Coaching: Football and Scrabble

When I was young I spent thousands of hours playing football and hundreds of hours playing Scrabble. I enjoyed both pastimes and was, at the very least, competent at both of them, able to kick a ball, and able to find the odd 7-letter word. Looking back I realize that I received hardly any coaching in either game. Nobody gave me tips about how to kick with my weaker foot (my left foot). Nobody showed me any strategies to improve my Scrabble scores. Since then I have learnt and worked out a few things that help me to play both games a bit better. Here are some tips, starting with Scrabble.

If you are an enthusiastic but untrained Scrabble player there are two strategies that will immediately improve your scores.

First, learn your 2-letter words. There are over 100 of them. When I played with my dad (mostly in my teens) we used maybe 35 of these 2-letter words, those that form part of day-to-day speech (am, an, at, be, by and so on). We believed that there were no 2-letter words beginning with E. In Official Scrabble Lists there are at least 10 words beginning with E, including words like ee, ea and ex. There are 127 2-letter words listed on this Australian Scrabble page, 12 of them beginning with E, and it gives definitions too. Most modern Scrabble sets contain a list of them too, along with the rules of the game. Our Scrabble Deluxe set (a wedding present) lists 110 2-letter words, 10 of them beginning with E, so those are the official numbers for UK Scrabble players.

The second simple Scrabble tip is contained in the word RETAINS. Those 7 letters are the most “anagrammable”, the best for making anagrams. If you have all of them you will almost certainly be able to put them down somewhere on the board, and get your 50-point bonus for using all 7 letters. If you’re not sure whether to keep letters like L, O or U in favour of I, N or R, keep the letters from the word RETAINS.

RETAINS is an anagram of retsina, retinas, nastier and antsier, all acceptable Scrabble words (as are anestri, ratines, resiant, stainer, starnie and stearin). Also, using these letters you can form 8-letter words with 21 different letters of the alphabet (every letter except Q, V, X, Y and Z). Here are some examples, using each valid letter from A to W: Artesian, Banister, Canister, Strained, Trainees, Fainters, Granites, Hairnets, Inertias, Nartjies, Keratins, Latrines, Minarets, Trannies, Notaries, Painters, Retrains, Stainers, Nitrates, Urinates and Tinwares. (I have been using this tip for so long now that I can type that list from memory.)

[There are other simple Scrabble tips, like “Keep a balanced rack” – ideally 4 consonants and 3 vowels, although 5 consonants and 2 vowels can be a strong hand – and don’t bother holding onto a U “just in case” you get the Q. You have at best a 50% chance of picking up the Q, and there are plenty of words that don’t require a U, like QAT and QI. But knowing about 2-letter words and RETAINS should improve your score immediately.]

Moving onto football, in my 20s I worked out a better way to kick a ball with my weaker foot (my left foot) and I have shown it to many school-age children since. Here’s what you do. Place the ball on the ground and take two or three steps backwards. Walk back towards the ball and as you do so place your stronger foot directly beside the ball as part of your walking motion. As you walk, swing your weaker foot through the ball, so that it’s part of your natural movement. Get used to kicking a non-moving ball before trying to kick a moving ball. If you are fairly new to football and practise this 10 or 15 times, 2 or 3 times a day, you will be able to kick a ball with your weaker foot better than before.

There is an alternative method for improving how you kick with your weaker foot, which I read in an interview with Johan Cruyff. It involves mirroring the way you play football with your stronger foot so that you can play the same way with your weaker foot. Analyze every part of your approach to kicking the ball, not just your legs and how you kick, but the position of your arms, head and upper body. Then mirror it, create a mirror image of your entire body so that your approach to kicking the ball with your weaker foot reflects how you kick with your stronger foot. In the Cruyff interview (as I recall it) he claimed that this will take two weeks, but the results will last. I have never tried it (I read that interview when I was in my 30s) but I like to think that if I were 8 years old again, and had somebody around to coach me through it, I’d give it a go.


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