Train of Thought – The value of playing with touch restrictions

The mental side of the beautiful game is at least as important as the physical side, but is often neglected by coaches in training sessions. In this series, Travis Norsen, author of Play With Your Brain, will discuss small tweaks to standard training exercises and the large positive effects they can have on players’ decision-making and soccer intelligence. This week, Travis explores the value of using one or two-touch restrictions in your sessions.

All good coaches recognize the need to rein in the tendency of certain players to over-dribble, and instill a team-oriented, quick-passing mindset.  

Imposing touch restrictions — e.g., declaring that a given player may only touch the ball at most twice before another player has to touch it — is a standard method of removing the option to dribble.  But in my experience such touch restrictions are too-often imposed as a punishment (either against the team as a whole, or just on certain players, in response to over-dribbling) or, at any rate, are interpreted as punitive by the players.  

Practicing with touch restrictions, though, is incredibly valuable for players.  Coaches should view touch-restricted games not just as a way of stamping out something bad, but instead as a way of encouraging and developing several crucial elements of high-quality soccer.  And coaches should do a better job of getting buy-in from players on touch-restricted games by explaining the value of such games more clearly.  Perhaps it will help to review here some of the good things that happen when teams practice playing with a touch restriction.

First and foremost, knowing that you are only allowed (say) two touches of the ball forces you to read the situation and plan ahead.  If you stop the ball dead with your first touch, and then push the ball out ahead of you with a second touch before looking up to see what teammates might be open for a pass — oops, too late, you’ve just turned it over.  Adapting to the two-touch restriction requires players to look up and scan the situation before the ball even gets to them and plan out in advance what they’re going to do with it when it arrives.  And this is of course something good players always do, whether a touch restriction is in effect or not.  

Players sometimes think that coaches who criticize them for over-dribbling just don’t like dribbling and never want players to dribble.  But I don’t think there is a coach in the world who would say that players should never dribble.  What’s bad is not dribbling per se, but dribbling when dribbling is not the best available option.  So the primary value of taking away the option of dribbling is that it forces players to habituate looking for and assessing options other than dribbling.  What we really want, ultimately, is for players to make intelligent decisions about when to pass quickly and when to dribble.  Learning to play effectively with a two-touch restriction is thus essentially a prerequisite for intelligent play generally, because you can’t make an intelligent decision about what to do in a given situation if you aren’t in the habit of gathering the information that such a decision would have to be based on.  Practicing with a two-touch restriction develops that habit.

In addition to requiring players to scan the field, assess available passing options, and anticipate opportunities — all before they even get the ball — touch restrictions also just make each touch of the ball a more precious commodity.  If they’re only allowed two touches, players will naturally be motivated to try to accomplish with those two touches what might otherwise have cost them 3 or 4.  They will, that is, start making better, more aggressive, first touches, to move the ball away from pressure and/or generate more creative passes with their second touches.  And that is unquestionably a good thing.

Touch restricted games also have a profound and positive impact on offensive players off the ball.  We’ve probably all played on teams with “black hole” players:  if the ball goes into them, it never comes back out.  After a while, perceptive teammates figure out that there is no point working too hard, off the ball, to get open for a pass from such a player.  If they’re not going to pass it, no matter how open you get, why bother?  Well, a touch restriction pretty much guarantees that every player will at least attempt to advance the play by passing, and hence motivates all the other players to work hard, off the ball, to get open for the passes they know will have to be coming.  The touch restriction thus has the potential to solve not only the obvious effect of over-dribbling (namely, players dribbling themselves into trouble and losing the ball) but also the less obvious but more pernicious secondary effect: players off the ball passively watching the dribbler dribble instead of moving into good positions to receive a pass and create the next scoring opportunity.

A team that is accustomed to playing two-touch soccer is also a team that is able to play fast.  Nothing slows the game down more than players who hold the ball, taking touch after touch after excruciating touch.  By contrast, two-touch soccer is inherently quick.  And it is just a fact of physics that a crisply-passed ball moves significantly faster than even the quickest player can run (especially with the ball).  The speedy progression of the ball, from player to player, and around the pitch, is the best way to create and find gaps in the defense that can be exploited.  Faster soccer is thus inherently better, more successful soccer, and practicing with a two-touch restriction is one of the best ways to get your players up to speed.

Practicing with touch restrictions even helps the defense.  Instead of focusing exclusively on the ball and looking for bone-crunching tackles, defenders (like their counterparts on the offensive side of the ball) need to learn to read the situation and anticipate what will be happening next.  They need to learn to mark players making forward runs and, more generally, to take up positions that allow them to control potentially-dangerous spaces.  They need to learn how to position themselves to intercept the next pass — or the one after that — instead of just gravitating toward the ball.  A team that is accustomed to defending against two-touch soccer is a team that is more fully engaged and better positioned — and hence harder to score on no matter how the opponent plays.

So, coaches, incorporate touch-restricted games into your training sessions if you aren’t doing so already.  And make sure your players understand all the ways in which getting good at playing two-touch soccer will help them reach next-level play.  Then they’ll be more likely to see it, not as a punishment, but as a fun opportunity to improve.

So there it is! The value of one or two-touch restrictions! If this article resonated with you, be sure to give it a clap, comment below and follow on Twitter @coachingtms. Be sure to check out more of Travis’ work on Train of Thought below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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more in this series

You might also enjoy…

-> 13 Warm-Up Activities with the Ball
-> Restricted vs. Conditioned Games – Coaching Soccer
-> Progressive Possession – Full Session Plan & Key Coaching Points


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