Posted by Dean Holden at March 12th, 2013
“Real football learning and skill development arises not from repetition of one-dimensional movement patterns, but rather from an interaction and adaptation to the specific demands of the task or game being played”
– Rick Fenoglio, Co-Founder of Give Us Back Our Game
1. Skill v Technique: Finding the balance
Skill is the ability to choose the correct technique at the right time. It is about decision-making. For example, which type of pass to use in order to kick the ball across a crowded area to the other side of the field. MoF aims to develop skilful players. This means we need to use activities that are opposed and therefore include elements of game-related decision-making.
“Coaching children the game of football predominantly revolves around the acquisition of technique rather than a blossoming understanding of space. Ball manipulation – mastering a set of techniques and turns – is still vogue. Coaches can persist for hours refining children’s execution of set movements, in the hope that these techniques will transplant into a game. Examples of children ‘step-overing’, scissoring and shimmying – unopposed – in wide open spaces are not hard to find. Proof, some may say, that such techniques do transfer from practice into the game. Sadly lacking however is the game understanding of when, where and why not; crucially the the skills that matter most.”
– Peter Glynn, FA Skills Coach Team Leader
Technical development is an important part of skill development – as the more techniques a child has, the more solutions they have available to choose from. However, it is argued that techniques learned in isolation of decisions do not carry over well into game-situations. It is also argued that children can invent and learn new techniques for themselves when they are required to do so in game-like situations. For example, when challenged by a defender who wants the ball, a child can learn for themselves how to shield the ball.
The true balance between technical and skill activities used in MoF sessions will also depend on the age/stage (needs) of the children in the group. Children aged under-6 will be limited as to what skill activities they can succeed in, and it would be acceptable to use more of the session for technical activities with this age group. For older players, technical activities should provide a smaller proportion of the MoF session. Children should be encouraged to practice technique at home for homework instead.
2. Types of Practice
Constant practice involves a player repeating specific movements with the aim of acquiring, refining or maintaining technique. In a constant practice a player focuses on learning the same technique under constant conditions. Elements of competition and challenge may be built into constant practices to increase a player’s motivation.
Variable practice involves a player practising a variety of techniques and skills under different conditions. A passing practice which incorporates passing the ball over varying distances and heights, using different speeds and techniques, is an example of a variable practice. Variable practices are less predictable than constant practices.
Random practice involves a player practising a variety of skills under different and changing conditions. Practice is often unpredictable with players making a variety of decisions. Random practices challenge players to transfer their technique into games, encouraging the development of tactical and game understanding.
Coaches should experiment with different types of practice, and try to find the right balance to fit the age/stage (needs) of the players in the group. All types of practice are necessary in order to develop a footballer: Constant practice is required to develop ‘muscle memory’ while random practice will develop game understanding.
It is important to remember that a random practice is most similar to the game of football itself. Football is a chaotic game, and some of this chaos should be replicated in MoF sessions so children are comfortable with taking in lots of information at once. For example, real football doesn’t have cones to dribble round but it does have opponents to beat. At MoF we want to create skilful football players (i.e. players who make good decisions), so we need to use random, opposed practices. Remember: Constant practice can be given for homework.
“Behind every action must be a thought” – Dennis Bergkamp
Coaching courses for coaches of young players are nowadays often aimed at improving the young player’s decision-making skills. Making good choices is a huge part of being an effective football player, and it is vital that we help children learn to make good decisions while they are young, so they can grow into clever football players as they get older. But it is worth thinking for a moment about exactly what it is we mean by decision-making.
The types of decision-making situations that occur in a fast-moving team sport like football are far removed from the types of decisions that children make in the rest of their lives. As coaches, we can talk to players about space and movement and time. We can stop the game at critical moments and re-create for the child the decision-making situation, or we can show the players situations on tv or on a whiteboard. (The UEFA ‘A’ and ‘B’ coaching courses used this Stop-Stand-Still method for years as their main source of teaching). But is this really realistic preparation for making decisions in the heat of a game?
The reality is that the considerations of space, time and movement in a game of football are being constantly processed by the player in a very abstract way. Players, spaces and angles of view are constantly changing, and no situation is ever exactly repeated no matter how long you play football for. Very rarely does deliberate or rehearsed thought enter a child’s mind when they are immersed in a game. There is no time on receiving a ball to weigh-up all the options using the same thought processes they might use to choose which chocolate bar to buy at the store.
So what are the implications of this on the coach?
Firstly we need to help some players have more time and space to make decisions,. This can be done by adjusting the games we play to create natural unopposed situations or moments when the game is stretched and a player with the ball has more space and time to “think”. For example, playing with wide players who can’t be tackled, or playing 5v3 instead of 4v4. Both these examples will create a bit more room for the players who would otherwise struggle to make a decision before losing the ball.
“Great players are individuals. That’s what makes them great players. They do not conform readily. They do the unexpected. If they did what was expected they would be ordinary players. Coaching is for ordinary players” – Matt Busby
Secondly we need to learn not to keep stopping the game. Let the children play. There is no great benefit or relevance of stopping a game for a few minutes to talk about all the options available in a given situation. Certainly if lots of similar situations keep re-occuring then it might be a good idea to ask the player concerned why he made a particular decision, and point out to them what other options they had. But the game doesn’t need to be stopped in order for this to happen.
(See Chapter on Learning without Thinking from page 5 for more detail and information).
Finally, we need to remember one of the most important weapons in the coach’s arsenal: Praise. We can help children to make good decisions by positively reinforcing the good decisions they already make. We need to remember to use the child’s name when we praise them and make sure they know what the praise is for. Don’t praise innate talent (“You’re really good at that!”), but use praise for the process, idea or effort instead (“Sammy, well done for looking up before you passed!”).
Let’s look at an example. A child has the ball and dribbles toward two or three opponents that stand between him and the goal. He has a team-mate available in space offering a safe pass. What would a good decision be?
Most coaches will agree that the best decision in this example is to pass the ball safely to the team-mate and avoid the opponents. However there is a HUGE problem with teaching children that this is always the best option: We want to create the type of player who has the confidence and skill to dribble and take-on two opponents. And therefore we need to allow the children we coach to experiment with doing so. We need to praise the effort and creativity shown in trying to take on opponents, otherwise we will only ever produce safe and scared players.
“I watch academy games and I see humdrum stuff all the time. I don’t see anything exciting or exceptional” Alex Ferguson
England very rarely produces the type of player that is comfortable with dribbling at many opponents. Not since Gascoigne twenty years ago has England had a world-class dribbler. These types of players nowadays seem to come from South America and Africa. There is an argument to suggest that in England our coaches and adults in football are guilty of coaching our children out of taking risks. Coaches must remember that in order to produce a new generation of creative, skilful footballers, we must allow children the freedom to become comfortable making their own decisions and learning from their own decisions. They need to be allowed to make decisions that are different from the generally accepted “best” decisions, different from the decisions the coach would make.
“We’re all born with immense natural talents, but institutions, mainly education, tend to stifle them. By not encouraging risk-taking, we are educating people out of their creative capabilities.” – Sir Ken Robinson
(Imagine the 1986 World Cup if Maradona had spent his childhood being ‘educated out of his creative capabilities’…)
Scanning refers to the set of skills needed to take in lots of visual information quickly, often from many different directions, and often whilst also moving and/or controlling a ball. Usually this visual information is moving also – players are moving, spaces are opening and closing and changing shape. A player may only gather a half-second of visual information from around them with which to make a decision.
Scanning is paramount to good decision-making. The more visual information a player receives before they have to make the decision, the better informed that decision will be. The length of time a player looks up for and the panoramic range they take in, will impact of the success of the decision that follows. For a player to do something that no-one else has seen – it is usually because they have looked longer and with a wider range of vision than those who didn’t see it.
The coach can begin teaching scanning skills when the players are very young (~6 years old). Challenge your players in games: “Before you receive the ball, can you look at both goals?”. This will get the children’s heads up, and get them into the habit of looking at the full picture, and of beginning the decision-making process before they have received the ball.
The off-side rule is one the key elements that defines football as a game. It restricts space, it affects movement, and it impacts on nearly all the decisions a player makes in a game. As coaches, we can help young players develop the skills needed to deal with the off-side rule.
For young age-groups, activities that involve breaking into a new area will help teach players the key concepts they will need when confronted with the off-side rule later in their footballing lives. For example, the coach can use a game which has End Zones to score into. Each team can score by passing (or dribbling) into the End Zone. But the key rule is that the ball must enter the zone before the recieving player does.
For older age-groups (9+), even when playing small-sided games such as 3v3, use and enforce the off-side rule. This will help teach the defending team the purpose of pushing up as a unit, and it will help them learn when and how to defend high up the pitch. Small-sided games with the off-side rule enforced will also help teach the attacking team how to break into the space beyond the opposition defence. There is no need to use the off-side rule all the time, but it is essential that it is introduced sometimes. An alternative to playing the full off-side rule is to have an area – maybe a quarter of the pitch – where off-side applies.
7. Using strict conditions in games and activities
Coaches need to think carefully about the effect and impact of imposing conditions on games. Is the condition actually benefiting the skill development of the children?
For example, some coaches believe that imposing a conidtion of ‘one touch only’ will improve the children’s first touch and make them quicker players. However, in imposing a condition of one touch only, the coach is taking away a critical decision from the child. The child no longer needs to decide how many touches to take when the receive they ball. By taking away critical decisions from the children, we are stifling their creativity and skill development.
“In matches the critical decision, as to how many touches a player needs to exploit an opponent or move the ball to a team-mate or execute a shooting opportunity, ultimately sits with the player; consequently the best players tend to make the best decisions more often. This is not to say that laying a challenge down within a session or practice is wrong. But rather than hijacking all the players’ decisions by being absolutely prescriptive and demanding for example, one touch play, the coach may set the challenge as one touch play but add the caveat of when it’s on to do so; in this way the critical decision belongs to the players”
– John Allpress, National Coach at the English FA