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  Training: Training on Your Own: Don't Settle for Mediocrity  

Training on Your Own: Don't Settle for Mediocrity
Fitness: Running
There is a saying that describes a great many athletes -- "The mediocre are always at their best." Being mediocre is easy. You kind of bop through life getting by with the minimum amount of work, not making too many mistakes, and trying hard to look like you are trying hard. Being mediocre is fine, if that is what you want. But to reach the next level, you need to take responsibility for your own improvement. Do it on your own time, and the results will astound you.

We all know about the "gym rats" who shoot hoops for hours and hours and end up being proficient from three-point range. Or the quarterback who fires bullets through an old tire swing while growing up. Or the baseball pitcher who dented his garage door every day.

Soccer players are no different. The ones you see on television -- Claudio Reyna, Mia Hamm, Eddie Pope -- all spend a great deal of time creating ways to improve. And they do it without a coach present.

"You can't wait for the coach to call for practice," says Stern John of the Columbus Crew, the leading scorer in Major League Soccer this past season. "You have to go out on your own, and you must play against older and better players."

When a soccer player sets out to improve his or her game, they concentrate on four areas, or pillars, of the game -- technical, tactical, physical and psychological. Here are some tips on how to work on each.

Technical: The technical, or skills, part of the game, obviously, is very important. If you can't receive the ball, dribble it, pass it, shoot it or head it, you're not going to be very successful, are you?

Inquiring about how to improve your ball skills, will get you the simplistic advice of "play with the ball more." And that's exactly what you should do. "But what do I do with it?" you ask.

First, you have to be creative, and eliminate every excuse you can come up with for not being able to work out with the ball.

To work on your dribbling, you can make obstacle courses to weave through. Be sure to make them difficult. Everything you do should challenge both your talent-level and stretch your stamina.

A great example is what Mia Hamm does on her own. Mia, considered the greatest women's soccer player on the planet, will throw down a bunch of cones, positioned no more than 10 yards apart. In her mind, the cones are defenders. Then she'll dribble to one cone and explode to the next. When she reaches the next cone, she'll cut the ball sharply and accelerate to the next, and so on.

Soccer fans marvel at Mia's quick cuts and explosive dribbling. Those skills are partially in-born, but mostly developed by working on her own.

When Mia reaches the last cone, the drill does not end. Before she began, she placed a target in the corner of a goal, and when she reaches the last cone, she has to shoot for the target. Her reasoning?

"I do that drill for the same reason you shoot free throws at the end of a practice in basketball - because you're tired," says Mia. "Usually you are shooting at the end of a long run or after you've beaten someone. After a long run, it's hard to have that concentrations and focus."

You must have a racquetball court near you. Or at least a wall of some sort. Here's some things to do.

Work on receiving the ball by simply knocking it against the wall and concentrating on your first touch of the ball as it ricochets back at you. After you have become adept at settling the ball, start preparing it so it is easy for you to knock against the wall again. After you've mastered that, work on preparing it to knock against the wall on your right, then behind you, then to your left until you've made a full circle.

You'll be amazed at how much easier it is to receive a ball when you get back on a real field.

A racquetball court is also a tremendous place to work on shooting. Repetition is a key ingredient in developing a accurate shot, and in a racquetball court, the ball always returns to you.

When you begin, don't just start smacking the ball with all your might. Work on the proper technique and motion. You will be able to clearly see how well you've struck the ball by the way it comes off the wall. Be sure you are hitting it cleanly. Similar to when you hit a tennis ball or baseball well, you'll feel it when you strike it right.

You can combine shooting with receiving by trying to collect your shot off the wall and preparing to hit it again. When you get real advanced, you'll be able to hit your rebound back at the wall without settling the ball first.

Tactical: There is no replacement for knowing the tactics of the game. Being a smart player is often the great equalizer. There are countless examples in every sport of players who are not as skilled or as athletically inclined, but are superior players simply because of their knowledge of the game.

There are many ways to improve your game-smarts. The best way is to simply watch games. Pay attention to the formation the teams are playing - how many defenders, midfielders and forwards. Look to see how the team likes to attack. Do they hit the long ball over top the defense? Do they pass it through their midfield? Who are the important players?

Take a look at the players playing the position you play. Are they doing anything different than what you do? What can you learn from them?

If at all possible, sit with a coach, or within earshot of a coach. Ask questions.

If there are no games to see in your area, buy some videos. Study them, and when you see a goal, rewind it to see how the play started. What the key play was and whose fault was it?

Physical: This means fitness, and there is no substitute for it. You don't have to be the best player on the field, or the smartest. But if you are in the best shape, you have a huge advantage.

"My goal is to always be the fittest player on the field," says Kristine Lilly, who has played in over 150 international matches with the women's national team. "There are so many things that you can't control, but fitness is the one thing that is totally in your control. Being fit gives me a lot of confidence."

Don't assume hard practices will get you in top condition. Fitness requires work away from organized practice sessions and a year-round commitment.

"After a season, players will sit around and lose all their fitness," says Anson Dorrance, head women's coach at the University of North Carolina, winners of 14 national championships in the past 17 years. "Then they have to kill themselves trying to get fit again. Why would you want to do that to yourself? What we have developed at UNC is a Fit For Life mentality."

There are a huge variety of fitness regimens to follow. You can improve your endurance, your speed, your quickness and your strength - upper body and lower body.

Players who want to improve overall fitness should contact a "expert." This can be a soccer coach, a physical education instructor, a track coach or another qualified individual. Remember, soccer requires a completely different set of muscles to be trained. Be specific when you ask for advice.

Psychological: The fourth pillar of soccer is viewed by many to be the most important. The psychological dimension is a quality that most coaches look for when choosing their teams.

But how do you work on it? Easy, the psychological aspect of soccer, or any sport for that matter, has to do with attitude.

When things don't go your way, do you whine about it or do you make a joke about it? Attitude is contagious, and if you are going to infect your teammates, it should be with positive qualities.

Attitude will help you when it comes time to train on your own, making it easier to impact on your own improvement. It's all about accepting responsibility. Your coach and parents can only take you so far. The rest is up to you.

By taking charge of your attitude -- shifting blame from everyone else to yourself, and conversely, accepting credit when it is truly yours to take - you have made a huge step toward improving.

If there is one thing players can do to combine all four pillars, it is playing one-on-one with a friend.

One-on-one games are very demanding, which incorporates the physical aspect of soccer. It requires you to be able to dribble, defend and shoot, putting the technical aspect of the game in play. You have to scheme and plot, enhancing your tactical understanding. And one-on-one is psychologically hardening. You learn what it takes to win, bringing out the dueler's mentality in you.

So what are you waiting for? There are teams to make, goals to score and games to win. Get a ball and get started. And no whining.

Tim Nash is the editor of College Soccer Online and co-author of two soccer books -- "Training Soccer Champions" with Anson Dorrance, and "Standing Fast" with gold medalist Michelle Akers. His third book, "The Champion Within", written with U.S. Women's National Soccer Team assistant coach Lauren Gregg, is a book on self-coaching and self-improvement. For more information, go to

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