Training is off but young athletes in all sports should always work on their skills

Training is off but young athletes in all sports should always work on their skills
Cork hurlers like Donal Óg Cusack, Eoin Cadogan, Jerry O'Connor, Shane Murphy and Ronan Curran all spent countless hours away from the training ground working on their touch and skill. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

WHEN Erling Haaland smashed his second goal against PSG in the Champions League a few weeks back it was another step on his rise into one of the most brilliant young talents in world football.

A player emerges like this, who can’t stop scoring in every new team and challenge and who seems to have so suddenly burst into this elite level, will always attract some attention for those looking for a backstory to latch onto.

You know the drill. An athlete comes into a sport at the highest level. People go looking for a reason why. Some aspect of his history gets patched together into a pathway to follow. One ideology gets trumpeted and another put down until the next comes along. 

It was interesting then to read a detailed report on how Haaland had come through youth football in Norway, a story of his time with local club Bryne where the club brought 40 players from his group (he played a year up from his age) through with the emphasis on keeping them together and giving them all the same chances and experience. 

Nobody dropped out before 16 and they’ve produced 10 professional players from that group already.

It was argued as a success maybe for a broader development model, away from the traditional academy idea, that if players are to emerge then they can do so also from a less intense, more community-based environment than the one formed by clubs.

Certainly it made the argument that there are different roads, but one detail that jumped out in the story. In 2005 Bryne built an indoor grass-covered soccer pitch. This was left open for use at weekends and around 20 of Haaland’s group spent hours playing between themselves whenever possible.

Borussia Dortmund's Erling Braut Haaland. Picture: AP Photo/Thibault Camus
Borussia Dortmund's Erling Braut Haaland. Picture: AP Photo/Thibault Camus

They mightn’t have been training collectively but they were playing soccer ALL THE TIME. This seems a thing that’s forgotten sometimes.

In an interview with Jaze Kabia last week, he told of growing up in Cork in the same Douglas area as Adam Idah, how they played soccer outside together with a larger group all the time as kids (there were other notable players from the extended group) and how that was a massive role in his development.

In Neal Horgan’s excellent latest book on Cork City, there’s an interview with Cathal Lordan on his time with City and how injuries hampered his career but there’s a reference straight away to how he got started.

He began by playing in Ballincollig with loads of kids who went on to England or played League of Ireland, being invited to a five-a-side with his brother, Cillian, and guys like Colin Healy, Liam Miller and others and just that quality that he was exposed to locally growing up, playing with and against that constantly.

Two massive hotspots for player development currently are London and Paris, this idea of cage football/ street football where kids have constant access to games going on every day and where skill and technique become essential tools to play and improve and impress (talents like Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson came from this sort of background).

All this became sort of important this past week when the social distancing for sports became a grim part of the new reality and all group activities for teams became impossible.

We’ve seen the clips and plans going around on skills to be practicing at home and in some ways, it offers a bit of a chance to step back to basics here.

GAA clubs have sent out little games and things that can be done with just a ball and a wall. Soccer have done the same. Kids who love hurling will be smacking a sliothar off the wall at home and just getting that feel for first touches. 

We’ve seen clips of kids volleying balls off the wall at home, slowly building awareness and technique of what needs to be done to control a ball, the pace of striking and touch to kill it.

Dennis Bergkamp famously had a quote about being obsessed with hitting the ball off a wall at home and just learning the angles and how the ball moved and stopped.

Dennis Bergkamp. Picture: INPHO/Allsport
Dennis Bergkamp. Picture: INPHO/Allsport

There’s a bit of a kick against isolated skills out there currently, that there’s very little benefit to kids practicing with a ball on their own, but we’re always a bit wary of the idea that players can’t be improved at any level by touching the ball as often as possible in any environment. 

We read an interview with Colin O’Riordan, who went from Tipperary to Aussie Rules and whose focus when he first went out there was to get 2,000 touches of the ball every day, just to catch up with the locals.

Colin O'Riordan looks on during a Sydney Swans AFL training session. Picture: Jason McCawley/Getty Images
Colin O'Riordan looks on during a Sydney Swans AFL training session. Picture: Jason McCawley/Getty Images

The hours Donal Óg Cusack spent at the ball wall could be easily seen on the field with every perfect touch. Ditto Patrick Horgan.

Perhaps the key takeaway is that it all matters and if there’s more than one route or pattern to becoming a top player, then they have generally the same core — a lot of time playing the game in some form, on their own practising and perfecting certain skills and games in groups, both organised and not.

Away from the methodologies and arguments for/against early specialisation, the use of academy systems and games-based training versus technical programmes, players get better the more they’re willing to practise.

If they’re playing with a group that’s interested in improving all the time, they’ll get better again.

The hours with a ball in the garden matter. The hours down the clubs all add up.

The hours of games with peers can take it onto another level. Those willing (and given the chance) to do more might make a difference in the end.

The next few weeks and months can be put down for the skill development in isolation method.

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