The Football Game

Before you learn about coaching and how to coach the first step is to make sure that the context of this coaching is clear. This means that we must first have an understanding of the characteristics of the sport before we start learning about what and how to coach. The purpose of this post is to give you an objective description of the game, a frame of reference for your coaching. When signing up to be the coach of a football team, you signed up to coach the game of football. Therefore it is a good idea to first make sure that we have defined the characteristics of the game so that we know what to improve. You might think that some of what will follow is a given and so simple you can’t believe it. However, when looking at training sessions with youth players especially, it could be argued that these “simple things” are not understood by most coaches. 

First and foremost football is a game. A game is defined as a competitive activity played according to rules that are specific to that sport. Moreover, football is a team sport which is defined as two or more players working together and competing against another team in order to win the game. This first part is extremely obvious but for some reason forgotten or not understood by many coaches around the world. Given the fact that football is a team sport and a game, how can it be possible for coaches to instruct players to be alone with or without a ball and no team-mates or opponents? The simple answer is that these coaches either do not know that football is a team sport and a game, or they are coaching a different sport.

Football is played with 11 players on each team and a referee on the pitch. This means that there are always 23 people on the pitch that influence the outcome of the game. In addition you might have more referees on the side of the pitch that also influence the game. This means that the game of football is extremely complex. Not only do you have 10 team-mates that you cannot control directly as a player, but you also have 11 opponents that you can definitely not control. And to make life as a football player even harder, the referee is not always correct in every decision. The fact that the game is played continuously over 90 minutes with only a half-time break and no timeouts or other longer stoppages (other than due to injuries and substitutions) makes it an even more difficult game. There are so many moving parts that you as the coach and the players on your team cannot control directly unlike in other sports where there are more longer breaks or the possibility for you as the coach to use a timeout. Since the game is so complex it is simplified for younger players in order to gradually increase complexity from an early age in line with the development of their brains. This simplification is done by reducing the number of players on both teams, making the pitch smaller and reducing the playing time. How this simplification is done could be different depending on where in the world you are since it’s the local federations who decide over this.

As previously noted, football is a team game and as all other games – individual or team games – you play to win. In football you win by; within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent. The ’within the rules of the game’ part is important to notice. Just imagine that you were allowed to pick up the ball with your hands and run to the other side of the pitch where you could throw the ball into the opponents goal and be awarded a goal. It would be much easier to control the ball with your hands than trying to control this spherical object we call a ball with your feet. However, since the rules of the game states that you are not allowed to control the ball with your hands (exception made for the goalkeeper inside the penalty box) you cannot score a goal in football this way. This is only one example of a rule that makes the game of football more difficult than it could be. It should be noted that in some competitions it can be of a higher order for a team to not lose a game than winning. This could be the case if the one point will help the team reach a greater objective like winning the league, advancing in the cup or not being relegated.

When new coaches are asked at a coaching course what the objective of football is they often answer things like ”playing well”, ”keeping possession” or ”having fun”. No, these non-contextual words are not what football is about. The objective of football is to; within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent and as a consequence win the game. Does this mean that the players shouldn’t have fun? Of course not. Playing a game and competing against others is what is fun and a basic element of human nature, we humans love to compete! It doesn’t matter if it’s football or chess, the competitiveness of different games and your possibilities as a player to make decisions and influence the outcome on your own is what makes it fun. Imagine you are playing chess and you’re constantly getting told by the chess coach what move to execute next, would you want to keep playing chess? What if you where not allowed to play chess to win, but the way you moved the pieces was regarded as more important. Would you keep playing or would you eventually throw the chess board up in the air and walk away? 

What can we as coaches learn from this analogy? One thing is that players will have more fun if no one tells them what to do all the time, something that is especially important for youth coaches to remember. The other thing would be to remember that it is a game and as a coach you need to let your players compete. This means players will both win and lose since these two results are equally present in game. But when they play they should at least ”keep possession” all the time, right? No. It’s important to understand that “keeping possession” which means to have control of the ball within your team, is not an objective by itself and that there is something within the game of football that is of a higher order, more important than keeping the ball, namely scoring one more goal than the opponent. In football you actually want to give the ball to the opponent at least once in every game, when you score a goal. Therefore if a coach says that the objective of football is to “keep possession”, the coach is saying that they don’t want to score a goal. With this said we must also recognize that without having the ball you cannot score a goal (unless the opponent scores an own goal). There could be moments during a game where having the ball might be very important, and possibly more important than trying to score a goal. Imagine your team are 1-0 up and it’s 5 minutes left of the game, if you are able to keep the ball in your team for the rest of the game you will be guaranteed to win. However, in general, having the ball for the sake of having the ball makes no sense and is not football.

But it must be equally important to ”play well”, right? Well, what does ’play well’ mean? Imagine that you and your friend are watching a game and you might think that team A is playing really well. However, your friend doesn’t think so and says as a matter of fact that team B is playing much better! Who is right, you or your friend? Since ’playing well’ is a subjective interpretation by whomever is observing a game, you are both right. As a coach it might be good to remember that what you think is ’playing well’, might not be the same as your board or director of coaching thinks. These subjective interpretations might land you as a coach in trouble or even without a job. To ”play well” is someones subjective preference of how a certain team executes the different team functions and therefore of a lower order than the objective of the game. To summarize, the objective of the game of football is to; within the rules of the game, score at least one more goal than the opponent.


What is coaching football?

If you venture online you can find many different resources online about how you can coach football. These resources usually have their starting point in someone else’s subjective application of coaching football and their particular environment. That means that everything is based on someone else’s players and often with an assumption that you as a coach has a certain amount of knowledge. This in itself doesn’t need do be a problem as long as you as the coach who are visiting these resources understand that this is the case. However, you will have a problem if your own subjective application of coaching football takes someone else’s subjective application as the starting point. Subjectivity x Subjectivity = Chaos. In this post, we will look at what coaching football is from a philosophical starting point. This will give you as the coach an objective knowledge reference that you can use as the starting point when you coach in different environments.

The first step in creating this objective reference for coaching football is to clarify that it is something that happens within the context of the game of football. As described earlier, this game has different team functions; attacking, defending and transitioning, with the objective of winning which is done by scoring at least one more goal than the opponent. The team functions have different team tasks, when your team is attacking they are executing the team tasks of building up to create chances and (hopefully) scoring while when defending they are disturbing the build up of the opponent and preventing scoring. Each player on the pitch contributes to the respective team task by executing different football actions, i.e. passing, creating space, pressing, blocking passing options etc. All football actions is communication, decision making and execution of that decision. To summarize, in football it is the players who the decisions on the pitch which is why football is called a players sport and not a coaches sport. 

Just imagine that you as the coach would ignore the context of the game when delivering your training sessions. How would that look? Well, it could for example mean that you have activities where players are kicking the ball around cones, executing kicking the ball patterns (”passing patterns”) without opponents and other, similar activities without the presence or need for communication (verbal and non-verbal) and decision making. Execution for the sake of execution. Does this example sound familiar? Unfortunately there are many coaches all over the world who mistakenly spend most of their training sessions conducting similar circus tricks or different types of track and field exercises like running around the pitch. This is not coaching football, these are examples of coaching circus tricks and coaching track and field. Coaching football is you as the coach helping the players improve their football actions. But how can you improve a football action without any communication and decision making? It is impossible.

As you know, the game of football is played 11 against 11 and in youth football for younger players, the game is simplified with fewer players on each team to make it less complex. This means that it is impossible to improve football by coaching each player individually. As a coach who is coaching football you must take the player’s team-mates, opponents and the context of the game into consideration when coaching. You are only coaching football if you are coaching in the context of the different team functions; attacking, defending and transitioning, team tasks and the opponent. When you are coaching football you are improving the individual players’ football actions to improve the quality of the different team tasks and team functions in order for your team to perform better and increase the chance of winning.

As discussed earlier, a football action is communication, decision making and execution of a decision. When you are coaching football, the relevant communication is there for all players; team-mates, opponents, team function, team task and possibly game specific information (time left,  score, cup or league game etc). You have as a coach made sure that the player has all the relevant information from their surroundings through this communication that it is possible to make a decision and execute it. When you have made sure that the communication from the players’ surroundings are as close to what the player will see in the game as possible you have created the basis for coaching football. Because the surrounding is like the game, the player will start to make decisions that will also happen in the game. These decisions may be good or bad, the execution of these decisions may also be better or worse. This is what you coach. 

When coaching football your players are making decisions and executing them in a game-like environment. Helping the player to make better decisions and execute them better is the job of the football coach (more on this later). Improving players football actions is improving their decision making and execution of decision which is what coaching football is. This can only be done in the context of team-mates, opponents and the different team functions and team tasks.   

New coaches

Every year there are many new coaches all over the world who want to help players improve and enjoy the game. Most of these coaches are parents to one or more of the players, not all of these parents coach because of their love of the game but they do coach out of love at some level. Maybe some of these parents had to take the role of coach for their children’s team just because no one else would. On the other hand you also have former players with different levels of experience that start to coach every year. You have the former professional player who has a lot of experience from the game, but may lack theoretical knowledge or an understanding of how to coach. There is also the former player who realized at an early age that the only part of their body that were good at playing football was the brain and therefore want to coach instead. Some new coaches might be a combination of what is described above. 

What does all of these new coaches have in common? Whether it be the parent coach, the former pro player or the young kid who decided to start coaching? Well, they are all human beings and they all step into the role of the coach. However, they do so with a vast difference of knowledge and experience which gives them all different starting points for coaching their players. The objective for all these new coaches are the same because they are coaching the same game. This means that all new coaches should have the same starting point. You could call it a common level of minimum knowledge about the game and the coaching of football players. 

We know that this is not the case and that there is a very differencing level of knowledge about football and coaching for new coaches coming into the game. This is also something the governing body of the sport, FIFA knows and the reason why your local football federation offers coaching courses. Now, you would think that these coaching courses, especially the first one for new coaches, would all look the same all over the world. It is the same sport that is played on all continents of the world is it not? A football player in China has the same number of team-mates, opponents on an equally big pitch as the player in England. However, when comparing the courses and the literature that is distributed by different football federations all over the world you might start to think that they are educating coaches to coach different sports. 

What is fascinating is that on most coaching courses by the federations to new coaches there are little or no talk about what the game actually is. Usually the coach educator dives straight into handing out different drills or exercises, tricks for keeping the children under control and showing the new coaches “how it’s supposed to be done”. Just imagine you are a student at a university learning advanced math and your professor comes into the classroom and gives you the answers to the equation, but never teaches you the principles for solving the equation on your own. This is football education in most places of the world today. You receive a problem; improving football players, and some nice person with a badge of the federation (or a top club) provides you with an answer. The problem is that you do not know if this answer is the correct one, and it never is. Since the answer you received was derived from a different equation (i.e. other players than yours) it can never be 100% correct. Would it not be better if the coach education taught you the underlying principles for improving football players? 

As a new coach, learning about the characteristics of the game and of coaching football will give you a much greater chance of reaching the objective of improving football players. If you as a coach has an objective reference for what the game is and what coaching football is you are in a much better position to help your players improve than if you do not. When you have attained a basic theoretical knowledge of football and coaching you will be able to conduct training sessions that improve your players and lets them enjoy the game. Of course, having the theoretical knowledge and objective references for the game and coaching doesn’t mean you will be the best coach the world has ever seen; how you apply this knowledge is the next step in your education to become a football coach. 

Improving Communication

We know that as a football coach your role is to improve the quality of your players football actions. This means that the reason for the coach to be in the training session is to improve the communication between players within the different team functions and team tasks by improving the decision making of the individual players. By helping players make better decisions you as the coach are improving the quality of your players football actions and as a result you are improving football. 

Imagine taking over a new team before the upcoming season. You start by analyzing the squad and notice that there are a lot of new players that has arrived during the break. What does this mean for you as the new coach of this team with all the new players? Will the level of communication between the players in the team be high or will it be lower than if the team stayed intact during the break? Now, you might be thinking that the level of communication will obviously be lower with new players than if all players from last season would still be there. The question for you as the coach will be; how can you improve the communication between players as soon as possible?

There are two general ways of coaching your players, either you are coaching them explicitly, by more or less telling them what to do, or you are coaching them implicitly, letting the players learn from their own experiences in different situations. When you are coaching your players explicitly you are using different references and explaining for your players what they could do in a given situation. This reference coaching (explicit learning) is an important tool for any coach and hopefully your references have their starting point in the objective characteristics of football and not your subjective feelings or opinions.

When you let your players experience different situations from which they can learn the players have a greater chance of retaining knowledge through implicit learning. This situational coaching is a different way of coaching players that is not easy to do well and demands a lot from you as the coach. For you to be good at situational coaching you will need to plan for certain situations to happen that will make the players learn whatever it is that you have set out as the learning objective.    

Let’s get back to you and your new team with all the new players. How should you coach your team in the beginning of the season given the fact that the level of communication is low? Would you use mainly reference coaching or situational coaching? In order to answer this question you need to consider your external factors, such as; what age group are these players, are they professional or amateur, are you expected to win now or develop the team/club? You may have different or additional external factors in your situation that will further complicate the decision of how to improve the communication in your team.   

Imagine that the team you are taking over is a professional team. Generally speaking you will have players with a higher level of decision making than if you were coaching an amateur team. How does this effect the way you set out to improve the communication in your team? Since your players are good at making decisions on the pitch, maybe it’s a good idea to use more situational coaching to let them experience situations that they can learn implicitly from in order to improve the communication. This does not mean that you will never use reference coaching of course, since you as the new coach needs to establish your references with the team. However, coaching players with a higher level of decision making could mean that it’s a good idea to use more situational coaching than reference coaching.

Now, if we imagine for a second that the team you are taking over with all these new players are an amateur team, would that change how you set out to improve the communication between players? 

At the amateur level you will generally have players with a lower level of decision making than at the professional level. In other words, the amateur players do not have all the tools to make good decisions as the professional player has. This means that you as the coach will need to provide the players with more tools by establishing clear references for them using reference coaching. It does not mean that you should tell the players what to do all the time, but that it might be a good idea to do more reference coaching than situational coaching in the beginning until the communication between players improves.

As you can imagine a good coach needs to be able to do both reference coaching and situational coaching in order to improve players. Analyzing all the external factors in your environment and deciding how to improve the communication between your players is the art of coaching. Knowing about reference coaching and situational coaching will let you as a coach improve your coaching and gives you a higher chance of improving your players. 


The Football Coach

What is the purpose of the football coach within the game of football? We know what the coach does in training when interacting with the players, we call that coaching football. But why is the football coach present in training and what is it that the person in this role is supposed to do? In order to answer these questions we will take a philosophical approach to the game and see where the football coach fits.

The starting point for coaching football is the objective characteristics of the game. The fact is that football is a game with a set of rules, it is played on a surface that has certain boundaries within a certain time frame. In order to win this game your team needs to score minimum one more goal than the opponent who are also trying to win. The number of players, the size of the surface and the time that you play the game might vary depending on certain external factors as for example the age of the players and your local federation and their adaptations of the rules.

In every game of football when one team has control of the ball they are attacking and the other team is defending. When control of the ball is lost one team is transitioning from attacking to defending while the other team is transitioning from defending to attacking. This is what is called team functions, the whole team is constantly either attacking, defending or transitioning between these team functions during a game. When attacking, your team is either building up in order to create scoring opportunities or trying to convert these chances by scoring. At the same time the opponent is defending by disrupting your build up or disrupting your attempt to score. Together with transitioning to attacking and transitioning to defending these are different team tasks that your team is executing in every game.

Within these different team functions and team tasks your players are constantly interacting with their surrounding. For example, when your team is attacking and building up, your players are interacting with the field, their teammates and their opponents in order to create a chance to score a goal. They do this by executing different football (inter)actions such as passing, creating space, dribbling, shooting etc. However, before your player can pass the ball, the player first communicates with their surrounding in order to know where the ball is, where their teammates and opponents are, and of course where they themselves are positioned on the field. It is only when they have this information, the non-verbal and verbal communication of their surroundings that the player is able to make a decision. If the player decides to pass the ball they execute this decision by kicking the ball in a certain way to a teammate from a certain position, at a certain moment, in a certain direction, at a certain speed. This means that a football (inter)action is communication, decision making and the execution of that decision within the context of the team function and team task.

At a higher level of football the game is played at a higher tempo than at a lower level. The amount of space and time available for the players to make decisions and execute these decisions at a higher level is less than at a lower level. This means that players who play at a higher level needs to execute football actions faster than a player at a lower level. At a lower level, players have more space and time available for executing the same football action than at a higher level. The football actions themselves are the same on all levels of football, for example you press, pass and dribble both at a lower level and a higher level. However, the difference between a lower level and a higher level is the space and time available for each player to make a decision and execute that decision.

In order to go from a lower level to a higher level your players need to make better decisions and execute these decisions better. In other words, the quality of their football actions needs to improve. A higher quality football action is better communication (non-verbal & verbal), better decision making and execution of that decision. When there is less space and less time, the quality of communication between teammates need to be higher as well as the quality of the individual players decision making that also needs to be higher.

The question then becomes, how are your players going to improve the quality of their football actions? And this is where you, in the role as the football coach comes into play. As a football coach your role is to improve the quality of your players football actions. This means that the reason for the coach to be in the training session is to improve the communication between players within the different team functions and team tasks by improving the decision making of the individual players. By helping players make better decisions you as the coach are improving the quality of your players football actions and as a result you are improving football.


Implementing a playing style

How do you implement a new playing style in a team that have been used to play in a different way? First, let’s define what a playing style is; in the game of football you win by scoring minimum one more goal than the opponent. There are three different team functions for every football team in every game, namely attacking, defending and transitioning. The playing style is HOW you attack, defend and transition, or in other words; the subjective application of the team functions with your external factors. The playing style is a reference for the communication between your players when making decisions in the game and executing these decisions on the pitch.

As a coach you probably have a certain how you want your team to attack, defend and transition. Hopefully this how is based on the combination of your external factors, like the quality of the players in your squad, the league your team is in, the culture of the club and country you are working in etc. With the game of football as your objective starting point, you as the coach adapt to your external factors and apply your subjective how to the different team functions in your environment. This is what is called a playing style.

Imagine taking over a team before the season and coming to the conclusion after analysing the different external factors that a different playing style than before needs to be implemented. The question now becomes, how do you do that? How do you implement a new playing style?

One way of doing it is to begin by telling the players what to do in a certain situation within one of the team functions. In other words you are for example telling the players the how of attacking. What could be a potential problem with this method of top-down coaching? Well, one question worth asking is if the player after being told what to do will execute the decision of the player or the coach when attacking. Another question is if the learning experience may be limited since the player is only being told what to do in a certain number of situations. If a different situation arises there might not be a clear reference for the player to make a decision that is in line with the playing style.

A different way of implementing a playing style is to approach the learning process from the other way around. Instead of telling the players what to do in a certain team function, you as the coach manufacture situations in training that create a problem that the players must solve. It just so happens that the solution to this particular problem, the how of solving attacking for example, is the how you want your team to attack. After letting your players experience a certain problem in the training session you can guide them by creating a reference for their decision making in accordance to your playing style. When your players show the desired behaviour in training you might emphasise this by for example showing a video clip after the session or before the next training session. This way you let the players experience something before you make them realise what they have done which will improve the learning effect.

Now, if you take over a team mid-season you might need to tell the players what to do in order to make a quick change of playing style. If, however you have a preseason to prepare, or are working with younger players, you will probably notice an increased learning effect by letting the players experience situations before you provide the reference of how your team should play.

What language?

When you are coaching at a club you might have a lot of resources at your disposal in the form of coaches and other people who come from outside football. The reason all of the coaches and people from outside football is in your office is because they are supposed to help you and your team. These people from outside football might call themselves different things like ”mental coaches”, ”strength and conditioning coaches”, ”performance analyst” or something else that they invented in a university hall.

It’s important to remember that all of these people are there to help your players improve and perform to increase the chance of winning games. However, this may not be the starting point for these different people from outside football. There is a risk that they step into the football world with  their own motives for using their speciality with your team. Without understanding the context of improving players, they may implement ’improving their own speciality’ with your players. Instead of contributing to the improvement of the team and the football player, these people from outside football are improving their own speciality / technique / niche and using the players as tools to reach their own objective. This is a problem since it should be the other way around; the objective is to improve the team and the players, the tools are what this specialist from outside football brings to the table and the football coach is the one who decides which tool to use at what time.

The most intriguing question is how it’s possible that these specialists from outside football can hijack the coaching process and turn players into their tools? Firstly it’s important to understand that these people from outside football may not know the context, they may not understand what football is even if they say that they do. Secondly, these often highly educated people from outside football are experts within their speciality which means that they may not understand their place within the hierarchy of coaching football. This is not their fault since they are not educated in a football context, but an academic context or in some instances, the context of another sport.

What you see is that for some football coaches it is difficult to make these specialists from outside football aware of the context that is improving the team by coaching football. This is often due to the language barrier between the academic world and the football world. These specialists from outside football may use language straight out of the laboratory at the university that the football coach does not understand. This could be intimidating for the football coach and makes it difficult to establish the context. The point of least resistance is to let the academic mumbojumbo specialist do whatever they want in order to reduce the risk of a conflict. This is probably the main reason that makes it possible for these specialists from outside football to hijack the coaching process.

It is your responsibility as the football coach to make sure that the specialists that you bring into the game are made aware of the context and what role they fill within this context of coaching football. In addition it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone on your coaching staff, including the specialists from outside football speak the same language; football language. This language problem is such a big problem that football federations are educating football coaches in academic mumbojumbo so that they have a bigger chance of interpreting what the specialists are talking about. This is of course the world upside down. When these specialists step into our football world, they are the ones that should be educated in ’pressing’, ’passing’ and ’creating space’, not the other way around.

For football coaches who have the possibility to use specialists from outside football it’s important to remember that you are the one who is responsible for making them understand the context. If they are made aware of what their job is they can become a valuable resource with a range of tools that will help your main objective of improving football.


Prioritizing Youth Development

When developing youth players you are helping the players improve their decision making and the executions of these decision in the context of football. Now, for some reason this is not something that everyone seams to understand and as a result there are youth players all over the world doing a lot of strange things besides playing football in training. In this post the subject of training with multiple groups/teams during a single training week will be looked at. In some countries there is a ’quantity discussion’ since they are prioritizing different external interests instead of developing football players that we will shortly discuss before moving on to the non-existing quality discussion.

Imagine going to the gym in the morning to lift weights and then going back to the gym after work repeating the session, will you be 100% recovered from the morning when you start the session after work? Of course not, this is impossible due to the muscle damage (more or less) picked up in the morning. You may feel ’not tired’ when you start your after work session, but you felt more fresh in the morning. For football players, this means that when the players train twice a day, they arrive to the second session without being fully recovered from the morning session. They start the second session fatigued, more or less. When this fatigue accumulates over time, odds are the body of the player will at some time step in and protect the player from its surroundings through injury or illness that gives the player time to rest and recover. It is important to remember that it’s not normal to become injured or ill, even though it seams like too many football coaches think so.

Given these facts it’s obvious that you should only train football once a day, so the burn-out problem in youth players is mostly solved. But let’s zoom out from the now settled ’quantity discussion’ and look at the effects of the quality of football development. What is the consequence for youth players when they train with two or more sets of team-mates (other players) and multiple coaches on different days in the same week? What happens when a player is training one session with one group of players and the next day trains with another group of players? Are these two groups who contain different players using the exact same playing style and therefore the tactical reference is the same in both groups? Or might there be a difference in the tactical reference (the playing style) from one group to the other which means that the job of the player might be vastly different even when playing in the same position in both groups?

This example of potentially different tactical references visualizes the fact that communication between players and their interpretation of the surroundings will be compromised when training with different groups of players one day after the other. Just imagine that you are playing in a central midfield role with one group and developing certain habit patterns and behaviors that make you a very successful player in this surrounding. However, these same habits and behaviors turn out to be counterproductive or even unacceptable in the second group you are training with. If your behavior on game day is the one learnt from the ’wrong’ group you will perform worse than you could’ve done otherwise. As a youth player this poor performance might lead you to think that you are not able to perform at this level and you might end up on the bench as a result. This makes the negative thinking spiral and ’thinking that you can’t do it’ might soon be a common thought in games and trainings. The question you have to ask yourself as a player is if you are only wasting your time in these trainings or if you are actually becoming a worse player?

Now you may be thinking that we have a problem with this picture, and this is before we have  covered the fact that all players in these different groups are different individuals who have their own personal non-verbal communication (body language) and decision making. So even if these two groups were to use exactly the same tactical reference, there could be other problems, so let’s look at a couple of examples of what could happen. Imagine being the central midfielder again, in the one group you would have a right winger who comes towards you wanting to receive the ball in the feet. However, when the right winger of the second group comes towards you it is to drag the defender out, turn and get the ball in the space behind. Now imagine a striker in the first group who has a defender on the right side and calls for the ball, wanting to receive it to the left. The striker in the second group, being in the same position with a defender to the right wants to receive the ball in front to use their body to turn the defender away and go the other way. Could this lead to miscommunication between you and your team-mates and as a result some ’bad passes’ in the game on Saturday?

These two groups may be different teams in one club, it could be club and regional team, club and school programs or any other variant with different groups. The problem is the same in each scenario. As a consequence of continually exposing players to different groups during the training week, the decision making of youth players are being underdeveloped. When the surrounding is constantly changing from day to day the level of communication between players is lower and the information required to make good decision is less. When you add things like growth spurt and hormonal changes with the effects on the thinking of youth players into the mix you will probably agree that this practice by adults, constantly changing the surroundings for these youth players, is irresponsible at best.

Creating a safe environment for youth players should be of the highest priority for all coaches. An environment where the player can think about their football actions and improving their decision making instead of thinking about who they will play with, what pitch to train on, what color shirt to wear today and what coach to listen to. This does not mean that a player should never train with a second group to test that level, however constantly changing groups and/or teams from day to day may not be very smart.

Protect it

What happens when you are in a position of power and notice that someone below you in the hierarchy threatens your position as the proverbial top dog? Back in the old days when the King felt threatened by an underling he simply ordered them killed and the problem was solved. The King knew that if the threat to his position wasn’t removed, nature would run its course and he would eventually be replaced as King. But what does any of this have to do with football in general and coaching in particular?

Well, if we disregard the killing part, and exchange ’King’ with ’Coach’ you might recognize this behavior from clubs or teams where protecting one’s position as head coach is more important than improving players. This protectionist behavior could be a natural response to a string of bad results when a coach becomes fearful of being fired and isolates themselves and their loyal servants from the rest of the world. It is also possible that a protectionist behavior stems from the underdeveloped culture that the coach is working in, club or country, or it could simply be the consequence of a coach with low intelligence and who is lacking knowledge. Usually in bigger leagues, you sometimes see this protectionist behavior arise in clubs that are struggling, a common precursor to a coaching change, which is ironic since the fear of being fired could be one of the major reasons to become protectionist in the first place. However, in smaller countries and lower level leagues this type of behavior could be cultural, meaning that it is represents the normal and not the abnormal way for a head coach to behave. In these countries and leagues, the one eyed is King.

Imagine you are working in a coaching staff for a club that has historically been doing pretty well. Now, despite their relative success, you have identified a range of areas that could be improved in order to achieve better training, better players and increase the chance of promotion. In preseason you sat down with the head coach and talked about the things you identified and explained that if you could implement some changes the quality of the sessions would improve dramatically.  When you explained these things your head coach looked somewhat dumbfounded but you were given the go-ahead to implement some of your suggestions in preseason training. The suggestions rejected by the head coach was due to the fact that it was not something the head coach had done before and things had been going quite well anyhow.

You were allowed to implement some of your suggestions early in the preseason when the head coach appeared to be less interested in the sessions. However, a couple of bad results at the end of preseason made the head coach change things around both in games and in the training sessions, guess what things were discarded first? When the season begins and your team starts by losing the first three games, all of the suggestions you implemented in preseason are gone. The head coach stop listening to you and reverts to doing things the way it was done the year before since they didn’t lose the first three games that year. You notice that the directors of the club think that the head coach made a smart decision in reverting to the old ways that worked before, and you might somewhat agree since the team did in fact lose the first three games of the season. This thinking is common in the lands of the ”blind”. However, what is the long term consequence of always doing the same things every season?

When the head coach closes the door on you and the other assistants and revert back to doing things the way they have always been done, the protectionist is in place. Imagine yourself being the head coach in this example. What is the consequence of shutting out your assistant coaches who come with suggestions on how to improve your training sessions and the team? Not only will your training sessions always be at the level they have always been, your players will hardly improve if you as their head coach show them that you’re not interested in improving yourself.

When you as the head coach close the door, or removes the perceived threat, the protectionist culture is in place and your assistant coaches will refrain from coming with future suggestions and ideas that could improve your team. Within a short period of time you also risk building up resentment from those who are supposed to help you which means you’re left with the only option that was available to the ancient kings. Getting rid of those coaches and players who are threatening your position on the throne.

”It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” – Steve Jobs

Now, odds are the losses at the end of preseason and the start of the season had less to do with the improvements in the training session you implemented and more to do with other factors. If it was your improvements that was the problem, shouldn’t they been discarded earlier in the preseason and not after 8 preseason games and the first loss? Your head coach should recognize that continuous improvement is one of the corner stones in good organizational leadership and be thankful for having good assistant coaches. Isolating yourself from the outside world when things are bad and thinking that you can do it all on your own is never the solution.

Turn It Around

Imagine a team that is over-performing in the first half of the season to the degree that they are in the top of their league. All of a sudden they start losing every game and towards the end of the season they find themselves on the verge of relegation. What might be the reason for a team that has been over-performing predictions in the first half of the season to suddenly fall into a long losing streak? More importantly, what can you as the coach of such a team do to turn a long losing streak around and save your team from potential relegation?

There may be many different reasons for a team to over-perform in the beginning of a season, ranging from the timing of when you play who and where to the simple, but difficult to comprehend, factor of luck. Nevertheless, the interesting part in our example is not why the team is over-performing but what happens to players and coaches when it does. How is the thinking of players and coaches affected when their team that was predicted to struggle and finish in the lower half of the table over-perform and find themselves in a position to potentially challenge for the title? Are they still thinking actions and tasks or are they thinking how good they are all of a sudden? Imagine yourself being the coach of this team, wouldn’t it be easy to start thinking about the increased attention your team is receiving? Your players who were predicted to be in the lower half of the table all of a sudden find themselves in this new and surprising situation of being touted as a top team. Could this affect the thinking of your players? Is it possible that they may start thinking consequence (positive or negative) instead of thinking actions?

Imagine walking down the sidewalk and looking at your phone while thinking reading article instead of thinking avoiding garbage can. Suddenly you are realizing that your foot hurts after banging into the garbage can that all of a sudden appeared out of nowhere. Now, you know that this pain in your foot is your own fault and the logical consequence of thinking reading article on your phone instead of thinking walking on the sidewalk. Applying this analogy to our example of the over-performing team it makes sense that when players and coaches start thinking about something else than actions and tasks you risk banging your foot on the garbage can all of a sudden. The question is if you as the coach are able to realize that it’s your own fault that you banged the garbage can and have the ability to correct your thinking to be more aware of the sidewalk and as a result increase the chance of avoiding a long losing streak that brings your team on the verge of relegation.

What are some of the common traps coaches fall into when they find themselves in this situation with a sudden losing streak after a successful start of the season? The biggest mistake is of course to ignore the garbage can entirely and only blame the external factors; ”it came out of nowhere”, ”someone else put it there” or ”the pain in my foot comes from something else”. Coaches who ignore the facts and blame the surroundings instead of holding themselves accountable have a greater risk of making the following mistakes. For example, a coach thinking external factors might start to make many changes to the lineup in an attempt to counteract these external factors, real problems or not. In the middle of a losing streak you not only see coaches changing the lineup from game to game but you also see coaches who attempt to change their playing style midseason and introduce new formations from game to game. All this to fight the symptoms of pain instead of fighting the disease of not thinking walking on sidewalk.

What is the consequence for your players when the lineup is changed after each game? What if you introduce new formations and change the playing style midseason? Naturally, the level of communication between the players drops since they are playing with new team-mates from game to game. When introducing a new formation or a new playing style in the middle of the losing streak you also risk that the players decision making take longer since they find themselves in a new surrounding with new directions. In other words, the players are not sure what to think, they are exposed to uncertainty since they don’t know who will play or even how they will play from game to game. Instead of players thinking about their own actions you now have players thinking about the coach’s actions and the consequences these might have for them.

Switching the thinking of your players and coaches back to actions and tasks in the middle of a losing streak is by no means an easy task. The higher the pressure from the outside world is, the harder it is for players to think actions instead of thinking consequences. However, as a coach it is a good idea to not make things worse for yourself by falling into the traps described earlier. This scenario of being in the middle of a losing streak might also be a very good opportunity for a coach who is leading like a teacher or a manager to switch leadership style and start coaching like a commander. Simplifying the decision making process for the players by limiting their options for a period of time will help them to start thinking actions instead of thinking consequences. When you snap the losing streak and return to a situation when your coaches and players are again thinking actions and tasks instead of external factors you can switch back to your earlier leadership style.

This scenario of a team drastically over-performing in the first half of the season only to fall into a long losing streak that puts them on the verge of relegation might seam a bit extreme. However, the main point of this example have been to visualize one of the biggest challenges for coaches and players during a long season; the ability to maintain thinking actions and tasks regardless of the external factors and the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of games. If you are able to maintain thinking actions throughout your season the chance of your team performing more stable increases dramatically.