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.