One thing that I've given a lot of thought to over the years is the structure of my practices. Every coach, team, club federation, and coaching education program has some sort of template they recommend or follow. The most common template usually follows this model:
- Technical Exercise
- Tactical Exercise
With such a basic template, there are endless ways to vary it, or blend elements together. Usually the sequencing involves starting at the individual level, and working towards the collective execution of a particular play or action. This was the template I was first introduced to in my E level license course, the lowest possible credential to coach competitive soccer. It's a valid template, but I have found myself consistently moving away from it, both in a practical sense, and in how I frame each sequence or progression in training in my head.
I would describe my sessions and exercise choice as looking more like this:
- Rondos (basic)
- Reaction/Impulse training
- (Very) Structured play/game
- Less structured play/game
Starting with rondos, rather than the type of warmup I generally see most teams doing, right away gets the players some meaningful touches on the ball. I've started off training with rondos with all my teams: girls high school, boys U14-U15, and boys U9-U11. At the younger ages, the players don't really need a classic 'warmup' routine, in my experience. At the older ages, I've set aside time for that type of work either in between rounds, or with one group in the rondos and one group outside stretching, doing dynamic movements, etc. Especially at club level training only 3 hours a week, setting aside 15-20 minutes each day exclusively for 'warming up' would be a massive waste of 15-20% of our time. In the rondos, generally 4v1/3v1 or a 10v2, I can also introduce the basics of that day's theme. If it's building out of the back, then I'll hammer home body shape and passing technique. If it's high pressing, then I'll focus on the defenders forcing certain passes.
I've found several advantages with minimizing variation in these basic rondos. The first is that after the the first couple sessions, you don't need to teach the drill itself. Especially at the younger ages, knowing which cone to stand at or move to next, what to do if the ball goes out, etc. is often a struggle with the introduction of each new exercise. Instead of having to worry about those details, players can instead focus on the technical and tactical requirements the coach has set. In a 4v1 rondo for example, the defender knows if an attacker kicks the ball out, they are required to take that player's spot on the outside of the grid. Once they've done this a few times, their reactions get quicker, and they end up sprinting to the outside of the grid immediately. BOOM! Now they are working on improving their attacking transitions! The opposite is true for the defenders. Once they understand that a bad pass means they must go into the middle and defend... Now they're sprinting to win the ball back in the first 5 seconds! This applies to pass quality, body shape, pass choice, communication, and a million other things. By keeping the exercise consistent, players can focus on their soccer, rather than on cones or pinnies or where a new ball starts.
Another advantage with keeping the start of practice consistent is that the familiarity can put them into a training mindset. Environmental factors trigger certain responses in everyone: the first cup of coffee in the morning, pulling up to the stop sign near your house, or the intro song to your favorite TV series are all good examples. However, so much of this is on you as the coach. If the start of practice is low-intensity, and you don't demand a high level of performance, then that is the attitude they will start every session with.
A benefit to my coaching is it eases the burden on me from a planning stand point. I don't need to reinvent the wheel to start every session. It is rather about small tweaks like changing the groups of players, grid dimensions, grid placement on the field, the length of each round, or what coaching points to emphasize. Much like the benefits to the players, I can focus on the impact I want to have on the way we play, rather than coming up with something new and novel out of nothing.
Below is a video of a the most frequent rondo progression I use, 4v0 and 4v1. The 2 parts were shot about a year apart, and the technical improvement is noticeable.
I'll cover the second part of my training in a follow up post.