In Part 1 of this series I looked at how 1v1 soccer skills can play a crucial part in developing young footballers without stunting their creativity. During my teaching and coaching career, I have learnt many techniques through studying myself along with experience in working with elite and recreational soccer players across multiple age ranges and in a variety of environments. In this part I want to share some of the sports science and education which has helped me thus far in developing creative footballers through 1v1 soccer skills coaching.

Adults play a very important role in child development at all levels. Educational theory and particularly the work of Bandura and Vygotsky outline the importance of adult involvement in the social environment in supporting children’s learning.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is an ideal model to use when judging when guidance from adults can be most effective. Rudolph Schaffer who was a renowned developmental child psychologist describes the ZPD as:

“The boundaries of the ZPD are determined by the gap between what children can do on their own and what they can achieve when acting as the junior partner of a more knowledgeable person”. (Schaffer: 1996).

Within the football context, it may seem an obvious statement but for young football players, they will grow and develop with the guidance of coaches willing to organise, support and direct their activities. This is our job right! Understanding how best to execute this within the realms of the desired outcome needs to be carefully considered.

Football skills and 1v1 domination is a complex area with many different variables in play. This is where I call upon scaffolding theory which is synonymous with ZPD and fundamentally important to me and my role as a skills coach.

Scaffolding Theory

“[Scaffolding] refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she or he is in the process of acquiring” (Bruner, 1978, p. 19). See more here or on the video below

Here is the point of the matter and why some times isolated unopposed/semi opposed technical practice is necessary, because we need to support the players in overcoming these difficult skills. Now they may develop these themselves, but they may not. Speaking to one of the country’s leading skill acquisition experts recently he said children will challenge each other, but often not themselves. I want all players to know how to do a Maradona 360, or Ronaldo Step over with both feet. It is almost impossible to learn and master these particularly on the weak foot in a full competitive environment. I argue that we can spend time on these techniques with players if needed and challenge them to go and try these in opposed situations.

But why should we teach them at all, why not let them develop or not develop naturally? Because, if you look at top flight football, I believe there are around 6-8 1v1 soccer skills used regularly in the top flight leagues around the world. There are many more, but i argue 6-8 main ones used successfully. These 1v1 soccer skills create problems for defences and change games.

Supporting our players in learning and mastering these will open up a world of creativity and options, as they decide which ones they prefer and want to use. Just as when I was a Primary school teacher and I introduced shading during an art class. Am I somehow diminishing creativity here, or simply introducing a new technique for students to go and explore and be creative with?
We must never forget the game as that is the arena in which we want players to be effective and make effective decisions. The recent research around “Teaching games for understanding” by Kidman and Lombardo shouldn’t be ignored.

Kidman and Lombardo (2003) argue that an athlete centred approach to coaching is important when developing decision makers. More traditional approaches or coach centred coaching often focus on limited forms of learning that emphasise memorising and mimicking rather than understanding or solving problems. The danger here is of players becoming robotic in their thinking and actions. This removes autonomy from the player and means they are more reliant on the coach.

Kidman and Lombardo also argue that when coaching tactics or skill, coach-centred coaches tend to give participants specific directions on what exact moves to perform. That say that athletes should be given the opportunity to practice skill and techniques within the context of the game rather than separate from it. When athletes are given freedom to explore soccer skills within a game situation without the coach telling them what to do, they become more productive in terms of learning in context and importantly their decision making skills improve. This has implications for the researcher as the project will look to measure the increase of skills used within game situations.

This is why the game should always be the rule rather than the exception, we want players to be able to act autonomously and carry out decisions. There is however no point in a player being able to carry out a decisions when they don’t have the technique to do so. We are also striving to develop players who can change games.

What changes games?

Normally this is a forward pass or a successful 1v1 moment. This is where we sometimes have to push or challenge players as often in game situations, players will avoid a 1v1 looking for an easy pass instead. This is where 1v1 isolated practices are so beneficial as players are forced to solve the problem against a defender. Try going 1v1 with a player towards a line or goal and see how many decisions you have to make. This is also an opportunity for the coach to gauge the 1v1 ability of a player and see if additional support is needed. The young player may need to come out of ‘the game’ environment temporarily to work on or develop some skills. You then measure the learning by putting them back in live ‘1v1′. This may and most likely will be a lengthy process.

The best world cup goal ever?

How many successful 1v1 movements can you see Maradona make and boy did he change the game?

Looking even more closely at the motion and action of performing a skill, I refer to Schema Theory which was put forward by Richard Schmidt in 1975 to explain how we learn and perform ‘discrete perceptual motor skills’. Where required I advocate working in isolation to learn and refine particular football skills especially in the early stages but always with the game in mind.

The paper by Williams et al 2003 highlights schema theory by suggesting that players new to a particular skill have not yet gained the necessary representations of the skill in their memory so they are more likely to process information consciously through various sensory loops. As a player becomes more skilful there is a switch in attending to sensory information to becoming more automatic. This automatic stage will see the participant perform the skill more consistently due to the improved motor programmes which allow sensory information to be processed at a subconscious level.

In addition, Williams in a separate paper challenged traditional skill acquisition and argues that skills learnt in a random manner, shooting, passing, 1v1 soccer skills (high contextual interference practice conditions) will have much more beneficial results on players, in contrast to just practicing 1 skill in a session (low contextual interference practice). The former has much better learning in the long term. This argument suggests that 1v1 soccer skills should not be taught in isolation.  An optimized learning environment for any skills training would be small sided games. Although I agree with Williams that this is the optimum training environment I do challenge him with respect to teaching 1v1 in isolation. As mentioned above the amount of decision based outcomes related to a live 1v1 are great. Also I argue that because of the unique nature of 1v1 play, coaching skills un/semi opposed can be effective in the early stages of acquisition. However, when working on 1v1 in isolation, by this I mean just a 1v1, then this should always be directional to a line or goal.
Semi Opposed 1v1 Soccer Skills Training
There is some evidence regarding this segmentation of training (Lee et al 2001) practising components of the skill in isolation before bringing it back to the game situation or simplification to facilitate learning (williams 2003) reducing the difficulty of the whole skill or different parts of the skill. Here the focus on 1v1 only, still with interference can help the player focus on developing the skill of beating a player. It is then imperative to link and progress the learning into a game.

It is important to remember that when specifically dealing with young players (8-11) that they are at the beginning of their journey in terms of their footballing life and we want to give them opportunities to be successful. Shea et al (1990) argue that low contextual interference practice conditions may actually be beneficial in the beginning stages of skill acquisition.

‘When the learner is relatively inexperienced, random practice may over load the system and its potential benefits could be disrupted.’

When players are learning new skills or building their relationship with the ball, we must create conditions where players can achieve success. Whether it’s focusing on 1v1, or introducing new 1v1 techniques that the players can then take into game situations. As stated before, this is never imposing, but simply introducing. Showing players some tools that they can then choose to use if they wish.

The 8-11s phase is unique and different to the 12-16s age bracket in my opinion and breaking this up is important when thinking about skill acquisition in young footballers. We need more 8-11s specialists who understand the unique nature of this age group and the differences in provision to the 12+. We can’t bracket all players with the same development model. I must also stress that all of this is just a small part of the player development jigsaw and majority of team sessions should be structured as small sided games.

I know I have described a lot of science and education to support various mechanisms but one thing is paramount, as a soccer skills coach it’s not my job to tell the player what to do but more to facilitate the learning. I need to support the player in constructing their own knowledge. The psychologist Bruner calls this process Discovery Learning, I give the players as much information as they need without trying to organise it for them. The spiral curriculum can add the process of discovery learning

This is also where scaffolding theory comes in, do the players need additional support in this area? Or are they able to solve the problems themselves. For me this issue is more acute in the Academy environment as we are trying to support players into elite football, where at the age of 16-18 they need to have the tools to be effective in games. Gifted and talented children in any field have to be challenged, and it is our job as educators to do this. We should use guided discovery where ever possible to support the players in coming to their own conclusions, but sometimes we have to take a more direct role than this. Yes I want chaos in my sessions but I also demand that players leave the foundation phase with the ability to use both feet and dominate 1v1. This is where i can and will, if necessary, come in to support.

Saul Isaksson-Hurst 
Head Coach at MyPersonalFootballCoach.com

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