“We just worked on this at practice! Why aren’t you doing it?!” and “we dominated possession but just couldn’t score” are two very common phrases by coaches. Very knowledgeable coaches at that. These coaches played and know the game very well, but for some reason, their teams struggle to implement what they have taught. So if it’s not that these coaches don’t know the game, what’s the issue? Is it the activities they use? No way – they use the same ones other, very successful coaches use. So what is it?
Here’s the secret: These coaches know what they are talking about, but they don’t know how they are talking about it.
The key to getting our players to understand and implement everything we teach them is not what we know – whether that be knowledge of the game or great activities to use. The key is how we teach it. How we coach, not what we coach.
There are two primary ways we can improve how we coach: how we design our session and how we speak to our players.
Forget the actual activities. Most coaches know plenty of good activities or can easily find some. They secret is in the details of the activities – the finer points of the design and conditions we place. Let’s take the second phrase of this post: “We dominated possession but just couldn’t score.” How many times have we said that? The hard truth is that it’s our fault. It’s a direct result of our sessions. Here are two common reasons for this situation and ways to fix it.
We Keep Using Small Goals
How often do we use full size goals at practice? We should be using them every session. Every. Single. Session. Sure, some of us might not have access to them, but we can adjust – use cones, poles, or corner flags to make a full-width goal.
By using small goals, our players learn to not shoot on sight. They get used to having to work the ball around more in order to open an opportunity because the goal is so small. If we use full size goals, they will be able to successfully shoot and score more often, which will help them develop a mentality to score right away.
We Create Unrealistic Conditions
I get it. We want to work on possession. But for what purpose? Isn’t the point to keep the ball so we can score? So why do we keep telling our teams that “you must make five passes before you can score” or “you must score from a cross?”
These conditions do not result in better possession. They result in more possession. They result in players having wide open chances but instinctively passing the ball. They certainly don’t result in more goals being scored. Think about it: if in practice, a player has a wide open chance to score, but the team has only made two of five passes, he must keep passing instead of scoring. Isn’t that exactly what our players end up doing in matches?
Here’s how to fix it: Instead of absolute conditions, use optional conditions. For instance, instead of a mandatory five passes before scoring, make it an option to score to goal or score with five passes. Now they learn to shoot when the opportunity is there and possess when penetrating is not possible. Instead of mandating a cross in order to score, make goals from crosses worth more points, but any other goals are still worth something. Instead of a touch maximum or minimum at all times, make an exception for when the team is in the attacking third or shooting.
Speaking to Our Players
A colleague of mine is known to advocate for becoming a better coach by learning more about things outside of the game – management, psychology, communication, etc. When it comes to speaking more effectively to our players, this type of knowledge is crucial. This has nothing to do with the game itself. It has everything to do with understanding how our players think and learn, and how we can teach them in a way so they better understand.
To put it simply: Use less words. Can we narrow down our explanation from three full sentences to one simple statement? Or better yet, one simple question? Think about the most concise, simple, straight-forward way to get the point across, and say it that way.
Questions engage our players. They make our players have to pay attention (because they never know if they’ll get called on – a secret our school teachers never told us), and they make our players think (they have to figure out the answer on their own). Questions also help us know whether or not our players are understanding what we’ve been teaching. If our players don’t know how to answer our questions, we must not be teaching them effectively.
Stop talking all the time. If we are constantly speaking to our players throughout our sessions, we are hurting the development process in more ways than one:
- First, if we speak all the time, our words lose value. Instead of speaking so much, speak less, but more meaningfully. If we are constantly talking, our voice become white noise, and our players tune us out. Don’t become white noise.
- Furthermore, when we are not speaking, our players are forced to figure out solutions on their own. Give them that chance and see what they can do. Guide them if they get lost, but allow them opportunities to problem solve.
- If we give our players too much information, we will overload them, and they will end up learning nothing. We can’t fix everything every session. Pick a couple key points and get our players to master those in the session – we can move on to other details next time.
- Lastly, we must keep in mind the frequency with which we make coaching points. If we are constantly interrupting and talking to our players, they never get to actually play. We must also be conscious of how often we correct a player or team. If we are constantly correcting them, they will begin to feel that they can do nothing right. We must balance our praise, corrections, and silence.
If there are multiple layers or aspects to a skill or concept, we cannot unload all the information at once. Our players’ brains cannot remember all of that. Instead, drip feed the information. Give them one thing to focus on, and give them a chance to execute it. Then add one more layer. Now they can work on both of those. Then add another layer… By giving them a chance to execute between each small bit of information, we can give them a lot, and they can retain it.
People – especially kids – love analogies. Use a reference outside of the game that paints the picture of what we want. It’s not only fun, but it helps them understand. For instance, when I teach young goalkeepers how to scoop a rolling ball, I tell them to think of a tractor scooping up dirt. This gives them a familiar mental picture that they can apply to their technique. It’s much more effective than saying “Place your hands face up underneath the ball, moving your arms in a forward and upward fashion.”
Using Visual Explanations
Speaking of creating images… We cannot simply tell our players what we want. We must show them. While explaining, use the ball and move players – perhaps step in and demonstrate – to paint the picture of what the concept looks like. Seeing it makes things much more clear.
It is so important that we teach our players why to do what we teach them. This allows them to appropriately execute in matches. Instead of telling our players to switch the point of attack because it is the theme of the session, explain and show them how there is no more space in front of them, but that teammates have space to get forward on the other side. Now they understand to look for and recognize this type of situation and how to respond accordingly – rather than switching the field for no apparent reason.