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10 Ways to Coach Teams with a Wide-Range of Player Needs

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:

Peer-Based Challenge

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.

Ability-Based Challenge

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.

Progression-Based Challenge

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.