The week of the World Cup finals seems like a good a time to bring back an ongoing debate – why does the US struggle at soccer?
One of the reasons behind their struggles carries over to many other areas of sports performance and training.
For those of you that don’t know, team USA failed to even qualify for the World Cup this year, despite the fact that four million American kids play soccer, more than any other country in the world.
There are a multitude of reasons for US Soccer’s recent failings including coaching/leadership, economic access to the sport, and competition with other sports for the country’s best athletes.
However, today’s article will focus on the differences in training in the US versus many other countries that excel at soccer. The difference comes down to the concept of internal cues versus external cues.
A cue is something that we as coaches, trainers, and therapists use to give direction to a client on how to move. When we give that direction, we can either place the focus on the internal or external.
If the focus is on the internal, we are encouraging the athlete to focus on his body parts as he moves. In soccer, an internal cue might sound something like this:
“Place your right foot next to the soccer ball and point it at the target. As you plant your right foot, drive your left foot through the ball.”
(Disclaimer: This is probably a terrible cue and shows how little an expert I am on soccer.)
An external cue focuses the athlete’s attention on something in his or her environment and the outcome of his/her movement.
An external cue may sound like this:
“Kick the ball as hard as you can into the top right corner of the net.”
There’s a developing body of research that indicates external cues may help an athlete improve more efficiently than internal cues.
The theory is that by using internal cues, we are introducing a level of consciousness that limits the nervous system’s ability to perform the task. In other words, we have to think about it so much that we can’t perform it as well.
By placing the focus on the external, the nervous system can self-organize without the constraints of being controlled by conscious thought. The body is able to figure out on its own the most efficient way to do the movement.
So how does this apply to US soccer? In the US, parents with dreams of their kids achieving the highest levels of soccer place them immediately into technical training programs. In many instances, the focus is to train the fundamentals, i.e. give youth soccer players lots of internal cues on how to correctly pass, kick, and dribble.
We make our kids think a lot to learn the sport.
In other successful soccer countries like Brazil, kids are learning to play soccer with hours of endless unstructured practice with other kids. Their bodies are able to develop necessary skills without over thinking it.
The result? More fluid, creative, athletes who consistently dominate the US on the soccer pitch.
So how does all of this apply to your training?
Place more focus on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish, rather than how you’re going to do it.
For example, if you’re back squatting, think more about driving the ground away, rather than squeezing the hamstrings and glutes.
If you’re pitching, think more about how you’re going to throw the baseball through the catcher’s glove, rather than rotating your hips.
By placing the focus on the external, rather than the internal, you’ll create an environment where the full potential of your nervous system can evolve and take your performance to another level.
About the Author
Evan Lewis is a nationwide leader in Neuro Therapy and founded the Baltimore area's only specialist Neuro Therapy facility for people who want to stay active into their 40s, 50s, and beyond.
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