When working with grassroots coaches, especially coaches who are developing basic technical skills with their young players, I often observe the use of drills that are not reflective of the challenges of the game. A common example is the 2-player passing drill. Pairs of players stand a distance apart and knock the ball back and forth. The coach intervenes with the player to correct flaws, generally by disassembling the action into smaller pieces (“open up your hip”, “lock your ankle”, “step through the ball”).
The dilemma is that this passing activity, while potentially useful in clarifying the sequence of movements required to kick the ball, is not necessarily transferable to the real game. Within the activity, there is no opponent, no presssure (time or space), and no objective (points, goals). There is also a question of the degree of effort that players will provide. Self-determination theory describes three elements – connectedness, autonomy, and competence – that are important to develop motivation and commitment (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The lack of autonomy (decision making) is a result of the nature of the activity – I receive the ball and I pass the ball. Players in this activity tend to check out and give a partial effort.
Research describes a pair of concepts – functional movement variability and representative learning design (Chow, Davids, Button, & Renshaw, 2016). Functional movement variability refers to the variations when executing a dynamic action such as kicking the ball. Representative learning design refers to the creation of training activities that map to the target environment – in our case, a soccer match. The application of both of these concepts in training sessions is desirable to develop the skills and tools that players need to successfully perform in competitions.
Going back to our 2-passing drill, there are a number of possible changes that improve the amount of self-determination and representative learning. Some of these possible changes – but certainly not an exhaustive list – are included below:
Create a competition – For example, using teams of 2 players, see who can connect 50 passes the quickest. The players are now required to pass accurately and with some pace. On receiving the ball, the player must quickly prepare the ball for the next pass.
Follow your pass – Using small groups of players, have the passer follow his/her pass to the receiver as a passive defender. The receiver must make a first touch around the defender and player the next pass – once again, following the pass. On receiving the ball, the player must determine a “correct” direction for a first touch, based on the angle of the passive defender.
Switch players in and out – Using 4 players (2 on each side), have the pairs of players switch off as a receiver and defender. The receiver should check back and then to the ball, attempting to hold off a defender, control the ball, and play back. Players are switching back and forth between the receiver and defender roles.
Use multiple balls – With 4 players in a box, have 2 players alternately pass to a receiver, the receiver must then pass back to the “open” player. The activity requires awareness of the next target by the receiver and a purposeful first touch. Passers can be instructed to play the ball to the back foot, allowing the receiver to easily turn on the first touch.
Rondo with progressively active defending – Initially with 4 players on the sides of a box, move the ball around with players moving laterally to open space and with angles. Add progressively active defending to achieve a 4v1 rondo.
There are a number of different ways to develop passing techniques with dynamic activities. The implementation of a representative learning environment with affordances to enhance skills along the dimensions of player development (physical, psychological, technical, and tactical) increases motivation and engagement for the players.
Chow, J. Y., Davids, K., Button, C., & Renshaw, I. (2016). Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition. An Introduction. NY Routledge.