Rhythm in Soccer Series: Part 1

To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.
-J. B. Preistley

I watch soccer much different than most watch any sport, I suppose. Sometimes, I couldn’t care less or even know what the score is. I am so fixated on the movements of the players, the actions and reactions, the timing and the physical execution of unconscious decisions that I even lose track of the teams playing. I usually take the time to watch certain players that I know have it. The one’s that you can see in a split second that they are worth keeping an eye on.

Ronaldinho, in the video above, has it. So many players that play with the top clubs have it and I believe that I can tell you, within 5 minutes of watching any age player, whether they have it or not. The better question, to me is whether we can coach it.

June 1997, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

It was just a few summers after I was able to personally witness the quarter-final match vs. Holland in Brazil’s quest to take their 4th World Cup, and I was in Brazil training with one of the top youth clubs in the world (at that time). The morning that I flew into Bahia and walked into the EC Vitoria training grounds, they suited me up, a 16 year old American, to play with the Juniors (u20’s) in a scrimmage versus the reserve pros. It also happened to be the first day that the famed Bebeto, the same player I saw score against the Dutch in that famous match, was sold back to his home club Vitoria from the Spanish La Liga giants, Sevilla.

This instant was my most clear vision of when I realized that the game these Brazilians play and what I called soccer, were not even the same sport.

The rest of the story continues as I jumped on the field under-aged, fatigued, and desperately under skilled for the game at hand, when Bebeto himself entered in the same game. I managed to jog around, franticly trying to hide the fact that I did not want to be anywhere near the ball, but smoothly acted like I new what was going on at all times. Then it happened, the keeper distributed the ball to one of the lateral’s (outside backs) who then advanced the ball to me on the touch line. I received the ball with a poor first touch that popped up and, out of nowhere, came a young Brazilian who took my touch out of the air, juggled for a couple of yards and hit a beautiful cross that should have been scored. I watched the whole play and never took a step.

On that day, I could not interpret the rhythm of the game being played. It was quick and precise, players were elusive and unpredictable, every touch was an extension of how fast the players were seeing the game. It would later take me several weeks of training with that club before I was able to pick it up, and become a true Brasileirao on the pitch. I can proudly say that they did eventually offer me a contract to stay on the team by the end of the summer. I passed up the opportunity to come back home…

It was just a couple of years later that I entered the University of Massachusetts Amherst to play Division 1 soccer and find that the rhythm being played was not at all the same as it was that summer and all the other summers that I spent in Brazil. The tempo at the college level was much more frantic, and the reliance on the physical game coupled with copious amounts of wasted energy was ever present. Players were proving themselves, not with quality, but with repetition. They worked hard for the chance at goal, if they didn’t get it, they ran even harder to get it back until they could not run anymore. This mentality was never more obvious than the first day that we arrived to pre season camp to run the Cooper Test. For those who don’t know, the Cooper Test is an aerobic test where each player must complete 2 miles in under 12 minutes to be considered fit enough to play an entire soccer game. I never passed the test in 4 years of trying but started and played 90 minutes all 4 years.

How could these two experiences be so different? Was it something that the Brazilians were teaching that showed them how to play at different speeds? Was it cultural? Is it in the water? Can I buy it?

In the past 5 years, since leaving my playing days behind me and becoming a coach, I have thought about this quite a bit and have come to a fascinating realization. Yes, there are quite a few more very skillful Brazilians than Americans, but I come across dozens of well-skilled young Americans every year. They trap well, they pass with the right part of the foot, they have a cannon of a shot, and they are phenomenal athletes…but they would not last a minute playing against formidable international opponents. Just look at our youth National Teams, take a peak at the history of young players that have gone over seas to play, and acknowledge that there are very few Americans in history that have successfully played at the top levels in the world.

Americans lack rhythm. I know we have Beyonce, Brittany Spears, and Usher…but our soccer players can’t grasp the rhythm of Football.

Rhythm is a state of mind, an unconscious feeling that allows the player to be in tune with the ball and the movement of the game around him. It’s an ability to do anything and everything in the game without an instance of wasted energy or time. It’s never maintained but always shifting, like the gears on a bike while riding through a hillside.

Rhythm is a skill and it can be taught.

As I break down rhythm in soccer, I want to analyze it within 3 different aspects:

1) Physical Rhythm or Rhythm in Movement Patterns – the ability for players to move efficiently

2) Technical Rhythm – the ability for players to execute effectively

3) Tactical Rhythm – the ability for players to integrate smoothly

Till then

John