In recent years, the role of specialist coaching in football has grown significantly. In order to achieve marginal gains on the pitch, various clubs have increased their focus on set piece coaching, or training in breathing exercises and sleep. However, there's one crucial area of specialist coaching that remains hugely under-explored: ball striking.
Bartek Sylwestrzak has dedicated his career to studying this field. Over the course of 23 years, he has developed a detailed understanding of ball striking as a technical skill, through in-depth training, research, and analysis. In one-to-one coaching sessions structured around striving for technical perfection, he has coached professional players from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Belgian Jupiler League, Danish Superliga, and more, focusing on various different ball striking techniques, from open play and non-dominant foot shooting to the topspin free kick perfected by players like James-Ward Prowse.
Alongside his in-depth ball striking studies, Sylwestrzak has also completed a BSc degree in Sport Science and an MSc degree in Sport Psychology, both at Loughborough University. In order to find out more about his work, we caught up with Bartek to discuss ball striking as a skill, its importance within football, the work he is doing to advance this field, and his thoughts on how this aspect of specialist coaching may grow in the future.
Tell me about your route into ball striking as a discipline — what were those early days of research and practice like?
"It was quite a long process. The skill of ball striking captured my particular interests in the game, and aspects of my character such as perfectionism and attention to detail. I have always seen long range and direct free kick goals as the most beautiful and inspirational; striving to achieve the highest possible level in this aspect of the game by working out each technique in detail was for me the best thing to do. So when I started to work on my laces strike - the first shot I wanted to master - ball striking immediately became my biggest fascination.
"One of the main reasons the process was very slow is that there's no technical knowledge of ball striking in the game. This skill is not systematically taught, you are not given specific technical details that you need to focus on… this information simply isn't out there. Even if you do the UEFA B, A and Pro licenses, no one is going to teach you the swing mechanics of the various types of strikes. Most players, even top players who are considered good ball strikers, not only don't have a wide range of swings but are almost never proficient in even one type of shot and the level of non-dominant foot performance is almost universally poor. There are only very few individuals who represent a good [ball striking] level and these few achieve it through their own practice. There is no systematic work and technical instruction at the clubs."
If so few players ever achieve this high level of ball striking, presumably a huge amount of potential is being missed?
"If people knew what a trained player is able to do from the ranges where teams get free kicks and from which we see so few goals being scored, they would realise that there are many great opportunities being wasted. Because there's no knowledge about this area of the game, you hear interpretations of these situations from statistical analysts and coaches who conclude: "Let's not shoot from free kicks", no one even says "Let's work on free kicks" – it's an absurdity! The consistency of James Ward-Prowse has shown that you can have a good conversion rate from free kicks and score regularly, but he is still only an exception. Every team in the Premier League should have 2 or 3 players like James Ward-Prowse. It's still quite an unexplored and underappreciated area of the game."
According to reports, many professional players receive additional one-to-one coaching outside of their clubs, but often they don't want to disclose information about this private tuition. From your experience, why do players choose to stay anonymous?
"In my experience, football clubs do not support players doing extra work. The most common philosophy at first team level is that technical improvement of individual players is not only not a priority, it's not even an objective. Players' skill sets are considered completed when they've reached first team football. Furthermore, the sole objective is for players to be fit and able to play on Saturday. This approach goes far beyond reasonable, evidence-based prevention of injury or fatigue. Extra work is usually discouraged, sometimes it's not allowed at all, even if you are able to show that with the right monitoring tools you can incorporate ball striking practices into a professional player's training without causing physical problems. Practising ball striking is not a new idea that I came up with and want to impose. All players who have inspired me have played at the top level, and, consequently had many games in their calendar: Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Juninho Pernambucano, Marcos Assunção, Andrea Pirlo. With the approach that most clubs have today, it would have been impossible for these players to become what they have become. This climate makes it understandable that players who do want to improve and do face difficulties would rather the work remained confidential."
Despite those obstacles, you have still worked with some top-quality individuals. What do you enjoy most about working with talented Premier League players?
"My training is based on striving for perfection in this specific technical area and working with committed players who share this objective. Working with such individuals is a joy. People often assume that everyone who plays in the Premier League will try to be the absolute best players they can be, but that's not true — there are very few players who genuinely strive for excellence. However, working with those exceptions who really pursue excellence and who are passionate about my area of the game specifically, and doing that at the highest level now is the best thing — you're enjoying your work, it's productive, the player responds and practices, you see the results, the results bring the player joy and they bring you fulfilment, satisfaction, joy.
"Goals from direct free kicks or spectacular, clean open play shots have always been the best for me and they still are. A cleanly struck topspin free kick is a beautiful shot. If you hit a no-spinner from 30 metres and it goes in, it is a beautiful goal. Helping players achieve excellence and score these most beautiful goals brings a unique joy, the fruit of the work is not just tangible, it’s beautiful. If you're a team coach, you have to take some compromises. In my work with a player, we really want the absolute best, and when that commitment on both sides is there — and I only work with players who do have this commitment — the process is not only productive but thoroughly enjoyable."
Do you feel like you're able to build more intimate relationships with the players as a result?
"There definitely is a relationship factor. I want the players to improve and reach the highest possible level. The players can see that in every element of the training we do, and they appreciate that. In my sessions, the players know that even if they put the ball into the bushes, it doesn't matter – mistakes are accepted as a part of learning. There is never any negativity from my side as a result of a missed attempt. Also, the fact that I want the player to improve translates to me giving them specific technical feedback. Players don't get this type of feedback, even at Premier League level, at least when it comes to shooting. How does it help the player to tell him "You've got to hit the target"? Doesn't the player know that? The whole climate, mentally, technically, is far inferior and not conducive to someone making technical progress, whereas my sessions are all about technical progress and every aspect of the training method reflects that."
One club that has tried to reap the rewards of ball striking work is Brentford, where you worked between 2014 and 2018. Could you tell me about your work with the club?
“I appreciate the open-mindedness from some people at the club who were willing to give me an opportunity and some logistical support at first team level. When you begin this work, you need to make it very clear that it's a long term process, but even if you do that, there may be significant differences in the way people understand what a “long process” is. There is also the critical question of understanding that technical improvement is complex and depends on many factors. It is not the case that you'll do a certain number of sessions with a player and the results of this work immediately will be tangibly represented in statistical data, goals, etc. Players improve, but improvement takes time, especially given that the opportunities for my contact time with them and their own practice were limited. Furthermore, one can never predict when they will get an opportunity to show what they have learned in training in a match — a player could score soon after starting the work or he may need to wait a while before goals start to come. I am happy to say that the players with whom I was given the contact time did improve significantly and this improvement did translate into some beautiful goals. Yoann’s Barbet’s free kick against Bolton was the 2017-18 goal of the season, while Nico Yennaris, who I trained on open play shooting, scored an excellent long ranger the same day. We know how much work it takes to learn the technique used by Juninho, but we also know the joy of scoring a free kick with this technique — nothing compares, it’s the best thing in the game."
What will it take for clubs to be more open-minded on a long-term basis when it comes to ball striking?
"I don't think that things are about to change or people are about to become more open-minded, because we need to understand ball striking work within its specific context. Most coaches and clubs are not motivated by the desire to help players achieve technical excellence, because the key motivation in football is fear. Fear about losing the next game and potentially losing the job, fear about a player taking some strikes and getting injured — regardless of how unlikely that is — fear everywhere. Compared to set piece work, for example, the fear factor is much greater due to the repetition involved in practice. We all have to operate within a system that not only does not facilitate such work but actually either limits it or makes it completely impossible. The way in which this work materialises for me at present is through committed players receiving the support of coaches who understand the long-term nature of technical training and are willing to provide the logistical support."
Is a key factor behind that difference in outlook the fact that specialist areas like set piece coaching have more immediately visible data outcomes?
"This is a big part of it. My work will be visible in the data, but over a much longer term. You can work on a set piece solution with a team the day before a match, and you can get a goal out of that. In my situation, that is a practical impossibility, it's happened a few times in my work, but it's very rare. In a set piece situation, you're not changing a player's skillset. I'm not assuming that tactical work is easy or set piece work is easy, but you can make these things happen much more quickly, so the translation into statistical data will be greater in many cases."
Do you envisage more people attempting to enter this line of work?
"If you do really commit to this area of the game, you will face a lot of difficulties, especially at first team level. Apart from the three people whom I have trained, nobody does ball striking work specifically, at least to my knowledge. It takes a lot of study, because the technical information is not accessible. Such thorough education and supervision in all aspects of the method is a huge time investment, and it is necessary, if the work is to be done to a top standard — and for me, that is the only way it can be done."
Head to Bartek Sylwestrzak's website to find out more.