The Foundation Phase is a crucial time for young players. From the ages of eight- to 12-years-old, they will hopefully build the skills and confidence to underpin a lifetime of participation and further development in the game. As coaches, our job is to facilitate this process and provide varied and stimulating learning environments.

Below, Lee Hodge, Head of Academy Coaching at Plymouth Argyle FC, shares his insights from the world of youth football, as he outlines his approach to developing 8-12 year-old players.

In This Article

Developing Confidence and Core Skills

When working with young players, one of our primary objectives should be to help them build their relationship with the ball. “Developing the core techniques — such as passing and dribbling — so that kids can outplay opponents in 1v1 situations is really important,” says Hodge. “For me, it’s that simple: really help your players to develop technically.”

To help kids gain confidence and hone their technique, Hodge advocates using unopposed technical practices: “Give kids lots of repetition practising specific skills, so that they feel confident executing them in unopposed environments.

“If you put a child in a game straight away, they’ll simply revert back to what they already know and feel comfortable doing. So unopposed ball-mastery work that is relevant to the game, with lots of repetition, is really valuable.”

As Hodge explains, we can use unopposed practices to let our players experience success while giving them the freedom to experiment. And this lays the foundations for more advanced practice activities later.

Progressing Along the Practice Spectrum

Of course, our sessions are also invaluable opportunities for kids to play with their peers and experience activities with high levels of realism. So how do we strike the balance between opposed and unopposed practices?

Hodge advises coaches to gradually increase the complexity of their activities as the session progresses: “Start unopposed, then refine the skill you’re working on with 1v1s, 2v2s, and so on, before moving to a game.

“If we work on a particular technique in the unopposed section, we can design the skill portion of the session [the 1v1s and 2v2s] so that players repeatedly do that same technique. We might have a couple of progressions within this section. And then we’d look for players to use that technique in the game as well.”

“I like the simplicity of having three parts,” adds PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “It ‘scaffolds’ the learning nicely; we work on something specific, and potentially increase the number of players and/or sizes of playing areas over the course of the practice.

“And with only two or three activities throughout the entire session, we can give the players lots of reps while ensuring they receive enough time to get into the flow of learning.”

Making Considered Interventions

Another way to ensure a good flow throughout our sessions is to be considerate in our use of interventions. “I like to coach on the fly, so that I’m not constantly stopping the session,” says Hodge. “The game’s happening and I’m on the move, coaching as they’re playing.

“I might stop the activity if I feel the group needs it — but I try to limit how often I do that through my practice design; I carefully consider the language I’m going to use, what might happen, and when I might have to intervene or make changes before each session.”

As coaches, we should also remember that there are many different intervention styles, and not limit ourselves to just one or two. “Don’t always coach the same way, because it won’t work for everyone,” Hodge explains. “For example, many coaches like pulling players to one side during practice, but some individuals don’t want that, and potentially don’t listen because they’re preoccupied with the game.

“For those individuals, it might be more beneficial to stand on their shoulder and talk to them as they’re playing. Or to stop the game entirely. You might be stopping it for that individual, but you’ll help everyone else at the same time.

“But remember: we want the kids playing as much as possible. So ensuring that we’re really clear and concise with our interventions is vital.”

Taking a Player-Centred Approach

Finally, Hodge reminds coaches to tailor their sessions to the players in front of them. This means letting the individuals in our group — and factors like their strengths and the areas they need to work on, their personalities, and the outcomes they wish to achieve — guide our overall approach.

Every individual will have different developmental goals, benefit more from different practice activities, and respond best to different intervention styles. Understanding all of the individuals in our group, and balancing their competing needs, is key to player-centred coaching.

“I always want to work with the individuals,” concludes Hodge. “I ask myself: ‘What do the individuals need?’ And I centre my session planning around that.”

The Key Points

  • We should help young players to develop core skills before exposing them to opposed activities.
  • By ‘scaffolding’ our practices, we can work on specific skills while gradually increasing complexity over the course of our sessions.
  • As coaches, we should use a variety of intervention techniques, and aim to maximise the time that players actively participate.
  • Our session plans should always account for the individual needs of our players.

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