A challenge that many coaches have is that, within one team, there is a wide spectrum of player characteristics and abilities.
On any given team, there are some players that are more advanced for their age, and some players that are still catching up. Some players are incredibly focused, and others have a hard time paying attention. Some players take the sport more seriously, and others are there just to be with their friends.
Some questions I often hear from coaches are: How do we create training sessions that adequately help each player? How do we create a practice so that everyone can enjoy the experience?
Below are 10 strategies to help us cater our training sessions to all of our players’ characteristics and needs:
Plan Practice on a “Slanted Line”
Planning practice on a “slanted line” is a concept that allows players to challenge themselves based on their own abilities. To illustrate, picture a limbo stick, then slant it so that one end is higher up than the other end. Participants can then choose the point on the stick at which they will go under – if they do not have much experience at limbo, they can go under the higher end, and if they want more of a challenge, they can go under the lower end. As each person improves, they can gradually move lower and lower as they are ready for more of a challenge, but it does not stop others from being able to challenge themselves at the level that they need. In youth soccer, we have to try to create training sessions that allow for this same concept. This means creating activities that allow each player an opportunity to challenge themselves at their own pace. This will allow us to challenge or give feedback to each player based on their specific needs and abilities.
For example, a common "slanted line" activity for younger players is a dribbling/passing gate game, in which players must dribble or pass through as many gates as possible in an allotted time. Some of our players will get through 5 gates, while others, might get 15. In an activity like this, where each player has their own ball and ability to self-direct, players can each strive for improvement and increase their success rate each round regardless of the abilities of others.
The key to coaching on the “slanted line” is that it must allow for self-measured success. It’s not about who got the most of something. It’s about each player improving on their performance or score each time they do it.
Progressions and Regressions
Another effective strategy is to plan within our session both progressions and regressions of the same activity. This means planning ahead for a moment when an activity might be too difficult or too easy. If it is too difficult, we can regress the activity to find more success. If it is too easy, we can change an element to make it more difficult.
We can also purposely start at an easier level to allow all players to find success, then build up the challenge. This does a few things: 1. Gives the more advanced players an opportunity to have both early success and appropriate challenge 2. Gives everyone an opportunity to learn how to have success at the more challenging level by gradually progressing 3. Allows less-advanced players to have success early and learn the basic concepts, even if the more challenging progressions are too difficult, and 4. Exposes the less-advanced players to a greater challenge that they will eventually achieve if they continue to improve.
A good example of this could be in a finishing activity. We might start with few or even zero defenders, giving every player an opportunity to score. As we progress, we can incorporate more movement or receiving a pass before the shot, which will be more difficult. Finally, we can progress to having more defenders and less predictability, making it even more difficult to score. Each progression is fun, relevant, and provides a greater scoring challenge to all players involved.
Breaking into Groups
Breaking our team into different groups for an activity is another option. For whatever we are focusing on in our practice, we can organize each group in slightly different ways that will challenge each group uniquely. There are multiple criteria we can use to organize our groups:
Let's assume we have three groups of four players. All three groups are doing the same activity, but we can have players grouped based on their ability levels. The most advanced players will be together in one group, while the least-experienced players will be together in another group. Simply based on the skills and abilities of the players’ peers, each player will have a balance of challenge and success.
Similar to the previous example, we can have players grouped based on ability or skill. However, in this case, the group of more advanced players can play in a more difficult progression of the activity, while the other groups can begin in a less-challenging progression. This strategy not only challenges each group based on who they are directly playing with/against, but it also gives them each a unique challenge appropriate for their needs.
Another way we can utilize grouping is by progressing each group based on how they perform within an activity. Regardless of how we group our players (although even-based groups might be the most-often effective in this case), we can have them all begin an activity at the same progression. Then, as each group shows readiness for the next level of challenge, we can progress each group separately. Not all groups will progress at the same time, and not all groups may reach the same level of progression. This allows us to give feedback to each group as needed and lets each group improve and learn at their own pace.
We can also vary how we break up the groups to allow each player to experience different roles. This method can use many different types of criteria for grouping players – not just an ability or experience-based criteria. The criteria can be about personalities or other tendencies. Based on the characteristics of each player, we can group players differently, and it can vary from one day to the next, or even one activity to the next. Experiencing different roles within the team is an important part of each player’s overall development.
For example, to use a grouping criteria not based on soccer abilities, we could make groups based on abilities of each player to focus. One group can be comprised of players who have a tendency to get more distracted, regardless of their soccer ability levels. This allows the more focused players to play with one another in the second group. Of course, this may be tricky to ensure that learning takes place in the first group, but it is important to allow the more focused players opportunities to train with minimal distractions (and it can be an opportunity for someone in the first group to step into a leadership role and inspire greater focus from his/her peers). On another day, we can purposely mix the more easily distracted players with the more focused players to give players the chance to both learn from their teammates, as well as lead.
Depending on the way we organize our groups, players can learn and grow from one another in several different ways, and it allows us to teach a variety of different skills to a wide-range of players.
Planning a Script
For each one of our training sessions, there should be a plan. This sounds obvious, but many of us fail to effectively plan, especially when it comes to how we will accommodate for varying player needs. As mentioned above, some of the things we can plan are activities, player groups, and activity progressions/regressions.
But perhaps more effective at helping each individual player learn is how we plan our coaching script. This can consist of two elements: content and methodologies.
Part of our script is the content of our coaching points. What key learning outcomes do we want players to learn? What key points are we going make as coaches? What words are we going to use and how are we going to structure our sentences? In what order are we going to teach each concept? How many concepts will we teach at once? What will tell us when to make each coaching point?
Beyond simply what we are going to teach, we can plan how we are going to teach and what teaching methodologies we are going to use. For example, when we are doing an activity, are we going to have everyone freeze at once to make a coaching point, or are we going to stop one group at a time and make points relevant only to each group? Are we going to have a group discussion at any point? If so, when, why, and how frequently? In a group discussion, how are we going to ensure that every single player is learning from it? Are we going to call only on volunteers or call on specific players to make sure everyone prepares an answer? Are we going to give players individual feedback? If so, when, how, and after seeing them do what?
We need to plan how we are going to give feedback and teach concepts to our players so that each player, with all their different characteristics, is getting an equal opportunity to learn and improve.
Providing Individual Coaching
Perhaps the most effective methodology for helping players with different characteristics is to give them each individual coaching.
Issuing Individual Feedback
One way to give individual coaching is through feedback. We can do this by either praising something good, or by providing guidance on how to make something better. When providing praise, it is important that we include what exactly was good and why. For instance, “John, great job recognizing the space to turn.” When providing further guidance, it is also effective to build on something else that is good. For instance, “John, great job recognizing the space to turn. Remember to accelerate into the space after.”
When giving individual feedback, it is important to consider the personality and needs of the individual. Are they shy or outgoing? Nervous or confident? Self-conscious or open to criticism? Are they easily distracted or can they multi-task? Do they need to think and ponder to learn or can they take an instruction and go with it? Do they need to see a visual or can they understand by just hearing words?
We need to consider what is happening in the moment and what the information is that we want to share. Then, we need to determine how we are going to provide our feedback based on how the situation and the person’s characteristics will affect how well our feedback is received. Are we going to use a question or a command? Are we going to say it aloud for everyone to hear or quietly just to the person? Are we going pull them off to the side or share while they are actively playing?
Issuing Individual Challenges
Another way to coach individuals is to give challenges to specific players. If one player is struggling or excelling, we can give them a modification to the activity. This allows the player to continue to play within the larger group while also being challenged at a more appropriate level.
A good way to start this whole process is by first identifying the characteristics of each player on our team. What are the strengths and personalities of our players that make them unique? What are their learning styles? By making profiles of each player, we can then better plan and structure our practices in a way to help each individual improve, while also improving the team overall.