Running a Mixed Ability Team

Running a mixed ability team can be a challenge on lots of fronts, specifically keeping your players (and their parents) happy, challenged and progressing, regardless of ability (using individual challenges and knowing your players will help enormously). We all have to do it to some extent, especially in the younger age groups, before any streaming has taken place, but some coaches manage to do it effectively all the way through to adult football.

For some thoughts and inspiration on running a team of mixed ability in the older age groups, as well as some general coaching advice from someone who gas been through the age groups with their team, read the below, written by Bonnie Corbett. Bonnie is manager/coach of our longest-running team and a side that have kept their philosophy of offering football for all, whilst having an incredibly high rate of player retention and attendance at training every week.

The Rovers - written by Bonnie Corbett

I inherited the team at U12s (although we did test the water with a few U11s summer fiestas). It wasn’t on my life list of things to do – but after my eldest son’s manager quit and as no one stepped up I asked my husband (Kevin Corbett, Giants manager) if he thought I could do it, he said absolutely you can and we sat at our kitchen table using salt and pepper and wine glasses while he taught me the offside rule.

There was no 9 a side in those days so my team were straight into big pitches and goals. I did my FA Level 1 badge with Langton Green and Foresters Dads and passed (apparently no one’s ever failed!?)

I’ve always had a mixed ability group, who play for fun, enjoy spending time with their friends and if they win a few games it’s a bonus. Some are more competitive than others as with any group of friends. The only thing they every get really challenged on is effort; if I don’t think they’re trying that’s when I question their position as if they don’t try then there’s no point in their team mates or myself giving up all this time and effort. 90% of the time they do all pull their weight.

Up until this season (U17s) I’ve always welcomed anyone who wanted to join the team even if they’d not played for a team before. As long as there’s some connection to the team and someone can vouch for them being a nice lad! The no footballing experience except school has been a challenge but if in those circumstances you can give a player a specific position and job to do they can learn it and develop their skill and confidence with that one job. I know the FA have new guidelines suggesting all players should be able to play all positions and if this is taught from u5s/u6s I can see it adding value in youth football, but you can’t plonk a player in a team who’s never played before and expect him to learn every position and what it entails. We’ve had real success with this specifically with our centre halves – neither had played football out of school; but one started at u12s and was trained in the position, the other joined at u14s and he was able to train his partner and they are solid! This season I said no to players joining without previous experience as that’s tricky to walk into – it wouldn’t be fair on them – or on the team; plus I don’t know how much longer we’ll have together, I’m guessing after u18s we’ll probably all go our separate ways.

We also were in the fairly unique position of having a girl in the team up until u16s when she left to join a girls’ team. She loved playing boys football and was one of my toughest tacklers and really helped the dynamics of the team and kept the boys grounded!

Initially when I took on the team we had paid coaches on a Tuesday night, and managers only has a passive role. For the last 3 years I’ve taken every session which was a huge learning curve. We’ve always had excellent attendance at training even after a disastrous result on a Sunday they all turn up on a Tuesday for training. Why? They love it. I know these boys and what works and what doesn’t, I know they need a bit of time at the start to catch up so they gossip during the warm up, I know they hate drills with lots of cones that they can’t relate to match play, I know they love game play situations, transitions, overloads – more competitive drills. We always only do a warm up, 2 drills and finish with a 20 minute match which is really what they come for! If we do a longer one I warn them it will be more stop/start as they’ll be getting coaching points along the way. The key has always been a bit of humour and silliness – once when they were u14’s we’d had such a dreadful game on the Sunday I made them play with tennis balls to try and improve their touch – another week after an outstanding win; I bought an enormous inflatable ball and let them play with that! As they’ve got older I’ve changed training sessions and adapted them as they’re young adults now. At half terms and holidays we do more fun stuff; ‘Power & Finesse’, Cross Bar Challenge etc – even pinched some bits from Soccer AM and videoed clips.

Not all drills work for mixed ability teams and it’s only through trial and error you can find the right ones – drills that require a killer first touch end in disaster and chaos for us!

Most of these boys have been together since they were little and understand their strengths and weaknesses. It’s helped having a strong and positive captain for the last 6 years; he’s a leader but also trusts his team mates and isn’t selfish on the ball.

The key to keeping them engaged in the latter years has been a shift in responsibility; we collaborate on the running of the team and taking personal responsibility is paramount. The captain takes the warm up, at half time I get them to tell me what they think went wrong/right and the same with post game analysis. Before the start of the season I’ll speak to key members of the team about formation etc.

We’ve always been in Crowborough C, then B divisions, unfortunately Crowborough goes straight from U16s to U18s so we’ve joined Mid Sussex Youth League U17s this season in their 3rd Division and have had some competitive games – that’s what keeps them engaged, and why they turn up – no one wants a drumming every Sunday!

I’ve been involved in the club for 13 years and not witnessed a team going past U16s so we must be doing something right! It’s not all about results; it’s about empowering them to take responsibility for their outcomes and they’re not just about winning or losing – they’re about friendships, fun, leadership, collaboration and ownership.