Junito: Navigating Chutes & Ladders

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My writing on Junito has grown intermittent the last few years, but rest assured, he continues to play footy at a high level on a regular basis. It has not been all smooth sailing. Yes, for the first few years after joining a soccer club, Junito loved to go to practice on weekdays. His energy reaffirmed our belief that he really likes soccer. However, another explanation lurked beneath the surface. At our last residence, we lived in a rougher part of town where he had few friends his own age, he could not run around outside unsupervised, and we had no game console. Thus, he was cooped up inside with no video game relief. Practice was an escape.

Flash forward two years. We live in a nicer neighborhood. Kids the same age as Junito flock around and form friendships. We even got a Wii, if only to allow his dad to assert MarioKart dominance on the SNES and N64 throwback levels. Junito continues to thrive at soccer and this year has started every single game for his club team. There’s just one problem: is his heart really in it?

We all know the horror stories of helicopter parents. For every father who pushes his talented son into Tiger Woods stardom, there’s millions of kids paying a shrink out the nose to sit on a couch and complain about daddy once a week. On various occasions this past academy season, Junito has claimed that he has been “forced” to play soccer by his parents. Did anything soccer-wise change from the prior season? Nope. Practice is twice a week, only 1.5 hours a session. The only difference is distraction: friends and videogames.

Philosophically, my wife and I have a shared idea of parenthood: children are young, immature, not particularly knowledgeable, and often need a strong hand to guide them. We are not hippies, nor are we taskmasters. However, kids sometimes have to be pushed, especially if they want learn about hard work and the keys to success (and happiness). Our approach to Junito and training and soccer has been simple: if he wants to quit soccer to take up another activity, like Tae Kwan Do or baseball, that’s fine. However, quitting to be a lazy bum just to be a lazy bum is not an option.

It’s not all sticks, though. I’ve noticed that many professional footballers play lots of FIFA and binge-watch on Netflix. Thus, we’ve let him go to town on Might Morphin Power Rangers seasons so long as he gets his homework done and tries hard at practice (and pays attention to his coaches). Still, to be honest, I miss the days when it was just Junito and me in the house or backyard kicking a ball. His coaches praise his growth and say he just needs to learn to focus 100% over a full game, but I know the truth, err truths.

Junito has very long legs and needs to work on footspeed, aka his first step and lateral movement. He still struggles with his first touch to bring down difficult passes in the air or bouncing. His left foot is not up to par with his right. These are weaknesses in his game often overshadowed by his speed over distance, strong frame, good right foot, and competitive garra. Still, when coaches design practice sessions and drills, they seldom focus specifically or for a long time on technical growth. The idea is to put some cones out there in a fun pattern and let the players practice passing and shooting. The first-touch is taught at home, basically.

Thus, Junito and I have reached a key compromise to address his concerns about over-practice and also my worries about his first-touch. He has to attend training on the Wednesdays before games (on Saturdays), but if he plays hard on the weekend he sometimes can forgo Monday’s practice to stay at home with papy. But don’t be fooled – staying at home with papy is no walk in the park. Instead, I turn our backyard into a first-touch and footwork training station.

I already had cones and a pop-up goal, but the folks at Soccerloco provided me with some soccer equipment, like an agility ladder. For those not in the know, an agility ladder is just a ladder with plastic planks and nylon holding the planks together – you lay the ladder down across a field, and then can practice all sorts of footskill drills. For example, you can do a simple left-in, right-in. Here’s a helpful video.

Armed with the ladder, cones, and mini-goal, Junito and I now can work on short sprints, first touch/dribbling (if we toss in a ball), and footwork. For example, Junito will do an in-in out-out on the ladder, sprint to a cone, then dart towards goal and call for a pass, play a give-and-go, and drill a shot from close range. The best part is that Junito can take ownership of his own coaching session: I’ll often ask him if he wants to do short sprints with cones, footwork with the ladder, or technique with the mini-goal. We often end up doing all three, and he’s more motivated when he designs and/or chooses the sessions.

Of course, we still do vanilla drills like me tossing him a ball and him volleying it back either with laces or sidefoot, but the more interactive and participatory the session, the harder he works. In just a few weeks, his feet have gotten noticeably faster. He’s also gotten more confident in his left foot. Most importantly, the cries of “you make me play soccer” have faded away into nothingness.

Then again, that may be because we (err “me”) bribe him with Wii games when he plays well. Just this past weekend, he and his team got second place in a three-a-side tournament. He also scored a wicked goal where he pushed off a defender, nutmegged another, and drilled a low shot around the last defender and to the far post. Is it the ladder? The cones? The raw talent oozing from his very essence? The bribes? All of the above?

Who knows……

“Hoy, la Copa del torneo de Pascua. Manana, la Copa del Rey?”

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