When you really break it down, the game of football is nothing more than a bunch of individual 1v1 battles all over the field.

Introduction

     Shortly after I began writing this weekly blog, I received a message from a friend of mine asking me to write on the “lost art of the dribble.” As he put it…and I think he is right, because I’ve seen it myself many times…players of all ages just don’t seem to possess the ability to “dribble” the ball.  They can’t get out of pressure with the ball at their feet.  When they do release themselves from pressure it’s often through the use of a clearance or they end-up playing an errant ball. Players at all-levels rarely show they know how to attack one-versus-one. Not only that, but there even professional and international players who just don’t know how to defend someone in a one-versus-one situation. You see; 1v1 is the basic essence of this game.  When you really break it down, the game of football is nothing more than a bunch of individual 1v1 battles all over the field.  I’m seeing not just young players today, but also players at the collegiate, professional and even international levels that apparently are not being developed with this in mind and thus, don’t have the confidence or for some, even the know-how to “dribble” the ball.  What’s worse is that there seems to be very little encouragement for players to do so.

 A Question Answered 

     Strange as it may sound to modern day football coaches, there was a time in the not too distant past when football coaches would never questioned the importance of technical acumen and young players.  No player was ever considered a “ball-hog.”  Almost every player could and was encouraged to, keep the ball at their feet as long as possible. ‘Passing’ and the possession – tika-taka - game that we see from the likes of FC Barcelona and the Spanish National Team (to name two prevalent sides) was once considered too ‘indirect’ and lacking in attacking prowess. As the game has moved forward into the new century, you can watch any youth club match, tournament or showcase and count on both hands the number of times you actually see a player keep the ball at their feet and attack a defender on the dribble. This is not just a youth phenomenon, but is also seen in the collegiate game, as well as professional leagues such as the MLS.

     As a show of explanation to where it seems our current Player Development mindset rests, in 2009 I had the opportunity to hear a very prestigious international football coach make the following shocking statement while speaking at a live seminar. Here’s what he said: “Taking all that I have seen of this game together, one implication stands above all: dribbling brings so little to bear on a player’s achievement that is independent of his background and general experience in the game.” This is a devastating commentary on the potential (or lack thereof) of young players to positively influence the development of their technicality on the ball…and…it was coming from someone who many would consider to be a forerunner in the inner-workings of today’s game.  Obviously, being the one who always likes to rock the boat even when it’s docked in port, I confronted him about this statement.  His response was wholehearted and genuine. He sincerely believed that in general, his “extensive” experience should be interpreted as strong evidence that “the dribble” (and by inference, any sort of keeping the ball at one’s feet) has little need when it comes to the development of today’s players. 

SIDE NOTE: Two things: First, I will not name this coach nor will any make any inference that may give his identity away outside of what is needed for this blog. Secondly, in knowing this particular coaches resume, reputation and experience, I would take an educated guess that you would be as shocked as I…and…many of those in attendance were at hearing his thoughts on this subject.  It just so happens that either no one was going to confront him on it…or…I just beat someone else to the punch?!?!?!  

     Since then, this topic has been in the frontal lobe of my cranial cavity.  Is it true?  Is it valid?  Are there legs under this statement?  Thus, my antennae have been up in regards to this area and while on a recent trip to the United States, I witnessed a number of coaches show evidence (either knowingly or just being naive) of the same conclusion.  Indeed, these coaches demonstrated that our future “stars” of this game are not getting the training, the time on the ball or even the encouragement to “dribble” in order to make a substantial difference in the development of these players.

     What has occurred in the last two decades of the 20th century is the picture of what constitutes an effective and efficient player has became much leaner.  Among elements such as well-articulated training methodology and a safe and orderly environment, the one factor that always seems to surface as the single most influential component of a truly brilliant player, but yet, one that is too often excluded from so many training sessions is: how well can a player “dribble?”

     I believe that the influence dribbling the ball has on Player Development is relatively independent of anything else that occurs in training.  This is most compelling in a try-out environment, where random players are assigned to teams controlled for factors such as the previous achievements of players, athletic ability, experience, attitude, skill set, coachability, passion, desire, etc… In these environments, many times the most talented OVERALL players don’t “shine.”  However, those players with the ability to keep the ball at their feet and attack on the dribble predominately stand-out; regardless of the makeup that constitutes their overall level of play.

    When I think about this further, the same pair of questions keep posing like the DoubleMint Twins in my mind: How did we ever lose the ‘art of the dribble’ and why are we not teaching and encouraging it today?  Up until the 1990’s the most brilliant football players in the history of the game were players who could dribble.  

Spin this list of famous names around your noggin’ for a minute or two (these are just a few names to get the wheel’s spinning): Ali Karimi (Iran), Diego Maradona (Argentina), Eric Cantona (France), Garrincha (Brazil), George Best (Northern Ireland), Jimmy Johnstone(Scotland), Marco Van Basten (Holland), Pele (Brazil), Pier Litbarski (Germany) and Ruud Gullitt (Holland).    

     Among the many strengths of the above mentioned players, the one constant that all of these great footballers possessed was the ability to dribble and to do so with a purpose and an urgency; which made them so dangerous with the ball at their feet regardless of where they were on the field.

     This is not a new concept or concern from me.  I have thought for many years about this very topic, but like so many others, I became swallowed up in the waves of the game crashing upon the white sands beaches of time.  Until recently, I didn’t even know how to approach this topic, more-less deal with it.  Never the less, I decided to test my theories and the solidity of my observations and see what type of results I would come up with.

     I used the Spring of 2010, Fall of 2010, Spring of 2011 and Fall of 2011 College, Club and High-School Soccer Seasons (respectively) as the basis for a study on Equality of the Dribble in Player Development.  I won’t bore you with all of the details, variables, case works, etc…that were involved in this study, but rather discuss the who, what, why, where, how and the findings instead.  This information is much more relevant to you and that is the point here.

     This study used a total of 166 different players from 8 different teams.  All of which were female and all of which ranged in age from 8th Grade to Post-Graduate Collegiate.

     I found that players whom have a coach that is 75% more qualified in terms of pedagogical competence would Develop Players with the ability to be confident on the ball more efficiently than a coach who is in the lower 25%. Going even further, players being trained by coaches in the 90th percentile developed a creative flair and a sophisticated creativity when attacking with the ball at their feet at an even quicker rate.  These differences are significant enough to imply a need for our players to be taught how to dribble.  Given the statistical controls employed and the consistency of the findings with other studies at other levels, one can conclude that the question as to whether “dribbling” makes a significant difference in Player Development has been answered.  It does!

     My study was not intended to identify the specific characteristics of the different players, coaches and teams in relation to their respective levels of technicality on the ball. However, just as the players of old (and of today; re: Messi) qualified my findings, I too must qualify the exceptions to this phenomenon (or lack thereof) of the dribble.  Notice that I titled this blog entry, The Lost Art of the Dribble: a scientific approach.  In this entry I present a fair amount of research.  One might conclude that I perceive this to be a science.  It is certainly true that research provides us with guidance as to the nature of why the artistry of the dribble has disseminated from the forefront of today’s game, yet I strongly believe that there is not (nor will there ever be) a formula to effectively deal with this enigma.  This is not an unusual claim.  One of the first things I learned when pursuing my Masters was in a course called “Research Design.”  I think it’s a mandatory course for anyone who goes into post-graduate work and it might be the most boring course ever known to mankind, yet I learned so much from this one course.  You see, many researchers and those who try to apply research (neither category of which I place myself into) would probably agree that commenting on players from the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s won’t help us specify a model for all players – a model that would apply to all players on all teams at all times.  They would also say that another two decades of research would still end up producing models that are false. Yet, they would have to agree that some of the history of this game could be useful. Thus, in effect, I must keep myself warned that models formed on the basis of quantitative research of approximations of what players have done in the past carry a direct distinction from the reality; a reality that what I have seen with my own eyes must carry more value than what I recall or have seen on film or have read about in books, etc… regardless, these “phenoms" of our past can help us understand why the game in it’s current shape has lost the vigor and hunger for the dribble.  Looking at our past can bring to light some unseen underlying dynamics of this specific situation.  Allow me to sum up what I have just said this way: Sometimes the adoptation of ideas in this game has been somewhat uncritical; for example, the numerous attempts of coaches to play a 1-3-5-2 because they saw other teams play it or because that’s what their opponents play.  Another example is our continuous attempt to combine direct and indirect play in a manner that will allow them to coexist in tangent with success, when in reality they have two entirely different contexts and when placed together the contextual differences are as significant as the pairing of two similar magnetic poles…they just won’t touch, no matter how hard you try.

     To delve into this “dribbling” paradox further we need to address the broader issue of reforming how we are developing our players and whether it is applicable to teaching our players to properly dribble.  No amount of coaching experience will provide an airtight model of development, because there are simply too many variations in the situations, training needs and types of players encountered across the soccer continuum.

     Here’s an interesting perspective generated as a result of correlating historical research from players of our past with what we find fro players in our present.  To base an assumption of “the art of the dribble” on purely historical research employs a variety of coaching and training methodologies that we just don’t have access to today.  Our historical research is limited to the exclusivist of simple randomized video clips of players in action or our individual memories of seeing what these players could do with the ball at their feet.  From this train of thought we can conclude that even the seemingly most determinant casual association between the historical and current references (such as comparing Pele to one of the collegiate-aged players) is really just a probability.

     It is the coach’s responsibility to sift through the myriads of their players’ technical needs to build a knowledge base for teaching and promoting the ‘dribble’ with their players.  So too must the players respond reciprocally to their coach.  The ability to "dribble" effectively is not a blunt instrument of training that can be imposed upon a player of choice.  The art of the dribble shatters all theories, methodologies and pedagogy in relation to how it should be incorporated into the development of players.  Rather, the art of the dribble provides general direction that must be interpreted by individual players and then encouraged and promoted by their coaches in terms of their unique circumstances.

     In short, we will never be able to identify training methodologies that promote the development of players with technical superiority with the ball at their feet, with every player on every team.  The best things we can do, is allow the conglomeration of history and current research tell us which strategies have a good chance (i.e., high probability) of developing “the art of the dribble” with players.  Individual coaches must determine which developmental concepts to employ with the right players at the right time.  In effect, a good part of effective coaching is an art – hence the title, The Lost Art Of The Dribble: a scientific approach.

     Viewing the ‘dribble’ as part art and part science is not a new concept.  Ultimately, a conclusion can be drawn that the art of dribbling is a dynamic mixture of expertise in a vast array of training environments (re: experience) combined with a profound self-understanding of what each individual player is capable of at particular points in the game (re: confidence). In effect, in different words, the past great dribblers of our time characterize ‘dribbling’ as part art and part science.

A Confluence  

     To a great extent, this game represents the confluence of individual dominance (dribbling) and collective cohesion (team).  When discussing dribbling and its pros and cons in conversations with both players and coaches, one consistent theme is evident: What Works, Works.  This simple three-word phrase presents the framework for understanding the characteristics of effective dribblers and effective coaches in relation to the freedom they give players on the ball.  Three general characteristics of effectively coaching the dribble are articulated in that framework:

1.)  Use of effective training methodologies that promote the art of dribbling.

2.)  Use of effective player management strategies in order to allow the player’s the freedom to experiment and display their own personality on the ball.

3.)  Effective team training curriculum design that will promote dribbling throughout the entire team, without inhibition.

     From the outset I have tried to set the stage to acknowledge that these three characteristics are highly interdependent and that to separate them is an artificial distinction of promoting the art of the dribble.

          This blog entry combines my previous experience in player development and management.  It does so in the context of a comprehensive framework of effective coaching.  It is a framework offered, as a model of what I believe every player and coach should develop on his or her own and how the art of the dribble will be encouraged and taught.  Specifically I recommend that players and coaches generate their own models using this one as a starting point.  Players need to take responsibility for developing this part of their game, while coaches need to take responsibility for encouraging the development of this part of their players’ game.