HOW DO WE AS COACHES INFLUENCE PLAYERS’ DECISIONS?
Swift in the head or fast on foot? Professional football’s rapid development suggests there is no choice left here. In an ideal world, players are capable of processing things on the go as well as making quick decisions, while having the physical condition to translate these into motoric movements.
Generally, experience and scientific effort in the field of “athleticism” research keeps up with this development. Recently, the topic of “neuro athletic training” witnessed a downright hype in the sector.
But how does this development look in terms of the subject of “tactics”? Which groundbreaking new findings have been published in this area of late?
The overriding principle offers an approach that takes age and development into account when it comes to conveying relevant content.
Taking a look at the overall topic of football tactics, the contentual design of training has to be addressed.
Many coaches as well as club concepts merely concentrate on conveying skills on the ball. However, these only make up a third of the process chain, which contains many other important components!
This kind of process corresponds with the sports scientific model by Mahlo:
PATHWAY TO DESIRED BEHAVIOUR
Which of these areas get the most attention during training sessions? Typically, it’s the area of “motoric solution”. It is improved constantly and corrected to the maximum in isolated training sessions, in order to – allegedly – make life easier for the players once they find themselves on the pitch.
However, this is not the whole truth.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR TRAINING PLAYERS IN PRACTICE?
Principally, coaches often differentiate between players with good intuition and game-intelligent players. For the latter, we anticipate more conscious processes, while with intuition players, we expect decision explanations to be rather sparse. What do these processes look like in the player’s head?
STIMULATE PLAYERS WITH PRINCIPLES, DON’T INSTRUCT!
The opposite of principle training would be training algorithms, meaning rigid and pre-defined action procedures. Actually, this kind of training is observed frequently – even on the professional level.
We should be giving players the competence to solve in-game situations and emerging obstacles by themselves. As with students, it’s impossible to feed them all available knowledge from all topics during their time in school. Nonetheless, it is possible to show them how they can learn and where they can find this information. This is more important, as it enables them to have access to all the available knowledge.
Sticking to this premise poses the question of how to shape the training content in order to guarantee efficient learning. Efficiency is achieved when we are able to combine fun and learning content.
What does the seven-year-old enjoy, and what about the twenty-year-old? How do these target groups differ? Starting the process of planning training, these are the questions one should ask, since they lay the foundation. It’s impossible to implement this in every second of every training session. But most training sessions we observe are not conceived with the goal of being fun – except maybe for the scrimmage at the end.
LEARNING GOALS NEVER AS SELF PURPOSE
Having laid this foundation and with players having a positive attitude towards training, one can speak about the manner of imparting.
“The next exercise is aimed at improving our passing”. This is a statement heard often on football pitches, the learning goal acting as self purpose. Alternatively, reasoning stretches into the future: “You will need this later”, “You can’t do that at the weekend”.
These kinds of instructions often fail because of the children’s and youth’s missing faculty of abstraction and the capability of thinking prospectively. In this context, Dr. Peter Kuhn likes to call children “Zen masters”, since for them, the current moment is the only thing that matters. However, this also presents grown-ups with motivational problems because of the missing direct feedback. Many people smoke, even though they know this behaviour could or will have consequences in the future. They still do it because there is no direct feedback. If smoking would immediately cause headaches or other problems, the number of smokers would probably be significantly lower.
There is no need to fight this fact. However, we can make use of it. If we know that direct feedback is necessary to cause behavioural change, then we should plan training sessions accordingly. With time, giving players constant advice wears off.
A different path is preferable. The exercise itself could deliver feedback, ideally with visible and tangible feedback for the players. The match at the weekend with its result at the end is also a feedback system in itself.
“PASSING THROUGH THE GATES”
- Set up cones and players according to the picture.
- Players pass the ball through the gates and queue up again.
- Different touch rules, also possible as a competition.
In Germany, this kind of passing exercise can be observed very often. Optionally, the cones are set up in a different order, but the exercise’s character stays the same: predefined actions, no alternatives.
For both examples, the first two steps of the process chain “perception – mental solution – motoric solution” are missing. Since teammates are always in the same position and passes are supposed to be played in the same way every time, they aren’t even necessary. The example does not offer a clear distinction between a good and a bad pass.
At least the gates offer visible feedback: if the ball passes through the gate, the pass was good – at least in theory. However, there is no feedback for any further criteria of a “good” pass. Making this exercise a competition takes us a step further. Passes with too little weight on them will result in a lower frequency, thus causing the competition element to be lost. Nonetheless, the situations are standardised and the same for each iteration. This design does not resemble the character of the game and ultimately results in boredom. A game of football still demands each step of Mahlo’s model.
In order to achieve a better result next time, players need instructions from their coach. They need to know why a pass was not good and how to improve. If they do not receive this feedback, one cannot expect players to learn a lot of things from this exercise.
ALTERNATIVE – CHAOS PASSING
- Set up cones and players according to the picture.
- Players always keep the ball within their team.
- The player in the middle receives the ball, carries it, and passes it to the other side.
- Each player follows his pass. From outside into the square, from the square to the outside.
- Vary distances, limit or allow free touches. Also possible as competition.
This exercise is our primary example for situations in which this typical statement is made: “My players don’t have the skills to complete all these in-game scenarios!” Even skill exercises can be performed within the process chain of “perception – mental solution – motoric solution”. This is also the case for this example.
Players need to constantly be aware of gaps and spaces to run into and pass through. In competition mode, fast and targeted running into space is even more important!
The described contents are also demanded in matches, tournaments and competitions. The smaller the gap between training session and competition, the more likely it is that these contents are implemented. Still, an age-appropriate training design remains priority number one!
THINK IN TASKS AND PRINCIPLES!
Principally, players and the tasks that need to be solved should come first.
Passing sequences, build-up sequences and “dry runs” only allow criticism and indicating mistakes in order to help players learn. This is why we try to act as supporters who help players solve their tasks.
Since we can’t control each and every small nuance during open matches, as is the case with exercises like passing through the gates, we need to apply universal principles.
For us, these principles are derived from an overriding playing philosophy. Ideally, this philosophy is specified by the club. This ensures that all coaches convey a similar idea.
According to these principles, methods that offer specific action alternatives need to be developed. Training session designs can then be derived from those.
Normally, a club has a playing philosophy that defines four different phases of the game: “own ball possession”, “opposition ball possession”, “ball acquisition” and “loss of possession”. In the meantime, we advise against this because this approach strongly focuses on the coach. Players have to implement contents in a match situation, not the coach. Thus, we have found a different way. Now, the four phases are “my team has possession”, “I have possession”, “the opposing team has possession” and “my opponent has possession”. This changes the way coaches convey the idea. Thinking in group or team tactical dimensions requires a distinct faculty of abstraction. Therefore, the best thing is to directly think from the players’ standpoint.
The opposition being in control of the ball then results in different tasks for the players. There is a clear difference between “my opponent” or “the opposing team” being in possession of the ball. The player whose opponent is in possession of the ball needs to apply principles like “I make an intelligent tackle” or “I identify and exploit press triggers”. For the other players, principles like “I protect the centre of the pitch” and “I support my teammate in winning the ball” can be formulated.
Within the principle of “I make an intelligent tackle”, there are methods that describe how to make an intelligent tackle: “keep my eye on the ball”, “set up sideways” or “mark early”.
For an Under 11 side, one could formulate the following age appropriate principles and methods for scenarios when one’s own team is in possession of the ball:
Generally, there are fewer principles and methods for the younger teams. It’s important though that principles applied in the Under 9s, Under 12s and Under 14s reappear in the Under 17s and Under 19s. In professional clubs, this structure also results in clearer scouting criteria and a more objective selection of players.
This approach provides players with multiple advantages. They get into a “flow” and know what they can or need to do in any situation on the pitch.
Skill aspects also play a role when it comes to implementing and mastering tasks. However, in order to identify the skill-related problems players have, I need to place them in situations similar to those in a match. Shortcomings will show themselves clearly and, if necessary, I can work on these specifically with the player. If performing under pressure is the problem, this player should not be repeating passing exercises from cone to cone.
SEBASTIAN VETTEL’S CAREER PATH
Unfortunately, this approach is common in youth football. Sebastian Vettel did not train steering, switching gears and opening the throttle in isolated exercises. In an age appropriate fashion, he learned racing in a go-kart. By perceiving curves, speed, other drivers and overtaking possibilities, he became an outstanding racing driver. Training these things in isolated scenarios is nearly impossible.
Any first driving lesson begins with a short instruction. After this, one takes a quick spin around the parking lot and then heads onto the streets. The driving instructor then supports and helps us to move through traffic. He tries to teach us to act independently through his reminders to switch gears and indicate. We should show this sort of behaviour more often in training sessions.
Let’s get back to the process of planning training sessions. Naturally, team tactical processes can also be displayed.
IF NECESSARY, ALSO AS AN 11V11
If one thinks it’s necessary to implement 11v11 sessions in training (personally, we don’t), there are different possibilities to enable players to learn “automatically”. These are already well-known and include rules regarding the halfway line or specific zones.
If some players aren’t in their own half, goals scored by the opponent count double. With this rule, players further up top will join in with the “I support my teammate in winning the ball” principle, since one of its demanded methods is “keep up with the play”.
Also, the space of play can be changed by declaring specific zones, setting up more goals and goal positions, or new team strengths.
If goals scored from a marked middle zone also count double, players will try to protect the centre of the pitch. By doing this, they fulfil the principle of “I protect the centre”. If they don’t know exactly what to do, we can show them methods like “close the inner line” or “direct your opponent to the outside”.
LEARNING FROM THOMAS TUCHEL
In this context, we like to refer Thomas Tuchel’s lecture on the principle of “diagonal-flat”. Ever since he and his staff had taken over in Mainz, his team showed a specific pattern they didn’t like: they often played the ball down the sideline. In Tuchel’s eyes, this kind of pass doesn’t have much of a chance of resulting in a goal, while often times being intercepted.
Drawing from this, he cut off the corners of all training pitches. He didn’t want to correct each and every pass down the sideline by demanding a “diagonal-flat” playing style, the latter being a playing principle for the phase of own ball possession.
A prime example of implicit training.
In order to successfully convert content from training to competition, we need to keep the gap between requirements in training and in competition as narrow as possible. Each and every training session should be aimed at projecting all three phases of “perception – mental solution – motoric solution”. This procedure is crucial for a long-term, sensible education.
Clearly formulated match phases, principles and methods create guidelines for an effective and efficient cooperation on the pitch.
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