No matter who you’re rooting for, soccer’s quadrennial international showcase offers all the typical attractions of a major sporting event — manufactured personal narratives! Tepid rivalries! Nonsensical rankings that defy historical context — as well as a few rarely found in domestic competitions. What sets the World Cup apart? It’s operatic and emotional on purpose. It is also the biggest competition for the most popular sport on Earth, a sport played terribly by millions of American children. As such, it provides young players and their parents with a way to learn about soccer.
Over three million of those players live in the United States, and most of them are coached by their parents. Here are five lessons this year’s tournament has taught America’s soccer moms and dads.
Curses Aren’t Real. Preparation Is
This year, a record number of matches made it through extra time, which made penalty kicks an important deciding factor. The penalty shootout format gives both shooters and goalkeepers plenty of time to think about the gravity of the situation: representing their country at a tournament that is only held every four years and for which qualification is not guaranteed (just ask the Netherlands, Italy and, sigh, the United States). Some players are also probably thinking about the pain that awaits them back home if they mess up on the bigger stage. It’s among the most stressful situations in sports.
The best way to deal with the mental stress of a shootout is to prepare as much as possible. Take England as an example. As a country, the English have lost six of seven shootouts in major tournaments, including all three they’ve had in the World Cup. Head Coach Gareth Southgate, a participant in an ill-fated English shootout in 1996, made his team practice shootouts at the end of practice to simulate the tired legs they’d have at the end of a match. He also pre-selected the kick-takers, and each one picked his spot and took a moment to collect himself before kicking, just like in practice. Even after falling behind in the shootout, the English side kept their cool and won the shootout and the game. A less prepared team would likely have crumbled under the pressure.
Possession Isn’t Enough
Perennial contender Spain held the ball for three-quarters of its match against Russia, completing over a thousand passes while the Russian side had less than 300. Spain took 25 shots, nine on target, versus the host country’s six, three on target. Their match was, by many metrics, a beatdown. But only one metric matters. Russia got the win via a penalty shootout after extra time ended with the score 1-1.
While it’s important to teach proper passing technique — the pedantic soccer parents are big on this — it’s also important to teach kids to score, which is the point of the game. Without shots on goal that challenge the goalkeeper, your team won’t be able to consistently win games. Strategize off the ball. Create chances that force your opponents to play a stout defense in order to stop you from scoring.
Headers Aren’t Going Anywhere
Twenty-one percent of all the goals scored at the World Cup through the quarterfinals were headers, a slight uptick from the 19 percent of goals scored by head four years ago. Because most youth soccer players are so focused on footwork—passing and shooting—headers can be an overlooked part of the game.
That means header represent an effective way to gain an advantage over your opponents. If your kids, particularly if they’re tall for their age, can learn to head the ball with control and pace they can literally open a new dimension of their game. Yerry Mina of Colombia is a good player to emulate; he leads the tournament with three goals off of headers.
Own Goals Are Inevitable
Eleven own goals were scored in this tournament through the quarterfinals, smashing the previous record of six set in the 1998 World Cup in France. The first was a free kick five minutes into stoppage time that Aziz Bouhaddouz of Iran tried to head out of bounds for a corner but instead put on goal. Iran lost to Morocco 1-0, the latest own goal in World Cup history costing them a point in the group stage.
Of the remaining ten, there is only one you can really chalk up to bad luck. Yann Sommer, the goalkeeper for Switzerland, had a penalty kick hit the crossbar and ricochet off the back of his head, forcing his team to settle for a tie against Costa Rica. The only reason he was near where the ball hit was because he guessed.
The rest of the own goals in this World Cup are the result of less-than-coordinated play by defenders that often simply surprise their own goalkeepers, who are rightly focused on how the opposing team might endeavor to score. Redirections of errant limbs or misguided attempts at clearance doomed these players, who cracked under pressure from the offense. The way to avoid own goals is with a well-organized defense so no one is out of position trying to make an awkward play. Another thing to emphasize: when you clear a ball, really clear it: as far away from goal as possible, just in case you don’t strike it quite as you’d like to.
Have Set Plays for Set Pieces
In this tournament, 42 percent of goals came from set-pieces, besting the previous record of 36 percent from the 1998 World Cup. Again, England’s performance stands out. The Lions scored eight of their 11 goals from set pieces, the most of any team in the tournament. Their success on dead-ball play owes much to head coach Southgate making it a priority during practice. Attacking coach Allan Russell and Southgate even traveled to the U.S. to study strategies from the NBA and NFL, two leagues where lots of action comes off of dead ball play.
So draw up some plays to try during corner kicks and free kicks near the box. Young players need to understand that even though open play is where most of the athletic stuff happens, games are frequently won from the spot. Planning ahead makes a difference.