A parent contacted me recently and asked me if I would be interested in coaching his son on a 1-2-1 basis for a few extra quid. His son was 7 years old.
I have to say I said “no” as I wasn’t sure what impact I could have on the young player but I have since been wondering if I have made a mistake as any money to be earned is good money isn’t it? Or is it? What can a coach provide that young player in terms of his learning and development as a player that a brick wall and a parent can’t provide down the park?
Don’t get me wrong I understand the attraction for repetition. Repetitive actions will promote natural movements and reactions and develop technique. In other individual sport this has proven hugely beneficial, as it helps create those neural pathways for myelination for youngsters up to the age of 11 around their motor skills and can create resulting actions that can become second nature.
I grew up without being coached properly at all until I was 12 / 13, when my Dad and Uncles set up a team with my cousins and mates and we all played together on a Sunday. Everything I’d learned as a young player up until that point I had done down the rec with my cousins and pals, using the walls of the changing rooms as rebounders and jumpers for goalposts to make goals for our games of headers and volleys and Wembley.
I remember learning to head the ball in the back garden with a tennis ball! I made myself a small goal from roofing battens and stuck my Cocker Spaniel in it as I would then throw the ball against the Apex of the house, I’d make my run and then head towards the goal. Jay was a very good keeper! Of course my Dad played with me too but there was no structure at all to our play, just fun.
My first achievement in football was to get picked for the Kent Schools team at U14 and I’m convinced it was the two headers I scored from attacking the ball from two consecutive corners that got me in the squad; that practice of timing runs and heading past my Cocker Spaniel had paid off. So, I can see the value in repetition. I used to do that for hours. No Xbox you see!!
However, I sat down to think about how I was able to score those two headers in that trial game and realised the main focus of the skill I had practised in the back garden was about the movement and timing of my runs and not necessarily the technique of heading, and this then made that a skill rather than a technical practice – more than one action to perform in an instant, and decisions start to creep in. However, there was no coach there, just me and a brick wall….and a dog!
Football is a complex game. Multi-faceted, multi-directional, multi-disciplined and the skills to learn within the game are also complex. Why do we practice then without context (complexity) in practice??
What are the trade offs for repetition (constant) practice on a 1 to 1 scale?
Lots of touches
No opponents (unless the coach joins in)
No context of game sense
Limited or no decisions as stimulus restricted
As Academy Manager at Gillingham I watched the evolvement of ‘challenge coaches’ assisting the main age group coach with the main focus of working on individuals or units on their own for a short spell before returning to the practice. I would say though that there were almost always two or more players taken out to provide opposition and therefore context.
How could you work on defending, for example, without an opponent?? However, we would often, and I still do, organise drills as a lead in to a session…but never with one player.
So, my question remains. Would have I been collecting the cash under false pretences? What are the returns? Should we at least have 1 on 1 work? So two players? To encourage technical development along with context: when to do it, how to do it, where to do it?
If it is about learning as a youngster then this is clearly the greatest when one performs the skill in a variety of ways and/or contexts rather than one way and/or one context. I believe, certainly in possession, football is all about what you do with the ball in relation to the time and space you have available. More time and space then I might carry the ball, under pressure I may pass or dribble. In other words there is always a decision to make along with the execution of skill.- how do you create practice for that with only one player??
Food for thought!