How to help players improve their receiving skills

All Ages

The FA’s Justin Cochrane, Paul McGuinness and Gemma Grainger share advice and insight to help coaches work with their players on receiving skills.

From helping young players master the ball and introducing them to sharing it, to helping them connect and combine to play through the thirds, receiving is an integral part of the game. It's therefore essential that, as coaches, you support the development of your players in this area, in an age-appropriate way, to allow them to improve their skills and progress.

Here, the team build on their top tips for developing receiving skills by providing further insight on the topic.

Develop awareness
Justin Cochrane: The key part of receiving skills, for me, is the pre-receiving, so what happens before the ball comes to you - recognising where the space is. I’ve looked at quite a lot of my favourite players over the years; Pirlo, Busquets, Iniesta – when I looked at these players quite closely, their excellent awareness gave them peace on the ball.

So, when the ball was on the way to them because they knew exactly what was around them, how many people, what type of pressure, how the ball was coming into them, where they were on the pitch – they were so aware of what was around them, they were peaceful when they received the ball. They never looked flustered.

Paul McGuinness: At Manchester United, Eric Harrison had a receiving exercise - half a pitch, 16 players - where four balls were played about but before you received it, you looked over your shoulder.

Then you had eye contact with the passer, you made a sharp run, maybe on an angle, but you made it clear from the eye contact, the speed of the run and maybe a little shout that you wanted the pass. The pass had to be playable, and then you would come off [for the ball], but as you were coming off, you would have another look around you to see where everything was, and then you’d receive.

You’d receive inside and outside of the foot, let the ball run across your body, take it late, take it early, but each time you had to look behind you before you went for the ball.

Some people say ‘but there's no opposition', but you're making it automatic first. Then whenever you played a game, these things would be happening, but there would be opposition. So, you’ve already got into this routine where you look over your shoulder.

Sometimes you would also play silent football so you couldn’t be told you’re under pressure, you had to look.

If you can do that [develop awareness] you can be at peace; you know what's going on.

A wide angle shot of the England v Denmark game. Harry Maguire controls the ball and looks for passing options with Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips both finding pockets of space to free themselves up for a pass.
By being aware of their surroundings, players can find space, get in position and be calm on the ball when they receive it.

Work on different ways to receive the ball
Justin Cochrane: There are lots of things coaches can help players with, in terms of pre-receiving, but also turning both ways is important, being able to open out on your right foot and open out on your left foot. Not necessarily being two-footed but being two-sided so you can receive and open up on both sides.

I think receiving on different surfaces is key, can you take it on your chest? On your thigh? On your head? Also, dealing with the bouncing ball. A lot of the time the ball doesn’t come smooth, sometimes it comes out of the air, or it comes off a second ball – what are we like with our receiving skills and our recognition of space, and ultimately putting the ball where you want it, to do your next action?

Don’t create a fear factor
Paul McGuinness: They can’t play with fear; they have to be able to experiment and to feel free. If you’re forever saying, ‘get it’, ‘give it’, ‘move it, move it on again’ well you’re directing the player all the time.

You might be saying ‘don’t lose it there’. Then they're playing under fear or a certain focus to move the ball quickly all the time, which might not be the right thing to do.

If the coaches, the people on the side and the whole environment create a fear factor, then the players can’t have the awareness or freedom, they can’t be absorbed in just looking and reading the cues of the game that then help them to develop.

Sir Alex Ferguson would always say, make sure the players have no fear when going on the pitch. Make sure they have got no fear of getting the ball anywhere. So, in that sense, you have to give them the tools to have a look over the shoulder – to do all the things that Eric did – but certainly the no fear part and not putting too much pressure on them and telling them what to do all the time. You have to leave them free to play the game.

A young girl, taking part in a Wildcats session, looks down at the ball as she prepares to play it forward while under pressure from an advancing opponent.
It’s important to create an environment where players have the freedom to make their own decisions.

Reinforce their understanding Gemma Grainger: Sometimes I'm watching players, and you see their head moving, left, right, left, right, constantly scanning. But, just take the time to confirm, what are they looking for, do they have a picture, is that helping them, are they trying to recognise the space and going back to that simplicity that space will give them time.

If it's just that simple concept and them understanding that if they can recognise the space and that's going to give them more time, then that's just a fundamental part for any player, whether you're a six-year-old or a full international.

Just really reinforcing it, not just getting players in the habit of moving their head because they think that’s what the coach wants to see.

Justin Cochrane: That’s the gold dust for me - what are they seeing? It's very hard to measure, but once the kids get good at it, you notice that they’re seeing things. You notice in their actions they know what’s around them, whether it be a pass, a dribble or whether they let the ball run across their body, they start being more aware of it and I think that’s so important for us as coaches to notice what they’re seeing.

Maybe sometimes stop the practice and say 'what did you see there? What made you make that decision?' And when they start to get that, and you notice it as a coach, then they notice it, it makes the game a lot easier to them.

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