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Training Ideas and Concepts

In this article we're going to look at many ideas and concepts around training and practice design. You'll likely know of many of them already, and maybe you'll pick up one or two new ones.

The session diagrams below were made using Sport Session Planner. If you'd like to know more about how SSP and BFCN can be of use to you and your session planning, click here.

Work to Rest Ratio

The work:rest ratio is the comparison between how much time a participant spends working compared to how much time they spend resting.

In the above exercise, which is a standard 1v1, the work to rest ratio is at 1:0. There is no rest because the players are not taking turns, and the practice is continuous. However, if you were to add in mandatory breaks, then that would change the ratio. For instance, when coaches let players play, then stop the exercise and talk about it. "You're going to play for three minutes, then we're going to talk for one minute about what you noticed" would be a work:rest ratio of 3:1, meaning three minutes of work, followed by one minute of rest.

The greens are now taking it in turns to play. It's still a 1v1, but with one player waiting their turn. If the red is permanent, their work to rest ratio is still 1:0, and if the greens are taking turns, their work to rest ratio is 1:1. If we were to rotate the players three ways, with two turns each before skipping a turn, the ratio would now become 2:1.

Now the greens have two players waiting, and one playing, meaning there is more rest than work. One turn playing, two turns resting, makes a work to rest ratio of 1:2.

The work to rest ratio is really important to get right in your sessions. There are a lot of factors to consider, such as energy levels, the macro-cycle, where the players are in their preparation for the game, and if they are not professional players, what else have they been doing that day or week? A recovery or a preparation session would likely have a higher proportion of rest, and the ratio would be managed well for players that are coming back from injury. Likewise, intensity has to be monitored. A 1v1 drill is incredibly physically demanding, and will soon lose realism if the players become too tired and begin to execute actions that are atypical to the game of football. If the drill has been going on for too long, the defender may not track back when beaten, making the exercise far too easy. If it's too easy, players disengage, and learning will struggle to transfer. And if you're the attacker, practicing dribbling against tired defenders that are not putting the work in, are you really improving?

This is where we consider quality versus quantity. How tired do you want them or need them to be during the exercise? Where are the players in their preparation or recovery for the game? How much can you push them? Would you prefer them to have lots of goes, or a few high value goes?

Ball to Player Ratio

This ratio considers the amount of balls and players involved in the exercise. A full game, as we know, only has one ball. Yet in practices, we often include multiple balls.

Plenty of technical exercises involve a ball each. Every player has a ball and completes the tasks individually, such as performing skills or dribbling through gates. The above picture has a ball to player ratio of 1:1.

Now in pairs, passing through gates, another staple of youth football, there is a ball between two, taking the ratio to 1:2. It's the same if it were a 1v1 drill and if it were a working in pairs drill.

Moving into a 2v1 drill there is one ball between three players, becoming a ratio of 1:3. There are nine players and three balls overall, but because the balls don't interact across the exercises, the ratio stays 1:3.

Taking it into a 3v1 rondo, the ball to player ratio is now 1:4.

In this exercise, we've done something a little different. We've taken a regular 5v5 small sided game, but we've thrown in two balls. This makes the ball to player ratio 2:10. Coaches utilise this on occasions when they sacrifice a little realism for a higher amount of repetitions. It can be a useful tool for raising engagement, adding different conditions, or just doing something fun. What we've done here is make the two balls different colours. The possibilities are endless. Can your team possess both balls when scoring? This works on shielding, dribbling, and combination play, while also affecting the reverse of those topics (Remember that in a dynamic game, if your session is designed right, you'll be working on the reverse of your learning objectives too. More on that later). Maybe the balls are weighted with different rewards? The yellow is worth one goal, and the blue is worth four. Think of how that will affect the behaviour of the players, and also how that might include some of the weaker players in different ways. Or maybe one ball is for right-footed goals and the other for left?

Coach to Player Ratio

The coach to player ratio concerns the number of coaches in relation to the number of players involved in the session. With younger players, you should probably stick to one coach to a maximum of twelve players. As they become teenagers, you can get away with one coach to sixteen players. But is that optimal? Are all the players seen? Can you connect with and provide enough feedback to all of the players? Can you manage behaviour effectively on your own?

We're not always lucky to be a team of coaches, but when we are, how do we manage and assign roles? Does one lead the group while the other tends to individuals? Does the assistant coach stick with just a small group that need extra work? Do the two coaches work opposite each other, with one coaching the attacking team and the other with the defending team?


In both the podcast and Q&A session, Paul Barry spoke about the importance of storytelling. That's precisely what these scenarios are doing. It's a fantastic tool that I was first introduced to on the youth modules. As coaches, we have to view ourselves as session architects. We are creating problems for the players to solve. Games have moments, and the dynamics of those games shift all the time. How might you play if you were winning compared to losing? What if a trophy is on the line? How would you play in the face of adversity? These scenarios are all preparation for when the real situation comes. It's all too easy just to play a game at the end. Sometimes, that's the right thing to do. And when it's not, consider a scenario.

When I did the youth modules, it was around 2010/2011. Mourinho was at Inter and Guardiola was at Barcelona. As coaches and football fanatics, it was easy for us to understand the instructions of the tutor when half of us were given red bibs and told to play like Barcelona, while the other half of us were put in blue and assigned Inter. Your players may differ in their football knowledge, and may need more prompts than simply names, unlike when I was in Mexico City, and had the U14 girls play as Real Madrid v Barcelona. The players even took on the playing personalities of the Real and Barca stars, which was testament to their footballing knowledge.

Maybe you need to be more inventive at times, particularly if the players are cynical. You'll know your players better than anyone, and will be able to adjust and tweak these as necessary.


These can be used as rewards and punishments. Inflictions are designed to inhibit or limit a team or group in a specific way. Perhaps the player who behaves or performs the best gets to draw a card to inflict something against their opponent. Maybe you draw two at random, brandishing one each to either team, playing for ten minutes, and then seeing how the teams cope. It might be that you as the coach will choose inflictions that are relevant to your learning objectives.

The inflictions force the players to have to adapt to problems and work on other parts of their game. If they cannot communicate audibly, for example, those on the ball will have to scan more, and those away from the ball will have to communicate their intentions via runs and positioning. A goalkeeper that can only hold the ball for two seconds will either be looking to start counter attacks, or play more with their feet. Both will have a knock-on effect to the rest of the team, and so how will those players react? It has players thinking about the game on a deeper level.


Rules present a way to either limit or challenge players in different ways. They can be topic related, or just pure fun, which is always a good enough reason. One potential drawback of rules is that they may be too limiting at times. When designing our sessions, we have to ensure that we do not encourage unrealistic behaviour. This is why it is often better to challenge rather than limit. For instance, limiting a team to four passes before scoring will prevent goals being scored quickly from counters and restarts. But instead, if we challenge, it rewards a desired outcome. If we're working on a possession topic, four passes before scoring makes the goal count triple will incentivise a more measured possession approach. It doesn't prevent players from recognising a good opportunity to counter, but it does encourage them to play safer and more patient, if that is what you would like to see from the session.


We hear the word overload used in football a lot, but what does it mean? Do your players know? When do they occur, and how valuable are they? And what's an underload? To be consistent, I always say the attacking team number first, regardless of whether that is my team. If the attacking team has two players approaching one defender, it is a 2v1. Likewise, whether it is over or under, always refers to the attacking team (the team in possession). 2v1 is an overload, whereas 1v2 is an underload. 1v2 means one attacker versus two defenders. You may choose to do something different in your environment. It is important to standardise terminology, and to make your communication succinct, so you're all on the same page. Big confusing words aren't helpful, but neither is using ten words to describe an idea when you could use one. "Situation where we have more players than the opposition" versus "overload."

Superiority can be gained in three ways; numbers, quality, positions.

Quantitative Overloads

Simply put, the greens have superiority over the reds because they have an extra player. It's 3v2. How can you get into numbers up situations? What runs do your players need to make, and what positions do they need to take, to give your team more players around the ball?

Qualitative Overloads

You may be in a 3v3, so numerically equal, but if these are the three, then the chances are that you are at a qualitative disadvantage. How can you get your best players together? How can you isolate the opposition's weaker players? How can you get your best versus their worst?

Positional Overloads

In the above example it is 3v3, but the one red player is now out of position, leaving a green wide open. Positional overloads refer to one team being in better position, shape, or balance than the opposition. Perhaps an opponent hasn't shifted, pressed, or dropped in sync with the teammates. Maybe a player hasn't tracked back. What can you do to unbalance your opponents and create the required disorganisation that would exploit that disorganisation?

Safe Zones

These are areas within a practice session that allow the player on the ball to take a little unopposed break. It's a tool used for managing the difference in ability levels when, at times, it may be a stark contrast within your group. Say you're doing a dribbling exercise, and one player keeps being tackled, then it may be necessary to give them an affordance. It's best not to single out some of the players and say "Nobody is allowed to tackle Jimmy!" Instead, we use more subtlety.

This is a simple keep-away type game, where the green players have a ball each, and try to protect it from the red defenders. Here, we have said that anyone can use the safe zones. Because it is for anyone, no one player feels singled out. The better players will likely not use it, while the weaker players will use the crutch occasionally. You're allowed in there for five seconds, and nobody can tackle you. The players on the ball will still be scanning and analysing the play around them, forming their escape routes, taking in all the information and deciding upon the best course of action.

Within an actual game setting, a safe zone, with the same unopposed five seconds condition applied, it provides some of the weaker players with the opportunity to have a rest, and just take stock. When a player appears to be struggling, and a little out of their depth, they might simply need a breather, or for the game to be slowed down around them. Games can sometimes be a little too hectic, and a safe zone is a great tool, especially as it is optional.

Constant - Variable - Random

Hidden Curriculum

If your exercise design is so effective, you should be able to use it to teach the opposite topic to what you're working on. For example, a finishing from crosses practice would also work as a defending from crosses practice. Providing your primary intention was game realism.

If we're working on playing out from the back, then the exercise should also be useful for a pressing from the front session. The more representative of the game, the more the learning transfers. If an element of the game is too isolated from the context in which it happens, learning becomes harder to transfer. This is especially true of players with limited experience, because they do not have the experience or understanding to draw upon. To make a richer exercise, we need more game things within the exercise. That's why we love rondos so much; because everything that happens in football happens within a rondo.

The four goal game above likely demonstrates the concept of the hidden curriculum the most effectively. There are four teams of three, three balls, and four goals. The idea is to protect your goal, and put the balls in the goals of the other teams. What does this work on? Many would see it as a shooting or finishing game, because there are so many balls and goals, with lots of opportunities to get into scoring situations.

But what else is going on? There's dribbling, tackling, passing, goalkeeping. We can go even deeper and get more specificity, adding lots of conditions and challenges. Let's pretend our focus is on finishing. In a fifteen minute run-through of this exercise, with three balls between twelve players, and four goals to shoot at, a lot of shooting will happen. There will be plenty of shots, but also different shots, which is repetition without repetition (lots of goes, but with much variance). The players will be shooting one-touch and multiple touch, from passes, from dribbles, and from rebounds. They'll be shooting from near and far, with both feet, and from different angles. We as coaches may be correcting and guiding technique or decision making related to shooting, while the hidden curriculum is also providing the players with tons of goes at dribbling, tackling, passing etc. Everything that happens within the game is happening, but us as coaches (the session architects), have manipulated the constraints of the exercise so that our desired outcomes occur far more frequently.

STEP Principle

Space, task, equipment, people. Football is full of anagrams. Apologies for adding another. The best way to demonstrate this is by adapting a basic 4v4. I always come back to the idea that any technical or tactical concept can be taught in a 3v3 or 4v4 as was said by the assessor when I did the United Soccer Coaches Premier Diploma.

It's a two goal game, directional 4v4.

Now we're playing the exact same game, but the area is smaller. The dynamics have changed, just by adapting this one variable. There will likely be less sprinting, more 1v1 work, pressure will be quicker and tighter. The ball will leave play more (if players fail to adapt their behaviour) and there will be lots more turnovers. More space makes it easier for the attacking team, and less space easier for the defenders. Remember that invasion games are ultimately about the creation and exploitation of space. If we give the attackers too much space, we've essentially given them the answers to the problem. We can scream at the defenders all we want about working hard, but it will be in vain because we as the session architect, we've tipped the scale too far towards the attacking team. Conversely, if we're working on a defending topic, and the area is too small, the defenders will win the ball frequently, without really having to defend.

When success occurs within sessions, is it because the players have figured out the correct solution and applied it well, or is it because the scales have been artificially tipped in their favour, that success requires little effort?

Now we're using the same sized area, same players, same equipment. All that's changed is the area is wider horizontally than it is long. When the area is long, it means there will be space in behind. When the area is wide, it means there will be space to switch the play to.

If our learning objectives are centred around vertical play, then we need space in behind to either play into or defend.

If our learning objectives are centred around horizontal play, then we need there to be space out wide. It's not the greatest analogy, but I tend to view time and space in football like currency. You can earn it, spend it, lose it, some has higher value, and it is possible to do great things with very little. As session architects, we sprinkle this currency throughout our exercises, and then help the players to earn it and spend it.

Back to the 4v4, we still have the same players in the same space. But now, instead of mini goals, we have an endzone that has to be dribbled into. Can you see how that affects the play? Instead of creating openings to penetrate by passes, we're looking to get players into either 1v1 or 1v0 situations to penetrate by dribbling or running with the ball.

We've now added in target players. It becomes a 3v3, but the forward passing option is always on. The mini goals were fixed, but a target player can move laterally to create passing angles. A mini goal can only receive the one type of pass, whereas a target player can receive the appropriate pass that bypasses the opposition. Another element that the target player adds is the instant transition. When scoring in a mini goal, the game stops for a few seconds. With a target player (providing you are playing directionally) the ball is back in immediately with the opposition. I often use target players, typically with a one touch condition, to simulate a loss of possession. It's like playing a forward pass, having it intercepted by the defender, and immediately having to recover back into position to defend.

The target players become wide neutrals, and to score, the ball must be dribbled or received in the endzone, like a touchdown. We still have the same eight players, but the dynamic is now a 3v3, which becomes a 5v3 when in possession due to the neutrals. Think of how you might condition the neutrals to coerce the outcomes you wish to see.

Now we're back to 4v4, but each team has a different task. The yellows have to score in the endzone, while the reds have to score in the big goal. It's still a 4v4, just now it has more of an attack v defence feel. Because the goalkeeper will likely stay in the goal, it becomes more like a 4v3, with the 3 (yellows) in a low block, looking to break away and counter. How do the reds use their extra player to create scoring opportunities?

Our last variation sees a manipulation in the people. We all know we can play 5v5 in training, but if we're not careful, putting our two or three best players on the same team ruins the game. Although sometimes, the apparent stronger team ends up losing, for whatever reason, being psychological or maybe the weaker team actually has a better balance or mix of players. In the exercise above, it's 5v3 in favour of the yellows, making it a quantitative overload. The yellows have to get the ball into the endzone, while the reds have to score in the three mini goals.

It starts to simulate playing out from the back, or in possession in the defensive third, because this is the area on the pitch you're most likely to have a natural overload. How will being outnumbered affect the red team? They'll likely sit back, especially as they have the full width to defend. Would they be more daring in the press if we gave the reds the endzone and the yellows the mini goals? What would encourage the reds to press high in a situation where they were outnumbered? We'd have to consider the incentives. Right now, with the full width endzone, it's too dangerous for the reds to press high. What if we reward them? We can say stealing the ball within three passes and then scoring is worth five points. So we've weighted the rewards differently. How would that affect the yellows? Not wanting to concede five points, they would likely play more risk averse.

One last thing I'd like to mention before moving on is an equipment option. I regularly use futsal balls in 11v11 training when working on a whole range of topics. It's another condition, another variable. Always consider what behaviour you want to see, what pictures you want to create. What affect will a futsal ball have? It will make the game quicker, but also make it harder to play over longer distances. When is that necessary?

Repetition, Realism, Relevance

The three Rs. Do they get enough goes? Is it actually like the game? Is it useful and/or appropriate?

Repetition is important because without it, how do we get good? It is said that an artist has over 100,000 bad drawings in them, and the only way to become a good artist is to get the bad ones out of the system. This is where the ball:player ratio is important. Would you teach a class of twenty to read using just one book? I hope not. We shouldn't do the same in football. And also the work:rest ratio. The best part about Disney World isn't waiting in lines.

Here's repetition in its simplest form. On the left is a staple of bad coaching the world over. Play a one-two with the coach, have an unopposed shot at goal, then to the back of the line to wait your turn. On the left, we split them into groups of three, gave them two cones and a ball. The players are still taking unopposed shots, but they're getting a lot more goes.

So what about realism? Well, how much do you need learning to transfer?

Pattern play can be a useful tool to rehearse an idea or a play, but it does not account for the "What if?" What if the defender blocks the run? What if the pass you want is screened? Our duty as coach is to prepare them for a world without us. They can follow our direction to the letter in training, because cones won't try to tackle them or track runs. Opposition adds realism Realism aids transfer. Are we equipping our players to be able to solve problems on the fly? Football is decision making, and if we train in environments that are without decisions, the players will play without decisions in the game. If you train in the zoo, will you survive in the jungle?

Now we need to consider relevance. Would you train shooting without goals? Would you used full-sized goals with U7 players? Does your exercise do what it says on the tin? Is it appropriate to the understanding and ability levels of the players?

I once watched a coach struggle his way through this exercise. The idea was switching play. There were three teams of four. I'm sure you can see plenty of points where it went wrong already. The yellows had to make four passes, and then play the ball through the red gates over to the blue team. The gates were at extreme ends and were about two yards wide. Now, always remember that we pass the ball to move the opposition. By switching play, we are changing the point of the attack. We're creating an overload by drawing the defenders in, and the switching the ball to a player in space. In the picture above, it is the far right yellow that has the ball. As you can see, the switch of play doesn't need to go to the far left yellow in order to progress the ball forward. It can go to the second yellow from the left. We are guilty of falling into the trap of thinking a switch of play has to be a big horizontal pass, and all it needs to be is a lateral pass that finds a player who can penetrate.

The second part of of this exercise was that when the ball was played across the area through the gates, the team that played it, the yellows, had to become the defenders. The defending team has to prevent the ball being switched, and when the ball is stolen, the roles reverse immediately. The polarity of the game also switches. It's like blocking a cross, then turning around to shoot at your own goal.

So what began to happen in this game? Remember than our conditions provoke behaviours.

Firstly, because the ball could only be played forward through the gates, and because the gates were so small, the defending team simply had two players stand in the way. Secondly, the four pass condition made players just play silly passes as depicted above. Thirdly, when a team did manage to play the ball across to the other side, the pressure was so slow and unrealistic. Teams made their four passes before pressure arrived, if it arrived at all. Teams didn't want to press, because they felt they were being punished for doing the right thing. Fourthly, this then resulted in teams deliberately losing possession because they couldn't be arsed to run across and press.

We've all had nightmares in our coaching sessions. I think Coach was trying to do too much, and added in a lot of unnecessary conditions because he thought that's what coaching was. He couldn't understand the root cause of the issues, and instead kept shouting at the players to work hard, run faster, get there, put the effort in, without realising that his session design had disincentivised the players from performing in the desired manner.

That's why it's best to stick to the game. Start with where it happens in the game, and work backwards from there, ensuring it gives plenty of repetitions, is game realistic, and relevant for the players.

I hope this article and the ideas in here have been useful and thought provoking.

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