Do you understand the context of your coaching environment? PDP contributor and associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, Ben Franks discusses the issues around the ongoing unopposed vs. opposed training debate and explains why context is key in a learning environment.


Going Beyond the Opposed vs. Unopposed Dualism

Unopposed vs. opposed, technique vs. skill – these arguments are forever plaguing Twitter, Facebook and coaching platforms. Some arguments come from theory, others from years of coaching experience, but all seem to be missing a really obvious point: everything pertains to context.

I’ve seen lots of videos of top elite clubs, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea, working on either unopposed passing patterns or some form of unopposed shadow shape/positional-based work. This leads to many comments of: “if its good enough for them, its good enough for my players”, which seems fairly reasonable.

The thing is though, an elite side has between 8-14 hours of ‘football’ work a week, and these players have mostly had this much contact time for their whole careers. When managing training loads, fatigue, and engagement it’s highly unreasonable to expect solid game-based play, but it’s also unreasonable to assume that unopposed work is all that’s being done – certainly when it’s distributed as video footage to wider public. Would clubs really freely release their true training methods, or just the pretty looking, well-connecting patterns of play with lots of success?

If you’re coaching at grassroots or even youth academy level, how much contact time do you really have? Maybe between 1 and 4 hours at the absolute most (bearing in mind players being late, weather permitting, time on task). Without attempting to speak for the masses, under such temporal pressures I’d rather my players learn to ‘play the game’ rather than refining isolated technical areas.

Perhaps there are also some pre-requisites for unopposed work. In elite contexts the game is highly structured, formations and responsibilities are relatively stable and principles are often aggregated across a number of players. Passing patterns then, may (or may not) merit some transfer to games, relative to the structured nature of opposition formation dynamics underpinned by extensive performance analyst work. There may be some worth in attempting to connect between multiple players and response to team mates’ triggers of movement.

The Learning vs. Training Pendulum

Secondly to this, is the context of elite players vs. the rest. Are professional players still ‘learning’ or is the purpose for them to be drilled into an understanding of positional responsibility and technical refinement (or, training)? The pendulum of training against learning comes to mind.

I need my players who are not yet elite athletes to be constantly thinking, attuning and responding to the constantly evolving environment in front of them, during the limited amount of contact time I have available with them. The purpose of professional football is to win games, to be organised, prevent and therefore score goals. It is outcome orientated – win or lose – and you want your players to do their job and make the owners as much money as possible. Away from the senior professional game, the purpose of football is to develop players to be flexible, adaptable and be able to understand a multitude of different principles of play to be able to make the jump into senior football – to achieve this, players need to understand the game.

Whilst I am not saying that unopposed practice is completely wrong and unnecessary, coaches need to make the most of the time available to them and ensure it is relative to the given context.

What Does the Theory Tell Us?

I’m an advocate for theory informed practice. It isn’t the only way, but it is a way I attempt to place my practice within some kind of evidenced-based form. There’s no shortage of papers on expert vs. novice (and if you’re interested in seeing them, I have a Dropbox library so drop me a line and I’ll happily give you access). The essential takeaway from this is that novice, intermediate, and expert players all think, process, and attune differently.

My research focus has been on gaze behaviours in elite goalkeepers, informed by a huge array of research studies, experts have better attunement (ability to locate the most relevant and action-specifying information from the environment via the eyes) and can therefore process the information from the environment more efficiently. The spin-off from here would be that novices in particular need more game-based play rather than isolated technical refinement. Successful motor skill behaviour (from the motor control hero Nikolai Bernstein) is actually movement that is categorised with adaptability and variability. Whilst traditionally considered as ‘noise’, variability in movement (as perturbed by environment instability) is actually a positive thing and leads to successful motor behaviours (i.e. striking a ball). In order to constantly destabilise the movement, constraints need to impact the system, the best or most relevant constraint for which would be that of opposition.

Now perhaps there are some issues with the definitions of technique and skill. I would, however, argue that any movement action under any interacting constraint becomes a skill; the movement becomes a product of the human-environment interaction which can still look relatively novel. I could run a passing practice under heavy overload (3 v 1 with structured defensive zone), and the temporal constraints are relatively reduced. This means that whilst there is some pressure on the ball, the environment is suitable for young players to appropriately control the chaos in front of them by being able to process what is relative in order to solve that given task.

This perfectionist, aesthetic culture of ‘technique’ suits the mantra of unopposed work. We all want to strike balls like our favourite professional players, but is it overly necessary? If behaviour is an emergent phenomenon under interaction, it will not look, feel, or have the same outcome every time – so we need to think about how much value we place on this form of work, particularly when working with such limited amount of time.


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