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Natural Athleticism vs. Acquired Soccer Skills

Updated: May 2

A debated topic with our parents is how far can a soccer player with natural athletic ability progress in the game without training on their technical skills on their own.

In other words, what's more important? Natural athleticism or acquired soccer technical skill?

Can natural-born athletes just play more games or take some private lessons with a coach to get better?

Why do some players who work diligently on dribbling, passing, and shooting skills still get passed over by other players who are better athletes?

Why even train on your technical soccer skills if natural athletes are constantly selected for all the best spots?

Read on if you are the parent of a natural-born athlete.

Read on to see what your options are if you have a player who is getting passed over even though they are doing the work.

male youth soccer player sitting on the bench

Before answering these questions, let's look at examples of 3 soccer players we know who played collegiately and who are now out of college.

X was one of the most athletically-gifted females we've seen on the women's side. She was fast, tall, and strong. She was selected for all the top teams as a youth player. She started every game. Coaches loved her!

X had all the makings of a top D1 soccer player. D1 coaches would see her playing at our camps and ask us her name. However, when it came recruiting time, she wasn't asked to play for any of these top D1 programs. Let me clarify by saying that she did play D1 college soccer, just not at the powerhouse schools she was hoping for. She was also never selected for national camps or any international events with ODP.

What happened with her?

In a nutshell, X never worked on the technical side of the game on her own. She was fast and strong but her game never reached the level that it should have because she lacked technical skills. She had no first touch and her dribbling skills were not good enough. When she went up against another athletic player in games or ID camps who had great dribbling skills she just couldn't compete.

You may say that's still great! She still played D1 soccer. That's true but if she'd done the work on her own that she was encouraged to do by her family and coaches, she could have gone on to realize her dreams of playing for the big guys. That's what she had always wanted since she was young.

Now, let's compare player X to another player we coached who also went on to play D1 soccer.

Brooke also has natural athletic gifts. The difference with Brooke is that she worked hard to perfect her technical skills on her own. She was selected to play on USA youth national teams and went on to play collegiately at UNC. Coach Anson Dorrance said that Brooke was one of the greatest defenders he ever coached.

Brooke Bingham, UNC Women's Soccer player portrait
Brooke Bingham, UNC Women's Soccer

Brooke grew up in the mountains of North Carolina where there aren't a lot of playing opportunities. She had to drive to Winson-Salem and Greensboro just to find a competitive club environment. It's easy to say that working on her own played a big role in getting her to UNC and playing as a center back starter.

Both of these players played in a club environment and were similarly gifted. One didn't train on her own and one did.

Player number 3 is our own Coach Cam!

Coach Cam was not naturally gifted as an athlete. She was born strong, of average height, but not fast.

As a youth player, Cam worked incredibly hard because she knew she wanted to play at the top collegiate level in soccer. She's a great example of how hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard! Cam played D1 soccer at UPenn and at UNC.

We know that Coach Cam's hard work training on her technical skills made all the difference.

female youth soccer player training in the rain
Coach Cam working hard as a youth player

There are a thousand other examples of athletes who became great by working on their own but here are just a few famous ones...Steph Curry, Leo Messi, Carli Lloyd, Ronaldo, Alex Morgan.

Our advice is if you have an athletically gifted athlete who wants to be great, keep encouraging them to train on their own. Private soccer lessons will not get them there. They need to have a proven soccer training program that works for them to use on their own at home. It could be ours or another great program you've found.

You may be thinking, well this is all great but my soccer player is not a naturally gifted athlete, is not tall, strong, and/or fast, so what do we do?

Our advice the work on your own and be patient. Their time will come.

Annika Huhta, University of Central FL soccer player heading soccer ball
Captain Elite player, Annika Huhta, University of Central FL soccer player

What we most commonly see is that athleticism alone is not enough as players get older.

We refer to player X above and many other big, strong players who were passed in high school or simply quit because they had no technical skill when it started to matter as they got older. The dedicated players who had worked on their own all along passed these natural athletes when they got to the later recruiting years in high school.

Very athletic players tend to dominate the game at the younger ages of organized gameplay. They are usually at the top of the teams when they're young.

As these more athletic players get to the recruiting age or even before, we see them drop from the top of their teams to around the middle of the pack if they have not put significant time into developing their technical soccer skills independently.

If your player is not a natural athlete (i.e. strong and fast), they will always have a tough time beating the natural-born athletes who also work hard at training on their own (e.g. Ronaldo). However, they can still become great players in their own right and will pass many other natural athletes who didn't do the work early on.

male youth soccer player juggling a soccer ball
Captain Elite player, Will Tidwell, training on his own

Now I may step on some toes by saying that depending on the player's goals, putting a young soccer player on as many teams as they can play on is not a good idea.

Soccer players simply cannot learn all the technical skills they need to play at a high level just by playing games.

If your goal is to become the best player you can be in order to play collegiately, playing soccer on numerous teams at the same time is not a good idea. Why? Because your player has absolutely no time to train on their own. How can they learn how to properly dribble, refine their first touch, or learn striking when they are always playing games?

The most famous expert on deliberate practice training talked about this with Coach Mike of Captain Elite. Listen to what he had to say on this topic of playing games to try and get better.

"You don't improve in playing a game, because you get only a single chance to make a play or shot from any given location. You don't get to figure out how to do it right in a game. You figure out how to do it right in purposeful practice, often with only one other person."

Anders Ericsson, world-renowned author, consultant, and speaker whose areas of expertise include deliberate practice, deliberate practice training, and education.

Don't get me wrong. If the player's goal is to just have fun with soccer, then by all means, only play games. But if your child is upset that they were cut from a team, passed over for a position, finds themselves on the bench, or has lost confidence, they need to work on technical skills. Stop playing on more than 1 team or league and give them the free time they need to learn.

Just as parents had fewer distractions to learn sports growing up, our kids need free time to learn skills on their own.

Young soccer players in Europe are expected to be fully proficient in technical skills by age 13. If your child has college dreams, start working on these skills when they are young. They will be competing against players from other countries in US colleges & universities in all divisions including 1, 2, and 3. Watch the video below of an interview we did in Europe about youth soccer players and when they learn skills.

More and more we are seeing international players coming to the USA to play collegiately at all levels. If we want our kids to play collegiately, we need to start working on their technical soccer skills now.

It is possible that your child used to be the soccer player who started every game, scored most of the goals, or was clearly a standout on the team but that has recently changed. Perhaps they've lost their confidence for some reason and you don't know why.

If this is happening to your child, working on technical skills is one of the best ways to give your soccer player more control over what is happening to them. How can a player have confidence when they are constantly having to stare at the ball when dribbling? How can they be expected to feel good about taking a free kick or a penalty kick when they've never been taught how to shoot? What a horrible feeling it is when another player passes you the ball and you have no first touch so the ball pops back to the defender.

We've trained thousands of soccer players at Captain Elite in dribbling, 1st touch, passing, and striking. Can an athletically gifted player go all the way to the collegiate level without working on their technical game? Perhaps, but not to the level they could have achieved if they had worked on their technical skills all along.

Please let us know if we can help you. It's what we've done for thousands of other soccer players from recreational to pro levels.

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