In this article, PDP Technical Advisor, Dan Wright wades into the opposed vs. unopposed practice debate. Dan shares his perspective on why this may be a redundant argument if we are to ensure that every player gets the individual support they require to maximise their potential.
Each day I scroll through social media and see a similar discussion taking place. Every. Single. Day. The ‘unopposed versus opposed’ debate. Now, very quickly I will attempt to share with you my opinion on this and the context around why I coach the way I do, but stick with me here because I’m going to try and present an alternative view. It’s one that is probably less radical, based on my experience, but might help the young people that you work with – which is often an area overlooked in this argument.
My opposed vs. unopposed journey
My coaching journey started out as a volunteer in grassroots football before taking paid work coaching all different sports in a school. For context, this inner-city school had 23 different nationalities and a well-worn, small 40 x 30m sand-based artificial turf ‘cage’ for 30 participants. These children didn’t want to refine technique and they certainly didn’t want coaching points from me. They wanted to play – to run around and make their own decisions. This fed my bias. As a young player I hated unopposed pre-determined practices, waiting in queues or eternally asking “when can we play a game?”. The headteacher at the school was fantastic; she wanted the pupils to get a taste of different sports and my task was to guide them through some of the rules by setting tasks or altering the space. Perhaps I would now call this manipulating constraints. I had no idea what that meant at this stage! Here I experimented and made loads of mistakes; I designed games and used engagement as the only metric of success. A successful lesson meant no conflict, lots of ball-rolling time, and groans of disappointment when the end came.
This period of learning, coupled with my bias as a player, led me to fall in love with small-sided games. I still enjoy designing these sessions, thinking about how the players will interpret the challenge and anticipating what interactions will emerge.
As my coaching developed, I was able to spend more time exclusively coaching football, which was always my passion. As I progressed, I became wedded to this approach. Everything opposed, everything directional and nothing unopposed. Ever.
Looking back, I was a radical and I thought this was the only way to go. This seemed to work, to an extent – some of the players I interacted with progressed quickly, I felt I was getting somewhere. Players were engaged, they practiced at ‘match speed’. It was fast and frantic, you had to be skilful to survive. If players needed to work on any individual aspects of their game, they could do that in their time. I felt group sessions helped build game-craft and understanding. My only ‘individual’ coaching came in 1-2-1 chats or fly-by interventions.
A few years later, I was given more exposure to a ‘high performance’ setting and I saw more and more unopposed work, and this was not just in senior football. I was fortunate to interact with elite players – all of whom undertook some sort of individual or isolated practice. More importantly, these players wanted space during their week to sharpen their strength and round their weaknesses away from the fun-yet-demanding chaos of games.
I was conflicted. I had never set up a drill or an unopposed session. I felt I was behind and was a bad coach. This challenged me, and I fought it. Was this the only way to go? Was it right for young players? Do you need perfect ‘technique’ to play the game?
I was less sure than before and with this vulnerability, I developed as a coach. It became all-consuming. I tried to use every resource to challenge my thinking and help me understand more; watching top coaches in action, having dialogue with people who thought differently to me, planning sessions from scratch – not just copying. I asked questions, read plenty, reviewed and spoke to players. I read more. I became more comfortable with some of the huge concepts like skill acquisition, dynamics systems theory, and ecological dynamics. The more I read, the more questions I had.
Around this time, I became involved with Player Development Project which has allowed me to interact with some experts on some of this stuff. This has been mind-expanding and certainly helped me to challenge and sort some of my thoughts. Even in this space, people have different interpretations of what best practice looks like.
Fast-forward to today and the coaching space is even more extreme and confusing. The amount of content, conflicting points of view, and aggressive dialogue make it harder than ever to see the wood for the trees. But I’ve persevered and the journey has been brilliant, jam-packed with rabbit holes, salesmen, experts, hours of reading, deep questions, and lots of reflection. I am nowhere…and yet I feel I’ve made progress at the same time. I have a better understanding of myself than I did and (hopefully) I’m in a better position to support the players I coach.
Anyway, on to the point of the blog…I think there is another way to view all this.
The unopposed versus opposed argument is dead. It’s certainly boring. It often leads to people working in the talent development space shouting down or belittling their peers rather than serving the needs of the people they coach. Players can benefit from practices at both ends of the practice continuum. This is a model we reference a lot through PDP and certainly something that has helped me in my session design and planning. Where you sit on this continuum might be impacted by things like: the age of your players, the contact time you have, physical loading, game understanding, number of players in the session, or the coaching style adopted. You can (and probably should) move across this continuum from session to session and even in session. The whole-part-whole approach is a good example of this.
It is also important to acknowledge and understand that whatever practice you choose there will be trade-offs. It will be a constant juggle: the amount and quality of the repetition, the realism the practice recreates in comparison to the 11v11 game, and the relevance to the individuals within the practice.
Practitioners in this space are often encouraged to use an ‘evidence-based’ approach. For some coaches, this can mean experiential – pointing to their success stories but neglecting to acknowledge the failures. For some, it means empirical – highlighting the latest literature to support their rationale and approach.
Note: clearly, both of these elements are tremendously important but we can be guilty of listening to the key learnings whilst we are criticising or judging someone with a different view of the world. There can be cross-overs in these approaches but too often we ignore the similarities in favour of clashing over the differences. We often miss the complexity and nuance behind the approach – the context, the culture, the personality of the individual, or the intention of the coach. The aim of the coach is to help both individuals and the collective to get better. Nobody coaches with the intention of failing the players or making them worse. If a coach adopts an approach that’s different from yours but the players are engaged and learn to compete, is this bad? Can we ONLY do this one way? Is taking an approach because the textbook says so or the tradition dictates good enough? Are any of these questions worthwhile or beneficial to the player?
Where a lot of these discussions fall down is measuring the transfer of learning. It doesn’t really matter where you sit on player development models, learning outcomes, curriculums, or plans. You cannot measure their success and what seems to work for one coach, club or federation almost certainly won’t work elsewhere. One approach that worked for one player will fail elsewhere, but this is a whole separate blog for another day.
What is important to you?
Throughout this journey, I started to watch and read a lot of what I would call ‘origin’ stories or biographies on players’ pathways. Although it is fundamentally flawed to think what worked for one individual in one context will work elsewhere for another, I do enjoy hearing about their adversity or climb to the top. I enjoy what people who play the game have to say. You can get fantastic insight from listening or reading about performers who have lived and breathed this. I genuinely waste hours doing this. On one such expedition I came across these two clips from Leo Messi and Paul Pogba.
“I feel the moment from game to game, feel the moment and play what feels right.”
“I don’t think the manager can tell you when to make this run there. When you feel the ball will come here. The manager cannot tell you to feel that…only the player can feel that.”
Anticipate. Feel. Instinct. Know. These are all great words for anybody working in sport but incredibly difficult to teach or coach.
A huge percentage of coaching comes down to your ‘philosophy’ – an overused buzzword that can be described as “a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.” These clips really landed for me – a lightbulb moment. They really aligned with my approach and bias as covered above. But perhaps there was more. In sessions I want players to feel; feel like they’re in a game, feel like they need to compete, feel like the session is helping them, feel like it is creating a need to get better. All of this ‘feeling’ for the game is way more important than opposed or unopposed. So how do we help players develop that feeling, if at all?
This is a little fluffy and I’m still working it out, but some of the things I’ve been considering;
- What helps develop ‘feeling’ for each player will be linked to their playing personality/identity. For example, a striker might need to feel the ball hitting the back of the net. He might not need all of his sessions to be opposed and under stress. For him to feel the ball leaving his foot he might need loads of repetition and less time in the chaos of the game. A tough-tackling midfielder might need the physical contact, the feeling and thrill of regaining possession and impacting the practice. He might get more of this in opposed or directional possession.
- Variability could help feeling. By removing fixed patterns we might encourage the players to adapt. This adaption might lead to a feel for the perceptual cues or the ‘when, where, and how’ that Pogba mentioned. Depending on your approach, we might design in different levels of variability to draw the players’ attention to key information, you could argue removing this variability or perception-action might reduce the feeling.
- The amount of ball-rolling time can impact feeling. I’ve found how players ‘feel’ or ‘smell’ the moment to press to be a good example of this. Some might ‘get it’ from 10-minute tactical walkthrough others need a cycle of sessions, games, analysis to see it and impact the game. Your club might have a well-intentioned benchmark for a high percentage of ball-rolling time – this might be a disaster for some individuals or topics.
- Our interventions and support could build or destroy the feeling. The human elements of coaching are probably what I find the most fascinating – selecting the right intervention, with the right person and at the right time leaves a lot of room for error. Get it right and you can see the individual grow – almost like when Mario eats the super mushroom and is double in size. Get it wrong and you can ‘lose’ a player for weeks.
- The feeling could be developed on the grass, in the classroom or via video. Again, individual specific. I would guess most players develop their feeling on the pitch. I’ve worked with players who hated analysis – struggled to ‘see’ the picture and recall why they did what they did, for others it was like another session. A chance to relive the moment without the emotion or effort of the game.
- How difficult or stressful the practice is might impact the feel. We all have played with or coached excellent ‘training ground players’, individuals that can perform under little or no challenge but can buckle in the heat of the game. By ramping up the heat in training we might be able to replicate the ‘feeling’ of game day. I’ve started using the Nandos pepper analogy, asking the players “How difficult do you want the practice to be? Lemon & herb, medium, hot, or extra hot?” This is often linked to individual plans – so if a player has asked for a high challenge, we might adapt their 1v1 or scoring mechanism to make the experience represent something like a game. This can be a process with small steps to develop resilience or emotional regulation. This also works in conversations after the event “How tough was that guys – where would it sit for you?”
- Asking the players. Probably the simplest and the most powerful. How often do we ask the players simple questions like “What does it feel like when you played in that practice?” or “What did you notice?” This might help us as session architects to really understand the key information players are using to make decisions or whether we’ve pitched at the right level. This might spark a conversation and allow the coach to nudge them on their way.
Rather than arguing over the ideology of opposed versus unopposed, or picking a side, perhaps we could think about whether the practice is ‘developing feeling’ for the young people taking part.