Shielding the ball

Warm-up

Do some basic ball control moves, along with your stretches. Introduce rolls, pullbacks, and circle turns, if you have not done so, as these techniques will be used in this session. Then, to fully warm up the players, put the players in pairs so that their arms are linked and they are leaning against one another, and have them try to roll the ball around with their outside foot. Have pairs switch sides periodically, so that they can work with both feet. Have a “sack-race” kind of activity, where the pairs try to walk/hop from one line to another, while controlling the ball with the outside foot. Have one race going forward; one going backward; and two going sideways (left-to-right and right-to-left).

One of the first skills which young players will need is the ability to shield the ball in order to keep a nearby opponent from stealing it. Confidence in the ability to shield the ball is critical to later success as a player – because a player who does not believe that he can hang onto the ball usually will get his head down, get flustered, and just blindly kick the ball away (“hot potato” clearance).
When should you shield the ball?

Common reasons to decide to shield the ball instead of trying to take the defender on by dribbling are that your opponent is bigger/faster or there is so much traffic past him that it doesn’t make sense to keep going ahead (so you need to stop and find one of your team-mates who is facing less traffic) or you are in your defensive third where it is too risky to dribble when you could lose possession.
How do you shield the ball?

By using various techniques to put your body between the opponent and the ball, so that you can gain time to give the ball to a team-mate or take advantage of a mistake by the defender to get past him.

What are the basic rules of shielding?

The first rule of shielding is to avoid turning your back on the incoming defender if at all possible. It is much harder to hang onto the ball if you cannot see what your opponent is doing – so try to keep one shoulder pointed at the defender at all times. About the only time that you want to turn your back on an opponent is when you know that you have back support and you will be able to play the ball back to a team-mate very quickly.

The second rule of shielding is to take control of the situation yourself. If the opponent is coming in hard, it is generally a good idea to be the one to make the first contact.

The third rule of shielding is to be aggressive in holding onto the ball. It is okay in soccer to use your arms, shoulders, body and legs to keep an opponent from getting the ball (you just cannot push with your hands or kick/push with your feet), so don’t be afraid to hold your ground or to use your body to push the opponent away.

Individual Work

There are four basic shielding moves which you will cover in this session. They are the simple step across; the roll; the pull-back; and the circle turn (Note: younger players may have trouble with the circle turn, but it is a good idea to introduce it anyway – and, for older players, it may be possible to add pull-back/taps behind the support leg and the stepover).

Put the players into pairs, and put each pair in a long/narrow grid with one ball (one player on one end and one at the other). The player with the ball will serve the ball to the other player, then act as the defender. This same grid will be used to teach each of these moves. Put the spare ball at one end of the grid.

Step Across

This is the most basic shielding move – but is amazingly useful. The player simply steps over the ball to put either one or both legs between the ball and an incoming opponent.

There is a trick to it, however. In stepping across the ball, the player usually wants to end up being positioned to face the direction where there is the best chance of finding support players (i.e., toward the open field- not the touchline). In general, the only time that you want to turn towards the touchline is when it makes sense to kick the ball off of the opponent’s shin guards to get a throw-in.

Obviously, the direction that the player will end up facing will depend on which foot is used to lead off. Let’s say that the open field is to his left. He will want to step across the ball in the direction of the defender, starting with his right foot – and then lifting his left foot so that it rests on the ball or comes over beside his right foot. Some coaches recommend that the player get in the habit of swinging the lead foot around the face of the ball, instead of stepping directly over the ball, so that the ball is shielded at all times. However, this may be an extra complication for young players (who can get confused with multiple decision), so you can leave this for later if it seems like a good idea.

After learning the basic step across, the player needs to know when/how to use the move. However, give the players some time to experiment on actually doing the move before you get into this.

Put two players at opposite ends of a small grid. Have one player pass to the other player, then walk towards the receiver to start shutting him down. Have the receiver step across the ball to put himself between the opponent and the ball – and end up with his back foot (the foot farthest from the opponent) resting on top of the ball. Once they have this basic idea down – and have learned the mechanics, it is time for the next step – which is to make actual contact with the opponent.

The basic shielding posture is:

  • Knees bent and bottom down to lower centre of gravity;
  • Body in a fencer’s or boxer’s stance (turned sideways with weight balanced on both feet);
  • Arm/elbow of side which will make contact tucked well in to protect ribs;
  • Other arm spread out for balance;
  • Time the step-across so that shoulder aggressively makes contact with opponent (bump him slightly), transferring weight to front foot so that back foot is free to pass/control ball.

Now, return to the grid and allow players to practice making the shoulder-to-shoulder contact (or getting their shoulder into the opponent’s chest, depending on the angle). The idea is to aggressively hold the opponent on one shoulder while you get your head up to find a team-mate to give the ball to. In the warm-up, the players experimented with moving the ball while leaning into the partner, so they should have some ideas of their own which they should be allowed to explore.

Rolls

When in the basic shielding position, the ball is moved around either with the side of the foot or the sole of the free foot. The way to move it with the sole of the foot is by rolling the ball back and forth, periodically putting the foot down to movement of the plant foot.

There is a knack to doing this successfully, which is only gained by practice. Allow the players some time to work on this in the grid – and also suggest to players that they can work on this at home by pushing one shoulder against a wall, and simply rolling the ball back and forth to move in a circular fashion. After some experimentation, play a game where the defender gets 1 point if he can steal the ball or kick it away before the count of 5, while the attacker gets 1 point if he can hold the ball to the count of 5. Increase the holding time to 7 or 9 as you get success.

Pull-Back

The pullback move is used when an opponent is coming in so quickly that it will be hard to step across the ball in time to shield it, so the ball is basically snatched to one side using the sole of the foot. Once the ball is snatched back, the basic shielding posture is used to lean into the opponent – but the player will need to be more braced for the contact, as he likely will not have time to initiate the contact himself.

After illustrating this move, have the receiver move up into the middle of the grid (which will reduce the time needed for the server to get to him), and work on using the pull-back to get ready to shield the ball. Play the same game of points for holding the ball or stealing it.

Circle Turn

There are two types of circle turns – one by using the inside of the foot and one by using the outside of the foot. The latter is the one which is most commonly used – although both can be practiced. In an outside circle turn, the foot used to turn the ball is cocked outwards and somewhat back, and the ball is tapped 3-4 times to allow the player to make a complete circle.

Usually, a circle turn will be used in a pressure situation to spin off of an opponent and explode away on the last tap. Therefore, when practicing circle turns, add an explosion to the last tap so that the ball is pulled with the foot in the new direction. Note that it is fine to do partial circles (and, in games, most “circle” turns actually are about _ of a full circle). The key to using circle turns well is to be able to look up as the taps are being made, so that the ball can be laid off to a team-mate if close support is available – as the ball almost always should be laid off in such situations, since the natural position of the first player will serve to obstruct the opponent. When you observe a player actively obstructing the opponent, however, you need to bring up the difference between just holding your ground (which is legal) and active movement to prevent the opponent from getting to your team-mate with the ball (which is a foul).

Return to the same grid to work on the circle turn. Put the receiver on the back end line (to give him more time to control the ball once received, and allow him to initiate the circle turn as soon as the opponent gets within contact range. Instruct the server to act more like a shadow, just slightly crowding the receiver from the rear as he makes the circle – but not really make an effort to steal the ball. Remember: you are just introducing the idea of this move at this stage. Young players are unlikely to be able to execute this move under full pressure until they have spent more time working on dribbling (especially on explosions), so simply encourage effort.

Small Group Work

Split up every other pair, so that you now have 3 players in a grid. Leave the server at one end, put the receiver in the middle, and put the other player on the far end of the grid (he will serve as the support player). Then, serve the ball into the receiver; allow the defender to close him down; and, as soon as the defender is on him, have the support player start counting slowly to X (which is the amount of time that most of your players could successfully hold off an opponent by shielding). Once the count is reached, the support player then can move in to accept a drop pass and the team then can try to dribble across the opponent’s end line.

After 3 tries, swap out roles. Then, play a game of 2v1 – encouraging the inside player to hold the ball and wait for support unless the defender makes a clear goof which will allow him to get by.

Large Group

Station a line of players at the midline, and a line of players on both sides of the goal. When you serve a ball into the middle, the first players on the goal line can start for the ball. The midline player starts after the count of 3 and acts as a support player for whichever goal line player wins possession. The player who wins possession may try to score himself, or can hold the ball and lay the ball off for the incomer (going 2v1). Defender scores by dispossession, and attackers score by getting a goal. You will want this game to move quickly, so use two goals if you have more than 9 players, as you don’t want more than 2-3 in line. Have players move to a different station after their turn.

Scrimmage

You can play a regular scrimmage, or can continue to play with lopsided teams (creating various restrictions to provide for arrival of late support). Regardless of your decision, praise all efforts to shield the ball and look for support. Encourage team-mates to talk to one another, and to call for the ball if available. Remind them that, when under heavy pressure, players may be afraid to look up – so they will need to YELL and get close to offer any meaningful help.