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With clubs and coaches dedicating significant amounts of time

devising and defining playing and coaching philosophies it is

steps to designing crucial that the importance of effective practice design as the
vehicle for these philosophies to be delivered is not lost.

In my experience of coaching and coach education, I have witnessed

many examples where the design and delivery of practice is based

effective practice on imitation rather than any individual reflection or reasoning. If,
however, we are going to be successful in achieving The FA’s stated
aim of Developing more innovative coaches who are excellent
teachers of the game we must instead help coaches understand and
rationalise why they coach and behave in the way they do rather than
settling for mimicking others.

One way in which coaches can begin to design more effective

How do you decide what coaching practices to practices is to consider the use of a mental model from which their
deliver? And what process do you follow when practice is planned. One definition of a mental model is a logically
ordered framework of reference points which act to prompt the coach
designing the practice? Here, FA Youth Coach to consider each aspect of practice design. This process helps to
Educator, Ben Bartlett, provides an insight into ensure that each element of the design process helps contribute to
the 6 stage process he uses to design effective the overall theme and objective.
coaching practices. Using a mental model to devise practices can enable a much more
personal, evidence based stamp from which a coach can structure
their work whilst remaining within the boundaries of a national or club
defined approach.

Here, the intention is to define an example of a mental model, link it to

"We must help coaches understand and a decision making process that a coach can follow to design practice
rationalise why they coach and behave in sessions before providing some example of the demands - also
referred to as game-related coaching challenges - that a coach can
the way they do rather than settling for place upon the players within the session to support them to think
mimicking others" about and learn within a game relevant environment.

6 steps for designing more effective practices

Base your work
Develop a
Choose a football focus
Select a pitch type and
Add parameters
Set the demands
on research practice philosophy What aspect of the game do you organise the players Different types of pitch markings can How are you going to instruct,
It is important to be guided by the What are the guiding principles want to work on? Is it part of a club The use of big, small, wide or narrow help set guidelines to support the challenge or brief the players to
latest research into player and skill that inform your approach to syllabus, a particular game-related pitches can implicitly help the practice theme work? Is your challenge designed to
development, ensuring all decisions designing practice? problem or part of performance players develop around a certain restrict, relate or reward?
around practice design and preparation? session theme
methodology are based on sound
The Boot Room Issue 10 24 | 25
August 2014

The following four ideas are the guiding principles from which I structure my practice:

The design of the practice should allow the teams Directional practices which are based on these principles
or players to attack to score in a particular direction don’t necessarily need to be opposed, as shown in the
using some kind of ‘goal’. The focus for the players diagram below. In this practice example, both teams can use
may be a traditional goal, an end zone, a target player combination play across and between each other providing
or other type of target point. By designing practices in interference without a threat to the ball. This example also
this way ensures the principles of attack and defence includes mannequins through which the players look to find
remain fundamental to the practice. their target player.

Base your work on research

Theme in possession

Before we begin to design practice sessions, it is important to be informed by the latest Playing through midfield
research, giving us sound reasoning for making the decisions that we do. Professor Mark
Williams, skill acquisition expert at Brunel University, has proposed that the practice Parameter
experience of a developing young player over a period of time could be constructed
Thirds - Horizontal
within three elements:

Goalkeeper must return the ball

back through a different pair of

mannequins they received through

43% Relate

Deliberate Play Recognise when to play between

the opposition's back four
31% Individual Practice
Team Practice = goalkeeper = movement of ball
= mannequin = movement of player Any pass between mannequins to
goalkeeper = 1 goal

A practice should be constructed within the area of the
pitch that it would occur on match-day. For example, if the
Deliberate Play may include Individual Practice may include Team Practice May Include
session theme was playing through midfield, (see above) the
1. Self directed practice 1. Squad sessions where players 1. Activities focused around
practice would be delivered in the midfield area of the pitch,
2. Games for understanding focus on individual objectives team objectives
if the session was defending around the penalty box, the
3. Small sided games 2. Small group sessions 2. Activities focused around
set up would be constructed around the box and so on. This
4. Arrival activities where players focus on unit objectives
approach helps the practice have a visible link to the game
individual objectives 3. Match preparation
of football.
These are done for the inherent 3. Practice done on players
fun of playing. Try to limit/ own/at home etc.
eliminate interventions. 4. Pre-hab programmes
Within the practice the players should have a cognitive
challenge with decisions to make, problems to solve,
triggers to read and situations to perceive. By building these
ingredients into a practice the execution of any technique is
coupled to some kind of visual trigger such as the movements
and decisions of the opposition or teammates.
If we accept this model, it may be helpful to be considerate of the ways in which we plan,
record and apply this over an entire development journey and how this may translate Difference
to each season, each block of work and even each individual session. This approach can Practices should provide opportunities for players to practise
provide a reference point for our longer term planning and support us to structure our the session theme in a range of varying circumstances such
coaching sessions, ensuring each session and period are one page or chapter within a as running with the ball over both short and longer distances.
cohesive, longer story. Additionally, the practice should allow the players to practise

different themes within the same practice, for example Josh
Have a Practice Philosophy practises marking and intercepting whilst James practises
passing forward.
In edition 6 of The Boot Room the concept of Teaching Games for Understanding was
discussed and in edition 8, the focus was on Skill Development. Returning to these Whilst these four things aren’t strict rules that coaches must
concepts and the relevant underpinning evidence forms the basis for my own apply to their work, there is a clear rationale from which, in
practice philosophy. principle, a coach can apply to practice.
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August 2014

Choose a football focus Players Using the parameters
After selecting the pitch type, I would consider the The different parameters can be used to lock players into
Once you have looked at what research can tell us about effective coaching practices and best way of organising the players: certain areas of the pitch. For example, if you are using
also developed some ideas about your own practice philosophy it is important to fit the horizontal thirds, the defenders and forwards may be
framework you are developing to a football theme. Even-numbered teams can provide a variety of restricted to their own third whilst midfielders are able to
challenges particularly when the teams are placed move freely. Likewise, in a session using vertical thirds the
Coaching session themes develop from lots of different sources. You may work at a club into team shapes which create out-numbered full backs and wide players may be locked into wide areas.
or organisation where there is a coaching programme or syllabus with weekly coaching circumstances in different parts of the pitch. For Alternatively, the parameters may just act as guidelines for
topics. Alternatively, you may work in a performance environment where preparation for example 7 v 7 matched up GK-2-3-1 v GK-2-2-2 as the demands you place on the practice, for example: use the
specific opposition provides the theme. Or, similarly, the detail of your session may arise shown on the previous page. central circle to set up attacks.
from a particular issue the team or an individual are currently finding difficult.
Out-numbered teams, as articulated by Joe Sargison
• A Programme Theme: playing forward in issue 9 of The Boot Room, can provide a ‘hostile
• A Particular Problem: we are finding it difficult to defend crosses environment’ for practice. For example 4v7 with the
• Performance Preparation: breaking down opposition who defend late in a 4-4-1-1 team of four defending the goal or 5 v 8 with the team
of five attempting to keep possession from the eight.
Sometimes odd numbers arriving for training can be
an opportunity not a problem.

Design Additionally, if the goalkeepers are available for the
full duration or part of the practice, it is important to
Pitch consider what you want them to practise and how
I work from four pitch types which the players become familiar with and understand. you are you going to build them into the session. For
This familiarity helps reduce the time the players spend trying to learn how the practice example, you may set up a 6 v 5 possession practice
works and instead increases the time for them to practise and learn. Additionally, the with the goalkeepers acting as additional support
considered choice of pitch type can implicitly help the players develop around the players. The team of 6 try to keep the ball and use
session theme. the goalkeepers to do so allowing the goalkeepers
to practice playing with their feet as they receive
A big pitch is useful if you are looking to test defending skills or if you want to create back-passes before having the opportunity to save
space between units to play through or behind the opposition. Similarly, big pitches are counter attacking shots when the team of five regain
"Every practice effective at generating full game pictures with realistic distances. possession.

should have an
A small pitch is a great way to test touch and release skills along with the associated Parameters Horizontal Thirds Vertical Thirds
element of direction speed of thought and decisions to really put the players under strain to stay with the ball
Once the pitch size and number
ensuring the of players is decided, I use four
Narrow pitches challenge the players to play forward as there is limited width to play
principles of attack around the opposition. Narrow pitches help the players practice themes such as playing methods of pitch markings to restrict
and defence are through the opposition and breaking the block. areas or to set guidelines to support
the practice theme:
fundamental to the Using a wide pitch (a pitch wider than it is long) can provide a focus for switching play,
practice" attacking and defending in wide areas and crossing and finishing Horizontal Thirds
An effective reference point to help the players play
through the thirds, develop their movement ‘between
the lines’ and to recognise when to join the attack. Out
of possession horizontal thirds can act as a reference
point when trying to win the ball back using early/
mid/late pressing techniques.

Vertical Thirds Halved pitch

Supportive of wide play, overlapping, crossing,
switching play and defending wide areas as the pitch
is marked or sectioned length ways

Halved pitch
Similar to a standard football pitch linking well to
recognising different ways to play in your own half and
the opponents' half both in and out of possession

Central circle
Probably my favourite pitch marking as it generates
more of a 360 degree perspective of the game than
horizontal or vertical thirds. Additionally, if coaches
wish to restrict players to areas it still provides an
opportunity for defenders to advance to the
half-way line. Central circle
The Boot Room Issue 10 28 | 29
August 2014

out of possession
Once the pitch and parameters have been decided and the players are organised, there
are a variety of different ways in which a coach can instruct, challenge or brief the players
to work. The examples in the diagram below show how a coach can structure and build
tasks for teams, units or individuals to practice.

Parameter Restrict Relate Reward

The three ways I build challenges in order to link to the theme and to allow the
players to practice within both the pitch and parameters selected are:
An example of
using the 6 step
Early press Halved pitch Must win ball back Recognise when to Win ball back in
Restrict process to design
in opponents' half to press in opponents' opponents' half and A traditional way to constrain practice is to restrict the ball contacts, practice
score half score = 3 goals movements and/or decisions a player or team can make. Adopting this
method is an effective way to ensure lots of repetition of the session theme, for What do I want the players
Mid press Thirds (Horizontal) 2v1 in their third Use a team strategy Win ball back: example you must play forward when you receive. This method can, however, to practice?
(their favour) to apply pressure mid third and reduce the realism of the practice, restricting opportunities for decision- Defending Outnumbered
3v4 in mid third and regain in the score = 3 goals; making and chances to learn from cues and triggers as the constraint enforces
(our favour) middle third attacking third = only one type of response – and not always the appropriate response – to the Why?
2v2 in our third 2 goals; defensive unfolding situation. It’s in the syllabus, we’ve
(equal) third = 1 goal been finding it difficult
Locked into zones Relate
Challenging players to relate a particular task to the situation occurring – such How can I plan my tasks to
Late press Halved pitch Win ball back in own 8v6 – Establish a You are 2-0 up – Play as ‘Recognise when to play forward’ - is an effective method to help support Restrict this?
half and finish within counter-attacking a 5 minute game – players to build situational awareness and respond to what is going on in the The team in possession can
seven seconds of strategy against Win the game using game. By using the relate method, the coach plants a seed about the desired move freely through the
regain to score a team with 2 a late defending outcome without making it mandatory. The intention is that the players relate thirds with the team out of
additional players tactic the task to the situation. possession locked into their
positional thirds (defenders
Defend wide areas Thirds vertical Locked into channels Try to spot when GK – every cross
This very much supports a trial and error coaching style (see edition 7 of The in defensive third etc) this
(pitch wider than it 2v2 in wide areas to show inside claimed = 1 goal
Boot Room on the spectrum of coaching styles). When supported by effective will generate outnumbered
is long) 3v3 central must and when to show Full backs/Wide
questioning the players can start to review their decisions which in turn helps situations as the team in
score from a cross outside midfielder – every
the players make sense of the situations they find themselves in. possession move forward to
regain in final third =
support attacks
1 goal
- Tell me about some of the times you played forward?
Theme Parameter Restrict Relate Reward - What things helped you to play forward? How can I plan my tasks to
In Possession Relate this?
- Why did you find it tough to play forward in those situations? Recognise when not to
1. Playing Forward Narrow pitch Must play through Recognise when to Any pass/dribble - What can you try that may help you to solve that problem? press the ball. Supporting
central circle central circle to set play between the between opposition questions to include: in
up attacks opposition Unit = 1 goal It is important however to recognise that using the relate method may mean what situations might I not
less repetition of the session theme (as players don’t do it every time). press the ball? What things
2. Changing Speed of Thirds – Horizontal All forward passes Try to inject speed However many 1 However, it is an effective mechanism for supporting the development of that I see tell me to hold my
Attack into next third must into attacks (if it’s the touch passes used in genuine understanding as players begin to recognise when to do something. position/drop? If I’m in front
be 1 touch right thing to do) attack = that number of the ball, when might I
of goals when Reward recover to press the ball?
scoring (5 x 1 touch Coaches can use the idea of a ‘reward’ in order to encourage aspects of play
passes = 5 goals) linked to the session theme. For example, to encourage an early press you may How can I plan my tasks to
use a halved pitch and task the players to win the ball back in the opponents Reward this?
3. Attacking Wide Thirds – Vertical Must enter wide area Use wide areas to set Goal from a cross = half. If they do so they are rewarded with 3 goals. If you prevent a goal/shot on
(pitch wider than it before scoring a goal up attacks 2 goals goal when the other team
is long) FB – Recognise when Goal from overlap/ The reward method can act as a middle ground between the restrict and relate counter attack it is rewarded
to join the attack underlap = 3 goals methods as the players aren’t mandated to perform a certain action but are with two goals. This rewards
likely to have a good go as the reward is greater. This can also take on the form effective defending when
of game situational challenges. For example: you are winning 2-0, there are 10 out of balance
4. Combination Play Halved pitch Must use a 1-2 (3rd Use quick 1-2 = 1 goal minutes left, win the game using a late defending tactic.
small man run, round the combinations in the 3rd man run = 2 goals
corner, overlap etc.) opposition half
before scoring Round the corner =
3 Goals
The Boot Room Issue 10 30 | 31
August 2014

Research shows that young

players benefit from a
combination of – deliberate
play, individual practice and
team practice
There can be value in blending the restrict, relate and reward approaches into a session or
using a different demand with different individual players. The practice below shows how:

Theme in possession

Changing the speed of attacks


Thirds - Horizontal


All forward passes into the next third

must be played using one touch


Try to inject speed into attacks (if it

is the right thing to do)


The number of one touch passes

used to create a goal is the number
of goals awarded (For example: 5
one touch passes to create a goal =
5 goals)

• The blue defenders and the goalkeeper are restricted to pass into the middle
third using one touch
• The midfielders have a related task: recognise when to inject speed into the attack
• The forwards have a reward task: the number of one touch passes used in setting up a
goal is rewarded with an equal number of goals

This combinatory approach to coaching supports coaches to use a variety of methods

blended together in place of using only one approach. This process of devising and delivering practices Those wishing to read Ben Bartlett is a
outlined here is one that I am still practising and one further may wish to look FA Youth Coach Educator
that I am a long way from perfecting. What the process into the work of Mark working with coaches and
has taught me is that these methods appear to be Williams, return to PCW players in academies and
an effective tool for player development. It has been Van Wierignen’s work on centres of excellence.
clear that the more thought and detail afforded to the Perception-Action Coupling
construction of the challenges, the less deliberate, and reference previous Ben’s previous roles
immediate instruction and feedback is required, an editions of The Boot Room. include FA Regional Coach
approach which research suggests is the least effective Development Manager for
way of providing feedback. One possible reason for the East, Technical Director
this is that the design of the practice and the demands for Women's and Girls’
placed upon the players support individuals to practice football at Chelsea FC and
in context and generate their own feedback whilst nine years in a range of
providing an environment from in which coaches can, coaching and development
if appropriate, ask questions, provide feedback and roles at Colchester United.
apply additional tasks that genuinely link to the game
of football. "It has been clear
The building of the mental model explained here that the better
certainly isn’t complete and one that will the tasks, the
continually evolve in line with the needs of the players
and the game. A wise man who encouraged me to less deliberate,
approach my work through a considered mental immediate
model has subtly guided me towards a path that has
supported the building of a formula and strategy which
instruction and
hopefully runs deeper than a practice or play book. feedback is required"