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.

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