As anyone knows who has read my columns over the past few years for New England Soccer Today and The Bent Musket, I harp regularly on the sub-par power-kicking technique demonstrated by Revolution players and many other professionals today. Occasionally, I have seen a player execute a shot for maximum power, yet the variety of power-shooting styles and methods I see on the same team suggests that no one on the coaching staff has an established kicking philosophy or instructional methodology, other than telling players to shoot the way they like. Late in Saturday’s game vs Orlando both Caicedo and Agudelo had excellent shooting opportunities but missed the target entirely because of bad technique (Caicedo’s wild follow-through and Agudelo’s failure to focus on the ball).
Let me say by way of introduction that placing a shot and Bending like Beckham have a definite place in a shooter’s quiver, but what seems to have been edged out of most players’ consciousness at this point in the development of the American game is the orthodox, straight-on shot for maximum power. This is a technique that, I assert, all players should master and have full consciousness and control over, before they experiment with variations on it that focus on adding swerve.
Power-shooting problems begin with the shape of the human body, particularly the ankle and foot. Orthodox form requires the player to kick the ball with the top of the foot, or instep, by plantar-flexing the foot, with the ankle locked and the toe pointed directly downward. Why do players have difficulty following these instructions? Perhaps most notably because they are justifiably afraid of stubbing the big toe on their kicking foot, which can be extremely painful.
The solution to this problem lies in other niceties of technique. When the instep makes contact with the ball, the placement foot needs to be comfortably alongside of the ball, and the hip of the kicking leg must be raised, high enough so that the toes of the kicking foot do not hit the ground when kicking. In addition, the knee of the kicking leg must be turned inward toward the placement leg. This skill is called “locking the hip” and helps in two ways: first, it assures that toes will rarely be stubbed; second, it assures there will be no curve in the leg swing or follow-through, allowing the kicking foot to follow through in the desired direction of the ball and thus improving both the power and the accuracy of the shot.
Unfortunately, an alternate solution to the toe-stubbing problem – pretty much a wrong one – has been much more prevalent than the raised, locked hip, especially in the US. Instinctively, players counter the problem by turning their foot outward and kicking the ball with the inside of the big toe or inside of the instep. This toe-saving technique automatically results in a curved leg swing and follow-through, and a concomitant reduction in power. The result has been a single all-purpose kick, basically homogenized, used almost indiscriminately for corner kicks, for goal kicks, for swerving the ball when shooting and (most unsuccessfully) for shooting the ball for power, especially from a distance. Back in the 1970’s, this kick was impolitely dubbed by Hubert Vogelsinger, Austrian technician par excellence, the “All-American shit kick.” The case has only gotten worse over the decades since then, especially as players seek to emulate David Beckham‘s swerve without having first mastered the classic instep drive.
Beyond power, of course, the main objective for a shot at goal should be to get the ball on target. The modified contact point on the foot in the all-purpose curved leg-swing I’ve just described and the emphasis on aiming for the corners of the goal when shooting too often result in missing the target completely, usually over the crossbar. Another problem that arises from the curved leg-swing is that it puts the shooter off-balance and makes it hard for him to follow his shot in order to capitalize on a possible rebound. Instead, what you see all too often is players standing still at the spot of the kick after shooting, gawking with curiosity at where the ball might go.
Having in mind that a picture is worth a thousand words, I present here some old photos of Hubert Vogelsinger (Austrian international) demonstrating the orthodox power kick in his book, Winning Soccer Skills and Techniques (Parker Publishing Company, 1970).
Note the foot control (locked ankle, pointed toe) throughout the entire swing, the position of the placement foot, the full backswing and the prolonged, head-down follow-through. The raised hip is especially evident in slides 2 and 3. The position of his upper body and of the thigh of his kicking leg at the end of the swing (nose almost to knee) maximizes power. Note also his total visual focus on the ball throughout both kick and follow-through. This isn’t just a kick; it’s an all-body complex of behaviors, like a golf or tennis swing. Vogelsinger clearly does not kick and hope: he has a very good idea where his shot is going to go, as it relies on rock-solid technique.
Importantly too, he doesn’t land first on the kicking foot after the shot but lets the momentum of the kick pull his placement foot into a small forward hop. The rationale behind this hop at the end of the swing is to maintain balance and body control and to enable the shooter to follow his shot with ease.
I emphasize Vogelsinger’s use of the hip joint because the hip is the major source of power behind the shot. The involvement of this joint, in concert with the knee and a rigidly plantar-flexed ankle, is essential for proper technical execution.
In addition, when the ball is hit correctly at goal it will often impart topspin, causing the ball to dip sharply (sometimes violently) when it approaches the keeper. Slight mistakes in ball contact can actually help, by creating severe swerves of the ball to the left or to the right. Confronted with a shot like this, the keeper often has to make a difficult save even if the ball is shot directly at him. Anybody remember Daigo Kobayashi’s goal last year? It had so much topspin that, despite being shot straight at him, its sudden dip caused the ball to hit the goalie below his knees then go into the goal.
The power kick is a whole-body skill, and maximum success for power and control is achieved when all muscles and joints work in complete harmony and relaxation.
In the late 60’s when playing semi-pro in Connecticut I saw a Central American team that had a kid no taller than 5’ 9’’ and no more than 140 lbs. take the goal kicks. I have never seen it done better. He had a whip of a leg, and his technique was perfect. He hit rockets from the six-yard line that consistently landed within 10 yards of the opposing penalty area. Compared to most keepers, past or present (with the probable exception of Paraguay’s international goalie in the 1990’s, Jose Luis Chilavert, who not only took all the team’s free kicks but actually scored over 60 professional goals), he—basically an amateur—was in a class of his own because of his stellar instep technique. Nowadays, I rarely see goal kicking have game-changing consequences. When keepers do get some distance on their goal kicks, the ball takes too long to get upfield because of imparted backspin that makes the ball float up the field too slowly to be an effective offensive tool.
As implied above, a good power shot is not solely a matter of a player’s size or strength. I’ve had 14-year-old girl players under 5’4” and 110 lbs. who could stun their opposition and spectators as well with the power of their shots. Proper technique is the foundation of kicking excellence, whether a player is big or small, and it can be taught by using a step-by-step instructional sequence, breaking bad habits and rebuilding All-American shit kickers from the ground up.
The spectacular free kick by Christian Penilla’s old teammate Honda (Pachuca and Japan) in the last minute of Japan’s round-of-sixteen match against Belgium was one of the highlights of the 2018 World Cup. His shot was saved by the keeper, but he came very close to winning the game for Japan with this stunning free kick from at least 35 yards out.
Anybody watch golf, tennis, or baseball instructional videos? Soccer instruction could, and should, apply that style of very detailed technical analysis to the instep drive.