There has been much debate in recent times in England about the best way to educate and develop our elite young footballers. The argument seems to have come down into 2 camps. Those in favour of the FA’s new philosophy as promoted in the Youth modules which propagates the notion of the game being the teacher with all practices game like and opposed and those who encourage isolated technical skills training and 1v1 domination.
Is the game the teacher?
I have attended and passed the first 3 of all the youth modules and found them very enjoyable and enlightening. The main theme running through all the courses is that game like, opposed practices are the best way in educating and developing our young footballers.
As an Academy Coach working in the Foundation Phase of Premier League Clubs for nearly 10 years I can concur that this is indeed an essential ingredient of any elite development programme. I however as a technical coach firmly believe that without unopposed isolated practice you can’t produce world class performers.
In my eyes there is a 3rd way, one in which both approaches are activated and in reality if you look at Premier League Academy Football this is what goes on. I was also lucky enough to visit Ajax’s academy twice in the last year and in their foundation phase the emphasis was on technical development, learning to master and then use techniques, particularly 1v1 skills. Much of this is done unopposed and/or with passive pressure. This comes hand in hand with a focus on SSG’s 1v1s, 2v2s, 3v3s and 4v4s.
My concern is that the FA is promoting the game as the teacher whilst ignoring the importance of ball mastery, skill development and 1v1 domination. Whilst all group sessions should include game like opposed practices, it is imperative and especially important at the foundation phase that we develop and test individuals technique with unopposed and passive pressure exercise.
As coaches we have a responsibility to support the players in fulfilling their potential. If we really want to produce world class players they must be two footed, this is achievable and easier the earlier you start.
Learning from other Sports
If you look around the world at other elite sporting environments you will see the unopposed technical practice is a main stay of top athletes. If we look at basketball, another team invasion game, players at the top level will spend endless hours practicing their shooting unopposed. This of course goes hand in hand with opposed practice, the point is one doesn’t work without the other. Tennis players will spend hours practicing their forehand and backhand strokes, perfecting each weapon in their armoury preparing for game time. If you look at any sport and the top performers in it you will see examples of isolated unopposed technical practice.
Developing individual training programmes
The challenge for any coach whether at Academy or grass roots level is maximising the little time you get with your players. I have also coached at grass roots level where if you are lucky you get to train twice a week, more realistically once a week. What should be my priorities as a coach given this limited amount of time. Should the players spend most of the session in a game like practice? The answer is of course yes. There should always however be elements of individual technical work in your session, particularly when working with youth players. By technical work I mean individual possession, first touch, dribbling, turning and ball striking. There should also be some element of 1v1 work within your session. The trick is utilising your time, looking to get multiple outcomes from your sessions.
Creating your session
Ball based warm ups should be and generally area given these days. Use ball mastery and kick up challenges to get the players ready for the session. Any period in your session with out a ball is wasted time. Next move into a 3,4 or 5players rotation practice. Rotation practices are excellent ways of getting high intensity technical outcomes whilst also testing the players mentally, players must keep shape and balance, as they would in a possession practice. These will challenge the players and will involve high repetition but without the boredom of many technical drills. Rotation practices are an effective and efficient way to work on first touch, 1v1 skills and ball striking. There are infinite different possibilities and outcomes.
I have attached a plan for a simple rotation practice that can be easily adapted and progressed into a full pressure 1v1 practice.
Maximising time away from practice.
In my role as an Academy Coach and as a 1on1 trainer I constantly encourage players to do technical work when they are not training. This can take the form of many things, I have found however skill combinations to be an extremely effective way to ensure that players are supporting their own development away from team practice. Skill combinations are a set of 2 or more dribbling or turning skills, this combination can then be given to the players at the end of training as homework or technical challenges. These have many benefits to the players and also the coach. First of all it gives me something measurable to judge the player on. When the players return to training and ask them to show me, I can see who has had the desire and the mentality to practice. In terms of the players benefits they are many, firstly they will be developing muscle memory for functionally skills that are used by professional footballers in the top leagues in the world. They will also be developing positive movement patterns, performing skill combinations at pace and on both feet will make them more agile and explosive, it is in effect SAQ’s with a ball. I have attached a link to one of my Video Blogs where I show you an effective Skill Combination.
In summary, as a technical coach working in both Elite and Grass roots football I can’t stress the importance of developing our Youth Players technique. If we get players early enough we can have a profound effect on that players DNA. By this I mean creating intelligent two footed players who are masters of the ball and dominate 1v1. This should be the aim of any Youth Coach across the globe.