Throughout the youth fall soccer season, the Covington Y's Academy level soccer teams have shown marketable improvement in their level of control and touch with the ball, both on the ground and in the air.
The reason dates back to two volunteer coaches with the under-11 age group in Berry Crews and Shane Beam. Crews noticed that some of the upper-level soccer clubs, such as the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association that his daughter plays for on the under-17 Inter Atlanta team, were a little further ahead in skill level and had programs that reward juggling. In soccer, juggling is keeping the ball in the air by using any means necessary, other than one's hands, such as head, thighs, chest or feet repeatedly.
Crews and Beam worked on their teams learning the art of juggling, by changing up the agenda in the beginning of practice in the first 10 minutes. Rather than just stretching and getting ready to go into the different instructional periods, Beam's and Crews' players use juggling as part of their warm-up routines, spreading out and working on keeping the ball in the air as long as possible.
"Berry and Shane didn't make it a silent time, but a time just for juggling," Covington Y Academy soccer director Austin Aldridge said. "That's a big difference, because they only have the kids for an hour and a half two days a week, so they were losing 20 minutes of that three hours on non-instruction."
Even though the two were sacrificing some instruction time, they knew it was a pivotal part of the game and their players development, and at the end of the season, it has paid off.
"When it started out, the vast majority often couldn't get 10 in a row," Beam said. "Now two of them are doing 80 or 90, and then you've got some of them doing 70 and 60 and even the ones that couldn't do 10 in the beginning are in double-digits."
The Atlanta Youth Soccer Association keeps tabs on its "Juggling Club" on its website, noting scores from its 50 club all the way up to leading jugglers in the 500-plus club such as Calvin Tirrell with 681.
Crews and Berry wanted a way to reward the Covington Galaxy's players who were reaching a certain level. The two developed a scale that would be challenging enough to keep the players developing but achievable enough to reach.
For the under-9 level, the goal was to keep the ball in the air for 10-straight volleys, under-10 for 20 straight, under-11 for 35 and under-12 for 50.
After establishing the parameters, they then wanted to set up a reward scale.
Another giving community member provided that, donating money for the soccer league to purchase Covington Y Galaxy juggling club T-shirts. According to Aldridge, a local business owner provided the means for the T-shirts, but did not want to be mentioned.
After the testing system, requiring Aldridge to come to practice once a week for evaluation away from the rest of the team, was developed and the awards were identified, Aldridge got the other Galaxy coaches on board.
"Austin is really the one who needs to take the credit for it," Crews said. "We threw out the ideas and he ran it by the other coaches saying, ‘What do you think?'"
After Crews, Beam and Aldridge got things going, the players took to it.
Some players are up near 100 consecutive volleys and still improving, such as two players are doing 80 or 90 juggles.
"It really improves the touch on the ball and improves how you control the ball; it teaches individual characteristics of hard work as well as team effort," Aldridge said.
Along with the increase in skill level occurring due to Crews and Beam's work with the juggling program, the Covington Y players are also adding confidence from the added activities. Not only do they earn incentives and are rewarded for that, but also keeping the ball in the air in practice means when a situation comes up in the game they don't have to think twice.
"Once the kids accomplish it, it allows a confidence that's almost unteachable," Aldridge said.
The juggling has been successful because, not only of the volunteers such as Beam and Crews, who make the Y successful but also due to the players commitment to it, both in practice and at home.
"At this age, it's pretty elementary," Crews said. "It could be broken down as something as simple as a ball in the air. If the ball is in the air, they have the confidence enough to use their thigh or use their chest it can even go in the shot on a volley or half volley in the game itself."