Encouraging players to stay on the ball

England may have come up short in Euro 2020, losing the final against Italy in yet more penalty heartbreak.

But there have been consistent messages from the Football Association in recent years that could potentially continue the huge success and development of this young and exciting national team – and point to a positive and bright future.

One particular message is being shouted louder than the rest – when very young players are developing their individual ability on the ball, coaches must encourage them to stay on the ball.

My role as the FA’s national lead for the foundation phase is focused on the development of this next generation of creative and skilful players, who can master the ball.

This includes developing the capability to manipulate and manoeuvre the ball in any direction, at varying speeds and by using any part of the foot or body.

This capability can then be utilised when travelling with the ball, turning, receiving, shielding or screening the ball during any subsequent practice activity or match.

Encouraging young players to stay on the ball gives them the confidence to develop skills like turning away from defenders

It is difficult to say which part comes first – mastering the ball or staying on the ball – because in promoting one you are almost certainly working on the other.

However, once players’ confidence in their improving ability on the ball grows, we need to encourage them to stay on the ball for longer.

This does not mean hog the ball or dribble until possession is lost. The message is about the player knowing they are able to keep the ball for longer, regardless of the pressure from the opposition or space available.

Once players develop a confidence in their own ability, they can start thinking about how they might attack and score for themselves, or help others do the same.

For our under 5s to under-8s, this must be established in such a way that their technique is still good even though there is more pressure on the ball. This could take years of practice, so we must ensure that young players get opportunities to develop these important fundamental techniques.

A greater technical capability means you can look for more threatening and creative options, rather than easy or predictable ones.


“One particular message is shouted louder than the rest – stay on the ball…”


More time on the ball means the game may change while you still have possession; supporting positions could change into more attacking ones, or the player on the ball may suddenly turn or dribble out of pressure and the whole pitch could open up before them.

These situations never occur if the player is told to pass the ball early or to the easiest first option.

This is probably the hardest part for youth coaches, and in particular volunteers, to actively encourage and promote.

This is because we may feel frustrated as we wait for these skills to develop – with this in mind, it is vital to adopt a patient and consistent approach so players feel supported in developing this aspect of their game.

It will be well worth the wait. Development is a long-term process and by staying on the ball, players will develop their dribbling skills, their turns, their twists and their spins away from pressure.

The young players will have to become good at hiding the ball from opponents, and brilliant at not only knowing when to release the ball, but who to release it to.

This capability will stay with them for the rest of their playing time and our ‘stay on the ball’ message aims to promote this aspect of development right through the phases.

The part foundation phase coaches can play is important because they will start the whole process off – if done with real passion and enthusiasm, each coach will play a massive part in the development of our young players.

What a legacy – and one that will, I am sure, mean we will play in more finals in the future.

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