In How to Make Your Child a Soccer Star…Kind Of I examine two key ingredients to playing soccer at a high level: athleticism and personality. The third ingredient is opportunity. The first aspect of opportunity is when to actually start soccer training. I know I was incredibly anxious to get my kids playing soccer as soon as possible. The truth is that you can start soccer training as soon as your child has the motor skills to walk. However, doing it the right way is essential.
Soccer or Football?
Sidenote: I thought about using the word “football” instead of “soccer” because I thought it might sound more sophisticated, but come on. I grew up a “soccer” player. If you can’t take advice from a “soccer” guy, then I’m sure there is a worthless book from some pretentious European author that you can read. In fact, I think I’ve read a few that I got absolutely nothing out of.
If Your Child Can Walk, Start Soccer Training
Anyway, once your child can walk, you can introduce soccer training. Of course, at that point it’s really not soccer, it’s “ball”. To be completely honest, I never felt like I was the best toddler parent, but “ball” helped me to connect with my kids on their level.
Get a Soccer Ball
The size of the ball is not terribly important at this stage, but you want your child to be comfortable with the ball at his/her feet. The smallest soccer ball used formally in competition is a size 3, but I’ve seen size 2 and even size 1 soccer balls for sale. I would recommend starting at size 3 or below.
I also recommend an actual soccer style ball as opposed to a playground or toy department ball. Many of those non-soccer balls are made of a rubber, bouncy material which creates a couple of issues: 1) they are difficult to control; and 2) they encourage kicking because they will bounce and travel a good distance — which is a lot of fun to kids. While any soccer training at this stage must be fun, the focus should be on controlling the ball and keeping the ball close to your child’s feet.
Kicking vs. Ball Manipulation
I think I made a bit of a misstep in my kids’ early years by focusing on having them kick the ball rather than encouraging them to manipulate the ball with their feet. From your child’s perspective, the intent would be to protect the ball and nurture the ball like one of his or her stuffed animals or favorite toys. Your child should have a “relationship” with the ball. Give your child a sense of ownership over the ball.
Finally, at this stage, you can model behavior with the ball. If you’re worried that you don’t have any real soccer skill, don’t be. Here are the keys to modelling good early ball skills:
- Have your own ball — again, you should encourage a sense of ownership with your child’s ball so you should model with your own ball;
- Use all surfaces of your feet to move the ball around while always keeping it within your reach — insides of your feet, outsides of your feet, tops of your feet and soles of your feet (notice “feet” — you should use of both of them); and
- Have fun! — neither of you will do it if it’s not fun.
Make it Fun!
Once your child has picked up on some ball manipulation, try making a game of it. See if you can entice your child into trying to steal your ball while you protect it and then switch and see if they will protect. Once again, don’t worry about the fact that it may feel awkward or look funny — your child will be learning, trust me! Have patience! Your child isn’t going to understand what you’re doing at first, but they’ll get it.
Do not put pressure on your child. The goal is for your child to want to play. Be silly and don’t even think about proper form. That will come later. Especially at the younger ages, if you are having a blast, they will too.
Playing Soccer at Home is Important
Encouraging “soccer” play at home is key! If you can get your child using his/her feet and moving the ball around your living room, that’s a good start. You really don’t need a lot of space for this type of home play. I would, however, recommend making sure any breakable household item is protected or put away during this stage!
One trick I use to get my kids to play with the soccer ball more is to place a few balls in various parts of the house. Not surprisingly, every time they come across a ball, they tend to kick it around a bit. It may not seem like much, but it helps to develop comfort with the ball.
In When to Start Formal Soccer Training, I will discuss when and how to start more organized soccer training.