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Beginning Take-On Skills

Ages: 6+; Materials: Balls, Cones, Pinnies; Players: 4+

In this practice plan, players will learn the beginning principles of attacking by use of acceleration and a simple outside cut, followed by an inside cut. As a warm-up, you may want to work on doing the "snake", as well as doing some work on basic outside of the foot cuts and straight-ahead dribbling. Don't overdo the warm-up, however, as they will get lots of work today. Pay lots of attention to stretches of the quads and hamstrings, as it is easy to injure quads when doing acceleration work if the muscle has not been warmed and stretched properly.

Individual Work

There are 4 basic steps involved in learning to take-on a defender. The first is to aim directly at him, so that he is forced to commit to you. The second is to shorten your stride, pull the ball into close control so that the knee is over the ball with dribbling step, and to lower your center of gravity so that you can explode in any direction. As you enter this phase, the player automatically will start to take mincing steps, almost like he is prancing. The third step is to explode into the move selected like you are leaping through a door into safety, and the final step is to slam the door on the defender by cutting back into his path. Smaller kids can enjoy the idea that they are exploding to get away from the ball-eating monster, and then slamming the door on the it.

For younger players, it may work well to practice on some explosions without the ball so that they aim at a cone defender, come at him, come at him, come at him, then explode past, take 1-2 control steps and cutback in. Older players may be able to begin with a ball. In either event, use the following illustration and coaching points:

Many players need to go through these steps in slow motion in order to get the footwork down. This is often useful and should be encouraged. Some will want to keep their heads down to watch the ball. Do your best to discourage this habit as it is easy to acquire and hard to break. They need to "see" the ball with their feet. If they take short prancing steps, keep the knee over the ball, and explode by pulling the ball with them, there is no need whatsoever to look at the ball. Their eyes belong on the defender's face, particularly on his eyes, because the defender usually will signal what he intends to do with his eyes.

Common errors of beginners are to look down at the ball; to fail to explode quickly enough or with enough power; to try to kick the ball instead of pulling it; and, when making the cutback, to bring the exploding foot up too far so that it is difficult to pull the ball across with the inside of the dribbling foot. All of these mistakes are curable with practice and most of the players should have the basic mechanics down after one practice although it will take years and years to perfect the art of dribbling. Dribbling is like ballet; the basic pirouette probably can be "learned" in 5 minutes, but to do this move with the grace and timing of a professional dancer will take years. So, don't be discouraged as a coach that your players have little grace when first learning these moves. Time and practice will make great improvements in their skill, once you provide them with the proper foundation and learn to keep on nagging them to pay attention to the basics like keeping their heads up and slamming the door on the monster.

Initially, have each player working with a cone defender so that they get maximum touches on the ball. Do not add a real defender too early. They must have the basic ideas and footwork down, or they will never be successful. Of course, this practice assumes that the players have learned cuts and straight-ahead dribbling and also have done some basic ball touch work. These skills are essential to take-on work, so make sure to practice on those skills before attempting this practice.

Small Group Work

Once the basics are down, divide the players into pairs and put them in a medium grid. Remember that space favors attackers, so don't make the grid too small or narrow. Initially, put one player in the middle of the grid, along with a cone that will serve as his anchor. Have the other player come directly at him, take him on, explode by him and cut back. Once at the end of the grid, the dribbler comes back the other way and repeats the sequence. The defender must keep one foot anchored on the cone, but should try to kick the ball away if the attacker comes too close. Because the defender is not a normal defender, he does not have to keep his eyes on the ball so use him as an extra coach to watch the eyes of the attacker and to shout "head up" if the attacker puts his head down. This also helps you as a coach to hear where you are having problems. After both have tried, you can make a game out of this by giving points to the defender if the defender kicks the ball away or catches the attacker not looking at him during the take-on and giving points to the attacker if he does the take-on successfully.

Next, put the defender at the end of the grid with the ball, have him play the ball to the attacker and then start to close him down at walking speed . If your defenders are reluctant to cooperate, make them crawl or duck-walk, as the whole idea is very low pressure defense. Repeat the exercise, rotating positions after about 4-5 tries.

Coaching Note: Depending on the age of your players, you may want to start to introduce the concepts of dead-leg to your players. For more information, see the practice plan on Fakes or the discussions in Principles of Individual Attacking. Most players are ready for these concepts by around age 9 and some players can learn the ideas as early as age 7. Continue to allow more freedom for the defenders as the attackers gain confidence. However, it is likely that most players will not be ready for full-pressure defense after their first session on take-on work, so keep as many restrictions as necessary to get success and build confidence.

Large Group Work

You will now create a Tunnel of Death (a/k/a Ladder of Death), which is a series of 3-4 medium grids in a row, one directly after the other. Remember this drill because you will use it many times for all sorts of lessons on attacking.

At the top of each section of the Tunnel, put a defender who is anchored to a cone. If at all possible, use parents as the defenders so that you can free up players to work on these skills. And, if you have lots of players, make 2 or 3 sets of Tunnels so that the lines are very short.

The object is to take on the first defender, cut back and then immediately take on the next defender, and so forth. You can stagger the defenders to mimic actual game situations. Allow the defenders to be silly and to stab/lunge but keep them anchored to make things easy.

Then, start the players on going through the Tunnel. As soon as one player has cleared the second grid in the Tunnel, the next player can start down the Tunnel. Try to have only about 4 players in line, so that you have 2 in the Tunnel, one jogging back and one ready to go at any given time. If you need to use players as defenders, switch them out after the first group has run the Tunnel about 3 times.

Now, permit the defenders to move along the top line of their grids at a slow walk, and repeat. If you are still getting good success, allow the defenders to actually start to defend- but keep them restricted to the top line of the grids. Show your attackers that, if they attack at speed and then quickly explode into a cut, they can get by these defenders quite easily. In your first practice, it is doubtful that you will be able to permit the defenders to defend anywhere in their grids. However, eventually, you will want to get your players to the point where they can run the Tunnel against fairly stiff opposition and regularly beat 3 defenders.


If the exercises have gone well, the players may be too tired for a regular scrimmage (although it is fine to play 3v3 or 2v2 to encourage lots of take-on tries, if they are still ready to go). If the players seem tired, then consider holding some take-on contests at the end.

You can start with some 1v1 work, still using the grids from the Tunnel. Put one player on one side of the grid with the ball, and put the other player on the other side. As soon as the on-ball player starts into the grid, the opposite player can enter the grid and start to close the attacker down. In this game, the on-ball player must take-on the defender, but only has to be able to get around him sufficiently to be able to pass the ball through a small goal on the opposing end-line. However, he cannot pass until he is at least even with the defender. If he does this successfully, he scores 1 point. Alternate roles, and play until someone has 5 points (or play for X minutes). Find out the points scored by each player. Put the players who scored 5 against others who scored 5, and put the ones who scored 1 against the others who scored 1. Play again.

The final game uses a real goal if one is available. Divide the players into two equal groups, and give each team numbers from 1 to X. Put players on goal-line, with teams on opposite sides of the net. Now, as you serve a ball out into the field, call out a number and both players with that number race out and try to win the ball, then score on the goal. You can use a keeper or play on the open goal or allow goals only to the corners. As a coach, be sure to try to pair the better players against the better ones to keep things even and give the less athletic players better chances to feel like a success.

There are lots of variations on how to play this game, including elimination and non-elimination games, and games where you call out several numbers at once. In all truth, the kids simply enjoy a contest, so it is fine to ask their opinions or to let them help make the rules.

Updated 26 March 1999

Overview | Principles | Resources | Guidelines | Practices | Game Day | Very Young | More Reading