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Don’t hate the player, hate the game

In executing a training session, I typically have an idea in mind of the outcomes I am working toward – particularly in regards to the behaviors or techniques that I am expecting the players to exhibit. The task of session planning is an attempt to create a sequence of environments (instructional activities, rondos, small-sided games, and scrimmages) that elicit the intended results.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth
– Mike Tyson

In some cases, the environment that I have constructed does not develop into the experience that I had intended. The players may be having difficulty demonstrating a necessary technique for success in the activity, the activity may be disorganized, the players’ attention spans drift, their solutions to the problems presented to the game aren’t relatable to the actual full-sized game, or the players are unable to execute any solution that will work within the activity.

As a young coach, I thought that my best response to these situations was to talk (or yell) the players to the expected outcome. Examples included telling them what to do (or not do), pointing out mistakes in real-time, and stopping everyone to rewind the situation and deconstruct at length possible choices. The latter action was driven from teachings that I had received on the methods of freeze-rehearse-restart during my formal coaching education. Course evaluation criteria that included the vocalization of the freeze, the number of rehearsals and the behavior of the restart were (apparently) intended to emphasize the importance of this coaching technique.

The problem in all of this is that if the activity does not provide the proper affordances for the players to be successful in their learning experience, no amount of yelling, freezing, or other coach-directed behaviors will have positive results.

An adjustment to the affordances within the activity – the rules, objectives, team sizes and/or composition, spacing – are a method that can reengage the participants in a positive and player-centered manner.

The use of “progressions” in activity design are one method that can be used upfront to plan out the evolution of affordances. For example, if a rondo is too easy, the spaces can be made smaller to create an environment with less space and time. If a small-sided game is too one-sided, changing the players can result in a more competitive match-up. If the objective is to create goal-scoring opportunities, the addition of a neutral attacking player (or players) can result in more numbers-up situations. A conditioning of the neutral players (limiting movement to certain field zones, restricting on the number of touches) can alter the affordances and rebalance the game if necessary.

With Zone 1 players, there is often a wide range of ability levels within a team. The players with the greatest deficits are most in-need of coaching. Ability grouping within activities – for example, having players with similar issues in a smaller group – can allow the coach to work with these players while allowing more advanced players to work at their pace. The use of ability grouping should be selective – rather than standard – and handled with care. The development of a team culture that supports player development within the ability groupings of the team is important for success.

There are still situations in which I may freeze a group in an activity. Typically, this will be for tactical reasons, and most often when a team is making poor choices on playing into pressure. My intent is to quickly replay what I saw, ask a few questions of the players on vision and choices, and restart the game. When I catch myself doing this too often within an activity, I mentally circle back to how I can change the activity to better suit what I am looking for from the players.

Rather than “hating the players” (shorthand for pushing blame onto them for an inadequate learning environment), I’ve learned to “hate the game” (make changes to create an environment with challenges appropriate to the learning needs of the team).