An individual development plan is an important tool in helping a player to improve and appreciate their own progress. As coaches, we can use individual plans to help kids recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, identify the things they would like to improve on, and understand how they can do it.

By working alongside players to create effective learning plans, we can facilitate self-reflection, encourage them to take ownership of their own journey in the game, and, most importantly, help them to develop as both players and people.

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Why do we use individual development plans?

When it comes to coaching, a growing number of professionals are emphasizing the importance of developing the individual. “We’ve got to understand that every player is different and make sure we differentiate our approach to players in a variety of different ways,” explains former Fulham FC and New York City FC coach Arthur Brammer. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Taking a player-centered approach means placing every player at the center of our coaching environment and ensuring that all of their developmental requirements are met. Individual development plans are an integral part of this process, providing a framework for us to understand our players’ needs, monitor their progress, and work with them to achieve their goals.

How to create an individual development plan and use it in your training

Know your players and young athletes as people

The first step to creating an individual development plan is understanding the player. No two learning plans look the same, and it’s vital that we get to know players as individuals beyond soccer before forming a plan to help them learn. This not only enables us to build trust and form a rapport with kids before talking to them about their strengths and their weaknesses, but gives us time to learn about their personality, life away from soccer, and an array of other socio-cultural constraints that will influence the type of learning environment they need.

Socio-cultural constraints are essentially the environmental factors that impact a player on any given day. For instance, have they had a tough day at school? Were they born later in their year group, and is the relative age effect a factor for them? Do they have any medical conditions? Is their homelife happy? These kinds of environmental components will affect things like their mood, perspective, energy levels, emotional state, ability to take on new information, and even their technical capability, and we must strive to account for them wherever possible.

“It goes back to understanding people and all the complexity that humans have,” explains PDP Technical Advisor Dan Wright. “That gives you the platform to understand how much the player can learn, or if they want to learn.” We should also remember that there’s no linear path to development, and always account for where players are in their journey. For example, one 10-year-old child could have five years of experience in organized soccer while another may only have been playing for months. “Judging with your eyes, these two players might look very similar,” says Wright, “but actually they’re completely different.”

Finally, it helps to recognize the complexity of the player development environment. “We’ve talked a lot about complex systems in player development and the idea that the player is at the center of it,” says PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright. “They potentially have a family culture around them, then you’ve got the team culture, the club’s culture, the national sporting culture, and even the broader national culture… They definitely influence how much the player can learn and where the player’s at in that non-linear journey.”

As coaches, we should try to understand as many of these different factors as possible. This will enhance our understanding of our players and enable us to individualize our coaching in a way that works best for them.

Identify appropriate goals and targets

Once we know our players, the next step is to identify suitable targets for them. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach; we may decide to pick one specific skill for them to focus on; we might use the FA’s Four Corner Model and try to strengthen one area across all four corners; or maybe we’ll link it to our club’s philosophy, using our club’s targets and picking a development goal for each theme. Every development plan is different.

But however we identify potential targets for a player, we should be careful not to overcomplicate them. A ‘less is more’ approach goes a long way. “Sometimes I feel players are overloaded,” says Arsenal FC U15/16 Lead Coach, Dan Micciche. “I’ve seen players given up to five learning objectives for one game… it’s a case of putting too many things into a player’s head. Sometimes five objectives might be enough for him to achieve in five years.”

Give players ownership

“As much as you can, relative to the age of the player, you’ve got to give them some kind of ownership as to what they want to achieve,” explains Dave Wright. “Then, if you have that consultation with the player, maybe the parents are involved as well, you as a group have some clarity over what the player is trying to achieve.” If we make the process more player-led, players will be more invested and have a greater desire to work towards their goals and reflect on their progress. 

By consulting with both players and parents, we can also redefine success in a way that prioritizes development over results or league tables, creating a shared vision that will help them to buy into the learning process.

The youngest players may not have the knowledge to come up with their own ideas on the technical side of things, but you’ll often be surprised by how in-tune they are with their own learning and the things they’d like to work on. This of course varies from individual to individual, but our job as the coach is to engage them in the process and then guide the conversation where necessary.

This way, we can create individual development plans that interest our players and make them passionate about their own developmental journey.

Remember psychological and social development

As coaches, we often focus on the technical, tactical, and physical aspects of player development and session design, but we must be careful not to neglect the psychological and social components of children’s development given that all of these elements interact and psychology plays a part in all of them.

“No corner operates in isolation. Although the four corner model presents these influences and factors as ‘corners’, they are all interconnected and cannot be taught in isolation ” 

Dan Wright, PDP Technical Advisor

Challenging kids in a psychological and social context can have huge long-term benefits for their overall development and will feed into the other areas of their game. For example, teaching kids to be resilient — that it’s okay for them to make a mistake as long as move on from it and keep trying — will encourage them to keep practicing when facing adversity, and that will lead to technical improvement.

There are various ways we can help children to develop these kinds of character traits. A simple mantra of “We leave the place better than we found it” can be used to teach kids about responsibility. Or we can encourage leadership by allowing players to take ownership of warm-ups. Soccer provides lots of opportunities for positive character development, and we should keep this in mind when creating individual development plans for our players.

Consider positional requirements

We can also use any positional requirements our players might have to shape their individual development plans. For example, if we have a player who needs to work on forward passing, we might play them at full-back, giving them lots of opportunities to pass and run forward; if a player needs to practice receiving the ball in tight spaces, we could give them time in the center of midfield, receiving from different angles under different types of pressure.

“Just try to be clever, to make sure the players get the stretch they need, using the positions as a development tool to work on those technical or physical aspects,” advises Dan Wright. Whether this means playing a child in the position we believe they might play in later on in their journey or playing them somewhere else because we think the experience will benefit their long-term development, there are various ways we can manipulate positions to work on specific developmental goals.

Help kids to work on their strengths

When creating individual development plans, it’s important to encourage kids to work on their strengths as well as their weaknesses, helping them to take an area of dominance and make it even stronger. “I love the term ‘super-strength’,” says Dan Wright. “Try asking your players ‘what are you good at, and can you turn it into a super-strength?’”

“I think it takes bravery, as a coach, to say to a player who’s a 1v1 specialist ‘go 1v1 every time’, or set them a target [like] ‘can you beat somebody 12 times 1v1 in this game?’ and really get them doing what they do best,” adds Dave Wright. 

By setting players targets relating to their strengths, we can help them to build confidence in their overall ability. And while working on those strengths, they can still tidy up areas of weakness in the background without those weaknesses becoming a focal point. “From a positive psychology point of view, I think that that’s quite an important idea,” says Wright.

Think about what could hold them back

Finally, think about any weaknesses that might hold your players back if they’re not addressed. “We’ve all got weaknesses, but it’s about perhaps rounding off those things that are going to stop us competing at the level we’d like to,” explains Dan Wright.

By helping our players address weaknesses that might stop them from achieving their goals within the sport — whether that’s to improve and enjoy playing with their friends or to one day play the game professionally — we can enhance their engagement and enjoyment as well as their long-term development.

Evaluating your players and encouraging self-reflection

The final stage in using individual development plans is evaluation. Once we’ve worked with our players to set goals, we should constantly monitor their progress and be prepared to offer support and make adjustments to their targets if required. It’s important to note that evaluation isn’t about providing a grade or a score, it’s about a shared understanding, honest conversations, reflections and ensuring that the targets set are appropriate for the individual.

But we must be considerate in how we communicate with players. When working with children, we should always remember to be sensitive to their feelings and avoid making social comparisons. By instead comparing where they were in the past, where they are now, and where they want to get to, we can challenge kids to improve while maintaining a positive focus on the improvement they’ve already made.

As such, we should encourage self-reflection in our players and strive to keep them involved in the evaluation process. “Reflection helps players evaluate their performance and become more aware of themselves,” writes Sean Douglas, E-Learning Development Manager at Oceania Football Confederation. “Players who are more self-aware have been shown to display more effective arousal control, have improved self-confidence, are more successful at goal setting, and have improved self-actualization.”

Reflecting on it [outcomes or performance] with clear questions or open questions is a key part of facilitating development from a coaching perspective,” says Dave Wright. “If you can facilitate an honest discussion with honest questions, and look at engaging coach-to-player, one-to-one stuff, it can be beneficial.” We should also remember that every child is different, and while some will enjoy measuring themselves and their progress, others will be less interested. And though the learning process is important, we need to ensure that kids stay engaged and still enjoy playing the game.

The human element is often forgotten in youth sport, with the use of metrics and fixation on marginal gains seeping in from performance environments. We must be careful not to forget the human complexities of player development and, most importantly, remember that we’re coaching children.

This requires us to support our players as well as evaluate their progress. If we can see that a player is making progress and putting the work in, we can let them know that we’ve seen it; but if they’re struggling and their head has dropped, we can’t just dismiss them for having ‘the wrong attitude’ — we’ve got to work with them to find out what’s causing them to struggle and help them overcome it.

We may also find it’s helpful to make comparisons to players in the elite game — provided the context is right. “I think, in terms of aspiration, kids have got to aspire to their idols and to their mentors,” says Dave Wright. “I think that gives them something to strive for, and there’s nothing wrong with having that goal to be the best you can possibly be.” There are benefits to wanting to dribble like Messi, or strike a ball like Ronaldo, analyzing how they do it, and appreciating how hard they work to improve that skill. This approach may not work for an entry-level grassroots environment where kids are still learning the game, but it could be an effective way to motivate and inspire players in the correct setting.

“One of the most powerful things to do as a coach is to say ‘this is great, but what would it look like if Barcelona or Bayern Munich were doing it?’” advises Dan Wright. “And then the kids will just say ‘it would be quicker’ or ‘we’d play with fewer touches’ or whatever it is… If you’re aspiring to a level, it helps to think ‘what does that level look like?’” If your team is comfortable and looking to push on, this technique could be helpful in progressing to that next level.

As Dave Wright concludes, “It’s about that improvement and about that journey of just constantly striving to get better — whether you’re a player or a coach.”

Creating an individual development program: The key points

  • We should strive to take an individual approach to coaching, getting to know our players as people and tailoring our sessions to their specific needs. Individual development plans are an important part of this approach.
  • The first step to creating an individual learning plan is understanding our players. This means getting to know them outside of soccer and learning about the array of socio-cultural constraints that determine what kind of learning environment they need from us.
  • Less is more when identifying targets for our players. We should try not to overcomplicate things by giving them too much to work on at once.
  • Give players ownership of their developmental goals. Work with kids to identify potential areas for improvement, giving them ownership and helping them to become more engaged in the process.
  • Don’t forget the psychological and social components of development. Not only do they feed into areas of technical and tactical improvement, but they’re important to children’s long-term development outside of sport.
  • Help kids to work on their strengths, not just their weaknesses. By encouraging them to turn their strengths into ‘super-strengths’, we can frame improvement in a way that doesn’t make their weaknesses a focal point, building their confidence while helping them to get better.
  • Once we’ve created individual development plans, we should constantly monitor our players’ progress, being ready to support them if they’re struggling or adjust their targets if required.
  • Encourage self-reflection. By encouraging players to evaluate their own progress and performance, we can help them to become more self-aware, more self-confident, and better at setting their own goals.
  • Remember that every child is different; while some kids will enjoy measuring their progress, others will be less interested. We must strive to engage all of the players we coach and ensure that they enjoy playing soccer.

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