actually. It’s a constant priority.

Do you have a different approach for U13 vs U17 players?

I would hold the 17’s to a higher standard. My expectation for proper technique would be much higher for them as far as doing the little things right, playing quickly and so on. Technical breakdowns at that age should come more from pressure from good defending rather than a lack of concentration or knowledge.

Do your players practice in their own time? Do you require them to do it and how accountable are they?

I hope so! What I tell my players is that the top athletes in every sport work on their game outside of their normal training time. I put the onus on them to work on their game outside of our training environment and I think self-training is something that we as a country don’t have right yet, so I constantly challenge them to do it. When it comes to first touch – a wall is the best thing ever. My younger kids write journals and turn them in once every 2-3 weeks, which is an opportunity for them to have a dialogue with me about soccer, training and anything they want to talk about. I do ask them to let me know what they are doing and if they ever need any ideas I can help them with it. I’ve always thought iSoccer is valuable for promoting self-training. If they can go online and watch videos I think that helps too as kids are so visual with their learning.

Will you combine first touch with passing, vision or any other technical/tactical components?

Passing and receiving are an easy marriage. I know we are supposed to focus on one technique within a session, but when you are limited to a few hours each week you need to find ways to increase efficiency and putting those together makes sense to me. If it is a tactical session on possession I’ll lead in with passing and receiving as well.  The goal is to get players as many touches as we can in the short time that we have, but they have to be meaningful touches too. I think where we miss the mark with technical training is that we don’t ask them to make enough decisions during it – play the ball run to that cone, play the ball run to the other cone etc. and I think it needs to have a decision-making process or it becomes very vanilla. In the beginning technical phase this might be as simple as doing something after you have played the ball – a run or check – rather than just standing there waiting for the next pass.

Of all the players you have worked with, who had the best first touch? What made it so good?

Mikaela Harvey who is now a freshman at Texas A&M and just got called into the U20 National Camp. The reason it was so good was because she constantly worked on her game. She played on my teams from U10-15 at Lonestar. She’s a central midfielder for them now. I take some pride in the success players like that have in the game, but I take just as much from the kid who doesn’t have the natural ability but rises through hard work and repetition. If she gets into a Division 3 college program and put in a lot of work to get there I respect that.

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