27 February, 2015

Coaching Session - Attacking Play 1v1's

Through the wonders of social media I see a multitude of coaching sessions, it's a fantastic tool to share thoughts and ideas, so figured it was about time I posted part of one of mine! Developing ball mastery and the ability to beat people in a 1v1 situation is a common topic for coaches to help players get better at so below are some views on this, linked to sound learning principles.

Make the practice real:
Unless I am much mistaken, there are no cones acting as defenders on a football pitch, and real defenders have the ability to move about! They make things a bit more tricky than a static piece of plastic from my experience! Good learning knowledge would lend us to ensure that we make the practice authentic and answer the question - what would happen in a real game? That should be the basis for all our sessions. 

The traditional view of assuming that players need to 'learn something in isolation before adding some more pressure and then putting into a game' is not necessarily always the answer from a learning perspective. Effective learning research would suggest that the attacker being able to recognise the cues and triggers of HOW the defender is acting leads them to the solution they want to use. 

Problem faced = Leads to Solution. 

In this case it is: (defender to beat and he is fast/slow/right/left etc) = (attacker chooses particular move to solve problem). 

In trying different solutions to solve that problem, learning takes place. The attacker can start to recognise which solution might be the answer to that specific conundrum. For example, an attacker will realise that doing their trick too far away from the defender means the opponent has chance to react and change their defensive tactic again. This comes from experiencing this, against a real person. Doing this against a cone doesn't allow this learning opportunity to occur. 

Now, I am aware some people will believe that players have to have the technique developed first BEFORE they can use it against a real person. Evidence is starting to suggest otherwise. Yes, they will need a basic level of movement skills to be able to perform a 1v1 but allow them to explore different moves themselves. This provides them, through a cleverly constructed game, the chance to understand WHY. Evidence also suggests that the technique they learn in isolation isn't exactly the one they use in the game - so why spend half hour drilling something that doesn't exactly replicate?! 

Make use of your coaching skills:
As adults we are there to help. This might take a variety of forms at different times but in this situation we are there to help children get better in 1v1's. As the children are playing the game, getting lots of repetition of dribbling moves against different defenders, this is where observation skills are crucial.

Who can do different things moves and sort things out themselves?
Who might not quite have things worked out....yet?
When do I step in and help or see if they can self-correct?

Below are notes of mine for some 1v1 games I was doing (excuse the rough scribbles though, this was purely for my own pocket at the time!) Whilst the children are rotating round the different pitches, getting lots of repetition and experiences of similar but slightly different things I'm watching intently, not saying much. 


If I need to go and help an individual, or ask them a question or two, or bring them over to me to work on something specific, or give them a little piece of advice...that's coaching! 

Make the game relevant:
You will spot from my scribbles that different pitches are laid out for the 1v1 practices in varied parts of the pitch. Consider these:

How does a 1v1 look in a wide area compared to a central area?
How does a 1v1 look high up the pitch around the penalty box compared to in the midfield area?
How does a 1v1 look when you receive the ball with back to goal or if attacking from the front?
How do you start a 1v1 if you receive the ball from the side or from behind?

The answers to the above are "it's different every time"! 

If you are dribbling to beat a full-back in a wide area you (typically) have more space you can use in front, to the side and possibly behind the defender. You might also have in mind a cross as an end product. This affects your decision making and the choices you make.

If you are dribbling at a central back at the top of the 18yd box in a central area there will be a lot less space in all areas, likely to be other players nearby and have a different end product in mind to the wide area dribble. Again, spotting these affects what we do.

So the 1v1 has to be different! Therefore, why do we do a 1v1 game that has no context to where on the pitch this would occur or what the end product might be? I have lost count of the amount of times I did this when I was a younger coach until this dawned on me!


As you read this post, think about your last 1v1 session, how you did it and consider what you might change in light of reading the above. Be great to hear your views on where you would take the session next too!








13 February, 2015

The Evolution of Learning

As generations progress we are getting smarter with our understanding of the learning process. Many myths about learning appear along the way that unfortunately can get swallowed up and accepted as common practice (e.g. NLP, learning styles, right/left brain thinking) and requires us to think carefully about the methods for helping players learn. However, what is becoming clear is that young people are an evolving type of learning animal and have different views and outlooks on the process than previous generations. This post will look to examine a few of these and the implications for coaches. 

Access to information:
Back in the days of only four TV channels (mostly in black and white) and with Match of the Day being the only opportunity to see football if you didn't go to live games, the coach was crucial. The coach was the essential component in passing on information to the next generation because the richness of content wasn't available. The coach was King!

However, children growing up today cannot remember a life without the internet and social media. If they don't know something they will Google it. When I did my Level 2 in 1997 Google didn't exist and certainly wasn't accepted as a term for 'searching and learning'. We call it "technology" but for them, it's just "the way it is".

Today, children can watch worldwide football on Sky Sports and have 24/7 access to learning tools, clips and tricks of every top player via You Tube. They don't need the coach to 'demo' a specific turn in the same way as years gone by when that child might not have seen it. Today, they are showing the coaches and this can be cleverly planned for.

Consider
How do you use technology yourself? Do you embrace it or a technophobe?
How can it be used to support learning in sessions and away from sessions?
How can you use it to save you time when interacting with parents?

Coach tells v Player constructs meaning:
Many of us will have grown up through an educational system that consisted of the teacher at the front of the class, the font of all knowledge, telling those sat in front of them everything they need to know about a subject (copying down what they said). I still see lots of coaches that deliver in this way to groups of children and I'm not surprised - this was what they experienced in their education process and research tells us you often 'teach' the way that you were taught. 

However, many views exist now that it is the learner that constructs meaning. Everyday a variety of different stimuli and sources of information will be presented to a person and they make sense of this, through their eyes and building on their existing view of the world. Learning is not necessarily a coach downloading what is in their head into a player's hard drive!

Today, the modern player arrives at your session in a different 'learning' place to every other player. They have all had different experiences, know a varied amount of things and can put this into practice at differing levels. Some will know exactly what is right but might not be able to do it...yet. Some will be able to do something really good and not know why or how, and that's OK too. 

Consider
How can you critically reflect on your teaching process? 
How do you present information for the learner to make sense of it themselves?
How do you structure questions effectively for players to have to think?

The right way:
I've witnessed it countless times and done it myself - "To do a Cruyff turn you must put your foot here, your non-kicking foot must be here...." because that is the right way to do something. Previously, traditional learners will have been brought up thinking there was in fact a right way to do something and this was the way that was passed down from teacher to learner from generation to generation. 

However, the modern learner now considers that there isn't necessarily a right way. There are probably lots of different solutions to certain problems and they want to be able to experiment and solve these problems themselves. They recognise that learning is done collaboratively, shared globally and they want to involve others - searching out for answers through friends, social networks, mentors and others. 

Today, with the wide variety of tricks and skills shown by top players everyday I'm not convinced we can show that their is a "right way". Information during a game around you changes all the time and that influences how you do a particular skill. For example, is a 1v1 in a wide area different to a 1v1 at the top of the penalty box? Absolutely. Is a 1v1 against a fast player different to doing a 1v1 against a slower player? Definitely. What if you approach them from a different angle or at a different speed? It's never the same, but maybe similar. 

Consider
How can you teach the principle of the action rather than be prescriptive of the action?
How can help players recognise the cues that determine their choice of move?
How can you develop games that encourage them to do the problem solving?
 
There are loads of things to think about as learning and our understanding of it develops and this blog just hoped to give a flavour of some of these. The modern learner is different to a traditional learner and because you learnt that way doesn't mean that today's child will do. They have been born in another time, as the Chinese proverb says. You wonder why the player's sometimes mess about during sessions? It might be linked to your approach towards their learning.

We need to be smart with our games and practices that empower young people to make decisions for themselves because I can guarantee, once they step over that white line to play, it's all about them and children's sport should not be PlayStation for adults...



24 December, 2014

Seeing the game through their eyes...

At a coaching conference this year I had a good discussion with a couple of coaches. I was sat in front of them watching a practice going on and listening to them commentating of the game and their opinion of what every player should have done differently at a variety of moments in the game. It made me think. How do they know?

The final comment that prompted me to ask them a question or two occurred after one lad got down the left wing to the by-line and into the box and stabbed a ball across the front, which got cut out, with his right foot. The guys behind proceeded to say how he should have played the ball with his left foot, should have done this, should have done that... 

My question to them was - "how do you know what he saw?"

As coaches, we are very quick to make judgements from our viewpoint, through our eyes and from our position. But we have ZERO idea what they saw. We have even less idea about what they were trying to do, until we start a conversation with the player. 

It was an interesting discussion. How apparently he was all one-footed. How he should have used his left foot to pull it back. But through my lens I saw things a little different. I'd like to know:

- What did you see?
- What did you try and do?
- Why did you choose that specific technique?
- What would you do next time?

Because, whilst it could have been what they said was wrong, it also could have been the lad thinking he wanted to play it quickly off his front foot, in his stride, as he didn't have the time to wait for his left foot. He might have made the right decision and just got the technique wrong. Who knows. 

Or we could have talked it and it could have been the same answer the coaches' suggested. But that is my point, until we speak to the player, talk through the 'moment' from their set of eyes (not ours) we are guessing. Guessing!

So next time you consider shouting at a player on the other side of the pitch for doing something different to what you thought they should have done, think about pausing and see if you can find out what they saw. Explore the world through their eyes. 





09 December, 2014

Personal Development - It's all down to you

This post comes in direct response to two different things, both of which might be able to be answered through one ramble. The first is in response to several questions raised at our National Coaching Conference and something I hear fairly regularly - "I have a sports science degree from University of x, why can't I get a job in a professional club Academy?" The second is the question I get asked reasonably often too - "what was my career pathway to end up in the role I have?"

Hopefully by sharing some of my story (note: it's MY story, not anyone else's) it might help some of the people that ask the first question a lot. There is a generation of young people now that come out of university and expect the world on a plate, that they will walk straight into a top paying job at a top establishment. There was an article in the Daily Telegraph a few years back about 'Graduate Divas', the young people born in the late-1980's as part of Generation Y that think the world owes them a living and they expect everything without hard work. 

Of course, and this goes without saying, not all young people fall into that category. I know lots of tremendously hard working individuals that have gone way over and above the expected to develop themselves. They have given themselves a broad range of experiences and skills, beyond their piece of university paper, and sought these out. They rightly deserve opportunities later down the line. It's the ones that just expect it that are the issue. 

My Journey:
As I mentioned above, this is my journey. It's unique to me. I have worked in sports development my whole (proper) working life but different parts have played their role and shaped me as a person.

School
I started coaching when I was still at school, helping the PE teachers run inter-form activities for younger year groups in football and other sports. The lesson for me was clear - I need to do something that I am passionate about and working with young people in sport was certainly that.

University
I did a Sport and Leisure Management Degree at university, had an interesting time for three years. Whilst I wouldn't say the degree helps me in the job, it was more the learning about myself in those years that made the biggest difference. To be honest, my course was about 9 - 12 hours of lectures a week and the rest of the time I just spent playing football with mates! However, I also did a few coaching badges during the time that started me further on this road. 

Coaching
During the summer holidays between my second and third year I came home and coached all summer with a guy that has remained a good friend to this day. He is sooo old skool it is frightening! He knows it, I tell him this and we debate this often! At that time however I didn't know any different. He was an experienced coach, had his UEFA B' and therefore was the role model I aspired to be. Surely he was right, wasn't he? So I tried to copy him. For acceptance? Maybe. 

After university I went and did three months coaching in the US. When I say 'coaching' it probably wasn't but it was a hugely valuable experience and a very enjoyable time. Three months travelling round California, Nevada and bit of Utah was fascinating. I coached all sorts of players, from 5 and 6 year old children where I ran around singing 'Old MacDonald' to working with high quality girls team's that could truly play the game. It gave me a real varied insight into working with different groups, how I had to change my coaching style, what worked and what didn't. 

Work
I came home from the US and needed a job. I went to an interview for a job in Milton Keynes. I had to deliver a session as part of the interview in a sport I wasn't qualified in - I did a netball session that was basically a football game with hands. It was my relationship with the kids that made a big difference - I enjoyed working with them, they had fun and gave me a glowing report. 

So I moved 100 miles from home for my first job out of uni that paid £15,000 per year. The next two years saw me teach football to primary and secondary age children, boccia to children with disabilities, develop all sports within the school and gain a great insight into a whole host of things. If the table tennis coach didn't turn up I would deliver. If the basketball coach was running late I would take the session. I was also doing outreach sessions in the local community, offering sessions for old people to keep them active and for those out of work. 

I did a variety of coaching qualifications along the way too, including Level 1's in cricket, basketball, hockey, netball and badminton.

Whilst all this was going on I was shaping my coaching philosophy and influenced by lots of people around me. I started running a girls U12 team at a Centre of Excellence and had some great times there. I made lots of mistakes, got lots of feedback from the players and learnt some valuable lessons. 

County FA
After three years I changed jobs to focus solely on football development. Again, this started to have a big impact. I was fortunate to start working for some great people at this time including Les Howie and Donna McIvor; colleagues of today. Working at the CFA allowed me to really get out there and understand how grassroots sport worked. I was working with coaches and volunteers every night of the week, from running club development workshops to child protection training. 

This taught me about the importance of relationships - internally and externally. It frustrates me hugely now hearing about development staff that aren't allowed to leave the office. Development work is about people and relationships between them and you don't develop these through email. I knew everyone in clubs and most of the Heads of PE and the schools and colleges too - we never had coaching courses cancelled because we could always fill them through our networks. 

FA
I moved to a national role at the FA in Jan 2004, to manage our young leadership programme and club links work. The grounding of working in education and football development made a big difference. 

Young leadership is awesome. I loved watching the young people in the programme grow right in front of you, developing into fantastic young adults with a real skill set that could change the world. The work of Harry Shier and Roger Hart was a big influence at this stage - give young people a voice and choice on matters that affect them. It's not about me, it's about them. 

My next role was to set up the FA Skills Programme, working with Tesco as the sponsor. Fascinating times and really powerful for my development. I was now in and around coaches that I would truly class as 'experts' every day - John Allpress, Pete Sturgess, Paul Holder - and if you can't learn from them then you may as well change careers! We also did a piece of work with Brunel University, a guy called Richard Blair who really challenged thinking and professionalised what our coaches were doing. And I sat in these sessions, taking notes, listening and learning. 

Playing and Refereeing
Has being a player helped my understanding? 100% yes. Whilst I was never a top professional, I played 400+ games in the non-league and Futsal at international level. I worked with some great coaches that have also shaped my views on coaching and learning. Some good, some not so good but you learn from them all. 

I also thought it would be good to see things from a refereeing perspective so did that for a season too. I refereed adult park football in my county, proper Division 10 stuff and really enjoyed that. It's very easy to moan at the person wearing black but I can empathise now having experienced this, and speak from a position of credibility on the matter.

Reading
Throughout this time I was doing a lot of reading. A lot! My bookcase expanded tremendously and it has made a massive difference in my career. I wouldn't say I was widely read but I have made the effort to try and read things - whether academic articles or coaching/learning books. Less 'football' ones too. For example, Lynn Kidman, Raener Martens and Guy Claxton all gave a tremendous insight into what really is 'coaching' and player development.

Courses
Doing qualifications is important, of course, but is a tiny part of what shapes your philosophy and understanding. Estimates from elite coaches are they affect your development 10-15%. 

The FA Youth Coaches Course in 2005 was superb, gave a totally different view of the coaching world than the experience I had through the traditional pathway and was the pre-cursor to the FA Youth Awards. I've gone on to complete the FA Advanced Youth Award but Module 1 is still my favourite course!

More Coaching
Whilst at the FA I have ran a grassroots U8's team to mentoring coaches in the U14 teams. Running the kids team was great, the reality of never knowing who or how many were going to turn up to training each week. We were a poor team, lost every week, but the one game we won that season will stick with me for a whole host of reasons forever. 

Since then I have done six years in an Academy, working with talented boys. This was five years at U10 and one at U11. Some coaches have aspirations to get through the age groups to older ones as quick as possible, fuelled by a variety of different motives, but I wanted to be the best U10 coach I could be. 

Additional Parts
If there was an opportunity to get involved in something that would help my learning and development I would do it! I would travel a few hours to see a coach work if he/she was an expert and someone I could learn from. 

I'm coming towards the end of a Masters degree and halfway through a Level 4 course in Talent Identification. I was asked to be on the Board at a schools Academy Trust and without knowing what it was about, threw myself into it! I am well out my depth at times when I look round the other Board members but learn something every time we meet and invariably I can translate to my coaching or job. 

Summary
In no way was this ramble set out to be a 'look at me, aren't I great' piece like a few I read. I'm still learning every day, know I have so much to do in order to be a better person and a better dad. However, hopefully it can give a sense of the breadth of different activities I have been involved in along my journey so far. 

Nothing comes easy, you have to go out of your way to work hard and the world owes you nothing. You cannot sit back and wait for your break to happen, thinking you deserve it. 

When I worked at the Academy and got requests from coaches to come in and observe sessions, brilliant, they are the guys I want on my team all day long. 

30 October, 2014

Helping Players Learn: The "WHY" of Coaching Styles

On my travels I hear lots of different comments about coaching styles; what is good, what is bad and how if anyone says "stop stand still" they should immediately be deported to Jurassic Park. However, It isn't quite as simple as that. 

Whilst we might not have a clue what learning has taken place in the immediate term (whether they actually directed their focus towards the learning objective plus some learning will be implicit) the only thing we can control is what comes out of our mouth's as coaches. Therefore, I would strongly advocate a couple of things:

1. Understand WHY you are going to use a specific coaching style
2. Plan this as part of your session preparation before you start

There are a variety of different frameworks to help understand this further and the wonders of Google Scholar will help with more reading. The one I like specifically is that of Mosston and Ashworth (2002) which puts forward a continuum of styles from Command (Style A) at one end to Self-Teaching (Style K) at the other end. This doesn't state that any one style is better or worse than another, just that they help facilitate different outcomes. The key to this is knowing why you are using a specific method to help the players. 



Here are a few on the spectrum with a little bit about them:

Command Style: All the decisions are made by the coach and the players are told what to do and how to do it.
What's it good for: Short-term development of technique (unopposed practices).
Risk: Limited long-term ability to take this into games or retention of information.

Guided Discovery: Coach decides where the learners are going to go and leads them towards the answer.
What’s it Good For: Developing thinking skills and technical ability.
Risk: Lack of knowledge by the coach in understanding what questions to ask and when.

Divergent Discovery: Coach presents a problem and learners find their own solution.
What’s it Good For: Enhance game understanding and technical ability plus social and emotional development.
Risk: Lack of knowledge by the coach in understanding how to organise and structure this.

Individual Programme: Coach decides content and learners plan and design the programme. 
What’s it Good For: Enhance game understanding and technical ability plus personal development.
Risk: Willingness of coach to let go of the power and trust the players and players ability to do it. 

Therefore, if you are doing a game where you are looking to develop the decision-making and problem solving skills of the players, using command style is not going to be anywhere near as effective as another style further down the spectrum. Equally, if you are looking to develop creativity in a specific part of the practice, you will be better served using Divergent Discovery, where the players can head towards no specific solution but the teaching can allow them to find their own solutions to the problem posed. 

In summary, it really helps to plan your coaching styles at different times, but equally knowing your players is really important here too. I used to coach one lad that had autism and ADHD and he needed small chunks of information that were very clear and explicit. Asking loads of questions to him was just not going to work.

All I will say in closing this entry is just beware, you stepping in to stop a practice to give a player the answer might just take away from the moment when they were just about to work it out for themselves! Not easy, this coaching lark....
















04 September, 2014

The Science of Play – why adults structuring ‘unstructured learning’ is essential

We’ve all been there… the last five seconds and you need to score a header or a volley to keep the same goalkeeper in, or do you make the decision not to touch the ball in case you miss and have to go in goal yourself… the excitement of street games are endless and timeless. Well, I say they are timeless but are they?

Adults of a certain age, probably 25 upwards, almost had a rite of passage whereby playing Three and In, Headers and Volleys or 60 Seconds was a daily playground or after-school ritual. This bred a huge amount of different skills that were transferable to life and to football including;
-          Self-regulation of games
-          Ownership of rules
-          Conflict resolution
-          Volleying and crossing techniques
-          Reactive saves from short distance

However, the change in society, less informal play and the structure of youth sports being adult-centric with young people relying on parents to take them to sporting activities has seen a decline in street games. I spoke to two U10’s at the Club I coach whilst they were playing some street games at training to ask them where they learnt about these games. One player said he had learnt them from a coach that used to do them at coaching sessions when he was younger and the other said he had never played them until he came to the Club at U9 and learnt them from other players.

I’m therefore going to put forward the case that coaches should actively plan time for informal play within their coaching sessions, actually allocate time for the children to organise their own mini-games without the adults intervention. Simply for the reason that these are games children enjoy playing!

It is well documented in literature that ‘play’ has a huge amount of benefits. It is a means by which children develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. It is a means of creating and preserving friendships. It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavours (Gray, 2008).

By definition ‘Play’ has the following characteristics and it is worth exploring how you can plan in your coaching for this development to occur:
(1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; it is something they want to do, not made to do and they have the freedom to manage their own actions during play. Natural leaders emerge through the children’s choice, not because an adult allocate roles. If you try and lead it, this is no longer play!

(2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; the joy for children involved in play comes through the process, not the outcome. Does anyone remember the score of a game up the park involving mates?! I asked some children in our village that I saw playing football who won in yesterday’s game. They said they had no idea and it didn’t matter in the slightest – they were just playing (and learning!).

(3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; watching a pick-up game developed by children you can observe them change the rules, move players about to make the teams fairer or make one goal smaller (agreed between the players) because that makes the game better, for them.

(4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; you often hear young players say “I’m Ronaldo today” and by that they are going to take themselves into a fantasy world where they pretend they are. They know they aren’t really Ronaldo but for that time during play, they are.

(5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind; evidence suggests this “flow” state is great for learning, where children can get absorbed in the process not the outcome without narrowing their views of the world.

Research about learning shows that strong pressure to perform well (which induces a non-playful state) improves performance on tasks that are mentally easy or habitual for the person, but worsens performance on tasks that require creativity, or conscious decision making, or the learning of new skills (Gray, 2008). The game of football is clearly the latter.

In contrast, anything that is done to reduce the person’s concern with outcome and to increase the person’s enjoyment of the task for its own sake—that is, anything that increases playfulness—has the opposite effect and will be more beneficial for player development.

Deliberate play situations allow children the freedom to experiment with different movements and tactics and the opportunity to learn to innovate, improvise and respond strategically (Cote, Baker & Abernethy, 2007). Organising games along the lines of things the children want from their football experience can be hugely beneficial for learning and development, and this isn’t exclusive to younger players either, teenage players need a sense of freedom, ownership and playfulness too. Give it a try!

Cote, J., Baker, J. & Abernethy, B. (2007). Practice and play in the development of sport expertise. In R. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology, pp.184-202. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Gray, P. (2008). Freedom to learn. The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning. Psychology Today.


24 July, 2014

The Value of Play; Money in the Player Development Bank

Play is not just child's business, it's serious learning!

We've all been there… the last five seconds and you need to score a header or a volley to keep the same goalkeeper in, or do you make the decision not to touch the ball in case you miss and have to go in goal yourself… the excitement of street games are endless and timeless. Well, I say they are timeless but are they?

Adults of a certain age, probably 25 upwards, almost had a rite of passage whereby playing Three and In, Headers and Volleys or 60 Seconds was a daily playground or after-school ritual. This bred a huge amount of different skills that were transferable to life and to football including;

-          Self-regulation of games
-          Ownership of rules
-          Conflict resolution
-          Volleying and crossing techniques
-          Reactive saves from short distance

However, the change in society, less informal play and the structure of youth sports being adult-centric with young people relying on parents to take them to sporting activities has seen a decline in street games. I spoke to two U10’s at the Club I coach whilst they were playing some street games at training to ask them where they learnt about these games. One player said he had learnt them from a coach that used to do them at coaching sessions when he was younger and the other said he had never played them until he came to the Club at U9 and learnt them from other players.

I’m therefore going to put forward the case that coaches should actively plan time for informal play within their coaching sessions, actually allocate time for the children to organise their own mini-games without the adults intervention. Simply for the reason that these are games children enjoy playing!

It is well documented in literature that ‘play’ has a huge amount of benefits. It is a means by which children develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. It is a means of creating and preserving friendships. It also provides a state of mind that, in adults as well as children, is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavours (Gray, 2008).

By definition ‘Play’ has the following characteristics and it is worth exploring how you can plan in your coaching for this development to occur:

 (1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; it is something they want to do, not made to do and they have the freedom to manage their own actions during play. Natural leaders emerge through the children’s choice, not because an adult allocate roles. If you try and lead it, this is no longer play!

(2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; the joy for children involved in play comes through the process, not the outcome. Does anyone remember the score of a game up the park involving mates?! I asked some children in our village that I saw playing football who won in yesterday’s game. They said they had no idea and it didn't matter in the slightest – they were just playing (and learning!).

(3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; watching a pick-up game developed by children you can observe them change the rules, move players about to make the teams fairer or make one goal smaller (agreed between the players) because that makes the game better, for them.

(4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; you often hear young players say “I’m Ronaldo today” and by that they are going to take themselves into a fantasy world where they pretend they are. They know they aren't really Ronaldo but for that time during play, they are.

(5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind; evidence suggests this “flow” state is great for learning, where children can get absorbed in the process not the outcome without narrowing their views of the world.

Research about learning shows that strong pressure to perform well (which induces a non-playful state) improves performance on tasks that are mentally easy or habitual for the person, but worsens performance on tasks that require creativity, or conscious decision making, or the learning of new skills (Gray, 2008). The game of football is clearly the latter.

In contrast, anything that is done to reduce the person’s concern with outcome and to increase the person’s enjoyment of the task for its own sake—that is, anything that increases playfulness—has the opposite effect and will be more beneficial for player development.

Deliberate play situations allow children the freedom to experiment with different movements and tactics and the opportunity to learn to innovate, improvise and respond strategically (Cote, Baker & Abernethy, 2007). Organising games along the lines of things the children want from their football experience can be hugely beneficial for learning and development, and this isn’t exclusive to younger players either, teenage players need a sense of freedom, ownership and playfulness too. Give it a try!


Cote, J., Baker, J. & Abernethy, B. (2007). Practice and play in the development of sport expertise. In R. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology, pp.184-202. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Gray, P. (2008). Freedom to learn. The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning. Psychology Today.