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A Paradigm Shift: Change the perceptions of coaching

We need a paradigm shift in what people see coaching as. Watched a whole group of volunteer dad coaches this recently. Some more experienced than others. Had around 16-20 U7 boys. Like me, these guys were drafted in to help out. It is great that they gave up their time. I am not knocking them for that. This country's football is built on the back of the efforts of these people. As you can imagine, lots of lines, lots of standing around, lots of prescribed activities. Line drills to shoot, run to the cones and turn, that kind of activity. The whole point of these sessions is participation, fun, engagement, learning. Let's roll with the idea of learning per minute (LPM). If we decouple learning into just the action, we're looking at the amount of actions (or really "goes") per minute. In a basic cone and back line drill working on say a dragback, chances are a kid gets three goes in a minute. We'll call that 3LPM. Simply by having them not in lines, we can turn that into 12LPM, as the kid now gets twelve goes. Now the problem is that the 12LPM does not take place in an environment that represents the game. There are no visual cues, there is no risk and reward, there are no game provided consequences, there are no decisions to be made because they have been decoupled from the action. Take the web shooter game. With your focus being the dragback. Encourage the players to perform a turn every time the defender tries to get them. Now they are not just performing a decontextualised dragback, but are actually trying to evade an opponent and protect the ball.

The above game is a simple ball each type game, of which there are hundreds of variations. The theme for this one is that the blue players, running without a ball, are Spiderman, chasing the red players, who are the bad guys. The bad guys have to protect their footballs from Spiderman. Spiderman has bibs in their hands, which they throw at the balls. The bibs representing Spidey's web shooters. The bad guys all have ten lives, and if their ball is hit by a web, they lose a life.The coaching points would be;

  • Keep the ball close so it is easier to manipulate it.

  • When under pressure, position your body between the ball and the tagger.

  • When there is space, take big touches to accelerate away.

In this diagram, we have placed safe zones where players who need it can elect to hide for five seconds. Your better players will rarely choose to use these, while providing a chance for those struggling to try and keep up. Every player is engaged, every player is autonomous, and they can all play at their own pace. The idea of lives is because your weakest players, who need the most practice, often get the least amount of practice if we play a straight elimination game.

Do you like these diagrams? They were made by Sport Session Planner. Click here for more info on what SSP can do, and how it can benefit your team.

Each action is coupled with the perception, which leads players to making a decision. Let's say that multiplies the LPM by four. We had 12LPM, x4 = 48LMP. Same 60 seconds, same kids, same focus of dragbacks, but now in a game rather than a drill. For my group of 28 U5 and U6s we did half an hour of games like these, and half an hour of matches. The matches were 2v2 and then progressed to 4v4. That made the ball:player ratio 1:4 and then 1:8. When it finished, a few kids asked me when we were going to play matches. We just did, didn't we? Two teams, one ball, a goal each to score in. What were we missing? No, we mean proper matches! What they meant was that usually they play 7v7 or 8v8 into goals that are about 6'x10'. That has many problems. First is the implication that a team or two of kids will be sat out, not playing. If your objectives are learning and fun, you have failed on both. The size of the pitch would also mean that the game becomes about size and speed (favouring the early developers) rather than skill and decision making (what we should really prioritise). The goals are too big for the keepers to defend. This means that the quality of shot needed to score a goal becomes significantly lower. This reinforces bad habits (toe punts and mindless blasting) because your shots don't need to be good to go in the goal.

This is what happened on the other pitch. U7s were playing 8v8 in these goals. It was swarm ball. The ball:player ratio was 1:16. Try to think of it like a cake.

Or pizza. The metaphor works with either. In a 2v2 game, it is split four ways, like this. At the youngest ages, our primary focus is developing fundamental ball skills. They need plenty of touches on the ball to do that.

The more skewed the ball:player ratio the smaller the slice for each individual. This is either more turn taking, more waiting in line, or less involvement in the game. We need to feed their minds with learning pizza. The smaller the slice, the more malnourished they will be.

Remember that in order for someone to be truly learning, they have to be doing it themselves. Show, tell, explain all you need to, then let them do it, with your guidance and encouragement. During the 8v8 U7 swarm ball game, there were five dads on the pitch with them. Their encouragement and advice was robbing the kids of the LPM. It's the equivalent of designing an exam, and shouting the answers. Or the driving instructor taking the test for you. We've already got too many kids per team, on too big a pitch, shooting into goals that are too big. Now we're going to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it? What part of this is fun? What part of it is learning?

There's two problems here. The first being that the extra advice and encouragement comes from seeing the kids fail or disengage. But that is precisely what they will do under those parameters. Make a game that is inappropriate for them, they will fail, so "coach" them more. They need to be told what to do, because they can't play the game that has been designed for them.

The second part is that their "failures" (mistakes, really) are being viewed through an adult lens. All kids cluster around the ball initially. Keep playing games where that is the only way they can get the ball and that is all they will ever do. Even when you shout not to. Play more age-appropriate exercises and activities, play more smaller sided games, where they don't need to cluster to be involved, and they will stop doing it. The constraints we set as coaches through the parameters of our activities reward and punish the behaviour we see. All kids want the ball. In an 8v8 U6 game, the only way they can get the ball is to join the swarm. There's too many opponents and the pitch is too big. Those are the constraints we made as coaches. It's our fault.

How do we get through to people? I don't know the answer. Just like teaching, there is no magic pill, no silver bullet, no short cut. All I can say is perseverance, and one person at a time. The problem is that it's very hard to step in and give an adult (necessary, yet unsolicited advice) without them becoming hostile and thinking you're a dick. There are so many motivations and egos to navigate. Even harder when you're young and have no kids of your own.

There's always "What do you know? I've been doing this for X years..." or "You don't have kids, so you don't know how they work as well as parents..." to navigate. And if you bring up education or certification you'll look like an even bigger dick. And we have to be aware of using the kids' enjoyment of an activity as justification for its use. Kids love ice cream, but it can't be had with every meal. They may love the traditional shooting line drill, but how often should they do it?

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