How do you plan your training sessions?? is a question that I am asked regularly when discussing football with fellow coaches. In truth, a lot goes into the daily training within an academy or a first team environment. Firstly, you need to liaise with a number of staff within the club (including the other coaches and the fitness and medical departments), You must also ensure that the content of the session fits the clubs philosophy, the moment of the season, the mood of the group and the players you have taking part in the session that day.
Below, I will share some of the things that i consider when planning a session. I will also share some different session plan examples from my time coaching at Liverpool and São Paulo FC.
“I believe that session planning is a very personal thing. Each coach should plan sessions in their own unique way and add their own personal touch to the content they use”
The most important time of the day
Without question, the session is the most important part of my day and the thing I love most about my job. Therefore, I give a huge amount of time and thought into the messages I want to send in the session via verbal communication, the practices and the intensity used.
“Everything you do is linked to your clubs style of play”
“This vision of how you play football in your club is the backbone to everything you do within the session”
Each practice should promote and develop the style you want to implement and provide clarity to the players on their role within the team and the problems they must solve/overcome within the game to be successful.
This is also true for individual training (position or unit specific) that players complete on a daily basis to (1) enhance their strengths (2) develop areas in their game they have been identified for improvement. The same applies to any specific physical work completed by the players, it should be designed for the players to train their bodies to complete the demands of their specific role inside the team.
A Series of questions
My personal way of planning the session is by asking myself a number of questions.
Who is in the session?
(The specific players)
Who is the main focus?
(The key player or players)
What do they need?
(Don’t always look at action areas or weaknesses, players need to continue to practice their strengths and try to make them super strengths. )
What are we working to improve?
(As a group, improving efficiency or understanding in a certain aspect of the game)
What is the state of the group?
(How will that impact your planning and communication)
What is to come?
(Eye on the games or the schedule)
What is required physically?
(Liaise with your sport science staff)
In the Eyes of the player
Once you have answered the above questions, you can now begin to plan the practices you will use in the session. However, I believe its vitally important to visualise the session in the eyes of players. This ability to visualise as a player is a huge asset to the coach and important to ensure you have the correct :
Rhythm and flow of session – How the different practices flow smoothly from one to another and how the coaching messages link together as the session develops.
Lay out & Practice order – The layout is very important and again this links to the flow and rhythm of the session. Try to lay out the session so that no time is lost in putting out cones or setting up areas. This enables the maximum playing time “ball rolling” within the session and again the tactical/technical work to link.
Player needs and wants – Always be mindful that the players want to be playing football and attacking/defending the goals as much as possible. As coaches, we will be thinking about “what the players NEED to improve”.
Linking player wants & player needs is the key to a successful session.
Something specific to me! – all players come to training wanting to improve and wanting to develop a specific area of their game. So making practices specific to certain players or splitting into smaller groups for position specific work is a sure way of ensuring each player takes something away from the session and feel that the coaches are going the “extra mile” to develop them as individuals.
The Session Plan
You are not writing the session plan for anyone else. So you don’t need to write the rules of the practice etc…. Try to write notes to remind yourself of key communication to the players or certain individuals in the session. In short, YOUR session plan should talk to you and give you REMINDERS of what you want to communicate and when.
After the session, you can go back and write the session neatly or use a computer based software to create perfect diagrams.
But the session plan, should be a working document and also enable you to make notes within the training that you can reference back too –
What went well?
What didn’t go well?
A specific message to certain players or unit within the team etc….
Sharing the workload
When i was the head coach of Liverpool u23s, i had a saying “no superman” sessions. This basically meant that the different coaches shared the full practice by taking turns to lead the different practices within the session.
This also worked for the position specific work within the sessions – where each coach took a different unit in the team or specific players to work with them more closely.
This type of coaching and sharing of the workload is vitally important to making the whole staff feeling fully involved in the development process of the team/players. You also see a different session when you are leading, compared to when you stand back and analyse the players from a distance. All coaches need to ensure they give themselves this opportunity from time to time.
“I first see this way of working as a young coach at Chelsea FC academy. We had a staff CPD day in 2004/5 where we got the opportunity to watch Jose Mourinho and his staff coaching the Chelsea first team. This was a privilege to watch at this stage of my personal development. The set up, lay out, flow and shared workload in this session was outstanding and something that stuck with me from that day.
I have seen various interviews of old Chelsea players speaking about this time in their careers and the beginning of the Mourinho era at the club. The way Mourinho coached and organised the sessions on a daily basis is always mentioned as having a huge impact on the players compared to previous managers they had”
Time management is very important to coaches and something that improves with experience. However a simple piece of advice is to ask yourself a question.
How long do you want to play football (a game) for?
Once you have allocated this amount of time, never mess with it or change. So if you want to play a 30 minute game at the end of the session, don’t overrun the other practices and only play a 20 minute game. Stick to the initial plan and ensure that you have this full 30 minutes to play the real game and for the players to have this exposure to what they “want” to do (playing football in the simplest form).
I like to plan my sessions backwards. An example for a 90 minute session would be:
20m Game Related
20m Opposed practice
20m Technical / Warm Up combined
We all know the session runs in the opposite direction, but i like to plan back to front in terms of time allocation in the session.
Flexibility of practice
Its important that you are prepared and flexible to the things that can happen in a session. You might not have the perfect numbers or you might lose a player to injury during the session.
In these moments, you must make a good decision and maintain the flow and realism of the practice.
Competition within the training is very important. Using competition sets the tone of the whole session and can switch the players mentality towards each practice – bringing the session you have planned to life!
A couple of tips in this area include
Selecting of teams
Taking time to select the teams within the session is important. You can set up a best v best scenario and you can challenge or test certain individuals within the session.
Creating “games within games”
This is a clever way of forcing players into competition. An example of this is to ask a coach to count passes completed by two midfielders (one on each team) and declaring a challenge to the two players that the player who completes the most passes within a small sided game has won the “game within a game”.
This can also be used with a Centre back vs Forward – or – Full back vs wide player and with various rules for winning. These mini games (within the big game) add extra competition inside the session. They raise the tension and realism of the competitive nature of the real game.
Removing the fluff
A good piece of advice i was given as a young coach was to “remove the fluff” around the theme of the session. An example of this is when working on the theme of shooting.
If you are working on a theme of shooting, then thats exactly what you should see within the session……. lots and lots of shooting and variation on types of shooting technique.
Therefore, you must be close to the goal and working on repetition of shooting as a start point in the session.
Practice 1 – unopposed shooting
Practice 2 – add a defender and 2v1/1v1 scenario to add difficulty
Practice 3 – add a small sided game of 3v3, 4v4 to create opposed shooting opportunities
Practice 4 – play a game
“You must ensure that the things you planned to work on, are actually happening within the session. Removing the fluff and getting right into the core theme is the best way of making sure this is taking place. You can then add layers of difficulty as you progress the session”
Often i will see sessions that have a theme, but that theme is not obvious to the players or the people watching as it doesn’t take place enough with the session due to the practices used being too complex.
Use realistic game scenarios
Never forget the real game or move too far from it. The spaces must be realistic and the rules must be simple. Try to re-create moments in the game and allow your players time to explore and problem solve in order to be successful. Walkthrough different scenarios and use two way communication with the players in order to discuss their options both in possession (on and off the ball) and when defending. Play around with the spaces – but make sure that area sizes allow players to become fatigued and have moments of the session when they are exposed to big areas to replicate the demands of football. Training in a non fatigued “safe” environment will never challenge the players decision making like a real game does. So training must provide this environment and also challenge the players to their limits (at the right time).
Session plan examples
Below are two examples of session plans from my previous clubs/teams. (please excuse the terrible handwriting and also the poor Portuguese language skills!!)
Liverpool FC – u23 Team
Sao Paulo FC – First Team
Bring your personality to the session
The personality to inspire and interact with your players is so important. The coaching environment you create with your staff is vital to the work completed on a daily basis.
What is needed from the staff
Energy and positive body language must come from the coaching staff. The players will feed off this positivity. I often imagine what a “mirror of my touchline behaviour” would say to my players. Is it positive, aggressive, frustrated?……. This is so important at all ages but even more so when working with young players.
Key verbal communication required
You must always speak with optimism and promote the qualities you want to see from your players/team. Promoting the key aspects of your teams identity on a daily basis is key to the team building process and positive reinforcement. A key mistake in this area is to use terms that the players do not fully understand (keep it simple and don’t use coaching jargon with players).
Speed and tone of voice.
Changing the speed and tone of your voice during the session to emphasise certain behaviours or energy you want to promote is a key skill of elite coaches.
What is the ultimate aim of your daily training?
The answer to the above question will slightly change depending on the age group and level of player that you are coaching (youth or senior, amateur or professional)
The reason i use the word “slightly” is that a lot of things do remain the same regardless of age group and level.
Footballers will always want to PLAY the game and to ENJOY training. After all, the game is something that they have fallen in love with. Players also like competition and like to improve/get better at the sport they love. So these aspects don’t change.
In the 1st team environment, you have some other key things that you need to ensure you are doing in your training to be successful
Training must have one dedicated aim : IMPROVEMENT
This improvement is for individuals and the team
The training must provide clarity on individual roles with the team
The training must provide clarity to the team on how to move, defend and attack
The training must prepare the team/players for the biggest challenge – never the smallest. So you must always push and drive the team standards. The level of the team is never “SET”.
Lastly – as coaches we must always remember that we are in a very privileged position to be working in a job that is our dream. We must remember that each morning on arriving to the training centre. We must bring the energy, the personality and also see the best in our players at all times. The players you work with are people, who play football well, this must always be in the forefront of your mind. Manage the person AND the footballer – they are two different things. You have a duty to make decisions as a football coach on selection and contracts etc……. but also a big duty to be a role model to young people in general and how you treat them each day is very important. They will need you and your trust, honesty and integrity in other areas of their lives and not just on the football pitch. The 1:1 personal relationship is now more important than ever in our roles as coaches. Good luck