The importance of practice-design
Prior to discussing communication, the foundations of practice-design must be established. The question is do coaches know what a great player looks like? Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta, Scholes are a few obvious names but it is essential as a coach to identify what it is about these players that makes them great. If you cannot explain this then you don’t know what you’re working towards. Without this knowledge, a coach will be unable to provide the essential skills that aid players to attain greatness. Having this vision of what a coach is working towards will help produce the next generation of players that excite and entertain, across all playing positions.
We live in an era now where football has seen so many changes in the game, with goalkeepers like Neuer demonstrating high levels of technical excellence, bravery and skill that perhaps not many keepers before him have demonstrated on the world stage. So how do we develop these players? Well what we don’t do is train them using lines and drills where they only make decisions in an unchanging environment.
Unfortunately football for many years in England and in most countries around the world has been shadowed by a belief that techniques must be mastered first before progressing into game-play situations (Cassidy, Jones, & Potrac, 2009; Williams, Yates, & Ford, 2007) which only produces players that make decisions (action) with no perception skills due to the environment not changing, thus creating ineffective game players.
Expert Footballers use their knowledge of situational probabilities to predict where the player and ball is likely to go next (Ford, Yates, & Williams, 2010) by using their superior knowledge to control their eye movement to seek and pick up specific pieces of information needed to respond quickly to the situation (Williams & Ford, 2008) based on postural orientation.
This process requires players to audit a rapidly changing and random environment in order to know what appropriate response can be made (Williams, 2000; Future Game, 2010), therefore the more the players are exposed to environments that require them to think about what is happening and could happen in a changing environment, the better the learning experience will be for the player (Cartwright, 2008).
Put simply, players make decisions on time and space limitations through full or part opponent pressure, therefore in order to develop better decision makers with skill we need to place players in environments that allow them to make decisions under these conditions throughout the whole of their development years (Cartwright, 2008; Jones, 2015; Williams & Hodges, 2005).
“A coach who teaches his players the correct technique using special, frequently repeated drills is neglecting to teach them why, when and where they need to use technique to deal with a given game situation” (Wein, 2004, p.5).
The solution is for coaches to create training practices that offer direction, choice, challenge, competition, and opponent pressure with a purpose (Jones, 2015) where the practice constraints such as the area-size, the gradual increase of opposition players and the focus of the activity can be manipulated to bring about different decisions and player solutions. Players will also find the practices more enjoyable than they would lines-drills (Renshaw, Oldham, & Bawden, 2012; Vallerand, 2004) as they practices demonstrate ‘play’ in them for game-realism.
What is play?
Play is self-chosen and self-directed. It is something the players want to do as it is not something they have been ‘made’ to do, therefore it is fun. Play allows for freedom to make decisions and is an activity in which the means are more valued than the end (Cote, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007).
In order for players to have the opportunity to practice how the coach wants them to play, by making decisions on time and space, the coach needs to let them have enough time ‘playing’ the game. Often coaching involves long lectures, the coach stopping the practice every minute and only coaching mistakes. This isn’t enjoyable for players and fails to give them enough practice time to ‘practice playing the game’.
Play and Practice are two vital components to coaching future great players, because you
can’t achieve anything without the other. There has to be a balance of the two, which is why Play-Practice methods of teaching have been found to be useful in developing decision makers as they are often delivered in games or game-like activities where players learn in a fun environment (Launder, 2001).
What traits are needed to empower decision makers with skill? Creativity!
Coaches who place pressure on players to perform well on tasks that are mentally habitual meaning non-changing and repetitive like a line-drill type practice, induce a non-playful state that may improve performance on the task but worsen performance on tasks that require creativity, conscious decision making and learning of new skills in a changing environment (Gray, 2008). Clearly football is the latter.
“With decision making you need to let it evolve and grow” (Rene Meulensteen)
Communication is Vital
Within the practice design and environment, players will receive feedback on performance. This is the most critical aspect of coaching as mentioned in the highly regarded Soccer-Communication Book “Let’s Talk Soccer: Using game-calls to develop communication and decision making in football” is the ability of the coach enthuse players to communicate to each other in a way that paint’s pictures in the minds of the players on what to do, when and why. What this helps achieve is players who can play ahead of themselves (Play in the future) with increased anticipation and response skills.
Communication is as Sullivan (1993) suggests "the most critical element in the success of sporting teams’ due to there being “a positive correlation between enhanced interpersonal communication skills and higher levels of team performance” (p.90).
The problem however is that players now rely more on the voice of the coach than their own brain! With coaches doing most of the talking in training and in games, shouting instructions on what to do, where to go and when. Instead we should be developing the players ‘inner voice’ so that they understand what to do, when and why. The game is the assessment of the learning that’s taken place during the week, therefore as coaches we should be more observers during the game to see what has been performed well and what needs to be improved further.
How often do coaches use jargon or fancy buzz words which confuse the players, and have no relevance to the game-style of how they want the team to play? I would argue very often! What we need to do is create a football language specific to our club identity, game-style and vision for how we want to develop the future player!
Coaches must use words that directly link to the team’s game-style so that when used with players, they instantly understand what you mean, when and why. These words (game-calls) are not only words you use, but the concept is for the coach to ‘say less but achieve more’ with players speaking more than the coach by communicating to each other.
For example, if the player can’t play forward, he may shout “Start-again” to his teammate which instantly tells his teammate on the ball that there may be a risk going forward but the opportunity to play backwards and retain possession is available in order to go forwards.
This method helps create independent thinking footballers that can make decisions with skill
in response to the changing environment through unity not separation. What is the relevance to ‘practice-design’? Game-calls are game-specific words that make reference to decisions that can be made only in game-situations therefore the best way to teach game-calls and consequently game-understanding is to involve players in game-like activities (Jones, 2015).
The words that can be used can relate to all aspects of football performance, from “Press”, “No-turn” through to “Play-round”, “Balance” and “Two’s” with many more! These are examples of one or two words which the players say to each other in order to retain or regain possession of the football. What does ‘Balance’ or ‘Drive & slide’ mean? Unless the coach shows the players when to use these terms and how they relate to the game-style they won’t know.
Players, who are empowered to make decisions and learn by doing, will become better thinkers and reflectors, and therefore better at finding solutions to problems on the pitch without having to look at the coach for the answers all the time.
The future player will be a great ‘self-learner’ meaning they direct their learning by themselves, becoming highly skilled at self-talk, reflection, communication and action, all skills that are paramount to playing football successfully (Jones, 2015).
This will see the role of the coach, like Mourinho, Guardiola, and Wenger et al. becoming more ‘facilitators’ of knowledge rather than directors, with their role as the coach in the modern and future game as we are seeing now become more of a ‘significant other’ (Vygotsky, 1978).
It’s all about pictures! The mental pictures (models) of knowledge which players can draw upon during games in order to respond appropriately to visual cues are vital ingredients to the success of sporting teams. The best way to develop these mental models are by encouraging players to talk to each other through use of game-calls as these ‘trigger-words’ help the player develop these mental images related to game-scenarios. The only way this can be achieved properly is by coaches programming their work over a period of time, specific to each individual player’s needs.
Coaches need to know their players (learners) in terms of their strengths and areas for development, and design individual-specific programmes for each player to maximize their strengths. Coaches should see every player as an individual-project.
We can’t develop highly skillful, self-learners who drive their learning onto advanced levels without acknowledging the importance of ‘individualism’. This is where my belief about football and how it should be played links to what I see when I describe what a great player is! As famous Youth Coach John Cartwright explained “Football isn’t simply a team game, it’s about individual’s combining where necessary” (Cartwright, 2008) therefore the fundamental importance for all coaches is to develop ‘Individualism’ in every players by encouraging dribbling, skill, ball mastery and passing variations.
Players like Messi and Ronaldo are excellent self-learners; they drive their learning by a hunger to want to be the best they can be, committing hours and hours of practice to maximizing their strengths.
By underpinning our coaching methods with innovative methods of communication (Future Game, 2010) such as Game-calls, we will see an increased level of team cohesion, understanding, skill and unity towards the ‘transcendence’ stage of knowledge whereby the decisions players make become more autonomous (instinctive) with each other. Each of these topics are discussed in more detail in my book “Let’s Talk Soccer” where there are practical resources and session ideas on how to develop communication in order to create the next generation of ‘independent-thinking footballers’ who are great self-learners.
About the Author
Gérard Jones, MSc is the author of Let's Talk Soccer, a coaching manual about communication in football. He is currently completing the FA UEFA A Licence and FA Advanced Youth Award, holds a Master’s degree in Performance Coaching and is a Qualified Teacher with over 10 years coaching experience working with players from around the world.
Gérard is a former Director of Coaching at Arsenal Soccer Schools, having also worked as an Academy Coach from U7s-U16s at Rochdale AFC. Gérard currently works as a full-time Academy Coach at RIASA with Bradford City FC as an U21s Reserve Coach.
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