IMG_2067 (2)

Sebastian Giraldo: Behaviors of Elite Soccer Players

Another great article submitted by Sebastian Giraldo.  He has contributed several others before.  Thanks Sebastian!

Making it in soccer is difficult. Training programs and players have improved dramatically in the past 15 years. Worldwide exposure has grown the sport and our knowledge about the development of elite athletes is progressing every day. To make it to the elite levels of soccer it takes a combination of skill, resources, luck, and opportunity. But even on this treacherous development journey, a player still has a lot of control. Through observation and research, we have learned that elite youth athletes exhibit similar thinking processes and behavior.

As a professional trainer, I have numerous stories about players that have progressed to the next level. The problem is that anecdotal evidence is heavily biased and not necessarily accurate for generalization. But when on-field observation aligns with empirical research, then we know we are starting to discover important truths about the elite youth player. In learning and athletic development, research confirms that the best performers are successful at self-regulation. Self-regulation involves processes that enable individuals to control their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Effective self-regulators can adapt and control behavior/thinking to counter responses that might prove detrimental to performance. For example, a youth player shooting a penalty kick to win a game is a stressful situation. An effective self-regulator could probably calm their emotions, disregard parents screaming “kick it,” and rely on their training to execute the task at hand. As a result, this athlete would increase their chances of scoring the goal. In sport, effective self-regulators are typically the best learners. Athletes who better control their learning and environment are more often capable of maximizing their athletic potential and thus succeeding in high performance settings. This is relevant to elite sport where you are constantly battling to earn or maintain a spot.

Behaviors and cognitive (thinking) processes of successful elite youth athletes:

  1. High Self-awareness. They self-monitor consistently before, during, and after training/games. Critical of strengths and weaknesses and aggressively pursue methods to improve. Behaviors include seeking specific information from coaches, attention to detail in training, and belief in improving through training.
  2. Proactive learners. These athletes are fully engaged in their learning environment by asking questions and try to maximize individual and team learning during every session. Behaviors include coaching of teammates, passion during training, and verbally approaching coach during instruction and exercises.
  3. Willingness to expend and sustain effort over years. Soccer development is a long-term objective that can take many years (13+). Commitment, discipline, resilience, and social support are factors that facilitate progression in elite youth soccer. These athletes have a growth mentality where they are constantly working on improving in order to achieve long-term goals.
  4. Follow instructions and effectively perform in competition. Coaches’ perceptions of behavior are crucial because they are the decision makers on playing time, strategy, and tactics. In elite soccer, a player must be able to receive and apply instruction even in stressful environments. Effective youth players understand that listening to coaches is vital to success so they devise strategies to apply criticism and instruction (and other strategies to ignore obnoxious parents).

In our program, we have dozens of players that possess the skills and athleticism to be successful at the next level. The pertinent question always seems to be whether they have or are willing to develop the self-regulation behaviors and cognitive abilities to truly propel them on their path. As part of our philosophy, we treat the cognitive components of the game as the most important aspect in long-term performance success.

Improving self-regulation abilities should be top priority for any elite training program. The development of these skills comes from a complicated interaction between the athlete, environment, player-trainer relationships, and support systems. These skills should be taught and refined throughout years of training. As the athlete progresses into higher levels of their sport system, the better they will have to be at self-regulation in order to be successful. Teaching and educating on self-regulation can begin early with focus on improving these skills incrementally over the long term.

Our best players are committed, disciplined individuals who have found their own inner motivation to succeed. They train to the point of exhaustion and then ask what they need to improve on. They know themselves intimately as a player and honestly assess how they fit within the levels of competition. They accept that their development journey will be riddled with adversity but they are willing to give full effort over years and years of training. They know their role as a player and understand how they fit in the training environment. They breakdown sometimes and have effective support systems to help them cope. They are constantly competing and want to succeed. Conflict and adversity are motivators and rarely a deterrent. They believe they control their future.

The truth is that these athletes did not come to us this way. Not a single one. They developed and refined these skills over time. Now they have become elite youth athletes and their dream of playing at the next level is becoming a reality. The path is not an easy one, but players have more control than they think. If you want to be a top player, you must think and behave like one.

Sebastian Giraldo

Giraldo Elite Futbol (GEF)

Heading and Brain Damage in News Again

If you have read this blog for any amount of time, you will note that I repost or link to articles discussing the issue with heading in youth soccer.  Many “head trauma” articles as they relate to soccer focus on head-to-head trauma, head-to-ground, or head-to-post.  My experience has taught me heading the ball, particularly punted balls and long kicks, can be painful and damaging.

It all started in my third year of coaching.  I was coaching a U10 boys game in an Academy league that was really nothing more than recreation soccer with more emphasis on results (not a true academy experience — that is another topic).  So, we were playing the best team.  They relied on speed and punted balls to threaten.  Their keeper, likely selected for his punting prowess, punts a ball that is going to cross midfield.  One of our defenders, the biggest, strongest boy on the team, heads the ball.  He immediately gets dizzy, has to come out, and gets sick later.  That experience has shaped my perspective on this topic for years.

While I feel it important to teach proper heading, I discourage heading of punted balls or long balls (or balls at great speeds).  I coach mainly boys who play in the most competitive league in Houston so it can be tough.  But, I recommend this article to all who follow.  While it focuses on girls, my experience is boys head the ball more (yes, their necks are stronger, but still).

And, thankfully, now my U10s play in a true academy league where there is no punting, must play out from the back, and emphasis on passing and dribbling.

Heading In News Again

I love this sport.  I spend a lot of my free time on soccer fields.  I sure hope that we are not too stubborn to consider safety precautions to minimize risk of injury in it.  Remember, the old schoolers complained when shin guards became mandatory.  The old, old schoolers complained when the game changed from kicking the dribbler in the shins (without guards) to proper tackling….just saying.

IMG_2067 (2)

Soccer Camp Review: Manchester United Soccer Schools (“MUSS”)

We made the trip over the pond and took our 11-year-old to Manchester United Soccer School.  This is a 6 day camp.  The location of the boys camp was Denstone College – a Boarding School south of Stoke.

The Location – Denstone College

IMG_1945Denstone College is usually a boarding school for boys focusing on athletics.  As a result, they have a lot of playing fields available for training.  The residential and main hall looks like something from a Harry Potter movie.  In fact, they told us it was on a list of finalist for filming locations.  I have to admit, the drive in was concerning … Denstone is a small village in the middle of nowhere.  It is not close to Manchester so you start to wonder  what you have signed up for.  Then, when you turn into the drive, wow…

The dorm rooms were set for 6-8 boys.  They honor room requests (as best they can).  Since there are so many boys to a room, it is reasonably likely your player will be with his mate.  Each boy has a bed, desk, and about 6 drawers.  The bathroom facilities are nice – private showers and toilets.


We showed up near the end of the check in so there was a slow-moving line.  As a result, we missed the junior intro but they said just come back for senior intro.  There is staff everywhere and you go from registration room with a personal escort (a coach) to your dorm room.  On the way, you stop to put your valuables with another staff member.  Seamless and easy and professional.

What You Get

IMG_1940 (4)Room and Board and a Manchester United Training Kit with a matching Rain jacket (great idea).  The kit is a long sleeve nike red top with logo and a pair of white shorts and one pair of black socks.  There is no need for extra money although people left players lots. We left our son $20 and he didn’t spend it.

For the two-week course, instead of going to Old Trafford, you got to a theme park (Alton Towers) — yes the one where there was recently a horrible accident on a coaster.  But, as my host says, this is a very cool park.

The Price

The price for the 6 day camp was about $1500 US.  By comparison, the Dynamo Residential Elite 3.5 day camp is $850 US.  If you go for the 2 week camp, they usually run some discounts for the second week.  But, on a day-for-day basis, they are about the same price.  Neither is cheap and this is where you have to decide what you want out of the camp. If you are going to get evaluated, don’t bother.  I doubt any of the MUSS coaches work for United.  If you want to know what it feels like to be a professional footballer, this is the camp.  The living arrangements, scenery, and closing day at Old Trafford make this worth it to me.

The Quality of Players

IMG_2002Mixed.  It is open enrollment so all levels.  There are high level players but the camp is not dedicated to them.   One thing that is neat about this camp is that there were players from 36 different countries represented of 188 players.  My son’s best mate was from Kenya.  That is something you will not get from other places.

One thing you have to remember as an American attending, your kid will be immersed in European culture.  And, in some countries, their young men use language that you normally wouldn’t hear in the US at 11.  That was the one negative (among very little feedback) we got from the player.

The Quality of Staff

As you are unable to watch training sessions, hard to say.  My son is coach-loyal (loves coaches) and he is just 11 so hard to get a read from him.  The only thing I did learn for sure was that in the games, he let them sort themselves out and didn’t mix in or offer help.  I wish coaches intervened more in these situations.  Our kids come from a family of 5 where the motto is if you ask for it, you get the opposite.  In athletics, they never ask to play a position or demand it.  From my experience coaching kids, especially in camps, some kids need some help to be team players.  The kids that are penalized are the ones with better manners.

IMG_2066 (2)The coach played in the Swansea organization through his youth.  Low 20s.  Very nice guy.  He did not complete the evaluation but let my son complete it.  He did tease my son for calling him Sir.  (It’s a Southern thing).


Off the hook.  These guys know how to run a professional camp.  From the first moment you arrive, there is no doubt what is going on and what you need to do.  All dressed in official clothes (Man Utd).   And staff are everywhere.  The opening presentation was impressive with a breakdown for the week as well as a summary of Manchester Ideals.  Very good.


The camp does a good job with a Facebook page for the camp and posting pictures.  We were in the first week so there was not as much as the later weeks.  My son is not one to bother with communication so we heard little for him but he was not homesick and had a great time.

Closing Ceremony

For the players, this was a great day.  For the adults, not so much.  The players arrived at Old Trafford, ate lunch, went to shop, locker room tour, walked through tunnel, and ended in a Director’s Box.  Van Gaal was doing a presser with Memphis Depay on the field when we were there.  The players were just feet away from the presser.  They then marched them out (in stadium seats – not allowed to get on field).  I think for them, it was amazing.  For parents, you were mainly there to collect your player.  Short presentation.  Each kid got a medal.


I didn’t know what to expect with this camp.  Previously, had sent kids to University of Texas, LSU, local college, etc.  I think where this camp grades strongest is that the kids leave the camp loving soccer more.  I am not sure how much more you want from a camp than that.  The location and surroundings are beautiful.  The staff is uber-professional and littered with former professional players.  My son left with a greater passion for the game.  That is the best ROI I could ask for.  Do I wish they would encourage better language … yes.  But, as my English friend told me, it is more a cultural thing.

In terms of player evaluations, I just do not think that camps are the way to go.  There is a camp in England called the International Football Development Academy (iFDA) that may offer more concrete information and feedback and is allegedly attended by scouts.  I am looking into it and will post information when I get it.


After picking him up, again, he is not that talkative (I had one coach assume from that he doesn’t like soccer.)  He is a shy kid but I asked him if he learned a lot about soccer and he said he learned the same stuff we already do but from a different perspective and he liked it.  I asked if he would want to go back, he wasn’t sure.  This was his first residential experience and he went alone.  I think he was most put off by the language of the other campers.  He wants to be a professional footballer.

After attending the Dynamo Camp, I asked which he preferred.  He preferred the Manchester Camp.  My older son, who did not go to the Manchester Camp but did attend the Dynamo Camp said that if he went next summer, he would prefer the England experience, but had a good time at the Dynamo camp.  I can review the Dynamo camp separately.


LUSC: 6v6 Team Shape by Brendan Donahue

*While researching images for 3-2, I found this wonderful article from Brendan Donahue.  I emailed him and received his permission to re-publish it here.  Thanks Brendan!

This is an article to provide coaches a few options to consider. It is NOT intended to be a training session for young players.

 The transition from the 4v4 game with no goalies to the 6v6 game can be a bit overwhelming for players and coaches. It is the first time the goalkeeper is introduced as a member of the team and throw-ins and goal kicks are introduced to the game. All of these new facets of the game can make for a difficult transition for everyone involved. Although the technical development of the players MUST remain the priority of all coaches, it is helpful to understand various ways you can align your team. Please note these formations are something a coach should be aware of, but not spend a great deal of time focusing on. Please encourage players to cover spaces and not remain in a certain position!

Remember to rotate all players so they experience playing in different areas of the field!

Here are a few options to choose from and reasons why you might select to align your team in this fashion. I have inserted triangles to show how players should remain connected to one another. This includes the goalkeeper:

Option 1: K-2-2-1 (back to front)


This formation will allow you to maximize the width of the field, while still having a strong amount of cover at the back (notice the keeper should not be planted on his goal line). One area you’ll be conceding in this system will be the central midfield. This might not be the best option at the youngest age groups. The single player up top can become isolated from his/her teammates and the team may struggle to create goal scoring opportunities.

Option 2: K-2-1-2


If you choose to align your team in this fashion you’ll be in a good position to control the middle of the field, while conceding the space out wide. Defensively this is a better option for young players. They learn to remain compact and not get beat down the middle of the field. If they move as a group they’ll be able to limit the space for the opposition to attack through. However, it is difficult for players to learn to “widen out” and create space once they regain possession. This can be a good option to select if you are playing against a stronger opponent. You will also have closer support when one of the players up front receives the ball.

Option 3: K-3-2

Let’s examine this formation a bit closer!


This (K-3-2) would be my preferred playing style.   You have excellent cover at the back while having good numbers to control the middle of the field. One of the keys components, if you choose to align your team in this fashion, is that you encourage the flank players at the back to “attack the space” in front of them.

(Pictured Below).

3-2 Building from Back
3-2 Building from Back

“Building out of the back” (pictured right): Notice how when the right wing player attacks the space with the dribble that the two other players at the back slide over to protect the space at the back. One of the reasons I prefer having the additional player begin at the back is that young players are generally more comfortable when they can see the field in front of them. If you start players higher (K-2-3) up the field, the front players will spend a lot of the game facing their own goal.

3-2 Shape
3-2 Shape

Midfield or beyond (pictured right): When the team is in the opposing half of the field it is okay for the central defender to step into the attack if he is under no pressure, but the other players at the back should recognize this and “pinch in”. Please observe how the goalkeeper does not remain on the goal line, but instead moves toward the top of the penalty box to remain closer to his/her teammates. 

Opposition in possession (below):

3-2 poor shape
3-2 poor shape

In this picture you see an example of poor team shape! White is defending too much of the field and the players are “disconnected” from one another. It is important when the opposition is in possession of the ball that players learn to try to get “compact” and defend as a group.

 Proper Team Shape (Below):

3-2 proper shape
3-2 proper shape

(Pictured right) Notice how the white players limit the space for red to play through by remaining closer together or more “compact”. If the central defender steps closer to the oppositions forward, it will discourage the opponent to play into him. Observe how the keeper adjusts his/her position when the central defender moves forward. The two forwards (on white) should try to remain close to one another and begin to work as a group.

Ball on the flank (opponents’ possession):

White continues to remain “compact” by shifting to the “ball side”. This will limit the attackers’ options on the “near side” of the field. By remaining as a unit you will give the opposition far less open space to play through and create more opportunities for your players to regain possession.

Final thoughts:

Before deciding on “What system to play” or focusing on your team defending you must recognize that defensive success is first and foremost based on quality 1 vs. 1 defending. Getting pressure on the player with the ball is vital if the rest of the team is to carry out their defensive responsibilities. Only when this pressure takes place can the remainder of the players get “compact” and take away space from the attacking team.

Offensively, it is easier for young players to find space on the flanks. It is important that coaches encourage this in training by choosing exercises such as the Four Goal game. The exercises should allow the players to “discover” the answers for themselves without constant instruction from the coach.

Comments and feedback are always welcome at

Brendan Donahue

Writing about youth soccer, player development, and the professional game.