The Often-Missing Piece: High Performance Techniques with Benjamin Ziemer

Leadership is one of the key qualities players need to get to the very top - and our guest on the latest High Performance Week Interview has seen it all from some of the best players in today's game. Welcome to Soccer Parenting, Benjamin Ziemer!

Benjamin is currently the President and Technical Director of NorCal Premier Soccer.  He has extensive experience in the professional and youth games. He has previously worked with the US National Team at U14/15 level (some of the players who have recently lead the USMNT to the 2022 World Cup). He also served as assistant to Gerry Mckewon with US Club Soccer’s id2 team, where he coached against U15 teams from some of the most prestigious clubs in World Soccer - Ajax Amsterdam, Man City, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan, and many more.

We hope you enjoy this fascinating talk with Benjamin and Skye for High Performance Week - interact with the interview via the comments below, and read through the Transcript at the bottom of the page.


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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Hi everyone. Welcome to high performance week, and another conversation that I'm so excited to have with my friend Benjamin Ziemer. Benjamin, I'll ask him to give a little bit of backstory and background on himself. But he is just a real leader in the youth space, when it comes to forward thinking, and they're doing some amazing things with the league that he works with in Northern California.

Skye:
So Benjamin, I'm going to turn it over to you, give a little bit of a backstory. And then, we're going to dive into this conversation that you and I have had a number of times in the past, the missing link technique, and high performance technique. What that looks like, what we need to be supporting our children when it comes to their techniques. So, I'll let you take it, and give a little bit of your story.

Benjamin:
Okay. I started playing soccer when I was four. Started coaching when I was 14. I'm now 53. So, it's been quite a while of coaching. And have a school teacher as a father, who really impressed upon us the need to study, and to always remain open to learning new ideas, and staying abreast of modern developments, in whatever we do. And so, I've coached every age group in youth, from U6 to U19s. Many of them multiple times. Coached high school, college, NPSL, USL Championship, Youth National Teams. And with the ID2 program for seven years, went around the world, coaching against multiple clubs. And then, I've USSFA license. I'm actually now a part of the USSFA senior educator staff. I think that's what I'm supposed to call myself. And then, just studied in Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany, England, Argentina, Japan, and really just trying to learn constantly.

Skye:
I love that. Something that I felt from you, and from your brothers, is just your quest for learning. And I love to hear that was layered in by your dad. Your brother, Andrew, has mentioned the same thing to me before. And I do always appreciate our conversations, because you are always thinking, and curious. And I think those are important aspects of any learning environment. And I'm looking forward to your voice being a part of this conversation for that.

Benjamin:
Okay. Well, thank you for inviting me.

Skye:
I was mentioning to you that I was recently in London, and I had the chance to go to the Chatham West Ham match. And whereas, I would normally prefer to sit a few rows back, and be able to see the whole pitch, and get us a different view. I actually had really great seats, pitch side. And I was so struck during the match, on TV we see this cross-field ball played, and the player receiving it mid stride, and going, "Wow, that was great." And then, to have it right in front of me, so that I could actually hear Harry Kane receiving that ball, it was a whole new level for me. I was like, that type of technique is really nothing, honestly, that I had experienced right in front of me like that. And so, it really gave me some deeper insights into the conversations we've had before, about technique. You've referred to it before, as a missing link. You want to dive into that, in your opinions about-

Benjamin:
Sure. I like to start with a quote from Johan Cruyff, "We really need..." And this is his book, My Way, that came out shortly before he died. And he actually said that he found many footballers boring, and much football boring. But he said, "We really need to pay attention to the basic skills, passing, stopping a ball, heading, kicking. There are very few players who can dominate the ball. Mostly it's the ball that dominates the player. The coaches and trainers ought to take that to heart as they are the ones responsible." So, that's something that you hear. It's not in Vogue. One, coaches and trainers taking responsibility. And two, that focusing on the basic fundamentals, the technique, and doing it.

Benjamin:
And there's, if you continued on with this quote, and I encourage everyone to get the book, and read this part of it. He talks about how it's fallen by the wayside. And that in the end, you're limited, because you have to worry about the ball. If you have to worry about the ball, then you can't have your head up. And the idea of perception, being able to see the field and read the game, you have to be able to play with your head up. And if you have to look at the thing, the ball, then you're not going to be able to play at a high level. And that's been the foundation of all of my discussions with you. And I think in the future, we should say, okay, who are we talking about? Because that could set the starting point for the conversation.

Skye:
Yeah. Well, absolutely. Well, go for it. When we're talking about kids that have dreams of high performance, and we're talking about what parents need to understand. From a technical standpoint, can you pull back one layer from what you were just saying, and explain to parents where the deficiency is sometimes? What they're getting instead of technique, and what your opinions are, and how that's not supporting them developing completely. What is it that they're getting at? Because I think many parents would think, "Well, my kid gets lots of technical training."

Benjamin:
Yeah. Well one, I think we'd have to define what high performance is. So, what you were discussing is the highest performance, Spurs versus West Ham. If high performance in our country is in youth, MLS Next, ECNL, so that that's considered the high performance club, then they need repetition. They need correction. They need then, once they... Basically, the order of teaching would be to show it, would be to explain it, would be to break it down the elements. And I think of a tennis pro. They have a tennis racket, and they're teaching somebody how to do a certain... I don't even know what it would be called. To hit the ball, a forehand or a backend.

Benjamin:
So, early on a player should be... They should learn the fundamentals, the biomechanics of technique. And then, as they go higher and higher, then they have to perform the element with proper technique. Then they have to do it faster. So, that's ball handling speed. Then, they have to correct, the coach should be correcting errors. And then, they have to do it at an increased pace with opponents. And then, they have to do it with a game. And then, they have to do it with incision making.

Benjamin:
And so, if you miss these elements, I find a lot of players, the game hides the lack of technique. Because you can take a touch ,and kids can get out of situations, but there is a correct decision often, that they should make. And probably watching Harry, you said the ball was a long fill that passed across the fill. He took it down in stride. And so, imagine if he took it down underneath him, and then that moment's gone.

Benjamin:
So, these are all the things that should be focused on within a training, either in a progressive manner, or in a... I don't care how you do it. A whole part hole, or whatever, but it needs to be focused on. And sometimes it is, it's too much. People are doing too much, and it's isolated technical drills that never progress on. They stay too long in that part. But often it's just not concentrated on.

Skye:
And that's the nuance of coaching. So, for those listening, this is a big debate within coaching. Do we do isolated skills training, or do we not? It's a conversation we've had at soccer parenting, many times. And so, I think the conversation here is gearing towards, it needs to be a balance. It needs to be correct. It needs to be accurate information. But then, it does need to progress. And do you feel like that's the Youth Club's responsibility, to layer in this technical training? Because a lot of parents are going outside to get this additional-

Benjamin:
Absolutely. But frankly, no player will reach the highest level if they don't put time in on their own. So ultimately, it's the player's responsibility to develop themselves, but they should be guided by the clubs and by the coach. And I actually, I have another quote that I think is interesting. So ,this is from a book I was reading this morning. "For this reason, individual coaching quality, a player will develop without help from coaches, but certainly not the same speed and caliber. For this reason. A coach can be seen as a catalyst for progress, and someone who will create shortcuts for learning."

Benjamin:
That's what I think a coach can do, is help create shortcuts. So, you can have a player that could, if a youngster from six to 11, a six to 12, puts a hell of a lot of time with the ball, or a lot of time in with the ball, and play soccer in the street with friends, whatever, they can learn in that way. And it might even be better, because of it's without the constraints of a coach. It's developing that feeling for the game, and they're developing their own technique. But most often that's not the case. And so, a coach is helping provide shortcuts. By giving a dribbling exercise for five minutes, even through cones, you're going to accelerate. You're going to offer a shortcut to developing the proficiency of dribbling.

Benjamin:
And if you say you have to go inside, outside, inside, outside, then they're making them do a specific part of the technique, which you may not get. And even, in a four before match, if you play a four before match for, I don't know, 30 minutes, the player may touch the ball how many times? And how many times may they do that, or might they do that specific technique, or touch? So, that's the coach's role, I believe.

Skye:
Yeah. No, absolutely. And there's a lot of conversation about how the individual technical training can be viewed as movement training too. So, while you don't have a cone that you're going to be dribbling [inaudible 00:11:06], of course. But just learning how to shift your body, learning where to put your plant foot, to manipulate your body as you're trying to shift your weight. Just figuring out the nuance of your body, there's certainly value there for the player.

Benjamin:
I think so. And ideally, a top coach incorporates all of it together. What is a cone in a training? It's a sideline. It might be a player. So, you're imagining, you're putting a player, if a cone is a player, dribbling at a player. And without it, you don't have a reference. If you don't have these... And there's nothing wrong with dribbling around in a grid, open grid, and dribbling around. And if you have players in there, other players, you're training coordination ability, you're having to perceive and look for time and space. You're having to take certain touches that are certain distance, in order to avoid people.

Benjamin:
So, there's many ways to skin the cat, but it has to be guided. And hopefully, a coach is there, because they have knowledge about it. They're able to break down the technical deficiencies. They're able to motivate the player. In order to go and practice it on their own, they can say, "Stop. Okay, everyone see this. This is your homework for the next week. We're going to repeat this next week." And then, as soon as possible, they get into a game format. I firmly believe in that. People stay too long in the unopposed, no question. But this whole direction of going to no unopposed, I don't believe in.

Skye:
Yeah. No, I'm really happy to have this conversation. If nothing else, to give parents just some reference points for what's going on within the world of coaching, and the conversations that coaches are having. So, how much unopposed training, generally speaking? I know it's so dependent on the situation, but when does it become too much?

Benjamin:
It depends on the age. You have the golden age of learning. It depends on the day of the week. It depends on the weather. It depends on the child. It depends on the level. If you're just out, enjoying football, and you just want to play with your friends, and that's it, then maybe you do very little of it. But if you have an aim to be a top level player, and the thing is, you have windows for everything. A child's brain, there's a reason they don't teach calculus to a nine year old. There's a reason you don't teach team tactical to a nine year old. There's a reason you don't teach two lines together to a nine year old. And at that time, the child's body, it's a golden age of learning, both from a mental standpoint, and from a psychological standpoint, and from a physiological standpoint.

Benjamin:
So, their bodies pick up. So, you might do more earlier. But a good coach would sense. If you start off, you show it, then you train it. Then, maybe you see it start to dip in a training. So, you might be 10 minutes in to doing some sort of unopposed exercise, focusing on coaching the technique. And then, you can add in keeping score. So, maybe it's dribbling through a dribbling circuit, that you're now it's three groups going against each other. But as soon as you start to compete, what do you think will happen to the technique?

Skye:
It might decrease, just because [crosstalk 00:14:37]-

Benjamin:
Decrease? Okay. Which is fine. So, you accept that. You still try and focus on it, and then you move on. Eventually you get, in a three versus one, you could train passing and receiving. That could be your primary focus, and has all elements of the game, if you allow the defender to dribble out of the square at the end of the... If they win the ball, then you even have transition. They have a way of scoring. So, you can do this in other ways as well. I just believe that there should be some of it within... I've asked you in the past. How do you train a bicycle kick, if it's always opposed? How do you train volleys, if there's always an opposition of defender? And I think if you go to that extreme, to me, it's crystal clear that you must do some unopposed training. And then, it's up to the coach to adjust the amount.

Skye:
Yeah. You've mentioned this a few times. It's up to the coach, the quality of the coach. What should parents be looking for, for the child's coach?

Benjamin:
Somebody who is suited to the age group. So, coaches have different... Normally, as you get older, you're not able to demonstrate. I've had achilles tendon surgery. I can't dribble. I can't sprint. That's how I injured my other one. So, I would either need to bring someone, I could use a player to demonstrate, and say, "Okay, stop. Watch. Susie just did this really well. Let me show that again." But generally, you have the qualities necessary to coach those age groups.

Benjamin:
In transition years, 14 to 15, I think it's 13 to 14 with girls, or 13, 15, and 14, 16 with boys, when you're going through puberty and they're starting to rebel against their parents, and starting to question the world, you need somebody that's calmer. That's able to relate to it. That understands where they're at during that time. That's often where you have specialists in European clubs, who sit in that age group, because they have an ability to make a connection with the player.

Benjamin:
So, these are some of the things they should be looking for. They should look for someone who's not on their cell phone, doesn't have a coffee in their hand that is engaged the entire time. If you think about, if you train six hours a week, 24 hours a month, say 26 times 10, you're looking at 260 hours a year of training. And if you're missing, if you, by allowing the kids to walk to get a drink, by transitioning your drills one to the other, if you waste five minutes between every exercise, due to water, and transitioning, and explaining, it's 15 minutes of training. That's 45 minutes. That's three hours a month. That's 30 hours a year. That, if you start to think in those terms... So, you want a coach that's engaged, energetic, positive, and is knowledgeable, and open.

Skye:
Yeah. I love it. So, let's bring this back to high performance. And I want to end with two questions. So, the first is, if you have a child that is expressing to you that they have these high performance dreams, which is what this week is all about. And they're not willing to put the work in, the extra time in, to become technically proficient. What is your advice for parents?

Benjamin:
Then tell them, "Sorry, we're going to do something else. I'm not going to invest the money." You might find a way... Well, I wouldn't give up on them so quickly. Normally, you have time to deal with it. But I would very clearly say, we are making a huge sacrifice in time, energy, and often money. And so, we expect if you're really certain about this... And this all depends on the age. And generally, up until 11 or 12, the kids will do this, because you've got them to do it. It's around 13 or 14 that they start to waiver, and they start to take off the kid goggles, and see the world for what it is. Coach can't kick a ball, or coach is screaming at me, and I don't like that.

Benjamin:
And then, at 13 to 14, 14 to 15, worldwide is the biggest drop off age of any high level outdoor activity. And that's because other things start... If you're playing basketball and soccer, you can do it up to a point. But at a certain point, the demands become higher. The school demands increase, and children start to become more interested in each other, and having a boyfriend, girlfriend, a friend, whatever. So, these other things.

Benjamin:
So, it's a pretty worldwide trend. And so, you might have them speak with you. You might have them talk to the coach, and say, "Hey, you know what, their interests are waning. Can you help motivate them? Or is there something that you can do?" Ask people around you that are knowledgeable, so they can help identify what your child's going through. But in the end, if they don't want to do it, they don't want to do it. So, I get them to Europe as soon as possible, or to Mexico, or in a stadium. Get them to go watch what you just watched. Hear the crowd cheering. Get them to college games. Get them to WPSL games. Get them to NPSL... Whatever you have around your area, let them watch people do it, and see if it inspires them.

Skye:
Yeah. We call those moments of inspiration and ignition. Something that might trigger their motivation to dive just a little bit further. You're reminding me of a conversation I had with Lori Lindsay, national team player, and does a lot of commentating now. And she said something to the effect of, without a relentless pursuit of improvement, that that's a common denominator of what she was referring to, national team players, at that highest level of performance. So, just that constant desire to continue to improve, and to grow.

Benjamin:
Yeah. You might tell if your child doesn't have that. It might be an indication that they're not going to be high performance sport athlete, and there's nothing wrong with it. There's nothing wrong. So, if you look at the way they... And in this same book this morning, I actually had... We presented two guys from Spain this morning, and they were about individual tactical. So, they've set up a website where they have moments of individual tactical.

Benjamin:
And so I, in speaking, we prerecorded it, and we will share it with all of our high... We have 400 PDP players, 15, 16, 17 year olds. And I spoke to them, and said, reading this,R.C.Banger said, first thing is persistence, a player needs persistence. But one of the things is growth mindset. And it's this desire to train, and to work on their own, in order to do more than everyone else. If you're in a club, and everyone's doing the same thing, you're not going to... And if you're in a world where... We're in a world of football, so you're not competing against your teammates. You're competing against the world.

Skye:
No, absolutely. And I think, just building in these layers for parents, is important. When you mention them, really important with age. So, if you have that eight year old, that's like, "I want to play professionally," and they're not putting in the technical training, that's okay. They have time to develop that mentality. But if you have a 15 year old, that's saying, "I want to get a scholarship to college," and they're not willing to put in any extra training, then there's something that needs to be-

Benjamin:
Absolutely. Then you can have a candid conversation, and say, "Frankly, you need to..." I actually, I ran in, I was out scouting PDP players this weekend. And I ran into a parent, who I had worked with in the past, coached with. And they talked about their son. And he had a really realistic view of where his son could play. And his son, he said, had a very realistic view. Well, I talked to another person I used to coach with, at the same game. And they said, "Oh yeah, my son wants to go to..." I won't say the college. And he knew and I knew, no way. There's no way. And so, instead I said, "All right, you have your three dream. You have your three realistic, and you have your three safeguards, and somewhere in there."

Benjamin:
But I just said, "Have you had the coach talk to them about, it's too late for them to make the school that they wanted to go to. It's all national team players, or foreign players, that are going there. So, I would encourage at a young age, just tell them play soccer, enjoy it, love it. And at a certain age, you may just want them to want to play the next year. I'm a firm believer that just keep playing soccer, and that's enough. Play it until you're 50. That's enough. And then, the other stuff is extra.

Skye:
Excellent. Any final words of advice for parents, who have kids with high performance dreams?

Benjamin:
Yeah. Get them to practice on their own. And get them to, from eight to 12, when they're still children, and they'll still listen to you, really without... They'll listen to you later, but get them to play a lot, as much as you can, as early as you can. Because eventually, the demands of life, take away that time. And then, if they're not sticking around after training, and hitting 30 crosses, or volleys, or doing the higher level stuff, then have a conversation with them, or with their coach, or with somebody that they trust, and try and help. them try. And I like the idea of inspiring, or re-inspiring them. But it's a long journey, and it's not a straight line of development, or of interest, or of motivation. And so, there are periods where daylight savings times, they may go into a little funk.

Skye:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I appreciate you being here, and I appreciate your time, and your guidance for parents. What we know to be true is that, kids that are aspiring towards a high performance pathway, really need to have high performance technique as well. And there's some intentionality that's required for that.

Benjamin:
Yes.

Skye:
Along with all the ups and downs, and ebbs and flows of life that happens. But there needs to be that common denominator of the desire to improve there.

Benjamin:
I believe so.

Skye:
Awesome. Benjamin, thank you so much for being here. Appreciate it.

Benjamin:
Thank you. You're welcome. Enjoy your day.

Skye:
All right. Thank you.

Benjamin:
Okay. You're welcome.