Regulars to this page will know I frequently write about philosophy and the merits of the English game. Whilst there are no doubts lessons to be learned, in this article I would like to look at some of the more theoretical aspects of learning and coaching from some great innovators in the game.
One thing I think we need to establish is that perhaps there are things we can learn about the past in how coaching was undertaken and the game played but also new ideas we can blend in. It is only by being totally open minded and receptive to new ideas can we truly push the boundaries of what we can teach our younger players. One thing we do here a lot about is how in the past young players would come in from school, grab a ball and play on the street. Even as recent as Wayne Rooney he describes such things and how it influenced his game. Equally we aware that the streets are different, there are more distractions for young players in the form of electronic equipment, social media and safety on the streets and in parks. BUT be under no illusion, we have to let our players play and it is only through play do they learn, adapt, make decisions and ultimately have fun. In a setting like this we can truly learn.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up” – Pablo Picasso
During this article I will be referencing a real innovator in coaching methodology Darren Laver who is a good friend of mine. He has a unique insight into learning and developing players through game related activities. Whilst he has taken the route of street soccer as his delivery method a lot of his coaching and learning ideas can be integrated into all forms of coaching with one caveat…there must be gameplay. Too often I watch coaches running highly specific drills with players required to move to one cone or another and perform a pre-directed task. Often the drill is complicated and takes the players a while to grasp where they need to pass to and where to move to. Ironically by the time they have mastered it the drill has been running a while and players boredom starts to take hold so they move onto a new drill to freshen it up. Whilst drills in a very short way can help hone a specific action they are by definition a set of repetitive actions to learn a specific task. If only the game was like that! Alas there are no cones in the game, there are players who move, the ball sometimes hits a bump or an opposition player steps in the way. By the very nature of the game it is random so we have to train in a random fashion. We need to teach players the key element that will make them great – not skill, not technique, not strength, not agility – all these can be learned off the field. The real key is decision making.
“Creativity in play is the way to solve the unexpected problems that football players find on the pitch. It prepares them for difficulties, challenges and obstacles in a way that makes their success durable. In doing so they are required to use both their analytical and physical talents to the maximum” – Darren Laver
So how do we define gameplay directed learning? Is it just kicking a ball around and “having a match” at the end? Every player of every age will always ask their coaches this question. Most coaches we find this question irksome and want to impose their new drill they’ve researched on the internet on their players. To be fair their intentions are honourable and most will give their players a game at the end. But the real innovation is how do you get the information from the drill into a game that the players feel is like a game but with learning embedded. This is the crux of creative game play and the answer is there and straightforward once you know how….let them play but condition the game to bring out the things you want to teach. Want to teach pressing, or defending outnumbered or balance and cover?- make the teams unbalanced – e.g. 9 vs 5 – you will see the most ferocious pressing, defensive balance and emergency defending out of need for sure! Want to teach possession, support and small passing? – put everyone on 2 touch or limit one long pass only when they have completed 5 short passes. Want to encourage defensive players to get forward as in the modern game with attacking forwards and ball playing centre halves? Make their goals count for two if they start the attack in their half? The list is endless – the only limit is our imagination. And the perfect end game to finish a session that will maximise team play, communication, touch, ball control in a fun setting – simply play foot volley over a goal – nothing else can teach you all that in one activity! I guarantee you will get creative thinking players very very quickly this way as well as having players who relish training because they are playing the game for the bulk of the time. Gone are the days of standing around on cones and moving in pre-described patterns – this will not teach thinking players! Don’t get me wrong there is a place for teaching some basic ball skills and concepts especially regarding shape and space. But this must be minimised and as soon as possible integrate these ideas into game play.
“Soccer is an art not a science and the game should be played attractively as well as effectively. Soccer is a game of skill, imagination, creativity and decision making. Coaching should not stifle but enhance those elements” Bobby Howe US Soccer Former Director of Coaching
I will leave you with these final thoughts from Darren…“Human beings like play. They enjoy innovating and would prefer the opportunity to showcase their creativity. Great coaching not only piques the curiosity of players but also increases their motivation to learn more. This is the recognition of the innate human artist that Picasso talked about”
Remember we set out to be different at the DC and that difference is what sets us apart from all other youth training centres. Our long term success is built upon these very concepts and be rest assured the reward will be there to see on the main pitch at Aggborough as our cohorts graduate from the DC into the first team. Watch this space…