John Owens is the assistant Academy Director at Liverpool Football Club. John works with 9 year olds to18 year olds-He also coached Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Steven Warnock, Darren Potter and others at Liverpool F.C and the likes of Joe Cole, Wes Brown on the England youth team. John hired Gary Ireland to work with Liverpool F.C youth players at ‘The Academy’ in 2003-2004. Gary is also a former personal assistant of Wiel Coerver and has worked extensively with Wiel in the Middle East and in the USA. Gary interviews his mentor and close acquaintance John Owens below on the subject of juggling.
Gary Ireland: I don’t think that players juggle enough in general. Juggling helped my balance, coordination, touch, timing and more importantly, timing. I played my best soccer when my juggling was at my best. Do you encourage the players at Liverpool FC to juggle?
John Owens: Yes we do encourage our players to juggle. It is part of their individual work with the ball. It is not just about juggling but we encompass the whole area of ball familiarization, using different parts of the foot, thigh, chest and head. They can progress from individual work to pairs and in larger groups. We also use the wall in our indoor arena to vary the challenge. Players who show a high ability of individual skill with the ball are usually the ones who show the best control and the best at weighting their passes.
Gary Ireland: I have spent many years playing foot tennis/soccer tennis, which helped me tremendously in my development. I also know it helped all of our coaching staff so I absolutely agree with you. It’s one of the best way to improve touch and timing. How often should players be juggling?
John Owens: There should be time in each session to work individually with the ball (juggling is just a part of that). It can be fitted in well as part of the warm-up linked with the physical element of the pre=session routine. Individual ball work is also a useful part of a session to place between two high intensity sections. Twice a week with the full-time players we have specific sessions for the development of individual skills. Over the year we will cover the full range of skills with the ball (control, passing, volleying, heading, etc.) Many sessions include 2 v 2 skills games and larger games of football tennis and head tennis. (in head-tennis the net is higher and the ball must be sent over the net with a header) In some games players must take two touches each. This gives them practice with a stress on the quality of their first touch, like in the real game. Those who are good jugglers usually do well in these types of skills games.
Gary Ireland: Who is the best juggler at LFC (youth) in your opinion?
John Owens: In our team that won the F.A Youth Cup (U/18 men) last season, we had a player, Adam Hammill, who has exceptional individual skills with the ball. Of course, some of his moves are not directly applicable to the game situation, but some do unsettle the defenders and can give him the edge in dribbling situations. When I was manager of England U/15s, Joe Cole (now with Chelsea) was just as adept at juggling and ball manipulation skills. The real challenge for these highly skilled players is to use their ability in an effective way that benefits the team, rather than it simply be a show of their skills.
Gary Ireland: Many people, including coaches, often comment that juggling isn’t relevant to the game or that it’s for 'show offs'. I have 40+ ways of getting the ball off the ground and numerous tricks and flicks, which, when rehearsed regularly without doubt help me perform better because it helps my balance, touch, and co-ordination. I’ve heard comments such as 'you should be in a circus' when showing these tricks. I happen to work on ‘method juggling’ and juggling in motion for a greater and more realistic challenge rather than ‘hackeysack’ tricks. Hubert Vogelsinger’s instep training which was widely used here in colleges by people such as former Stanford coach Bobby Clark who I met while coaching together at Vogelsinger’s camp before he worked at Stanford, is a form of training which incorporates juggling to some very advanced technical training which I call ‘aerial control’. How do you explain to these people that the Maradona’s, Zidanes, Ronaldinho's and Henry's have terrific juggling skills and that the best players in the world tend to have fantastic tricks.
John Owens: My earlier answers cover this question. Overall, those who do not see the relevance of ball manipulation activities like juggling do not realize the concept of transference of skills. A very important point here is for the coach to accept the responsibility of helping the player to transfer these skills to the real game situations. If no transfer is made then the juggling skills will remain in isolation and will not benefit the player in his overall game. I think this is the point that the critics of juggling are making when they claim that it is just a circus act.
Gary Ireland: A famous phrase often said to anyone juggling is "why do you bother doing that when you cannot do it on the pitch". Many coaches or lower level players who were never able to juggle or people who have never or rarely played the game seem to say this. How would you answer that one.
John Owens: Juggling is not practiced to be a move that is copied exactly in the actual game. When you watch ballerinas warming up, they perform different moves to help them to execute the actual moves on stage. Nobody expects a footballer to juggle in a real game but the players who are good jugglers do show the best control ( first touch ) in the game – whether that be a touch to control the ball for themselves or to lay a ball with one-touch perfectly into the path of a colleague. All footballers should seek to master the football, like the precision shown by golfers, snooker players, etc
Gary Ireland: In all the places you have coached football have you ever been anywhere were juggling is given the same importance as in South America.
John Owens: I have not coached in South America, but by all accounts they take their individual skills very seriously. In the past in Europe we focused so much on game play, rather than individual development. The guiding principle for our Academy system is to practice three times for every one game session, so that the time for work on individual skills is available. Although we aim to emulate the individual ability of the South American players, we have to seek to do it in the framework of our own culture. This culture will be shaped by the style of play in games and the physical and psychological makeup of the players of that country. With the movement of players from all over the world to our Premier League, our young players are influenced by many foreign players which lessens the idea of a typical stereotype.
Gary Ireland: What are the benefits of juggling?
John Owens: The main benefit of juggling is to encourage a good touch and mastery of the ball. It will also improve a player’s physical co-ordination and suppleness. As a player improves their repertoire of skills, they will be able to be less predictable and more creative in their play. Young children thrive on
competition and contests of these skills can enthuse young players to want to learn and improve.
The coach should not leave the players to practice juggling in isolation. To get the transference to specific football skills, like touch, control, feel for the ball, etc. the coach should help to make this link with practices for control to follow sessions on juggling. So juggling for the sake of juggling is what annoys some coaches. In lots of skills practices we overdo the skills to emphasize the practice of it. For instance with shielding – we can get 1 v 1 for a minute in a small area to test the players ability to use his body to protect the ball. In the real game we do not want a player shielding it for a minute or more. The player must choose firstly whether he needs to shield it. Then he should shield it for as short a time as possible to get out of a tight position and safely pass, shoot or continue a dribble. So our practices are not always perfect replicas of the game situation. We do not practice shielding for the sake of shielding the ball as an end. Shielding the ball is a means to an end – getting free with the ball away from a defender. It then depends on the ability of the coach to lead the player from the practice situation through to the real game, i.e. through the transfer of skills. Also, with regard to the fact that we do not see juggling in the actual game, we also do not see players getting into the type of stretch positions (e.g. hamstring, groin,..) during play but we still feel OK about our players doing these stretches in preparation. They are not doing them to replicate exactly in the game.
Gary Ireland: John, thanks for your time and thanks for you sharing your knowledge with me. I agree with your thoughts which are of course hard to disagree with considering players such as Steven Gerrard are products of your guidance! You may have just silenced the juggling cynics. Good luck this season at Liverpool FC.
Courtesy of Gary Ireland.
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