Training at Home: Targeted Training

This is part 2 of a series on what type of work I think players should be doing at home. With many clubs in California on a break, this is the perfect opportunity for players and families to take individual development into their own hands.

In the first post, I covered Volume Training, where general technical development is the priority, and players form a relationship with the ball. In this post, I want to cover more specific Targeted Training.

As players get older, the tactical and technical demands on them becomes higher, and more distinct. The requirements for a left back are not the same as for a central attacking mid, for example. While general technical development will always have a place in a player's training regimen, targeting and rehearsing specific skills, patterns, and movements can lead to greater improvements in a narrower skill set, at a faster rate than more general training.

For example, everyone in world football is aware of Arjen Robben's signature move: as a left footed player on the right wing, he will try to start wide, cut inside onto his left foot, and shoot. Despite the countless number of top-level defenders who have been roasted by this seemingly simple move, it continues to be effective. Here is a 5 minute video of nothing but that:

Here is a video of Robben continuing to hone that exact move, even at the age of 31 (when the video was taken 3 years ago):

Rene Meulensteen, a former assistant coach at Manchester United, credits Cristiano Ronaldo's rise from inconsistent winger to world class goal scorer to the amount of finishing work he put in outside of team training:

We worked on positions, which zone he was in, 1 (in front of goal), 2 (to the sides) or 3 (further out). We worked on what type of finish. One-touch. Do you need to control it? Volley it. Pass it in. Side-foot it in. Chip it in. We worked on certain goalkeepers. Did they have a certain trend? It’s details. When [post-Ronaldo] we played Schalke away in the Champions League semi [in 2011], we knew that Manuel Neuer, a good goalkeeper, was like Peter Schmeichel and would come out with a star jump [spreading himself]. So we worked on finishes low to either side, low through the legs.

This type of training does not only pertain to attacking play. Here is a clip of Atletico Madrid's coach, Diego Simeone, working with the backup outside backs on some specific movements and skills for their position:

Practical Recommendations

The key for getting the most out of Targeted Training starts with correctly identifying the skills, scenarios, and area of the field that a player needs work in. Take a winger for example. Most people would agree that wingers need to contribute goals and assists. But how? The exact method is different for every team. Some wingers supply crosses, some cut inside and shoot, some make runs off the ball, some are expected to dribble the ball and beat players, some check inside and play through balls for their teammates... The possibilities are endless. Through rigorous self-evaluation and conversations with the coach, a player needs to understand their role in the team, and the skills they need to excel at, and execute on game day. Without correctly identifying areas to improve, any targeted training will not be maximized.

Once you have identified exactly what scenarios need work, designing an appropriate drill is the next step. The most useful starting point for this is to imagine a scenario straight from a game, and slowly remove players and complexity until you have a situation a player can work on individually, with 1 other person, 2 people, etc. As an example, let's continue with the trademark Robben goal. This sequence usually starts with Robben checking in and receiving the ball from a center mid, while the outside back overlaps him. The striker will run in behind the backline to the left or right of Robben to occupy the backline. Depending on how the defense reacts, Robben will have two options ahead of him to pass to, a clear shooting lane inside, a lane to dribble outside if the defense overcompensates towards the middle, or options behind him to recycle possession. Feasibly, in this situation, Robben needs to be able to pass into space, shoot from distance, dribble inside, dribble outside, or pass into feet. However, to maximize the time spent, it is best to focus on just a couple variables. I am sure that at team training, each of these options is rehearsed, but during Robben's personal sessions, the options are more limited, and therefore more focused. He could have chosen to work on the dribble to create the shooting opportunity, and added in a defender. He could have added 2 pug goals to pass into to simulate teammates. He could have added in 2 training dummies so he could work on dribbling down the outside and crossing. He could have added 2 more pug goals so when the trainer shouts a certain color, he turns around and passes into the pug goals. He could add a million pieces of equipment and a million variations, and none of it would really help him improve. Choosing what to NOT focus on is just as important as what you ARE focusing on. Again, rigorous analysis and conversations with a coach are very important for this.

Lastly, the time and intensity spent on a particular skill is a the final piece of the puzzle. Working on a skill for a couple weeks and then moving on will not lead to much improvement. Working the same drill for two hours in one day will also not lead to improvement in game-speed execution. The best strategy for improving a targeted area is a medium to long term focus, using short intense intervals of training in a given session. I can guarantee Robben was not working on full-speed dribbling and shooting for two hours because of the simple fact that you can't maintain a high, explosive intensity for that long. This is a common mistake in goalkeeper training for example, and one I have made myself as both a player, and a trainer. We ask goalkeepers to dive at full stretch up and down the penalty area for 5 minutes in a row, when they rarely exert themselves longer than 5 seconds in a game! In targeted training, the quality of an action should take priority over the quantity. In a drill like Robben's it is better to get 25 repetitions at a game-like intensity, than to do 100 that taper down in quality. A simple strategy for the above drill would be to do a repetition at full intensity, then walk back to the starting point. Continue this way for maybe 5-10 minutes, and take a water break. Come back, tweak the exercise a little (instead of dribbling through the cones, maybe combine with another player), and continue for another 5-10 minutes.

Along with this, a given skill needs to be given time to improve. A finishing session once a week for a month won't turn a player into the top scorer next season. If you do the proper prep work and correctly identify a given skill to focus on, design a realistic drill, and bust your ass 2-3 days a week on every rep, you still won't notice significant improvement for at least month. It's important NOT to go with whatever flavor-of-the-week skill you see in a highlights video, and focus on a skill or scenario that crops up consistently in games for your player. You can absolutely tweak an exercise, alter the dimensions, etc. but never lose sight of the core skill you want to improve.

Training at Home: Volume Training

With most clubs in California taking a month or so off for the summer, and the World Cup on TV, players and families of all levels should be taking charge of their own development and education over the next several weeks. Coaches always want to try and find the players with a passion for the game, and a hunger to improve on their own time. An area I haven't done well enough as a coach is guiding players and parents on how to best spend time on their own. I have given players assignments, even going as far as dividing them up by position, but I haven't gone about it in a systematic or detailed way. I am looking to change that this summer, and below is my brain dump on the types of activities players should be doing at home.

Volume Training

A good portion of any player's work at home should focus on pure volume, meaning lots of touches on the ball at varying intensities. I would put lunch time games at school, kicking against a wall, juggling, and different pieces of footwork through cones all in this category. The type of training one does most will have a heavy influence on their style of play, and their own individual flavor. Moussa Dembele, a center mid for Tottenham developed his own dribbling style this way:

As a youngster in Antwerp Dembele would play without goalposts, meaning the only way to score was stopping the ball on a line at either end of the pitch.

This is where he developed that trademark turn that wouldn’t look out of place in the figure skating world.

With a drop of the shoulder and a chop back on the ball with the outside of his foot Dembele regularly acts out Swan Lake with boots on.

Dembele is known for his ability to dribble even in a crowded midfield, an ability honed while playing pickup as a player. However, due to the fact that they played without goals, he never developed a strong ability to score. This is despite the fact that he has likely spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours at organized training in front of goal.

Another example is Santi Cazorla, a player able to dribble, pass, shoot, even take set pieces with both feet. While players are encouraged to work on using both feet in every organized training session, that alone is not nearly enough to develop world class ability like Cazorla's:

I always preferred my right foot,” he says. “Ever since I was young that was my preferred foot. Once I was a little bit hurt in my right ankle and therefore I started to use my left foot a lot more.

“What I would do after training is stay half an hour and kick the ball against a wall with my weaker foot over and over again to make sure it gets stronger. And young players should remember that everything comes from the base of hard work, so never give up. Being able to use both feet was something that came quite naturally to me ever since I started playing. However, it’s something I work on all the time to make sure that level never gets any lower.

The pickup soccer culture isn't the same in America as it is in Brazil, or the Netherlands. Players may struggle to find games to play in at a moments notice, but that shouldn't stop them from inviting friends over to play with, or organizing them on their own. I coach a U12 player who will play with grown men on Fridays at a park to get a game in! Playing in the backyard with parents or siblings, getting the neighbors out to play, or organizing games at lunchtime at school are also good alternatives. I would also include joining a futsal team, Sunday League team, indoor team, etc. in this category of informal/pickup play.

Regardless of the method, players need to find a way to get thousands and thousands of touches on a ball at home. I have found Beast Mode Soccer to provide some quality free content, and they also offer premium paid training plans as well. The link to their YouTube channel is here. The drills are easy to do at home, and add your own variation to.

Kicking against a wall is another staple in every soccer culture out there as a free way to get lots of reps, and get a feel for the ball with both feet, and every surface of the foot. Passing and shooting technique, first touch, receiving the ball to turn, juggling against a wall... the possibilities are limitless. Here is an example from pro women's player Yael Averbuch:

 

The main function of this type of training is to eliminate the ball as a variable in the decision making process. At the professional level, when the ball is passed towards a player, they don't need to think about how they will control it, which foot they will use, how to counteract the spin on the ball... all of those details are processed instantly because of all the time they have spent with a ball their entire lives. This is backed up in part by a study examining Neymar's brain activity while moving his foot versus other soccer players, athletes, and regular population. This frees up players to focus on the positioning of the opposition, their teammates, where the goal is, etc. We have all seen a young player receive the ball under pressure, and turn right into a defender. We all know the player made a poor decision, but more often that not, it is because they had to focus so much attention on controlling the ball, that they were unable to perceive the defender closing them down.

For younger players, up until maybe ages 12-14 (depending on the level), it is my opinion that most of their time outside of team training should be spent on 'volume training', involving the activities above. Just the player and a ball should be enough most of the time, along with some form of pickup or other informal play peppered in.

Practical Recommendations

For the very youngest players (1-6), Tom Byer has more understanding than anyone else I have come across. This article presents his views very well. His advice is simple: always have some small balls (all the way down to the mini size 1 balls) around the house, and teach them the sport is not a kicking game. Encourage them to dribble, stop, and turn with all parts of their foot, and with both feet. These are things even parents who did not grow up playing the game can do. As they grow in skill and confidence, they will be more likely to play and train on their own.

For older players, identify an area inside or outside the house as their designated training area. Show them some of the above videos, provide them with a ball and maybe a couple cones, and replicate them exactly the first couple times. Once they get the hang of them, encourage them to find a way to increase the difficulty, or complete the footwork at a faster speed than the day before. Encourage them to time themselves, or reach a set number of touches, so they can measure their progress. Find a spot at the house, or at a local park or school, where they can kick against a wall. You can also build one out of plywood, or invest in a rebounding net.

It also helps to have a set schedule. Maybe their individual training time is in between World Cup games, or before lunch, or when they get back from school or daycare, or for 15 minutes before they leave for school. Maybe they will ask you to drop them off early at training, or stay late, so they can work on their individual skills.

Keep a soccer ball or two in the car, so if there is some downtime somewhere, they can pull it out and juggle, or pass with a sibling, or play 1v1 with whoever else is around. Make the ball an ever-present wherever you travel. It will be a good way for them to blow off some steam on car trips, and get away from any handheld electronics. If they can, they should keep a ball in their backpacks or lockers, even if it is just a size 1 or 2 mini ball.

Encourage the players to set up their own regular games at your house, a friend's house, or down the street. For example, every Wednesday at 4 pm, Jacob and Jimmy and Johnny will all meet me at the park and we play until 5 pm.

All of these different activities are part of a virtuous cycle: as they get better and improve, they will enjoy playing more. If they enjoy playing more, they will do it more often. If they do it more often, they will get better... This carries over to team training as well. Players will go to and leave training in a better mood, more excited to play, and more motivated.

The dirty little secret about player development is that so much of it happens at home, away from a coach, and away from organized play. Somebody like Messi or Neymar or Hazard didn't develop to a world class level because they played for the local academy 3 times a week for 90 minutes when they were 10 years old. Coaching absolutely plays a role in developing these players, but it is simply the tip of the iceberg.

Tracking Performance

One of the reasons I started this website was to publicly track my development as a coach. I've always said that every 6 months I look back at myself and think "What the HELL was that guy doing?!" Having the video footage from training and games to refer back to has been extremely valuable, whether I view it the next day, or years later. By putting it out in the open, it's a way to both have some accountability, and spark discussion with other coaches.

A lot of our analysis as coaches is subjective, and difficult to track, especially at the level I coach at. That doesn't make it wrong, but it can make it hard to verify if we're achieving what we want, especially when viewed by outsiders. For example, I feel in the past I didn't coach my teams to be patient enough in attacking transitions. The only way to really evaluate that statement is to watch hours and hours of training and games, and come to a subjective conclusion based on my ideal style of play.

This fall, I'm going to try an experiment objectively tracking my teams' performances. I'm a huuuuge soccer content junkie, and lately I've found myself gravitating towards lots of work on soccer analytics. One piece I found early on that's very easy to grasp is this one on shot quality by Ted Knutson. It basically quantifies what everyone already acknowledges about shooting. For example, it's easier to score from closer to goal, it's harder to score a header than a shot, etc. I'm going to use a shot location map to try and objectively measure my teams' performances this fall. Something like the image below:

No matter what style a team plays in, they are almost always trying to produce the best shots for themselves, while limiting the chances of their opponent. Whether you bunker and counter, pound the box with crosses, or play a possession based style, that is always the outcome you are looking for. By tracking both the shots we take and concede, I'll have an objective measure of how the team is performing both game by game, and over the long-term.

I divided the area around the penalty area into 12 grids: horizontally every 5 yards or so (U11 and U12 teams play 9v9 so smaller field), and vertically using the width of the goal area as the central zone. I could have used more or less zones, but this felt both easy to track, as it used naturally occurring markings on the field, while still providing a good amount of nuance. It could still change however. The reason each grid is labeled with a letter is so I can track the shot totals on a spreadsheet. I'm hoping I can get a parent or sub to count the shots during the game, and I can enter them in later.

A few trends I'm planning on keeping an eye on:

  • season-long trend towards more + better chances for my teams, less + worse chances for opponents
  • jumps up or down in shot quality for us/opposition when we focus on creating chances/defending in training
  • if a particular side is weak or strong offensively/defensively

From Tryouts to "Training" pt. 2

To continue the discussion from part 1...

In addition to seeing how players react to different input from me, I want to see how they react without me standing over them. The way I gauged this was teaching the group more directly about the type of movement I wanted to see from them supporting in the 4v0 rondo. I wanted to see good timing, and quick steps to support. They player at the top of the video in the below clip is the best example of what I was looking for:

I can;t expect the players to do it perfectly and with the required intensity right away, but once I've helped them understand what I want, the expectations are raised. I used this as an opportunity to gauge both their work habits, and gain a (very small) glimpse into their tactical awareness. Some players would work very hard after I demonstrated or gave them extra coaching, and would then slack off as soon as I wasn't standing right next to them. Others were working hard whether I was standing right next to them, or on the far side of the area. If a player is only working best when the coach is standing right next to them, that is a big red flag for me. In a typical training environment, I won't be able to babysit each kid and coax the best out of them during every single minute. 

The 4v1 rondos, gave me a chance to see how the players put together the passing, receiving, and movement aspects of 4v0 under pressure. As I mentioned above, knowing where and when to move in even a simple 4v1 rondo can prove challenging for players of all ages.  A player only has to process whether they should move left or right, and when, while only being pressured by a single defender. Some instantly understood the transfer from 4v0, and some needed extra guidance. The players that understood where and when to move to support their teammates consistently found more time on the ball than those who did. And in the 4v1 rondo, the above mentioned point about work rate could be combined with this tactical understanding of movement. The players who possessed both traits would consistently offer themselves in the correct position and correct moment, whether or not they received the ball.

While it is context dependent, if a player couldn't put together a good performance in the 4v0 and 4v1 rondos in our 20 minute session, it was a major red flag for me. The players I'm working with are going to be expected to compete for spots in the Earthquake Academy within the next year or so. And while there is a lot of coaching and learning that can happen in these two exercises, they are fairly simple. Additionally, I have a good amount of experience and success teaching these to players from 6 year olds new to the game to my men's league teammates, so I know that I'm competent at getting my ideas across. This manner of conducting tryouts is essentially a small slice of a typical practice I would run, and in my experience, can help identify which players will and won't be a good fit in my team.

From Tryouts to "Training"pt. 1

While my teams are still in the process of trying out, it is easiest to identify the extreme cases on either end: those at the top end of the talent spectrum, and those at the bottom. In my experience, once you've identified those players, you should place them aside. Literally, you can do this by placing them in their own groups so you can focus on diving deeper into perhaps the middle 60% or so. If you wish to take a less direct method, you can make notes on which players require little to no more observation, and instead focus your energy on players on the fringes of making the team.

I usually begin tryouts in a very hands-off manner, meaning little to no coaching beyond explaining a drill. I prefer to see what a player's natural tendencies are. How risky their decisions are, their reactions at defensive transitions, etc. In this stage especially, the edge cases will stand out pretty quickly. To help separate the remaining players however, I've found it useful to see how they react to being coached.

To give a real world example, I ran a 3four3 style 4v0 and 4v1 rondo at my most recent tryout. The main things I wanted from the players were receiving passes across their body, hard passes played to the correct foot, and proper movement to offer a passing angle. Very few players understood instantly after the example, and most needed extra coaching.

In the 4v0, it's black and white which foot the players should be using to receive, and also fairly obvious to the players what a good pass looks like. The players with quality technical ability managed this with few problems. The way I chose to 'test' was calling them out as either individuals or groups to see how they respond. Some players received praise, some received criticism, some received encouragement, and some received a little extra individual coaching. It's important to see how different players respond to each of these. If a player doesn't respond positively to criticism or individual coaching, then they will not be a very good fit in my coaching environment. Additionally, they players who responded to praise by relaxing and dropping their level will not fit into the culture I want to establish either.

I will continue this post tomorrow in part 2.

Gathering Intel

Tryouts for my new teams are coming up soon, but as I'm the pre-academy coach, I've been attending the academy tryouts for the last several weeks. My main reasons for doing this is to gain a better understanding of the player pool for the Earthquakes. While I've watched a few DA games at the U12 age group, it's important I have a more intimate knowledge of the players in and around the Quakes program. In addition to doing my own homework, it's been valuable for me to speak with other coaches in the program, especially the U12 DA coach, to learn their perspective on the players. Which players they believe are a LOCK for the academy team, and why, has been a constant question at each tryout.

One major take away I've had from the tryouts so far is that even at the academy level, a huge player deficiency I saw was their tactical understanding. This was most obvious after seeing kids doing insane tricks in a 1v1 drill, then being completely clueless as to how to move in a 9v9 scrimmage. One players beat his man every time in the 1v1s, including once with a really smooth rainbow. In the scrimmage playing as a winger however, not once did I see him receive the ball and be able to turn. This didn't happen only on the offensive side of the ball though. Very few players were scanning the field on defense to identify the biggest danger either. Being able to identify and train players tactically remains, in my opinion, a valuable commodity in the American soccer environment.

First Steps

Despite the fact that tryouts for my teams won't be for another month, that doesn't mean there's nothing for me to do at this stage. Right now, I'm reviewing training plans and notes from my first couple months with my teams from this spring and last fall. I want to review what my introductory exercises were, and think about how I need to adapt them. The group of players I'll be working with will be a higher level than the teams I've had, so dimensions for example will need to be tweaked.

Because of the difference in level, some aspects can perhaps be glossed over more quickly, or skipped completely. Others will require more attention, and more depth, as I am ostensibly the first step in the pipeline to the first team. I imagine that slightly less time will need to be devoted to technical training, and more time can be spent focusing on the tactical.

That being said, I'm treating this as more of an introspective process. Until I encounter the players I'll be working with, there is no point in imagining what they are and are not capable of. It's more relevant for me to focus on my own methodology, which can be applied across multiple teams. I think this will be a more robust method to improving my coaching in the long run.

Fresh Impetus

I've been away from my blog the last couple months because it's been difficult for me to write anything interesting. I've been in the process of stepping away from my teams at SLOSC, and handing them off to other coaches within the club. Slowly taking my foot off the gas wasn't fun, and for me, didn't inspire me to share much.

This story has a happy ending however..... Or maybe it's better to call it a happy beginning?

I'll be joining the San Jose Earthquakes this summer coaching with their club team. I'll be coaching their Pre Development Academy teams, and working to bring players along to their DA teams. Even though my contract won't start for more than a month, the coaching process is already beginning. I plan on sharing as much as I can about this new journey.

Methodology

In my opinion, an underrated aspect of elite coaching (which I'm subjectively defining as coaching in the first division of top European leagues) is the methodology. In particular, I'm speaking about a coach's exercise selection.

All we get to see as outsiders is one tiny piece of the puzzle: the games. And maybe we can even discern that a certain plan has been put in place, perhaps to press the opponent in such a way that the worst passer is on the ball the most, or to match up the best attacker with the worst defender. But we don't get to see the real work that goes in to this.

Sure, we can see Barcelona do a 10v2 rondo, or watch Pep shout in German at camp in Qatar... but we don't get to see the training sessions leading up to an important Champions League knockout game, or see the first 10 sessions Antonio Conte does during preseason. With some digging, you can find worthwhile content on the internet. These are three of my favorite from Simeone, Bielsa, and Frans Hoek.

What I am getting at is this: the best have a refined methodology. I sincerely doubt that Mourinho has 50 different drills to train his teams to counter attack. I'm willing to bet he has a set of core exercises that he tweaks based on the players, the opponent, the conditions of the match, etc. He's probably not reinventing the wheel every time he moves clubs. And his exercises are different than Jurgen Klopp's, and Pep's, and Van Gaal's, and Allegri's, ad infinitum. What separates those guys from each other is their ability to analyze their players and the opposition in detail, and assess weakness, strengths, etc.

For now, I feel like I'm still in the stage of dialing in my methodology. Which exercises I use, for how long, the specifications, and the sequencing, to name just a few aspects. 3four3 has been helpful with that for me personally. More than anything though, find a working method, and relentlessly study and refine it.

Mistakes

Part of today's training didn't go very well.

We worked on a passing pattern to mimic goal kicks. A combination of factors led to it going wrong, including some players that weren't able to meet the technical and tactical demands of the exercise, and the large numbers of players involved, combined with the fact that I'm one coach working with 14 U11 players at once.

It represented an over-estimation of my own coaching capacity, and the capacity of the players to execute. To make matters worse, in my training plan, I had an even more complicated progression written down. 

To fix my mistake, I first cut down on the time I had planned to spend on the exercise. I realized there wasn't much chance to salvage it at that point. Second, I skipped the progression, and simply ran back through the same pattern. Even though many of the players recognized that the exercise wasn't going well, I had to sort of 'sell' them on the idea of doing it again, without blaming them or lumping the pressure on them. The second repetition went much better, even if it was still a ways from being a part of an ideal session.

Making mistakes is a part of the coaching process. I don't beat myself up about it like I used to, and I try to evaluate it without emotion. Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, certain factors out of my control were at play. All I can do is learn from my mistakes, and focus on the factors I CAN control. These types of mistakes give me valuable insight into the limits of my players, but ESPECIALLY, they show me my own limits and deficiencies as a coach. And those are much easier, and much more important, to correct.

Hacking Restarts

Once I've had a chance to work on a given restart, I want to give my players a chance to experience them in a game like scenario. Typically, after rehearsing them with no pressure, I'll add in calibrated pressure. Meaning, I want the target group to have success. Usually, that means the pressure is slightly less than game-realistic, or that players can't start pressuring until a certain moment.

When I feel like the execution is to an adequate level, I'll be sure to give them reps in a more game realistic scenario. One hack I use frequently is if I conduct a scrimmage/game at the end of training, I'll engineer plenty of chances for the target group (starters/backline/attackers) to work on the given restart. Today at training, every time the ball crossed the goal line, I called for a goal kick. No matter who hit the ball out. I'll also do this with corner kicks, throw-ins, and even set piece routines.

 

Barcelona's Defending

There's no way I could write today without mentioning Barcelona's incredible performance. A 4-0 defeat in the first leg turned around with a 6-1 victory in the second.

One aspect of their performance that struck me today was their defending, especially their center backs. The whole Barca team parked themselves in PSG's half, and stayed there. This was due to both the work rate of the attacking players' as soon as the ball was lost, but also the decision-making by the 3 defenders of when to step out, when to delay, and when to foul.

One thing I appreciated more after a course with Frans Hoek was that when the ball is lost, the goalkeeper and backline need to step towards the ball to shrink space. Umtiti, Pique, and Mascherano did that masterfully today. The PSG attackers didn't have time to pick their heads up because as soon as they received a pass, a Barca player would be closing them down. In my opinion, this was a major factor in Barca's win today. Keeping the ball in PSG's half not only kept Barca relatively safe defensively, but allowed the likes of Neymar, Suarez, and Messi to play within 40 yards of the goal most of the game.

This will be a game I watch again with a clearer head, and one I'll be sending out to my center backs to study.

The "Why"

I get the feeling that it is fashionable to spend a lot of time explaining why you do things to players. TELLING players to stand in position X rather than position Y is old fashioned! Instead, let's involve them in the learning process! Sometimes, the players can come up with better solutions on their own!

*italics = sarcasm*

Especially at the youngest ages, I've found explanations and justifications to be at best, superfluous, and at worst, a waste of time. If a coach knows what they're doing, the 'why' should become readily apparent either in training or in games. Even in situations where I do talk to players at length about why we approach the game a certain way, it's NEVER the first step in the process. In the lower-level club environment I work in, spending, say, 1 5 minutes each practice just speaking with players means I'm using nearly 10% (30 minutes from 3 hours) of training. With 9-10 year old boys, in my experience, speaking longer than 30 seconds is a no-no!

Instead, I focus on HOW I want my players to do something. For instance, a pass being a 'laser', vs. a 'rocket' is an important distinction in my teams. If I've done my homework, and I truly understand how a given tactic will play out, then the players should have success with it. Once they have a basic understanding, I can start revealing to them, in the proper context, the 'why'.

Throw-ins

A few objective truths I've found at all ages for throw-ins:

  • when playing someone's feet, really hard, flat throw-ins (I call them 'bullets') are usually easier to control than a soft, looping one
  • almost every team defends throw-ins by man-marking
  • except for the first and last ~20 yards of the field, you can usually use the same set of movements/options for the thrower
  • teams never mark the guy taking the throw, so if you can find a way to incorporate them, you can find some time on the ball (I stole that from a Cruyff quote)
  • because it's a restart, the offensive team controls the timing

Formations

My 06 team had a scrimmage today against a local team. It was their first time playing in our 4-3-1 formation. It was nice to see that it had only a minimal effect on our style of play. We still looked to circulate the ball with short passes, and pressure immediately upon losing it.

Some of our attacking movements were off, which is to be expected. It's still refreshing to see that the repetitive work done in training isn't instantly lost as soon as a small aspect of your play changes... and also serves as anecdotal evidence that formations are not 'tactics', merely a tool.

Pre-Game... Training Session?

Sometimes I'll use the time before a game to conduct essentially a mini training session. Sometimes it's to review a newish topic, and sometimes I'll introduce something brand new. I know for my club, at games is some of the only time we get on a regulation field. There's no point in wasting that time with stretching or half-speed passing exercises.

Tomorrow, my U12s have a scrimmage. Before training, we'll be working on circulating the ball out of the back (review) and goal kicks (new for some players). Doing certain things for a warmup right before a game makes them easier to recall, and allows you to get the spacing and other aspects contextually correct.

Teaching Building Out of the Back

One set of progressions I've picked up that has helped me to teach building out of the back is as follows:

  • Unopposed circulation patterns with backline and holding mid(s)
    • cones set out to show the players EXACTLY where they should be
    • unopposed patterns should be used consistently, but you can add in small variations, or reduce the amount of time you spend on them
  • Backline and holding mid(s) start in offensive spacing vs. light pressure
    • to encourage good spacing, backline and holding mid(s) dribble into small goals to 'score'
      • backline must connect a set number of passes first. I usually start with 5.
    • offensive players can finish on a goal with or without a GK
  • Ramp up the number of players pressuring as the backline improves, until the numbers look game-realistic
  • Have the backline start in defensive spacing (closer together) to force them to expand
  • Have the offensive players start with the ball to force them to win the ball, expand under pressure, and then build out

This has been a fairly robust formula for me, but the real trick is to figure out when to add in another element, or even take a step back to review. I've also tried to find the best time to add in the goalkeeper.

Squeezing the Juice

As a coach and a person, I've been working on my self-awareness. Basically figuring out my natural tendencies in order to leverage them. 

I know that my communication style is very direct, and by most standards in the US, harsh and critical. I'm very aware of it, and it's a variable I'm sure to account for. The players that have had the greatest longevity and improvement on my team have been the ones that have gelled with that style. It's something I look to test at tryouts, or even in conversations with parents.

It's also something I recognize I need to tailor according to the situation.  That could be a particular player that needs a different sort of communication, maybe after a loss the team needs a different message, or maybe for the first month everyone needs to hear a softer message. The most important aspect is that I've identified and reflected on it.

Earning It

I had the parent of a new player on the team send me a text, and ask what their son needs to work on. We've only had a week of training, so it's very early in the season. Nonetheless, this is a hugely positive sign, in my opinion. This is a parent who is involved, and critical (in a good way) of their son.

These parents are my favorite to work with. Their players are not always the best on the team, but they are also pushing them towards the next challenge. My least favorite question from parents is "Why didn't my son/daughter start the last game?" or "Why isn't my kid a starter?" The way this question is phrased usually insinuates they think their kid is already deserving of that spot. They've already written another player off in their head, or assume they know more than you do. The question is, in their mind, a rhetorical one.

The types of questions I love to hear are "What does X need to do to earn more playing time?" In both this question and the above ones, the parents are looking for more playing time. However in the last question, coming with humility and a willingness to work, shows a willingness to submit to the process of improvement. Playing time, and anything worthwhile in life, should be earned.

This is very much something I strive to weave in to the culture of my team. There's this weird idea that takes root in the minds of some that if you ask for something, you deserve it. Playing time, to play a different position, taking free kicks, you name it. Youth sports should be focused on a quality process, not some immediate outcome. This goes for the role of results in the youth game, individual improvement/playing time, style of play, etc. Asking and getting more playing time is not nearly as valuable for the team or the individual as earning it.