Bartek Sylwestrzak grew up playing the game, reaching academy level at high school while in Poland. He took particular interest in striking the ball and committed to an in-depth study of this aspect of the game. Bartek completed a Bsc in Sport and Exercise Science and Msc in Sport and Exercise Psychology, both at Loughborough University. Through his own research he became a ball striking specialist coach who works in the professional game helping players learn different techniques in both dead ball and open play situations.
Can you explain the benefit of having the ball move with top spin in free kicks instead side or backspin?
The main benefit is that it allows you to hit the ball over the wall and under the crossbar with power. What we often see is that players will sacrifice power in order to hit the target. When a ball moves with sidespin it relies on gravity to bring it down, which reduces the chance of scoring. With topspin, the ball has the same motion as is used in tennis or other ball sports – taking advantage of what is called the Magnus Effect. If the ball spins forward, the contact with the air helps bring the ball down to the ground faster.
What are the steps that a player needs to take to strike the ball with top spin?
It isn’t a case of implementing one of two technicalities that unlock topspin in your strike. When I work with players on this free kick I address every aspect of the shot – the contact on the ball, the contact on the foot, the position of the kicking and standing feet (which determines the swing shape), the length and angle of approach, rhythm, upper body motion (how you rotate your body, move your arms), and other things. All these variables are important in achieving the desired effect.
How can players around the world improve their free kicks without access to your program?
I’m not aware of any other coaches specializing in this area. It took me 15 years of practice and analysis to understand all the technical factors involved and I think players are also left to search for answers themselves. Even at the top level of the game, knowledge of striking the ball is actually quite poor. It’s somewhat of a paradox really. And although there is a set of technical principles to which a player needs to adhere in order to produce a certain type of shot, every player executes his swing differently and in my work I make many adjustments to suit a particular individual, so there is no one-size-fits-all recipe.
You also coach so-called “knuckleball” free kicks, where the ball has very little or no spin in the air. How does this help the striker?
The knuckleball has the advantage that the flight of the ball is unpredictable. This makes it very difficult for the goalkeeper to anticipate and get into the right position. When they make a decision it is likely to be incorrect – so if they start to dive, they probably can’t then adjust enough to cope with the change in direction that the ball then takes. Even if they can get a hand to it, knuckleball shots are very difficult to stop as they are hit hard and have erratic movement.
Should players be learning both techniques or specializing on one or the other?
What I normally do is record the player before the training and assess which swing is more likely to be acquired quickly by them – which technique will suit them more. For example, a player might have coordination or physique which would make learning the topspin free kick a lengthy and difficult process, but, for example, their foot position really lends itself to a good knuckleball. If I do have enough contact time with the player, I would like them to master both techniques though as they are best used in different circumstances within the game. Not many players would be able to score from 38 yards with the inside of their foot with topspin. At that range having the knuckleball in your armory becomes very useful. Similarly, because the knuckleball has a flatter trajectory, it is difficult to get up and over the wall with it from shorter ranges. Learning both takes a lot of time though.
How long does it take for a player who is working with you to ‘master’ a specific technique?
There is no one answer unfortunately. The pace of progression will depend on a number of factors, most important of which is commitment. The process is physically and mentally difficult – we often have to apply numerous technical changes for them to progress. If a player has the genuine desire to perfect something I will work with them. If they think they can learn it in a week then I wouldn’t begin the process. Secondly, different players will display different levels of technical and physical potential. For example, it is difficult to learn these techniques if your swing is slow. Powerful players tend to learn quicker and achieve a higher level when it comes to ball striking. Equally, coordination is crucial, and the ability to master technical skills. Some players will pick things up and adjust them quickly because they have a feel for what needs to be done – their proprioception is very good.
Another factor is the circumstances in which the training is carried out. I am currently working with a team where the game schedule is very tight. Because they often play two games per week it can be difficult to find the time for additional technical work. I never set timelines because at professional level many variables are unpredictable – maybe they drop down to playing one game per week, or move out of the first team, which opens up more time for us. To give you some idea though, I would say that mastering a topspin free kick would take a few months, depending on their level. I worked with a high level player and four months later they were able to use the technique to score in a game. Two years later they have really polished the swing, so there is always room to improve.
So this is something you are doing individually with a coach, not during team training?
Correct. Achieving excellence in this area is not possible in the team context – players need to put in additional work outside of their traditional practice. All of the high profile free kick takers are known for their work ethic – staying late to train on free kicks. Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero, Juninho Pernambucano, Marcos Assunção – all these great strikers of the ball committed a great deal of time to perfect what they do or did well.
For a goalkeeper, are there any cues they can look for to help predict what kind of shot they are about to face?
There are a number of technical variables that you can take into account when a free kick taker is preparing for a shot. The problem is that each varies by the individual taking the kick so there isn’t one specific motion of the player that will tell you where the ball is going to go. The knuckleball is an effect that the ball has in the air and it can be achieved in several different ways, which means the cues vary by how you choose to create it when you kick the ball. One thing I would say is that if you do face a knuckleball, the key is not to commit to the save too early, which is against the traditional coaching that a goalkeeper might receive. Obviously the ball is moving at speed and you will need to get there, but if it is coming close to you, try to wait longer before making the decision. This will make it less likely that you will be deceived
If you could study one specific player in the way that it is done to baseball pitchers in the U.S. – where each of their pitches might have a different arm angle and other cues, you could in theory do the same to help goalkeepers on free kicks. But that would mean for every game you would need to collect a huge amount of data for each player who might strike the ball, from each different position on the field. I still think that it’s disappointing that such analysis at the top level in the game is either not done at all or not to sufficient technical level.
Can either technique also be applied to striking a moving ball in open play?
There is an overlap between the techniques. Like I said earlier, you start with what a player is likely to have most success with, then you build the others from there. There are considerable technical differences between shooting in open play and from a direct free kick. Very rarely would you use the same swing in both moments of the game, so we teach and develop players at both.
Is there an ideal distance to get over the wall and into the goal?
You often hear commentators say the free kick is too close to the goal, and see players hitting it over the bar from that distance, because they can’t apply topspin to the ball. If you are 20-21 yards from the goal, most players will fail to score by getting it over the wall as it will be too weak in order to get down in time. When I work with a player I want to make them confident from every range, which is technically achievable – they can score from the edge of the penalty area to the edge of the circle at the halfway line.
Even with topspin it is difficult to score from the very edge of the area so there are ranges that are more challenging. An optimal distance is probably 2-3 yards from the penalty area for a lot of players. A good topspin free kick taker will increase their chances of success from 21-22 yards from the goal.
Do their conversion rates go down when they only get one chance to try a free kick in the game vs lots of attempts at the same thing in a training session?
Yes – in training we can make adjustments to the swing, which increases their rate of success. However when a player is technically competent it shouldn’t be an issue that it is their first attempt at a kick in a game. In that situation players are really looking forward to pulling the trigger and the confidence will be there. I calculate conversion rates in training, which tracks their success but it can be more difficult in games as there are more variables and less data to go off. If I do a full technical assessment of a player I can predict with a high level of accuracy what will happen in the game though.
How important is it to have right footed players taking free kicks from the left of center, and vice versa?
A common misconception is that players should take free kicks from their ‘stronger’ side. It technically makes no difference which side they are taking it from though. I disagree that right footed players should take kicks from the left side and vice versa. It’s a concept based on using inside spin to move the ball towards the goalkeeper and then out to the corner when in fact you can make a strong argument that if you apply inside spin and you’re a right footed player, taking it from the right side the ball will travel outside of the goal to swerve into the goal. This can be an advantage because the goalkeeper has to pick it up right from the corner if they want to make a save. When I work with someone half of the shots will be from one side and half from the other though because they should be confident taking kicks from all angles, regardless of their kicking foot.