Separation anxiety

The history of soccer coaching curriculums is – and continues to be – riddled with a number of separations.

Two examples of this separatist approach are:

1. Individual coaching sessions being organised into arbitrary periods of time, say 20 minutes, within which players practise unopposed.

This is followed by what might be called a skill practice – where, for example, attackers outnumber defenders – and, finally, into an even-numbered game. Sometimes, these parts are organised in different ways, such as starting with the game.

2. Longer periods of time, such as six weeks, that focus on particular soccer themes. An example might be a club that trains twice a week and in a six-week period focuses on playing out from the back on a Monday and then pressing from the front on a Wednesday.

These separations appear to have been influenced by the nature of school curriculums, where we ‘learn’ maths for an hour, the bell rings and we walk to a different class and ‘learn’ history for an hour.

These one-hour lessons are nested inside a longer period of time, such as six weeks, that might be focused on a particular theme, like World War Two.

Such powerful organisational and historical constraints continue to impact the ways we believe we have learned to learn, and transcend the classroom into our sporting contexts. This is profoundly mistaken.


“The idea we can glue separated learnings together is at odds with the game…”


The game of soccer doesn’t occur in separations; it plays out in an integrated way. We are performing actions (techniques) that are coupled with our decisions (tactics) which we are perceiving in the moment.

This inevitably requires us to be constantly connecting what we do when we have the ball with what we do when we don’t – both as an individual and as a team.

These connections are occurring internally, within us, and with the other people playing that game, external to us.

The notion we can glue these separated learnings together is at odds with the nature of the game.

Techniques learned outside the decisions of the game miss the contextual factors that directly influence the way we perform them. Themes learned in isolation lose the connection to the dynamic, transitional nature of an exciting game like soccer.

My column last month highlighted some principles of practice design that enable us to couple the techniques we practise with the decisions of the game, while illustrating – from my experience with Leinster Rugby – the benefits of combining traditional themes, and supporting players to learn the game.

This challenges some of the conventions that continue to constrain clubs, coaches and federations where curriculums separate, isolate and often pre-determine the experiences that players will be exposed to.

Something that continues to be commonplace within some national coaching architectures are ‘practice spectrums’.

A practice spectrum encourages coaches to consider the opportunities enabled by designing practices more ‘constant’ – similar techniques practised in similar conditions – and perhaps balancing this type of practice with what is, perhaps erroneously, referred to as more ‘random’ – different techniques practised in different conditions.

While this is well-intended and perhaps progress from previously mandated approaches, it risks focusing coach attention on the practice we design, rather than what the players are able to practise.

It can also be overly constraining as all players get the same dose, regardless of what we believe they may need or want.

The practice design principles shared last month can be combined with our understanding of the needs of the team we coach and, importantly, the individuals who comprise that team.

Integrated learning in a 7v7

Below is an example of how we may organise the ‘players’ and then ‘pitch’ the game to support the players to learn to play in an integrated fashion. This doesn’t come before or after a different practice – it IS practice.

Fig 1

This 7v7 game ‘design’ is intended to challenge both teams and individuals to practice building attacks and also stopping them being built within a variety of tactical problems.

The ‘demand’ placed explicitly onto the game encourages players to attempt to create overloads in each half of the pitch to work the ball towards, and into, the opposition’s goal.

Teams are organised in different ways such that one, the black team, plays with a back two (to reflect two centre backs) and the other, the white team, plays with a back one, to challenge an individual player to defend bigger spaces and deal with individual match-ups (see fig 1, below).

There are also reverse benefits to these organisational constraints. The lone black-team centre-forward can practice moving a centre-half around the pitch, which is combined with providing opportunities for central midfielders to make attacking runs in support.

This is what is meant by integration and coupling – teams and players practising subtly or significantly different things within the context of the ever-changing game.

It isn’t ‘random’, though. The game is governed by its laws, which constrain the things we can do – such as a goal kick being the consequence when the ball is played off the end of the pitch.

The things we grow to understand about the people in our care also shape and constrain the ways we interact with them. This isn’t ‘random’, either. It is considered and empathetic.

As illustrated, we also have in our gift the opportunity to utilise that depth of understanding to shape experiences that attend to the individuals within the team, enabling them to contend with the things they care about and that enable each of them to contribute positively to their team.

If there is perceived benefit in a defender being able to practise some elements of being in possession with reduced amounts of opposition, it isn’t always necessary to remove them or the things they are practising from the game to support them.

For example, in fig 2 below, the penalty area can become a useful reference point within the game for such a player.

Fig 2

This is natural demarcation on the soccer field. Every time the ball is played off the pitch, we can condition the game to be restarted by the white team’s goalkeeper.

This will naturally increase the amount of times the white team practise building attacks from their goalkeeper.

Fig 3

The penalty box at that end of the pitch may also become where the white team’s centre-back moves to receive the ball (see fig 3, above), with the additional condition the black team’s centre-forward cannot defend the white team’s defender until they leave the area.

This can support the white team’s defender to practice passing, or stepping out with the ball, with no opposition pressure.

It can also support a goalkeeper to practice moving to the other side from the defender to stop the black team’s attacks being built. The white team’s defender and goalkeeper can position themselves, as illustrated, on opposite sides of the area.

Once they have passed the ball out of the penalty box, the game continues with no additional conditions.

We have enabled what practice spectrum enthusiasts might call ‘constant’ practice within the game itself, for a specific player who may benefit from this opportunity.

The additional benefits this provides to the way the goalkeeper and black team are challenged can also be welcomed.

This approach to supporting player learning through our coaching can be broadened and encapsulate different players and their needs, without us feeling as if we are coming away from arbitrarily defined themes within a curriculum.

If the ways we have agreed our team will play and the needs of the players nested within that team are ‘the curriculum’, we free ourselves from the shackles of conventional coach-education approaches like ‘coach one team and coach one theme’. We don’t need to overly constrain ourselves or the players with such irrational approaches.

Instead we can do more; we can respond with our players. Rather than inhibit them as a consequence of dogma, we can see utility as a much better guide to progress than convention.

This is embodied within the final illustration (fig 4). This isn’t a progression within this particular game example; just another consideration.

Fig 4


“Respond with the players’ nature rather than making arbitrary impositions…”


A central third is now evident. This can exist within the game’s architecture from the outset or be added, subtly, as required.

That lone black team centre forward who, as mentioned, may be working on hold up play and moving opposition centre backs around, can now decide to drop into this area and be free from being tackled until after their second touch.

This can encourage them to receive and pass quickly – or, should they turn to dribble and stay with the ball longer, understand that the white team will apply pressure.

This might support the player to see value in coming short to set up play, ask a question of the white team defender as to whether they decide to follow them short and consequently encourage the black team midfielders to combine their movement with that of their centre forward by running into the space vacated higher up the pitch.

This can encourage rotations, which aren’t specifically repeatable patterns but opportunities for action.

These opportunities are both internally and externally influenced. I perceive space and opportunity to move short, you see the opportunity to run into the space left behind.

What to casual observers might just be seen as a straightforward 7v7 game has a multitude of layers running through it that influence what the players and coaches do.

Our attention can then be focused on watching how the players get on with these things, and add or remove any additional layers in response to what is going on.

This is ‘the curriculum’ – coach it consistently. Make subtle adjustments and changes in the nature of the ‘design’ of the games we play and the ‘demands’ we agree that players will be challenged by to support development and learning.

Respond with the players and their nature rather than making arbitrary impositions.

Work at it. Share it with the players and their parents to gain their perspectives and deepen their understanding.

This kind of care and attention is a hugely valuable investment in the players we are privileged to coach. SCW

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