Sporting Kansas City forward C.J. Sapong made his mark in the soccer world with a successful 2011 campaign that won him MLS Rookie of the Year honors. Opposing coaches and players will be paying a lot more attention to the 23-year-old stud from Manassas, Va. this season. Sapong knows it. That’s why he's not taking a break this off-season, instead pushing himself to an entirely new level.
C.J. Sapong’s Off-Season Skills Workout
“What people don’t realize about soccer is you’re hardly ever stagnant—[rarely is] any situation going to be the same as the next,” Sapong says. “You have to be able to trap a ball running at full speed. You have to be able to trap a ball with a defender right on your back. You have to be able to trap a ball in awkward ways to keep it away from your defender.” Hundreds of technical aspects need work, he says.
A great place to start perfecting your game is by performing a few of Sapong's drills. Nothing is more important in the off-season than getting your touches in, which is why he hits the field every day. “I’ll try to take about six to 10 balls with me and start off with a nice jog around the field with a ball,” he says. Then he performs the drill below, which works his ability to control the ball from every angle.
Sapong calls the next drill “technical work.” He performs it with a partner, but you can also use a wall.
Sapong's favorite drill comes as no surprise. “Shooting,” he says with a laugh. “It’s something simple. You just set down a cone, make a move on the cone and then shoot toward the goal.” But just shooting on goal won’t get the job done. You need to be accurate with your shot, shooting as far away from the goalie’s reach as possible without sailing wide or high.
The ability to consistently hit that small gap prepares Sapong for the ninetieth minute, when his team needs a quick score. He says, “Sometimes, on the eve of a game, I’ll just turn and shoot. I’m not exactly aiming, but I’m so used to aiming for that area, it’ll just slide right into the corner.” He attributes this skill to his consistent shooting work during practice. “Your muscles learn to repeat that action. It shows in the game and makes me not have to think about it during a game,” he says.
C.J. Sapong Shooting Drill
Reps: 50 shots each foot facing goal; 50 shots each foot with back to goal
Although Sapong loves shooting, he says juggling is the most beneficial drill for any soccer player who wants to make it to the next level. He admits he’s lucky that he can take six to 10 balls to the field, and he realizes that most players probably only have one to work with. Fortunately, one is all you need for juggling.
Sapong says, “One of the things that helped me growing up was pure juggling—juggling and working on your touch.” Juggling while fatigued helps him keep his touch late in matches. “I think [juggling is] very relative to the game . . . when your touches really count the most,” he says, and he recommends juggling at least 20 minutes every day in addition to practice and other technical work.
Sapong's Mental Skills
Hardcore workouts are vital to Sapong's game, but he also needs to have the right mindset. Revealing a few tips that have helped him reach success, he says, “Obviously, it’s a little cliché, but don’t listen to what anyone else has to say. Don’t pay too much attention to who’s on the regional team or the national team or whatever it is. When you’re young, people love the titles. It’s not really that much of a testament to how you’re going to be [as a player] when it comes down to it. At the end of the day, it’s your mindset that will get you as far as you want to go. If you believe you can do it and you put in the effort and you don’t take no for an answer and you’re willing to fail a couple of times—you’ll be fine. You’ll make it and you’ll have the joy of playing the sport you love.”