Game management and understanding how to control a match are important elements for young players learning any sport. So how do we coach it? Ben Bartlett, one of The FA’s most highly regarded coach developers provides ideas as to how you can create conditions for your players to cope with pressure and manage the game.

If we value young people (and young footballers) having the capacity to understand that there may be different ways to respond when different challenges present themselves; to what extent do we, as coaches, establish some environmental conditions that expose players to different challenges and support them to practise, think about and discuss how they might best respond?

In a football context (as in other aspects of life), some of these situations will occur organically and challenge the players to respond as they are happening, and then think about how it went and how their approach may change if similar situations occur again. Is there some benefit in ‘structuring’ some of these experiences into a players development programme?

In discussion recently with a group of coaches we agreed that it would be an aspiration to support the development of tactically adaptable players who can self-manage. This discussion emerged from some general observations from a coach whose under 14 team had entered an end of season tournament that the League they played in had organised.

In this tournament they played three games (of 20 minutes each) in a group that they had to finish in the top two from to qualify for semi-finals. They then had to try to win the tournament by winning a semi-final and final. This isn’t an uncommon tournament design.

They won the first game 5-0, continuing to play with purpose throughout the game (which on reflection the coach and players thought, at the end of the tournament, was a mistake). Drew a tough physical 2nd game with the eventual winners 1-1 before qualifying for the semi-finals with a 4-0 win in which they scored two early goals and, similar to the first game, continued to attack with pace throughout the 20 minutes.

In the semi-final they went a goal down early on. The players, within this tournament setting, had never been behind before. Time was limited as the games were, relatively, short. The players were fatigued having played all the previous games at full tilt and struggled to establish an intense press to shift the momentum of the game and conceded a second goal late on to exit the tournament.

From the discussion emerged the thoughts that the players were inexperienced and unpractised in playing the games in different ways (to speed it up, slow it down, recognise how and when to press with increased vigour). As a positive, open and solution focussed group of coaches they wanted to look at some coaching tactics to deliberately support the players to practice different ways to what is commonly now called ‘Manage The Game’. So we did.

We organised a tournament and three of the coaches agreed to bring their u14’s to play in the tournament, which was structured as follows:

  1. Three teams; play each team twice; 3 points – win, 1 point – draw, 0 points – defeat. Win the league.
  2. First ‘round’ of games 30 minutes non-stop on a big pitch; second ‘round’ of games 15 minutes non-stop on a smaller pitch.
  3. The second ‘round’ of games begins with the score from the first game flipped. For example, if in the first round of games Athletic beat Rovers 3-1, the second game starts with Rovers leading Athletic 3-1.
  4. The only goals that are recorded in the table are the ones you actually score. After points, goals scored determines league position.

The conditions agreed in points 2, 3 & 4 asked the players (and their coaches) to consider how they adapted their tactics when the game situation changed. It also challenged teams to consider the benefits and drawbacks of, within this format, pushing for additional goals when they were in front (how many goals is enough? How many will be start behind by when we play this opponent again and the game is shorter in duration?)

The pitch constraints, combined with the task constraints, contributed to this. The yellow team (who had rested before the first game you’ll watch) take an early 2-0 lead against the purples who played back-to-back games. They decide, on a big pitch, to use possession to a. conserve energy, b. frustrate the opposition and c. retain balance within their shape.

Subsequently, in the tournament deciding game, it is necessary to establish different tactics to come from behind, maintain those tactics when they concede and have the will and resilience (physical & psychological) to stick at it in the last 3 minutes to score the 2 goals they needed to win the tournament.

This kind of approach to constraining the games programme to generate specific learning opportunities, typically, meets with mixed feeling. Sceptics suggest that the game was designed in a particular way and presents it’s own challenges, adults should stop interfering. Advocates imply that subtle (and more deliberate) shifts within the way competition is structured supports players to practise certain elements that may contribute to the development of qualities that are valued. You decide (and maybe ask the players too).

Rugby Union have recently been considering the benefits of similar subtle changes that are being implemented within the Six Nations (covered in this recent Telegraph article) in which Andy Farrell identifies how scoring constraints may help the players ‘practice’ how they manage the game in preparation for seeking to beat The All-Blacks. Whilst this a different sport and an example from the senior ‘performance’ end of this sport, his quote can promote thought:

“We have been in front against them [New Zealand] with teams I have been involved with and they are masters at the comeback, staying calm and being clinical,” he said Farrell. “The way to score that bonus-point try is exactly like that – staying calm, being clinical, not being frantic, and going about your job as you should do rather than being too emotional. It will create excitement as it goes, you’ll know what you need to do along the way, but you still won’t get away from the fact that you need to win.”

The video below demonstrates examples of the British & Irish Lions managing the game in their fiercely competitive test series versus the All Blacks in New Zealand in mid-2017.

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