Every time I find myself in a conversation with a soccer parent, I am asked about the “first step.” They ask, “Coach, can you improve my son’s first step?” Or they sigh, “I wish my child would just have a quicker first step.” Or they grunt after all but one month of training, “Why hasn’t my kid improved his first step yet?”
While these are all valid questions and concerns, it is important to look at exactly what we want to train and what it takes to get there. If you’re a soccer player, chances are, you want a quicker first step. And if you’re a soccer parent, you want your kid to be rocketing past defenders at warp speed. I get it.
After all, soccer is a game that is decided by explosive movements that happen within a split second, such as breaking away from a defender, blasting off to make a diagonal run behind the defense, or changing pace after winning a 1v1 battle.
Before I dive into a thorough discussion on the components of soccer performance training, let me ask you this: what do you mean by the “first step?”
Of course, most parents and coaches would reply with jargon like “explosiveness” or “acceleration” or “speed.” A fast first step on its own really won’t do much unless it’s followed by strong acceleration, so when most people say “first step,” they’re really referring to the ability to get to high speeds from a stationary, walking or jogging state quickly. But there’s even more going on here than that.
First step in soccer tends to get lost in translation. Although most are under the impression it is a physical problem, namely, due a lack of speed and acceleration, vision, anticipation and decisiveness also play key roles.
First step can mean thinking two steps ahead and running onto a diagonal ball. First step can mean changing pace to separate yourself from a defender to get open. First step can mean exploding down the flank once you receive the ball at your feet.
First step can mean anticipating a counterattack. First step can mean reading the game ahead of everyone else and making your runs early and often. First step can mean being technically confident to check to the ball and get it at your feet. Let’s dive into this topic and talk about the myriad of ways you can go about training a “first step” that will put you in better positions on the pitch
1. Train Power and Strength
This is when I get tough love-y on everyone. In order to physically improve your acceleration, power and strength need to be developed. They need to be trained more than once a week, and you may need to do that for years to see significant improvement. To that end, power and strength development is no joke. What are your players doing to truly develop these components?
Are they building hamstring strength? Are they building rate of force development and fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment with plyometrics? Are they using contrast training to enhance a post-activation potentiation effect for better power development? Are they utilizing single-leg strength exercises?
Are they training single-leg power production as a complement to strength work and optimizing the stretch shortening cycle (SSC)?
To simplify, here is what you need to know: Strength exercises improve power, power exercises improve ability to accelerate rapidly. I recommend soccer players perform strength and power training 2-4 times a week to elicit the best physiological results, especially during the offseason when they can truly progress in load.
2. Improve Tactical Decision-Making
The tactical component is just as paramount as the physical component when it comes to enhancing the effectiveness of your first step.
I cannot tell you how many times I have had players who have beastly 10-yard and 20-yard acceleration times during testing, but when it comes time to perform on the pitch, they are slow to the ball. It’s not enough just to be a fast mover. You have to be a fast thinker, too.
Acceleration and speed are useless if a player cannot anticipate the tactics in the game. So what are the solutions? Here are several:
- Play more small-sided games that call for fast decision-making.
- Ask your team coach for feedback on 1-2 tactics they can hone in on most.
- Be more cognizant of your movement without the ball and think two steps ahead.
- Play more pick-up soccer that inspires creativity with movement off the ball.
- Watch more professional soccer and tune in on players who play your position, especially their runs off of the ball.
- Perform more “brain games” and reaction drills in your training.
Here are a couple “brain games” that can help you work on mental processing and quick thinking during training:
It is worth mentioning that reaction drills need to be a blend of formal agility drills and more game-like drills. There is value in having players in a performance environment with the strength coach to improve reactive ability, and being on the pitch with the team coach to improve tactical ability. Do both.
3. Perform Various Acceleration and Speed Drills
Many trainers/coaches are not performing the proper speed drills to take our players to the next level. I blame Instagram.
There is too much feet-tapping-through-agility-rings shenanigans going on and not enough maximal acceleration and sprinting going on. Do more of the latter, I urge you.
Look at your practices. Are your players reaching maximal speed enough? Are they working on running and accelerating mechanics from a dead start? Are you working on accelerating in all planes of motion? Here are a few drills that will help elicit this physiological effect they are not getting from practices and technical sessions:
I could get into more here, but to ensure to at least touch on these things when you incorporate sprint work: maximal, all-out effort with a long recovery between sets, perform in all planes of motion and ensure players are using clean, contralateral running mechanics.
4. Have an Insatiable Desire for the Ball
Wanting the ball does not mean constantly calling for it in bad situations and refusing to pass. Rather, having a desire for the ball means that you’re confident enough in your technique that you never shy away from receiving it.
Too often, I see players slow to the ball because they simply do not want it. They are timid, shy, and not confident in their on-ball abilities. This is when first step is not a physical problem, but a mental problem. The best way to overcome this mental block is to become more confident with the ball at their feet.
If your players are slow to the ball because they lack confidence in their game, work on these things:
- Improve their first touch and ability to control the ball.
- Show them how to check into space with a change of pace.
- Encourage them to call for the ball in the right situations and be loud on the pitch.
One of my favorite drills I like to do to work on these things is to set up a 3v3 or 4v4 game on a 20x30m pitch. Any time the ball goes out of bounds, I play the ball to the team who yells for it first. What I have found is, players become more confident in wanting the ball and going at the other team with urgency.
5. Be Patient With Physical Development
So what if your player is indeed physically slow and needs to build strength, speed and power? Honestly, soccer players can always be optimizing their speed, even the fastest players on the squad.
With that said, buckle up. Physical development is a long ride. Just like skill development, becoming a stronger, more explosive athlete takes months, if not years of consistency with training. Getting in the gym soon rather than later, to that end, bodes well for soccer players.
But be patient. One day a week with a skills trainer who makes you dance through ladders is not really “working out.” Lift weights, gradually increase the weight, perform power exercises and enhance your acceleration. And if you have to put the added skills training aside for a while to work on this, I believe it’s worth it.
I hope the above pointers help and give you a better idea of how to discern what a player needs to work on when it comes to their first step. Additionally, I hope you can use these actionable steps with your athletes. Before I leave, remember to always ponder these questions:
- Do your players need more improvement with quicker tactical decisions?
- Do they need more sprint work?
- Do they need to develop strength to optimize explosive power?
- Do they need to be taught how to receive the ball in order to get to it?
Ask these questions first, then you can approach “first step” training with more purpose.
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