Kids playing on their own: Juggling develops skill and provides fun with the ball

Pele  juggled with a grapefruit or a ball of old rags tied together with string when he didn't have a real soccer ball available. He later reflected that juggling helped him develop control with his left foot, concentration, balance and touch, both gentle and hard. While Rose Lavelle  was helping the USA win the 2019 World Cup, she recalled how backyard play, just her "having fun with the ball," contributed to her current skills and creativity on the field.

This part of our series about how children can improve their soccer without team play provides video to emulate the stars and variations of juggling for players of all levels.

For beginners -- balloons and beach balls

Juggling is difficult. It requires sophisticated coordination of balance and touch to send the ball on a path convenient for the next touch. With a regular soccer ball, that means missing the ball's relatively small sweet spot sends it too far away for the next contact. One way to encourage beginners to juggle is to have them try with something easy, like a small beach ball or even a balloon. With a regular soccer ball, letting the ball bounce on the floor or grass between touches can be a good entry phase.

Set goals, consider rewards

One thing that makes juggling fun is to set goals: from 5 to 10, to 20, etc. Reaching those creates a sense of accomplishment, juggling gets more fun, and usually improvement begins to increase exponentially. Parents or coaches offering prizes when certain numbers are reached offer extra motivation. In my childhood, it was running into the house from the backyard with joy to announce I'm due a quarter -- $1.60 in 2020 money -- from dad. Coaching preteens I set a team goal, adding up every player's record to reach a number that promised a post-game ice cream party. Coaches can set up an online doc for kids to take pride in their progress.

From thigh to foot

I've seen some coaches insist that kids have to begin juggling with no-hands, ball on the ground, but I believe that should depend on the individual skill level. You want the start to be as easy as possible. Such as dropping the ball on the thigh, counting thigh touches, and using the feet when the ball drops down. Or starting by dropping the ball to the foot. As the kids progress, the challenges can be more complex. But starting with thigh juggles can help build confidence.

Once it's obvious the young player is building confidence and enjoying juggling, the challenges can be foot-only counts, or alternating right foot-left foot counts.

But I recommend not interfering much into how the kids approach it. The aim is for them to build a relationship with the ball and find enjoyment on their own terms. There's a video of a 10-year-old Leo Messi juggling 100-plus times only with his left foot and left thigh. He turned into a pretty good player.

A 9-year-old Christian Pulisic juggling in his driveway.

Right foot, left foot

Coaching players to improve their weaker foot at practice is a difficult task. You can place restrictions during game-like exercises, like shooting with only your weaker foot. But do you want a player to awkwardly adjust for a weak-foot shot when the pass was delivered to the strong foot?  Or take a poor shot during a game with the weak foot rather than take an extra touch for a better shot? Also, young players don't enjoy failing miserably in front of peers or what they perceive, rightfully or not, the judgmental coach who's contemplating the weekend's starting lineup.

The best time for kids to work on their weaker foot is on their own, whether that's passing and shooting against a wall, or juggling. If you can juggle 10 or 20 times with your right foot, try 5 or 10 with your left foot. Alternating feet when you juggle is excellent practice. And even if kids aren't trying to use the weaker foot, juggling naturally challenges them to do so.

Different types of balls

With NerfPoof-Slinky or others types of soft balls, kids can juggle, or play off the wall, inside the house. Volleyballs can be fun for juggling, and I really like the Coop hydro balls, which are designed for water play. They’re soft enough to juggle indoors with minimal risk of causing damage -- although I don't recall ever interviewing a great player who never broke something in the house -- perfect for barefoot play, and, of course, great to bring to the beach. For advanced players, there's the Hacky Sack, tennis balls.

I don't know the science on how juggling different types of balls may be beneficial, but doing so is something that great players have in common. Even superstar Messi, with unlimited access to soccer balls, can't resist mixing it up.

The Newspaper Ball

Combine art and soccer by making a paper ball -- with newspaper, or what ever scrap paper is available in the tablet age. The first piece needs to be crumpled up and squeezed tightly, because that's the core. Wrap more sheets around the core and tape a big cross around the orb. Athletic tape is best, but masking tape will work. Add more sheets of paper. Then wrap tape around it until you can't see any of the paper. Kids can use colored markers to decorate the ball. Then can juggle or play against the wall with their custom-made ball, which because of its limited spring can be used indoors.

A young Diego Maradona juggling while dreaming of playing in a World Cup.

The Brandi Chastain Challenge

"Casual skill sessions don’t have to last for hours. Even 15 minutes a day of juggling or footwork can be a significant addition when compounded over time. ... Try this ultimate challenge. It’s called 720, and here’s why. Using these 12 ball-juggling surfaces (laces/instep of both feet, outside of the feet, inside of the feet, thighs, chest, shoulders, head) and keeping the ball up in the air, use as many of those surfaces as you can in 60 seconds. Multiply the number of surfaces you successfully use (at least once), by the number of seconds you keep the ball up. Your maximum scored would be 12 x 60 = 720."

-- From “It’s Not About the Bra: How to Play Hard, Play Fair, and Put the Fun Back into Competitive Sports” by Brandi Chastain with Gloria Averbuch.

Diego Maradona's juggling warm-up for UEFA Cup final clash in 1989 against VfB Stuttgart. “There were 70,000 people in the stadium and Maradona went on the field," said Jurgen Klinsmann, who scored the first goal of a 3-3 tie that gave Napoli a 5-4 win on aggregate.  "We’re on the other side of the field, warming up like Germans: seriously, focused. … There’s music playing, the song 'Live is Life,' and to the rhythm of the song Maradona started juggling the ball. So we stopped our warmup. What’s this guy doing? He’s juggling off his shoulders. And we couldn’t warm up anymore because we had to watch this guy."

9 comments about "Kids playing on their own: Juggling develops skill and provides fun with the ball".
  1. Bob Ashpole, March 16, 2020 at 5:28 p.m.

    Good article, Mike. One of our coaching objectives should be to teach kids how to play on their own or in pairs.

    For older players, I like Dennis Muellers's Daily Footwork Drill (the 1000 Touches Workout). It presents a good subject for a series of technical lessons for a season plan. For younger players rehearsing a pickup game would be useful.

    Playing with friends is better and more fun too, but players can still have fun playing alone.

  2. Bill Dooley, March 16, 2020 at 7:49 p.m.

    Juggling makes every touch better.  Here's a progression that produces amazing ball control and touch:

  3. frank schoon, March 17, 2020 at 11 a.m.

    This whole juggling is misplaced and overrated. In my street soccer days where upon I spend between 15-30 hours of playing soccer a week, I never saw kids really work on juggling. We as kids never talked about it or have juggling contest of who can juggle  the most. We as kids played, and if your alone you either kicked a ball against wall or head the ball against the wall, but juggling???? it never came up. Cruyff once stated that today kids can do things with a ball, that he would give him difficulty, and further stated that it would look good in a circus, but it has nothing to do with soccer....

    It was here during the 70's when soccer became popular, Juggling became a popular item. I would hear parents or coaches say, this kid can juggle a ball 200x  and I'm saying to myself, yeah ,can he  play soccer, let me see his feel for the ball.
     Juggling became a rage here in the 70's. You'd hear coaches say we spend time in practice juggling. In my over 40 some years training ,coaching kids , I've never spend a minute on juggling.  My attitude on that was juggle on your time not on mine....

    To say juggling teaches touch on the ball is BALONEY!! Touch???  I'm not saying don't juggle, but be very focused on what it is suppose to help you on. For example, I see juggling or forms of it suited more for experienced players not beginners. Like receiving a ball in the air with your back to the defender and goal, in order to shoot a side volley shot on goal , you need to first take 2 juggles in the turn to make a side volley shot. In other words, juggling should never be seen as an activity seperate from another movement. But juggling, the way it is practiced, is all about juggling, itself, like hackey-sack....NEXT POST

  4. frank schoon, March 17, 2020 at 11:25 a.m.

    To me juggling is the "icing" on the cake. Kids spend too much time, and attention to the "icing' of soccer rather than the cake of soccer. For example, having played quite a few years of soccer, trying my hand at juggling was no problem. In other words through playing your body automatically learns touch, kinetic movement and timing with the ball. So tricky stuff, catching the ball in one's neck, or on the foot and employing the shoulders  is so easy to execute for your body is so much in tune with the ball, unlike a young player. It is much better for a youth spending time practicing with the weak foot, passing, shooting, dribbling. And yes try juggling with the weak foot, but I'll guarantee practicing the other skills aformentioned have much more 'payback' and success for one's development.

    Watching these videos of these kids juggle, shows you how you stiff their legs are as well as their movements with the ball. Then watch Maradona, do his juggling show, no stiffness for he and the ball are totally 'one' everything moves in unison , the timing the feel, the touch. This is why I say juggling serves a better purpose for older experienced player have other tools to integrate with juggling in some form......Realize when you see Maradona showing the "Icing" that comes from having played and having those extra tools to integrate any forms of juggling. 

    In my private lessons, in order for a kid to learn 'touch', I use a tennis wall. The player standing a few meters from the wall passes the ball in the air employing the instep without letting the ball hit the ground. See if he can it do 10x. That takes touch and feel, for you don't want to pass it too hard in order to get control on the rebound. Once you attain the right touch, a timing, then you can transistion after the rebound if the ball comes back to hard then employ  a sharp backspin on the ball thereby keeping the ball , juggling it twice without letting it touch the ground and continue passing against the wall.

    The backspin placed on the ball is a way controlling a ball on a low cross coming to you while running towards the ball, for you don't have to trap it since the backspin takes the energy of the ball and after a one touch juggle you can continue the run....

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, March 17, 2020 at 4:43 p.m.

    I was highly skeptical about juggling as a training exercise, but I used it myself when solo. I think it is excellent for soft touch and moving the ball between surfaces. The most common uses I have seen in games is moving the ball from upper body or thigh down to the foot or for controlling the ball while pivoting. I have seen it used in the opposite direction for avoiding a tackle. 

    But the repetitive juggling is IMO a waste of training time. Bill's link looks good to me. It focuses on moving the ball around the body. 

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, March 17, 2020 at 4:45 p.m.

    I think about juggling as an extention of dribbling--manipulating the ball.

  7. frank schoon replied, March 17, 2020 at 5:01 p.m.

    Bob, if you want to do it yourself fine. It is not often that juggling comes into play when playing. What I think is that juggling is an aspect which is way over emphasized for the amount of time one ever employs it....Juggling to me needs to be connected to a follow up movement, right away, which means one to two juggles not more than that for more juggles would only give the opponents more time to adjust and set up. So do you really need to spend on juggling so much in reality it should be more than twice to it in the follow movement...

    Juggling has become a side show, with no purpose other than for one to keep it up...and I totally disagree the benefits of touch on the ball especially when it has no purpose for a follow up movement. And I don't think children need to be wasting their time on something that is so irrelevant in their level of play.....

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, March 17, 2020 at 9:01 p.m.

    I would use it at the start of a warmup to raise body temperature, as an alternative to low intensity dribbling.

  9. frank schoon replied, March 18, 2020 at 10:27 a.m.

    Bob, do whatever you want to do in the warmups....I allow allow the players to do their own thing,warmups. If they want to juggle, do handstands, tumbles, dribbles, stretch, whatever... I'm from the old school , I let individuals be individuals.  Some want to just pass the ball or shoot on goal or whatever  but I'm not for platooning, herding  them into doing all the same  specific drilll, play keep away. That is what I liked about the Maradona video everybody is out there doing their own thing..... 

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