Good preparation is key to delivering practices that engage our players and help them maximize their potential. But the planning process can also be daunting — especially for less experienced coaches. So we’ve tried to make it easier. Below are our ten top tips for soccer session design.
1. Make Practice Resemble the Game
Next time you’re designing a session, stop to ask yourself: does this look like the game of soccer?
“The concept of representative learning design is a really good place to start,” advises PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “If the activity has direction, two goals, and looks like the game, that can be a really good foundation.”
This means creating sessions that give players realistic challenges and learning experiences, thereby helping them to develop knowledge and skills that are easily transferred to gameday.
2. Embrace the Power of Play
Secondly, we should try to make play the center of our learning environment. “Play is incredibly important,” explains Dan Cooke, Coaching Advisor at PDP. “It helps players maximize their reps — and, by reps, I don’t mean passing between two cones, but repetition of solving real soccer problems — which is vital to learning.”
3. Be Adaptable
After working hard to produce a session plan, it’s natural that we want to follow it as closely as possible. But this isn’t always what our players need. “We can all be guilty of overcomplicating things,” says Wright, “whether it’s rigid curriculums or wanting to achieve certain outcomes at a session. But sometimes we need to be a bit fluid.
“For example, if our players are doing an activity and they’re in a really good flow, maybe it’s better to stay with that, rather than disrupt them by moving onto something new just because we’ve planned it.
“Don’t be afraid to be adaptable. If you need a minute to compose yourself and change an activity, it’s okay to do that.”
4. Empower Your Players
Autonomy and a sense of ownership are central components of effective learning. “It’s crucial that children feel like they have an active voice and active involvement in what they’re doing,” explains Cooke. “Research shows that this is really important from a motivational perspective, and in supporting long-term learning.”
5. Consider the Four Corner Model
The FA’s Four Corner Model breaks session design and player development into four components: technical and tactical, psychological, physical, and social. We should strive to address all four in our sessions.
“There’s an appreciation of all four corners in my sessions,” says Cooke. “I’ll normally have a main priority — for instance, physical outcomes might take precedence over tactical outcomes in a conditioning session — but they’ll still all be present in my session design.”
6. Maximize Ball-Rolling Time
Ball-rolling time is the percentage of a session that the ball is in play and kids are actively participating. For example, if the ball rolls for 45 minutes of a one-hour session, we have achieved 75% ball-rolling time (giving ourselves 15 minutes for coaching interventions, transitioning between activities, and a water break).
“As coaches, we need to be aware of how our interventions impact ball-rolling time,” says Cooke. “If we’re intervening, we really need to add value, because it’s taking away from playing time — which we know is the most important part of learning.”
7. Work With the Individuals on Your Team
As well as coaching our team, it’s essential to work with our players on an individual basis. Individual development plans are commonplace in academy environments, but different approaches may be required in grassroots settings with fewer resources.
“First, I’d make notes on individual players, based on their own ‘work-ons’,” advises Cooke. “Then, I’d create some tasks within sessions that are based on them. For example, I might include three different tasks for individual players within the same 4v4 game. It doesn’t require me to set up different exercises; individuals simply address their work-ons through specific task constraints that I share with them.”
“You’ll also find that certain practices lend themselves to working with players in specific positions,” adds Wright. “You can be clever with who goes where, then just have a quiet word with them before the activity: ‘You’re in this position. Can you think about this?’. Even when working with a group of players, we can still think about the individuals within that group.”
8. Make Your Sessions Age-Appropriate
Our session designs won’t normally need drastic changes to be suitable for kids of different age groups. But sometimes the age of our players will require us to make more considered adjustments.
“I believe the biggest thing is achieving a high volume of touches at younger ages,” says Wright. “Aim to put them in lots of 1v1 and small-sided games, where they can get plenty of time on the ball and opportunities to try things.
“Actual practices might not change a lot, though; you can work on things like 1v1s in a senior environment, and that will still be great in a Foundation Phase [ages 5-11 in the UK] environment too.”
9. Account for the Stage of the Season
The stage of the season can also impact our session design — particularly as we aim to control the physical load our players face.
“In the off-season, you might do more fitness and conditioning activities, so that you have a baseline physical condition before going into the pre-season,” explains Cooke. “In the pre-season, you could start to work on principles of play for the upcoming year. Then the season itself may look very different, because you get so much fatigue through the accumulation of games.
“Your session designs will likely change a lot based on how your players are responding physically to the demands of the season. Understanding how to monitor and regulate physical load, and help players reach peak physical performance, is a key part of coaching.”
10. Remember the Purpose of Playing Soccer
Finally, we should remember the purpose of the soccer experience we give our players.
“For me, it’s to provide enjoyable experiences through soccer,” says Cooke. “The reason children come to our sessions is that they love soccer. They come back because they love soccer. And I want them to come to the next session loving soccer even more.
“It’s important to challenge the idea that fun and development can’t go hand-in-hand. They’re actually very closely intertwined. If you want true development over the long-run, fun and joy sit at the heart of that.”
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