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Reinventing the ball
by Mike Woitalla, February 20th, 2011 12:16AM
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TAGS:  youth boys, youth girls


By Mike Woitalla

It seems to me that playing soccer with different kinds of balls is good for children’s skill development. I don’t have scientific evidence for this, but a lot of anecdotes from great players.

Pele played with a grapefruit and a sock stuffed with paper when a proper ball wasn’t available. Diego Maradona walked to school kicking an orange or crumpled-up paper. Claudio Reyna played one-on-one with his brother in the basement using a Nerf-type ball and kicked against the ball with one of those plastic bouncy balls you find in drug-store bins.

Many trace superb foot skills, especially among South American players, to playing futsal, whose ball is smaller and less bouncy than a regular soccer ball. (Ronaldinho, Robinho and Lionel Messi all played futsal as kids.)

One way to encourage youngsters to juggle is to have them try with something easy, like a small beach ball or even a balloon. Juggling a tennis ball or hacky sack must be great practice.

Balls that are softer than real soccer balls can be great fun to kick around and more practical in some situations, such as on playgrounds and playing indoors. (And obviously preferable for very young kickers.)

The ball that can’t do any indoor damage hasn’t been discovered, but I’ve rarely interviewed a successful player who hadn’t broken a thing or two in the house while a child.

Among the alternative balls to which I’ve seen kids take a great liking are the Coop hydro balls designed for water play. They’re soft enough to juggle in the house, perfect for barefoot play, and, of course, great to bring to the beach. (Fine for playing catch with in the pool, too.)

The Poof-Slinky company makes foamy soccer balls in two sizes that kids can kick against their bedroom door with minimal racket. The 7-1/2-inch Poof ball has the nice old-fashioned, black-and-white pentagons-hexagons and begs to be dribbled through a hallway, balanced on the foot, or shot at an improvised goal.

Both the Coop and the Poof are less bouncy and easier to control than those red playground balls -- also delightful to kick around -- commonly used for P.E. kickball and dodge ball.

New on the alternative-ball market is the innovative “One World Futbol” -- the super durable, virtually indestructible soccer ball invented by Californian Tim Jahnigen for a very good reason.

Watching a documentary on Darfur refugees, Jahnigen saw children playing with rag balls, cans and boxes. He realized not only did these kids deserve real balls, but ones that would last. (According to the “One World Futbol” web site, 20 million deflated balls are trashed each year in Africa.)

After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, relief workers learned that one of the most common requests was for soccer balls. But aid workers also soon saw that regular soccer balls quickly punctured on glass or sharp rubble.

The One World ball never goes flat even if punctured and requires no pump or needle.

It’s designed to be distributed to refugee camps, United Nations hot spots, conflict zones and poor villages throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, and one manner in which the One World balls find their way around the world is through the “Give one, Get one” program. You buy a ball for $40 and another one is donated to a child who can’t afford one somewhere else on the globe. (Or you pay $40 and donate both, or $25 to donate one.)

The One World Futbol is similar to a regulation size 5 soccer ball. Although perhaps not optimal for a full-field game when a regular ball is available, it does suit playing pickup games, passing around and juggling.

My panel of 11-year-olds who tested out One World Futbol said -- after futile attempts to prove it destructible -- it juggled similar to a regular soccer ball, they were intrigued by the back-story, and one pointed out, “You can also use it for four-square!”

(For more information on One World Futbol, go to:

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

  1. David Whitehouse
    commented on: February 21, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.
    When young (U9 or so) my son was fond of juggling and wanted to do it in the house. We let him juggle in the family room with one rule: He could NEVER kick at the ball to try to control it (thereby sparing our lamps and windows). After a while he could do hundreds of touches in a row, but more importantly, he learned not to panic with the ball instead of sending it out into the parking lot.
  1. Brian Threlkeld
    commented on: February 21, 2011 at 7:21 p.m.
    Wilf Mannion, the great forward for his hometown club of Middlesbrough, and for England, born in 1918, recalled his boyhood love of playing soccer -- seldom with an official ball, and mostly on the wasteground of the puddling furnaces that produced iron and steel in the small town of South Bank. He said: "We played all the ruddy time -- morning, noon and night. . . . We'd play with anything: cans, rag balls . . . we'd even get a pig's bladder from the butchers, and if you could control that, you were a ruddy genius. And we'd play on anything, the puddling most, though, because it was playable all year round. It was bumpy, but that did not bother us." The two crucial elements, it seems, are (1) a passionate desire to play the game -- the child *has* to play, and won't be stopped even by having only the most rudimentary tools of the game, and (2) driven by the passion, learning to apply one's skills despite that rudimentary equipment.

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