The Importance of Ball Mastery

Ever thought about pressing a button which allows you to complete a current task to a high standard and gives you the capacity to complete other tasks well simultaneously? When a pilot is in the air, they now has the luxury of pressing an “autopilot” button. The computer on board the plane controls the trajectory and the flight plan that allows the pilot and co-pilot to oversee and potentially perform other tasks that more or less complex. Unfortunately, not everyone has a physical button they can push, so how can we get something near to an autopilot button?

There is a theory that suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in a profession. With this in mind, it would take 20 hours of practice every week for 10 years, with informal and formal contact and feedback, to really make the jump.

"To be a professional, you have to start acting professionally"

Whilst this may seem like a lot of time, practice makes perfect, and this will be reflected in the level that can be achieved. In the context of football and futsal, this, and in most cases, more, is what it takes to be regarded as a professional, and the starting block of creating an all-round player is the implementation and development of their ball-mastery skills.

What exactly is 'Ball Mastery?'

‘Ball Mastery’ is the practice of particular contacts and touches of the ball in a deliberate way which stresses cognitive function and develops the capacity of the player that thinks consciously about the touches they are taking. The practice challenges players to control and manipulate the ball with all the different surfaces of their feet. Playing in tight spaces conditions players to take complete care with each and every touch of the ball in order to prevent them from losing it. When a player has mastered this, having spent many hours perfecting the skill on both feet, with good perceptional awareness on both sides – also called laterality – they can now boast having the ‘magic button’ that many crave. With practice, the action becomes so well drilled that the touches become second nature, allowing the player’s perception of the task to become unconscious. Therefore, the player can now process the ball mastery task without having to think directly about it.

This is incredibly important when developing a player’s armoury. Ball mastery is the development of perceptual awareness and contacts in isolation, and is not directly linked to the game; you aren’t practicing on a particular action in a match, against defenders. Moreover, it is the transference of touches from conscious to the unconscious mind.

Skill acquisition has 4 stages and this can be explained better here:

Practice makes perfect

If we want to acquire new skills, we must practice both formally in coaching sessions to understand the reason and the break down and then informally -in our own time to get closer to those 10,000 hours of practice to develop as a player.

There is a real misconception in sport that being a professional only applies when you are getting paid. Everything has to start from somewhere; to be a professional, you have to start acting professionally. This means deliberate, consistent practice with a good feedback loop in order to develop and progress. A feedback loop can be defined as the part of a system in which some portion (or all) of the system's output is used as input for future operations. Each feedback loop has a minimum of four stages. During the first stage, input is created. During the second stage, input is captured and stored. During the third stage, this input is analysed, and during the fourth stage, the insight gained from the analysis is used to make decisions (, 2019).

This is where the coaching becomes incredibly vital. A player will practice a ball mastery task, starting simple before building on more complex moments in the future when that skill moves from conscious to unconscious competence. But to get to the expert level of competence in skill acquisition, the coach’s analysis and feedback is vital to process, enhance and make decisions to create a more complete player. It also works the other way; if the coach is incompetent, they can create a negative feedback loop and the player may regress, or at the very least not progress.

By spending hours on the developmental phase of ball mastery, it is possible to create a diverse and competent foundation by which players can form the capacity to think and do more due to these actions being second nature. Achieving this will enable us to create an indirect autopilot button that allows players to feel more, do more, perceive more and produce more.

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