We need to coach players to play according to how a game emerges

A typical practice may well be based on a defined theme introduced by the coach. For example, driving in to space with the ball, passing, shooting or defending 1v1 are typical themes. This approach is quite commonly encouraged in most Coach Education courses and of course depending on how it is carried out has great value. Coaches can also design sessions using the logical structure of the game (Attack – Transition – Defending) and the principles of co-adaptability. Deliberate design with the aim to help the young learners learn how to co-adapt (not react) their actions to the moves of other players and the ball,

Many thanks to Keith Davids (co-author of the book Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition and Professor of Motor Learning Centre for Sports Engineering Research, Sheffield Hallam University) for advising me on this piece.

“Practice tasks should be skilfully and thoughtfully designed by the coach so that players need to continually re-organise themselves relative to the actions of teammates and opponent. This is what ‘playing what emerges’ means” – Keith Davids

The player is one part of a dynamic system. The system is comprised of the game/training environment, the task, constraints and the interactions of players in attack, defence and transition. The player acts in context. This dynamic context creates information that needs to be perceived so that the players can regulate their actions. Therefore, it is important to train the perceptual and action systems of young players together. Recognising how the young learner perceives, accepts and or adapts to information sources is of the utmost importance. Information sources for “learning and coaching opportunities” can be designed in to practice but they will also emerge in the practice. This sets great demands on the coach.

“I don’t believe in a cause and effect, mechanistic type of coaching, where if you do this, this will happen. The context is always changing, the opposition is changing, and even the nature of the sport is changing. There are an incredibly complex set of variables within a team sport context” –  High Performance Coach of the Year Danny Kerry (England Women’s Hockey Team Coach)

A session can be designed to be deliberately flexible one that creates a framework where emerging information can help the trainer to coach what emerges.

To design effective learning environments using this approach, the coach must

  • Have a good knowledge of the sport
  • Have a good understanding of learners and the learning process
  • Always take in to consideration that growth and development happens in direct contact with people (individuals) and takes place in a variety of different situations
  • Design training where decision-making is returned to the performer (The traditional passing drill A to B, B to C, C to A does NOT achieve this)
  • Understand that learning is not a linear process and that there will sometimes be periods of steady or sudden improvements as well as periods of regression.

A game like the one below can afford many learning and coaching opportunities. Underpinned by the principles of co-adaptability in this session was deliberately designed for young learners to learn how to play with purpose. In other words, to play with a deliberate “learning” intent even though what exactly is to be learned emerges and is determined by the young players acting in context and what the coach observes.

Co-adaptability: Attacker, defender actions are co-adaptive. One individual evolves the capacity to behave in a certain way. The other individual then has to adapt to that so there is a co- adaptation process going on.

The evolution of this game is 2v1(+GK) and after a goal is scored or the ball leaves play it turns directly in to 3v2(+GK). It is very important to let the game flow for a suitable amount of time before any coaching interventions. This will enable the young players to seek out solutions.

Blog emerge 1

Red passes the ball to blue on the side who then passes too blue in the middle. A 2v1 situation begins where the blues try and score in the big goal and the reds try and score in the yellow goal.

Blog emerge 2

When a goal is scored or the ball goes out of play a 3v2 situation begins.

We go back to the 2v1 situation. Even at this early stage, the coach can observe certain behaviours and decisions being carried out by the young players.

  • How is the body shape of the Blue players as they receive the pass?
  • How is the communication (verbal, non-verbal) between the Blue players as they attack 2v1?
  • How is the communication (verbal, non-verbal) between the goalkeeper and the defenders?
  • How does the Red player turn the 1v2 in to a 1v1?
  • How can the Blue players maintain the 2v1?
  • Do the Blue players shoot when they have a clear view of the goal?
  • Do the Blue players shoot if they see that the goalkeeper is out of position?
  • Can the Blue players use the Red defender to disguise a shot on goal?
  • How are the players behaving and communicating (verbal, non-verbal) in transition?
  • How does the goalkeeper behave when the Reds have won possession?

Blog emerge 3

The questions asked above can also be applied to the 3v2 situation. There are also other learning and coaching opportunities.

  • When the Blue player in the middle has the ball how do the other two Blue players reorganise? Are they implementing the principles of play, creating width with a good body shape and looking to progress the play? Are the wide players in line with the last Red defender and if they are what attacking opportunities does this offer?
  • What options does the player in the middle have when in possession? Pass wide to secure possession? Identify a gap to pass the ball in depth to an oncoming attacker? Drive the ball at the defenders and provoke a reaction?
  • How is the communication (verbal, non-verbal) in transition?
  • What is the role of the goalkeeper when the Red team wins the ball? Positioning? Communication?

“Sometimes we can coach players to stick to a ‘plan’ but typically we need to coach players to play according to how a game emerges. This is because good opposition will identify your plan and disrupt it”- Keith Davids

As behaviours, actions and solutions emerge, regardless of whether they are the best decision for that unique moment or not, possibilities for coach interventions will also emerge. The coach can shine a light on a positive action or a great decision even if the result was or was not the desired outcome.  For example, if the Red player in the 1v2 is struggling (struggle is also emerging information) then it is the coach’s duty to present learning strategies to help that individual.

The coach can try and “nudge” the young learners into constantly trying to adapt new ways to counteract new strategies that opponents are introducing in to the game.

Football is a game of constant decision making based on communication/information. Every training session should have as many aspects of football as possible. The aspects used should interact and should also influence each other.

“…the environment is changing half second by half second, and you have to decide which method or skill to use in which context every time it changes”. High Performance Coach of the Year Danny Kerry (England Women’s Hockey Team Coach)




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