PLAY, PLAY, PLAY …… Learn & explore

In the last two blogs, I have given some insight into the need to develop two areas


(The ability to receive, move and release the ball)


(The ability to beat your direct opponents – alone or in combination)


Building these techniques/ideas into your players training is very important. They are both of equal importance as they link together inside the game to be successful. They are the foundation of individual and collection possession.

“Players use their hard drive techniques to out-play the direct opponent” .

However, everything is secondary to just playing the game!!.

Young players should have a football diet that consists of playing, playing, playing and then playing some more in order to

  • Love the game
  • Explore inside the game
  • Learn about themselves

This love of playing football, loving contact time with the ball and wanting to become better is essential. Its the first step to being able to develop and improve the player.


Playing the game

At all ages, adequate time playing the game is essential to building love and enjoyment for football (relationship with the game). This is the same for u6 players as it is for senior professionals at the highest level of the game.

How football is played by talented young children has completely changed over the course of the last 10-15yrs.

Previously, young players used to play for the local team, the school, district, county representative team and possibly a professional club. Therefore, players were constantly playing, practicing and rehearsing the game. The players also played against opponents of various levels across those teams. This was a fantastic opportunity to explore.


If the players were lucky, they would get one night of skilled coaching, this coaching would give some structure to their playfulness. Id say that players in this generation had 80% play to 20% structured coaching as they played more games than training.


Now the reverse of this is true, the players rarely play representative football. They play for either the local club or a local professional academy but not both. The players now train 3 or 4 times more than they play the game. So we have completely reversed the 80/20 scenario towards 80% structured coaching and only 20% playfulness.

Therefore, as coaches we must adapt and make sure that during our 3 or 4 training sessions, that we are playing a lot of football and not always instructing or coaching.

To help ……. we must see ourselves as “Guides” or “Teachers” of the game rather than coaches.

The word “coach” almost implies that you must always be doing exactly that!.


Facilitating the game

The first step for any coach is to facilitate the game being played, not to coach the game.

Our role is to allow the players to play in various formats and to allow the maximum time possible in our sessions where the ball is rolling and the players are actively in contact with the ball.

What type of game?

It doesn’t really matter! The game can be 1v1 through to 11v11 or a mixture of numbers between. The key is to be playing.

Football is a very simple game : One ball, two equal teams,  both attacking and defending a goal. So we don’t need to complicate the way in which the game is played. Simplicity is key.


While the players are playing, they will be exploring within the game.

Lots of questions will appear inside their heads,

They will be learning about themselves, how they play the game and how they feel inside the game.

This is hugely important and something that you can tap into as a coach in the coming weeks and months working with the players.


You should be observing all of this, looking and seeing how each player moves inside the game, how they like to play (positions they take up) and how they act both in and out of possession.

You can learn so much about the players in this observation. These insights are not just technical or tactical, you can see the character of the young players

  • Do they work hard or not?
  • Do they call for the ball or not?
  • Do they like physical contact or not?

So observation for a coach at any level is an essential skill. The ability to step back from the session and let the game run.

Coaching Tip

Physical demands

Within your training sessions, how often are players working at a level that sees them playing while fatigued?

In the last few years, I have seen so many coaching sessions where players are in a safe and friendly training environment. The coach will do a series of practices that develop areas of the game and then end the session with a game.

However, at no point did the session actually see the players fatigued from constant playing – or play in big spaces that demand players run larger distances.

This is a big shame and coaches are missing a big area of player development and also character assessment in not exploring this area more.

Simple Messages

As the game takes place, you can use short “basketball style” time outs in order to influence the game with simple messages that encourage

  • The importance of length and width in possession
  • The importance of forward runs off the ball
  • The importance of receiving skills
  • The importance of being compact when defending

Or whatever is valid to your group of players / team.


In the younger age groups, maximise the time playing the game and combine this with your hard drive and outplaying techniques.


The 15 minute challenge

When the young players arrive for training, they will see what you have set out for the session and they will run from their parents cars onto the pitch.

The players are excited to be at training and bring with them a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

As a coach, this is a big advantage and means you are winning before the session begins!!!

So set yourself a 15 minute challenge!!


After 15 minutes, is the group still high in energy and motivation to play football?

Or has this enthusiasm decreased?

If it has decreased or disappeared, then that is your fault!! (as the coach)

“Your job is to enhance and increase that energy”.

So how you begin the session is hugely important. Can you get each player involved, interacting and tapping into their enthusiasm to play and learn?.

Again, this is the same for young players as it is for senior professionals.

A tip is to start and end the session with fun. The last practice in a session is often a game and therefore is take care of, but can the beginning also be a game?

Player “WANTS” & “NEEDS”

So understanding that players arrive at your training session wanting to play football (a game) is crucial.

You need to get inside the players minds and see it from the eyes of the players.

Players WANT to play the game

Coaches will see what the players NEED to improve

The art of coaching is to merge players WANTS and player NEEDS


Rhythm and Flow

Any session needs to have rhythm. You gain rhythm from allowing the ball to roll. This gives the players time to adjust to the size of the pitch and to let the game settle.

Lay out the rules for the game at the beginning and then allow football to take place.

Again, you can use “basketball style” time outs for quick coaching points. However, if it’s an individual point as opposed to a group point, then speak to the individual rather than stopping the game.

Your session must flow and allow you to move smoothly from practice to practice. Therefore, how you set out the exercises is also very important. A tip is to lay out the full session and then only remove cones (as opposed to making the players wait as you set up the new practice).

A good way to ensure rhythm and flow in your session is to use “Multi game pitches” –

 Look out for my next blog post, as i will give you some examples of multi game pitches to use with your players and teams

Place your favourite 4v4 SSGs inside one pitch. My next blog will give detail to this type of training and provide various examples for you to use.

Scene setting

Using “scene setting” at the start of the session will save you valuable time that can be used to play the game.

Scene setting can also get the players quickly up to speed and doing exactly what you want them to do, without the need for lots of talking and instructing.

  • What do you want the players to practice?
  • Is there a specific player that does the technique well?
  • Is there a specific team that does it well?

Can you use these elite examples to give the players a vision in their heads? 

My learning experiences

In September 2017, I returned to Liverpool FC academy as head of coaching for the foundation phase (u6-11). The job was a complete change from my previous role as an assistant manager with Sao Paulo FC.

However, I loved every minute of my time with the younger age group coaches and players in the academy. It was a fantastic year and one that was hugely rewarding.

The time in Brazil was fascinating as it enabled me to confirm some of my thoughts around player development. As a youth coach, I had worked with players from many different countries and had always noticed the small differences with players from different cultures.

Rehearsal, was something that most foreign players (non uk) loved to do as part of their training. In short, they needed time alone, away from the coach to just practice the game, or a skill/technique that was important for them.

They didn’t always “train how they played” 

I felt they “trained to improve” and training to improve was having time to rehearse a new skill/technique and to try out some things that were very playful and creative.

The game is evolving all the time, and young players are creating the skills and techniques that we will see in the future.

As coaches, we must allow this creativity to flourish within our sessions

This was confirmed to me when coaching the first team of Sao Paulo FC and working with players from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru etc…..

So I knew that i had been on the right lines before i went to Brazil, and i arrived home to coach the younger players with so much enthusiasm and inspiration.

Having lots of time to play the game, free of coaching and being playful in how you out-play is hugely important to being creative.

Having time with the ball alone, to practice, to create a new skill or move is hugely important to your relationship with the ball and game.

Having a coach who allows you this playfulness and rehearsal is essential…….. So it comes back to us as the adults, do we allow our kids to be creative, to be playful, to enjoy the game for what it is? or do we restrict play and force decision making??

I suppose that is something that we can all reflect on as we progress as coaches.

I am not saying you don’t push standards within the training and train with intensity, but we must also provide adequate time for the players to explore and rehearse new moves without the fear of constant instruction.

Thanks for reading, I hope to complete the “Multi Games Pitch” blog before the end of May 2019







  1. Thanks mike ,that was excellent and has given me some new ideas about coachijg ,im only level 1 but have coached grass roots for 28years, love reading what professional coaches do and tips they can pass on currently coaching under13 .thanks again mark goodfellow hebburn saint germain under13


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