Soccer: Dribbling with the ball under pressure

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We know, you’ve practised in your spare time with cones. You’ve been working on your speed ladder exercises and ball mastery. Your touch is awesome and when you’re out there alone you have Zidane like ball control. 

But sometimes, you get to the match and depending on who you’re playing with some of it goes down the pan. Your touches aren’t as sharp as they normally are, when executing your trick moves, they are slightly rushed and don’t always come off well. When trying to beat an opponent it feels mechanical and hindered.

Keeping up with the pace and aggression of a football game

You, my friend, need to get accustomed to playing under pressure. You see, everything is easy when it is just you, or you are playing with a group of friends you’ve played with for decades. But you get to a match, and have to face serious players who are going at you 100%, and they mean business. They have the venom and quickness that you would more associate with full competitive football. Often you are playing against players trying to keep or earn a new position, with high competition for places. Rather than a fun kick around in a park, these players are trying to win a league and will do as much as they can to succeed. You may play Sunday or Saturday league, or it may be a quick pick up game that is five a side, or seven a side. Either way, the stakes are higher and there is a little bit more onus on you to perform.

You may have tried different options, but you seem to be at the same place again but it’s fine, we have the answer. It’s all in the mindset, in your training and the ultimately the cultivation of that mindset.

This is because, when you see someone running at you when you have the ball, or can hear the patter of someone’s footsteps behind you,  breathing down your neck. Allsorts of natural bodily responses are triggered. We sense danger so we naturally tense up, and prepare for combat. Except in this case it’s not violent or life-threatening, but is still a form of  combat nonetheless.

Raising your level

When I went to play soccer at a different centre to my usual, as in the guys played a lot more rough, and it was a lot more high-level. I must admit I struggled to cope with the pace and the aggression of the game, despite me being an aggressive and strong player myself. This went on for weeks so I hit the gym and did some specialised training, which definitely helped. 

But then something really interesting happened. I found another group of guys who I played soccer with at a local league football stadium. We played in an indoor facility within the club on a big 4G pitch, with guys who were even better and even more aggressive. There was more of an audience, and mistakes were called out openly and loudly. The size of the pitch, and the seriousness of the game presented a bigger occasion, more pressure and everything was more heightened.

I also had the same feelings that I had at the other place and after a while I managed to make some sort of progress into dealing with that pressure. So let me get to the interesting part, when I went back to the previous centre that I struggled with earlier, everything was easier. In comparison to that grand stage that I had been playing on, it felt like a breeze.

It was no longer a big occasion for me, compared to me playing with the “real big boys”. So I relaxed, and saw the situation for what it was. Not a big deal. I had built up in my mind the enormity of the occasion, and that’s when I realised that a lot of the pressure that you may face, is self-inflicted. It is a matter of changing your  perception.

Imagine playing at your local park and maybe feel a little bit of pressure. Imagine, going to play in the Premier League, on TV, in front of thousands of fans at full capacity. Then imagine going back to the park. Nothing in comparison. That is the key to dealing with pressure. 

Putting things into better perspective

The goal is to put things into perspective. And if you can, try to find a games where the levels are higher than what you’re used to. Remembering that it is just a game, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously as it’s not life or death. Its supposed to be fun and this is why you do this, because you love it. This is literally recreation. I always noticed that I played a lot better with my friends and I was laughing, joking with a smile on my face. I took on the persona of a trickster, rather than a caveman. I was more free and happy and I enjoyed the game. It’s all about fear, and it’s hard to be fearful when you’re having fun, enjoying your football. So go out there and enjoy yourself.

Training exercises for dribbling under pressure

Of course, there are a few exercises that you can use that will help you play under pressure a lot better but you may need a partner or some help. And also, learning how to shield the ball will help you to buy time on the ball.

– The first thing to do is, dribble the ball around a field or space, no particular direction, just carry it around in circles and zigzags. 

– Next you’ll need a trusty partner. Ask your partner to follow you while you dribble, and to run behind you. Not to tackle but just to be on your tail and breathe down your neck a little bit. 

– Once you get used to dribbling, and turning around every now and again just to see where your partner is, you will get used to someone being behind you. You can even do things like switch directions, do flicks and skills and even change directions quickly. 

– Next, ask your partner to hassle you a little bit more, not to tackle but to challenge you morer on the ball. It helps if they can do more leaning using their body weight to try push you off the ball. I would recommend doing this for a few hours and try to do 2 or 3 sessions at least. 

You can make it even more difficult by asking your training partner to try and tackle you, and again not too competitive but enough to make it challenging. Sometimes the fear comes from what you can’t see. With this drill you will eventually learn not to be rushed, or harried especially when opponents approaching from behind. 

If you don’t have a partner for this drill, you can dribble and imagine someone is behind you harrying you, which is effective but not as much as having a training partner. We have a great drill for helping you to feel more comfortable on the ball. But still helpful nonetheless.

The same drill techniques can also be used for shooting under pressure and also receiving the ball on the pressure. Best of luck!

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