Get Your Players Thinking

"You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you" - Johan Cruyff

Ultimately, we all want to end up with players who can think for themselves and are confident to come up with ideas on the pitch to solve the problems they're faced with... some ideas, many from the FA's Youth Module courses...

Give Ownership To The Players

When we were kids, the majority of us played football at the park or in the street with our mates. We made up the rules, picked the teams, decided whether a challenge was a foul or not etc... and we had no adults there at all. Nearly every single one of the best players of all time grew up playing street football, where they had to learn to outwit their opponents using their own skill and intelligence, often against bigger, older players. These days, certainly in the UK, there is a lot less of that. Parental worries about letting their kids out to play on their own at a young age means everything is very structured for the majority of the children we end up coaching. There has been a lot of concern about kids being "over coached".

The point is that children learn through trying things for themselves, making mistakes, realising what does and doesn't work. I'm not saying that every training session you should just rock up and let them play football with no input from you, but...

...a decent amount of that "off the cuff" learning is a very good thing. Give the kids ownership. Some examples of things that can work brilliantly as part of your training session:

  • Let the players decide what formation and tactics they want to use during the match and review with them afterwards whether it worked and why. Be bold and try this in a "proper" match!
  • Ask the players if they have any ideas for how a training session could be improved for the next time. What did they enjoy? What did they not enjoy so much?
  • Split the players into groups and have them briefly (i.e 60 seconds) discuss with each other what they're doing well, what they could improve on, whether their team's tactics are working etc. Then send them back out into the game to put what they've come up with into practice.
  • Ask 2 or 3 players to come up with a warm up activity for the following week's session, based on a particular topic. If it turns out to be a shambles, that's fine, they will have benefitted from the planning process and from thinking about it. You can always steer it in the right direction and help them on the day. 2 of my players came up with something once that I still use to this day in training.
  • Get the players into pairs (one from each team) who are playing in the same position during that match and ask them to notice something their opposite number is doing well and something they could improve on. At half time, get them to discuss with each other what those things were and then have them try and improve their game after the break, based on the peer-to-peer feedback they'd receieved.

But please don't have the kids pick the teams. The same players are almost always last pick and it's a miserable experience for them.


Put The Players in Different Situations

Keep things interesting for the players at training and improve their gamecraft by sometimes putting them outside their comfort zone. Some ideas...

  • Play unbalanced teams. 6 vs 8 for example, with the team of 6 given the job of defending deep and trying to keep a clean sheet. Or let them decide their tactics based on the unbalanced numbers. How will they play knowing they have a 2 player advantage / disadvantage?
  • Give one team all the more attacking players and one all the more defensive players. See how they respond.
  • Split the teams by attribute. Give one team the 3 or 4 fastest players for example and see how both teams play to use that / counteract it. I once split a group I was coaching by height at training. Both sides thought the taller team would walk it, but the smaller kids were technically better, played to their strengths and won easily.
  • Use scenarios. One team is 1-0 up in the last 10 minutes of the Champions League semi final. They need to hold out but have had a player sent off. How will they play? How will the opposition play? How will both teams adapt if the score changes...? The scenario can be carefully chosen to fit with whatever topic you're working on. The kids love these - it's the most fun I've seen them have at training.
  • Rotate positions. The 6 year who claims she's a striker and won't play in any other position is the one who most needs to try other positions. It will develop their all round game to try different things at younger ages particularly and make them better players in the long term.

Individual Challenges

One really big challenge for coaches is how to put together a training session for a mixed ability squad. One way I've found that works brilliantly and also allows you to help each player reach their potential, is to use individual challenges.

The players can all be playing in the same match, but my very talented, right footed winger may have a challenge of playing on the left and getting in 5 crosses with her left foot, whilst my not so strong on the ball centre back may get the challenge of playing 3 accurate forward passes to his midfielders. Both are playing in the same game, but have very different things to try, that are manageable but challenging to each. Both are developing and both can hopefully go home feeling they achieved something. Neither have to even know what the other's challenge is, because these can be set one on one by taking the player out of the game for 30 seconds and assigning the challenge in question. Nobody else has to stop, the players don't feel humiliated by being made to do something in front of everyone else that they can't do... as long as you keep an eye out and adapt if any challenge is too hard or too easy, you can do each player a lot of favours by adopting this approach.

You can use this a lot to stretch individuals - overlapping runs for your very good defensively but "play it safe" full back for example gets him to work on his attacking game. By really knowing your players and what each individual needs to work on, they can all be developing individually within the framework of whatever team topic you're working on.

This is a good quote from Dennis Bergkamp's "Stillness and Speed" book...

"If you have to win games, the coach is going to manage to win the game instead of developing the player. In my opinion it should be totally the opposite. Sometimes you put your strongest player on the bench, just to let others shine. Or you put a right footed player who can't do anything with his left on the left side and force him to use his left foot. Of course in that game you will probably lose because you don't use your strongest players in their strongest position, but in the end you have a player who used his left foot when he was 12 and 13 and 14, and he can use both feet when he comes to the first team. That's what we have at Ajax and I really stand behind that."

And to be fair, he's an absolute legend ;-)