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Sequence-based coaching and how to use it for player technical and skill development. - Rob Ellis

This article was written by Rob Ellis, who you can connect with on Twitter here.

I recently coached a session to improve the finishing techniques and skills of my players. During the session, the players performed four different activities to sharpen their finishing and practice different types of finish. As I watched the players perform the different types of finish, I was struck by the significance of each action leading up to the finish or to put it another way; the sequence of actions leading up to the finish.

The opportunity to end an attacking move with a finish or attempt at goal is every team’s and every coach’s aim. Matches are decided by goals and so the ability to finish attacking moves decisively is a critical technique. Scoring goals in competitive play is difficult and so it stands to reason that finishing is a difficult and complicated technique to master.

Perhaps it was the critical nature of the session theme that sharpened my focus. Many players within the group were struggling with what I considered to be a relatively simple unopposed finishing activity. With each unsuccessful finish, I was struck by how important it is to perform a successful sequence before the final technique/skill.

The activity (see diagram below) involved each player performing a 10-yard dribble towards a mannequin (acting as a passive defender) then playing a 1-2 pass with a team-mate positioned to the side of the mannequin and side-footing the return pass into the opposite corner of the goal. In this activity, the side-foot finish into the goal is the final technique. There are several techniques that lead up to and create the opportunity to finish. When we link together the preceding and final techniques a sequence is created.

In the case of this activity, here is the sequence:

1) Dribble

2) Side-foot pass to team-mate

3) Run past mannequin towards goal

4) Receive pass from team-mate

5) Side-foot finish into goal

This is the sequence in its most basic form. There are many factors within each of these techniques that can be analysed in detail, but the purpose of this article is to understand what a sequence is rather than discuss the fine detail of each technique.

Having said this, as I coached the activity, I gradually added more technical input and advice for the players to follow. The technical requirements of the sequence evolved into the following sequence:

1) Dribble; keep the ball under good control and close to the dribbling foot. Dribble the ball in a straight line toward the mannequin.

2) Side-foot pass to team-mate; pass the ball with the inside of the foot furthest from team-mate. Aim for teammate’s back foot. Pass the ball hard to create a quick return pass.

3) Run past the mannequin towards the goal; dodge to the outside of the mannequin. Delay attacking run for a split second. Run past the mannequin and towards the goal from out to in.

4) Receive the pass from team-mate; receive the ball on the foot furthest from the teammate. Let the ball travel into the path of the run.

5) Side-foot finish into goal; slightly close the foot to angle the ball into the opposite corner of the goal, use the middle of the inside of the foot to make contact. Swing hard with leg to generate lots of power.

I noticed that many of my players were largely focusing on the finish and paying little attention to the sequence of techniques leading up to it. This lack of focus was understandable as it was ultimately a finishing activity and therefore the most significant technique.

The main problem I saw was that many of the players were rushing the sequence and to some degree neglecting the techniques leading up to the finish. It seemed to me that the players wanted to fast forward past the dribble, the pass, the movement and the receiving of the ball such was their desire to get onto the finishing aspect of the sequence.

Many of the players including the strikers struggled to finish with precision and consistency. The aim of the finish was to hit the ball across the goal with the inside of the foot and into the far corner. This is not an overly complicated technique and certainly was one that my players were comfortably able to perform in isolation. This made me question why so many finishes were missing the target or looked awkward from a technical perspective and in some cases both things. My conclusion was that the players were failing to appreciate the significance of the whole sequence.

Many coaches will be familiar with the “Whole, part, whole” method of coaching. This method allows the players to practice a technique as a whole, then break it down into smaller technical pieces before putting it back together with a better understanding of how to perform the whole technique. I decided to break the whole down into as many significant actions as I could but without overloading the players with complicated information.

I explained to my players what a sequence meant in this context and asked them to think about each part of the sequence as being of equal importance. I used the analogy of a dancer taking a bad first step in a dance sequence. The dancer would be forced to re-adjust the sequence in mid-flow, potentially creating a series of mistakes and ultimately a poor performance.

We spoke for five minutes about the importance of each action within the sequence and most of the players agreed that poor dribbling towards the mannequin at the start of the sequence was putting the efficient completion of the sequence at an immediate disadvantage. Poor dribbling was also creating a subsequent series of small mistakes culminating in a poor finish.

The players split up into small groups and I asked them to practice each part of the sequence with complete focus on each action. I made sure that the players were dribbling towards the mannequin with good form and keeping the ball under good control. Once I was satisfied that the players were performing the dribble to a high level, I asked the players to link the dribble to the pass. We repeated this process until we had built back up to the whole sequence.

The players were instructed to stop at any part of the sequence if they felt they had lost control of what they were doing and re-start. The players were excellent judges of their own performance, and many were not happy with certain parts of the sequence. They would offer comments like “The dribble felt jerky” and “The pass was too soft”. Through this greater emphasis on each part of the sequence, the improvement of the finishing was greatly improved. I mentioned earlier that the finish in isolation is not a complicated one and now the players were demonstrating it with precision and consistency.

I had been thinking for a long time about as coaches we can facilitate technical improvement, particularly with older players whose techniques are less pliable. The idea of each technique as the final part of a series of techniques and actions allows the players to appreciate all the components in each technique. I believe that it helps players to minimise small mistakes, which may not look or feel significant but can have a domino effect. By the time the final technique is performed, the player can be significantly disadvantaged leading to a poor outcome.

Pep Guardiola recently said of Graham Potter’s Brighton “Every pass (they make) makes sense”. This had been in the back of my mind for a while. It indicates that each pass in a team attack must be as helpful as possible for the player receiving the ball. If the pass makes sense, then it will offer suggestions about what the player receiving the pass should do next. With each pass, a chain of successful and intelligent passes is made, which create intelligent attacks.

Guardiola’s words can be applied to individual player techniques meaning that each action needs to make sense, which will help to create a successful sequence. The idea of building sequences, challenges the coach to think about the steps leading up to performing a technique. Even if we take what seems like a single action technique such as a goal-kick or an in-swinging corner there is a sequence of important actions to practice and refine. These actions relate to approaching the ball and good feet placement during the run-up.

I hope to implement the theory of sequence building in each of my sessions. Sequence based coaching can offer players new technical insights into their performance and help them to take ownership for their own development. As coaches, it may help us to look at coaching activities with fresh eyes and a renewed focus on precision and consistency. For both coach and player, I think it is important to be aware of technical sequences and to consider embedding into sessions.

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