“Just play games”

So, it’s pre-season and you’ve been handed a bunch of players (many of whom
you might not know), some balls and equipment (but not that much), and asked
to run a training session for them. Although you might have a season or two
of coaching under your belt, given the circumstances, what should you do?
Just play games maybe? Surely you can’t go wrong with that, right?

There is a common misconception out there that the FFA National Curriculum
promotes the idea of simply “playing games” at
training, in other words small-sided football. This comes from the fact that
the use of isolated drills for the development of core skills is now
discouraged, such as dribbling through cones or passing back and forth in
pairs, because they don’t involve decision making. Young football players
need to learn how to dribble or pass in thousands of different ways
depending on the situation, unlike gymnastics for example where execution is
supposed to done the same way every time. Isolated drills also used to be
popular because they are easy for grassroots coaches to run, but the good
news is that so are small-sided football games!

‘Cops and Robbers’ for example, like many of the activities included in the
‘FFA Discovery Phase’, is a great ‘game’, especially for very young players
to work on their ball control because it involves a lot of movement,
interaction, and decision making all at the same time. It’s even a game that
older players will enjoy as a warm up. But this is a training exercise, not
a match, and so the confusion also comes from different terminology about
what a ‘game’ is.

The FFA Football Conditioning model might also reinforce this idea, where the motto is “Football is Conditioning, Conditioning is Football”. The emphasis here is on playing a
series of either 4v4, 7v7 and 11v11 games in training with senior teams to
improve fitness at the same time as developing communication between the
players as they play football, rather than isolated running for example. The
problem with this can be that these games must be very intense – they must
push the players physically to their limits – otherwise it defeats the
purpose of taking this approach and the players will not actually improve
their fitness levels.

Although this concept might seemingly not be applicable to junior coaches
who don’t need to work on developing fitness at younger ages, the principle
actually has some relevance, especially in pre-season. Often at grassroots
clubs, teams will not be formed straight away as trials/grading take place,
or age groups train together as coaches are sourced and friendship groups
established. And so a similar problem occurs: if the players just go through
the motions during small-sided football, they aren’t getting the maximum
benefit out of it that they could be. As much as players will often ask
during training session: “when are we going to play a game?”, playing
small-sided football games with no specific objective and no intensity will
result in the players taking it easy and just ‘mucking around’. Although
unstructured play is actually a very good thing, for proper training
sessions where you want to improve the players, we all know how much the
kids mucking around can make that very hard for a coach! And if we give them
what they want – a match – then surely they will behave, right?? The reality
that we all know is, even senior grassroots players will muck around at
training when they can get away with it.

So, how can you get that intensity?

You might be coaching an age group anywhere from U7s up to seniors, you
might have boys or girls or even a mixed team, you might have a team full of
very good players or a team of beginners, or you might have a mix of skill
levels. You might also have a settled squad or a random group of players. Is
there a common way to achieve the required intensity regardless of which
players you are working with?

There is one method, and it doesn’t require complicated planning or any
extra time to organise. It’s all about how you set up the games, and then
how you manage them.

Why do kids love to play matches? Because they love to compete. So the clue
is competition. If you put competition into an activity, whatever activity
it is, you will suddenly see a higher level of motivation and effort.

So one idea could be to organise a ’round robin’ tournament, for example
like a ‘World Cup’ or ‘Champions League’, or even based on the A-League,
W-League or Asian Cup.

Split the players up randomly (or evenly according to skill – but don’t tell
them you are doing this) into four teams, and then let them choose their
country or club team, so that they already start communicating with each
other before they start playing and get into that habit.

The draw for a four team tournament is easy to organise with two pitches
side by side:

Round 1
A v B
C v D

Round 2
A v C
B v D

Round 3
A v D
B v C

If you have the time and desire, then you could also finish with a finals

* Semi Finals: 1st v 3rd and 2nd v 4th (this is likely to be more
competitive than doing 1st v 4th and 2nd v 3rd)

* Finals: the winners and losers in the semi-finals play each other in the
grand final and 3rd place playoff respectively

The temptation, often due to lack of available space, is to play the matches
in quite a small area. The sizes recommended are usually around 30m x 20m or
40m x 30m, depending on the age group and number of players, but often you
will see pitches set up as 30 steps x 20 steps, which is actually a lot
smaller (it would probably be more like 45 steps by 30 steps).

The other thought process behind this is that small pitches put a lot of
pressure on players which will help them develop. This is true, and
small-sided football is fantastic for a number of reasons , but there is a risk that making the games too small will actually create too much pressure and too much chaos. With grassroots players, it is also important to be aware of players who are avoiding being
involved in the play (hiding in the crowd due to a lack of confidence), as
well as being lazy (not moving into good positions or making an effort to
defend). If the pitch is a little bit larger (but still within the
recommended range), this can solve both of these problems, as well as
hopefully encouraging better play (rather than 2m passes and lots of 1v1
dribbling for example).

In 11v11 football on a full size pitch, most of the players are often in a
more condensed area of the pitch as everyone follows the ball, so if players
in small-sided football are lazy in a slightly larger pitch and cause it to
become too spread out, or start booting the ball over greater distances
rather than looking to pass, then this is still a problem. But it is a
problem that can be solved with coaching, which after all, is why you are

If your players tend to not create space or get back when defending enough
in proper matches on the weekend, or boot the ball long too often despite
you encouraging the opposite of both of these, perhaps it is because they
are used to playing small-sided football in training that is so small that
they don’t experience situations where either of these behaviours are
possible until weekend matches. With the larger space and pressure of a real
opposition team, and little experience with this situation, it’s actually
not that surprising that they might suddenly play differently, and also not
be used to the effort required to cover the greater space.

Ideally, allow the players to choose which rules they’d prefer to have in
the tournament (you outline their options though), so they take some
responsibility for following them. They could be rules that apply to the
whole tournament, and/or rules that apply only to certain matches, to mix
things up. You could also try different rules during different training
sessions, allowing you to utilise this format more than once without it
getting too repetitive.

Some examples of tournament rules could be:
– first pass from all restarts is not free, but opponents must be 3m away
(force them to create good options)
– bonus points for goals scored with only 1-touch to encourage passing (and
positioning to score)
– bonus points for goals scored with their weaker foot
– add some technical points (good use of skill and teamwork) and respect
points (fair play and respect) to the competition ladder, awarded as you see
– make the goals wider and every team must play with a goalkeeper, even if
they don’t have one (they can rotate, or one or two players can volunteer)
use 2 goals each end (one on each wing) to encourage spreading out, as well as switching play when one side gets too crowded
– change the scoring method to ‘line football‘ where players must dribble
the ball over the end line, or receive a pass as they run over (or do both
at the same time but maybe reward one with a higher number of points)

Although more common rules such as 2-touch minimum/maximum and needing to
pass a minimum number of times can be useful when players are not in the
habit of taking a first touch, or they dribble too much, or don’t look to
pass often enough, consider avoiding using rules such as this when they
aren’t needed to avoid taking away decision making. For example, what if
passing the ball 1-touch, or dribbling, or scoring within only one or two
passes, is actually the best decision in that moment? Or, what if they take
two touches and then shield the ball because they realise they cannot take
any extra touches, or what if an attacker is right in front of goal but
cannot shoot because they still need to pass two more times – is this
realistic? Sometimes it can better to just modify the structure of the game
and the method of scoring or winning to encourage a certain way of playing,
and then letting the players come up with their own solutions on how to
achieve that.

Either way, if you set a rule, make sure you enforce it! Otherwise the
players might cheat or just ignore the rule. BUT, encourage them to referee
their own games as much as possible and resolve issues quickly, to develop
negotiation skills, avoid wasting time debating minor incidents, and needing
you to police everything.

Some other ideas you could use include:

– if you score, you get to keep the ball (force the other team to work even
harder to win possession back)
– instead of corners, just do goalkicks, but 3 corner ‘points’ = a goal, or
a penalty kick
– a certain number of players must all be over the halfway line for any goal
scored to count (increase concentration and movement off the ball, but also
effort from the defending team)
– unexpected scenarios e.g. change the score, or award throw-ins to the
wrong team deliberately, to teach them to focus on their task even if things
go against them
– to encourage them to always be aware of their team shape and positioning,
after a restart you could say: “first team to set up in their diamond
formation gets a bonus goal!”
– to prevent them from switching off during drink breaks, after 1 minute you
could say: “first team to come in and sit down as a group gets a bonus

Of course, at some point you will want to go back to running regular
training sessions. And in this case, the same principle applies
– intensity! Whether it’s passing practices or running with the ball
activities, 4v2 or 5v3 games or anything else, make sure it pushes the
players to their limits so they can be challenged and improve. A quick tip
is to pay a lot of attention to the quality of defensive pressure being
applied, so it creates realistic pressure for the attacking players to deal
with. The players will tire more quickly if you do this too, and so they’ll
also appreciate drink breaks more (instead of mucking around). A good way to
start is with a session focused on quick counter attacking and transition
into defence (with time limits for scoring), and then following this up in
subsequent sessions with a strong emphasis on the defensive effort required,
regardless of the overall focus, to ensure you get the highest possible

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