Futsal: Let the Game be the Coach

2-kids-futsal[1]Futsal – the sped-up, compressed indoor version of soccer (football) –has played an important role in my development work with players during the last four years. Futsal has always been lauded for its role in helping to develop many of Brazil’s soccer stars during the last 40 years and the word “futsal” is actually short for “futbal de salao”, a term coined in Brazil which roughly means “football in a gym.”

As well, the recent emergence of Spain as a dominant soccer nation has highlighted this further, as Spanish stars like Xavi have credited the indoor game for their success. Other legends like Messi, Zidane, Zico, Ronaldo and Iniesta all cite futsal as the source of much of their skills and technical development. (And for a real treat, look up the Brazilian Falcao on YouTube – a futsal specialist who most observers consider the world’s best at the game.)

From an individual-player point of view, using the smaller and low-bounce futsal ball in our training classes has greatly accelerated the technical development rate of all our younger players. The ball does not bounce away and makes it easier to learn new skills using all parts of both feet. The heavier weight of the ball also ensures that players have to lock their ankle and use good technique for quick passing and shooting. We have seen a great improvement in the dribbling skills, 1v1 moves, passing skills and shooting of our players during training classes.

It is in tactical areas of the game, however, that I can see the greatest benefits of futsal as a learning tool  for young North American players. My generation grew up playing soccer in the streets where space was tight, competition was fierce and you had to be strong mentally to impose yourself on the game and demand the ball. That was because everyone wanted the ball and would do almost anything to get it. It is fair to say that everyone soon learned to execute quality first touches and quick changes in direction and pace, to avoid being caught by flying tackles from a few players who off the field you considered as mates.

Our younger players in North America today do not play in the streets. Instead, they come to organized soccer practices to learn the game and futsal is a great way for us as coaches to accelerate their soccer learning. Futsal places young players in tight spaces (like the school playground or street) and demands from them good ball control, quick thinking, precise passing and creative solutions to get themselves out of tight spaces to create goal-scoring opportunities.  Like basketball, there are constant transitions between attack and defence. This provides our young players with many opportunities to face these situations, and these repetitions are an important element of the modern game.

This fall and winter, 1v1 Soccer FC is playing in a futsal league in Toronto. This is our first year entering teams in formal futsal leagues and the experience has been very challenging but also very beneficial. Many parents have asked me why I have not provided much coaching direction to the players during games, and why I am not overly concerned with the game scores and competitive results. The reason is simple: The players are learning every minute they are on the field. The speed of the game dictates that the players process information quicker and the feedback is instant: You make an incorrect decision, play a bad pass or cannot control the ball and the opposition now have the ball close to your goal or worse….the ball is in the back of your own net already! Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code speaks of skateboarders being super-quick learners. That’s because if they make a mistake, they typically fall (instantly), and immediately gain feedback on what went wrong. So too the life of a futsal player.

It is on occasions like this that we as coaches can do more by doing less. By challenging  our players and trusting them to discover the right solutions, we are putting the burden on the player  to think for him- or herself. If a player cannot get around a defender, or an opponent is constantly getting around them all the time in a game, we as coaches and parents have to ask ourselves: Are our young players  thinking of solutions? Or are they always looking to you as a coach or their parents in the stands?

In my opinion our young players know the game better than we give them credit for  — or in fact, better than they give themselves credit for. Of course as adults we need to be there for discussion and to help guide young players towards  solutions, but we must be helping our young players think for themselves.

We all want to develop “thinking players.”  That can only be achieved if we provide an environment where they can practice the ability to try things, perhaps fail at them, and then come up with a solution that works – on their own. Players don’t, for example, learn passing by adults drawing diagrams on a white board. They learn the skill by actually doing it. And, as I hope is clear by now, keeping score – and simply “playing to win” in games  like the ones we contest in the Toronto league – is completely irrelevant to the kind of learning we’re trying to foster.

Sorry coaches, but despite all our efforts,  the game remains the greatest teacher.

If you are in any doubt, consider this: After a tough futsal league game last Saturday, where I sat in the stands and other staff coached the players during the U11 and U14 games, I asked the players to complete a simple task at training the following morning. I asked them to write down three things that they had learned from the game they played less than 24 hours previously

The responses were as follows:

  • Move the ball quicker
  • Communicate earlier
  • Make your decision before you get the ball
  • Be faster
  • Get open (move a lot)
  • Take shots when close to net
  • Decide early (pass, shoot, dribble)
  • Talk more, give directions to teammates
  • Look for open space
  • You have to make quick decisions
  • You have to know where and what you are going to do with the ball
  • You can’t be standing still, you have to keep moving
  • Communication
  • Fast pace
  • Lots of touches on ball

Job done. They already had all the answers. And the best part: I didn’t tell them any of it.

The game did!