ADVANCED SHOOTING – THE KNUCKLEBALL
The knuckleball shot in soccer produces an airborne ball, about waist high, that exhibits wavering and unpredictable movement in flight.
It is named for a specific type of pitch in American baseball that has the same “zig-zag”-type of characteristics. Because of these characteristics, the shot is very popular as a direct free kick on goal.
The knuckleball shot is a modification of the basic instep drive shot. The key difference is that the ball is struck with the flattest part of the instep and no spin is imparted to the ball. This is achieved by stopping the foot as soon as the ball is struck and applying essentially no follow-through.
It is an extremely challenging skill and is rarely used in a game. Because of this, a goalkeeper is typically not expecting to see it and the trajectory is such that it is very difficult to understand and predict the path of the ball.
The skill often requires hundreds of hours of practice to perfect, most often by an advanced player experimenting one-on-one with the ball. For the sake of efficiency, it is recommended that the player use multiple balls or a kickwall.
Youth players should be old enough to be using a size-5 ball. Balls must be properly inflated and must not be out-of-round. The following steps represent a sample learning progression for the knuckleball shot, but this is a skill that players must master to their own satisfaction by making personal adjustments and spending the necessary time.
It is first recommended that players mark at least one ball with a permanent marker that will easily identify a location to be recognized as “front, dead-center.” (For example, using a red marker to place a one-inch, solid circle on a white panel would be distinctive.) Next, players should become comfortable with placing this ball on the ground such that the mark can truly be seen as being in a “front, dead-center” position as it is being approached.
Next, players need to recognize that they will attempt to strike the ball with the flattest part of the top of their instep, otherwise known as the “high instep” of the soccer shoe.
This can be extremely challenging for players with large feet and is one of the considerations most likely to require adjustments as experimentation with the knuckleball shot proceeds.
Players should take about a three- to five-step “run-up” to the ball, at about a 30-degree angle, or less, to the path they want the ball to take. The closer the approach is to “straight-on” seems to be more effective. Players should use their dominant leg. The run-up should be on a straight line. Players must understand that they are trying to avoid motions that cause any kind of curve or bending of their body, leg, or foot that would impart spin to the ball.
(Apparently, in his experimentation to find the successful knuckleball for himself, Christiano Ronaldo developed a four-step approach, on the balls of his feet, which incorporated a hop on the third step to provide extra extension of the kicking leg. This hop has been referred to as a “vault step.”)
The plant foot should be placed directly beside the ball approximately 6-inches away. It should be relatively close in order to minimize body lean and hip rotation. Again, this is to try to maximize a straight-on strike by the kicking leg and to reduce imparting rotation to the ball.
The toes and front of the plant foot are to be pointed directly toward the target.
The body needs to be kept as straight as possible, with minimal lean. If there is leaning, it should be forward to ensure that the body is over top of the ball when contact is made. As with any instep kick, players must see their foot contact the ball by keeping their head down and vision focused on the point of contact. This is where the spot marked on the ball becomes most useful.
The instep itself needs to be virtually perpendicular to the ground at the point of contact. This is true in all aspects: forward, back, right, and left.
The strike of the ball starts out as a normal instep drive, with proper balance, the plant foot firmly grounded, and the striking leg flexed at the knee to generate maximum power. The leg is then extended forcefully to contact the center of the ball with the top of the instep. As usual, the foot is in maximum extension, with the toes curled and the ankle locked.
It is here where the contact with the ball becomes unique. It has sometimes been referred to as a “smack,” a “punch,” a spank,” or a “slap.” Whatever the term, the instant that the ball is contacted, and as much force has been transferred from the foot to the ball as possible, the forward motion of the foot must be stopped. This is the hardest part, requiring the most experimentation and practice on the part of an individual player to achieve. Great mental concentration is required to pull back the foot right after contact is made, without the loss of power.
Evaluation of the success of the kick is usually based on whether or not spin is observed during the flight of the ball. Kicking under the ball will result in backspin and loft; this is fixed by moving the plant foot forward and/or consciously getting the body over top of the ball. Kicking over the ball will result in topspin and a low or grounded path; this is fixed by moving the plant foot back or straightening the torso. Sidespin results from missing the center of the ball or the instep; this is also fixed with minor adjustments of the location of the plant foot or the torso (left or right), but also suggests loss of concentration to see the foot strike the ball at the proper point.
A further adjustment may be made by trying to strike the ball fractionally below dead center.
In a traditional instep drive after the strike of the ball, the movement of the kicking leg usually continues with a significant “follow-through.” This is a misnomer for the knuckleball because the player must minimize any type of follow-through. As such, the last part of the knuckleball process is more of a landing on the kicking foot.
The final forward momentum of the leg and body needs to go somewhere. It is first stopped by pulling the lower leg back with the hamstrings. Second, momentum can be imparted to the ground by getting the foot down as quickly as possible.
Players may find the landing easier if they hop after the kick. This may be done by quickly jumping off of the plant foot and then landing on the shooting foot.
Soccer Coaching Tips:
- Players may start by going through the entire set of motions without a ball.
- Players need to be cautioned to focus on technique first and add power later.
- Telling the players to keep their bodies “compact” is another possible way to address getting to a proper form that keeps spin off the ball.
- Players with larger feet will be forced to turn their lower foot out to avoid scraping the ground.
- Players can get very frustrated when they don’t see immediate results when learning this skill. The knuckleball has a steep learning curve and they must be patient.
- Clearly, there won’t be a big spot marked on the ball to set it for dead center. Players may use the valve for this purpose, if it can be identified easily, or some feature pre-printed on the ball.
- The treatment above is based on a stationary ball, usually for a direct free kick. Moving balls can be added to the mix for shots during the run of play.
- A desktop “Newton’s Cradle” balance ball pendulum can be shown as an analogy.
- Caution should be used to not hyperextend the lower leg by adding too much power before proper technique is fully learned.
- Also see the knuckleball shot.
© Copyright, John C. Harves