By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing youth soccer coaches is getting their players to play ball on their own.
For sure, the first step is making practices so much fun that players fall in love with the sport. But children today have such a vast variety of pastime options that even those who are passionate about their soccer may need prodding to get the soccer ball out.
George Pastor, a former U.S. national team player, is the Coaching Coordinator of the Mavericks youth club of Northern California. Along with Technical Director Robert Sackey, they have done a remarkable job getting the club's young players to spend time with the ball outside of practice and game time.
When the girls on the U-13 Mavericks team coached by Pastor and Sackey were 9-year-olds, the coaches started setting juggling goals for the players, promising small rewards when they reached certain benchmarks.
"Juggling is great way to develop skills," says Pastor. "It's a simple way for players to get comfortable with the ball. Juggling helps with players' first touch. It develops their balance. It helps with shooting, passing and dribbling.
"It's a good way to train your weak foot. It also builds overall confidence."
Many of the 12-year-olds on the Mavericks can juggle the ball more than a thousand times. Three have hit 2,000. And almost all of them can tap the ball in the air hundreds of times.
But more important than the numbers is the fact that the juggling "contests" have inspired the children to play ball on their own. They even started having "soccer play dates." Pastor and other parents drive the kids to the park, but remain in their cars while the girls play games, juggle and goof around.
At the start, juggling five times warranted a celebration. As they got older Pastor and Sackey started emphasizing record-breaking.
Players who manage 50 juggles receive a FAB 50 Certificate.
Those who reach the Century Club receive a certificate and $5 Jamba Card.
Players who hit 500 earn a full-page Club 500 Certificate and a miniature replica World Cup soccer ball.
At 1,000, the players get a "gold" Millennium Medal and their picture on the club's Web site.
The Mavericks U-13 girls have also used their juggling skills - walk-a-thon style -- to raise over $10,000 for an upcoming winter trip to Sackey's homeland of Ghana, where he has been instrumental in launching youth soccer programs for girls. During their goodwill trip, the Maverick girls will practice and scrimmage with local girls, will distribute soccer equipment and supplies, and will help promote girls soccer in Ghana.
For Pastor, playing unorganized soccer was a natural part of his childhood. He spent the first six years of his life in Peru, "where you play as soon as you can walk." With his three brothers, soccer remained part of his daily routine after the family moved to California, and not until he joined a U-12 team did he play organized ball.
Pastor later starred at Cal Berkeley and played pro ball - outdoor and indoors - for eight years during the era between the NASL and MLS while earning seven U.S. caps.
Being a highly skilled player enables Pastor to demonstrate and help the players along. Sometimes he'll juggle with a player, keeping the ball up for her when it gets away.
If a coach doesn't have the playing background to demonstrate, Pastor recommends bringing an older player to practice to show the way.
"And the coach should learn to juggle," says Pastor. "It's never too late."
Other ways to get novice players going is to have them juggle with a bounce in between. Or have them drop the ball on their foot and catch it after a tap, eventually moving to two taps, and so one.
Throwing a ball to a player and having her hit it back into the coach's or another player's hands - a game they call "Vitamins" - also helps players get used to hitting the sweet spot on their foot.
The Mavericks usually spend five or 10 minutes during warm-ups working on juggling. As the players became more proficient, they'd even jog down the field while juggling. But playing on their own is the key ingredient.
"The main thing that we're trying to do is get them to enjoy the soccer ball," Pastor said. "So we look for whatever motivates them. For some it's enough to try to reach the next level. Others are motivated by the prizes.
"And the better they get, the more they want to juggle."
(Click HERE for more on the Mavericks' jugglers and their goodwill trip to Ghana. Mike Woitalla is the executive editor of Soccer America Magazine. His most recent contributions to the Youth Soccer Insider were "Best Practices" and "Time for a Children's Revolt.")