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Session activities and intentionality

A recent social media exchange caused me to reflect on the reasons for the use of specific ideas within session activities, especially in terms of progressing an activity. How does one decide on which activities to use within training sessions and how does one decide when and where to “progress” the activity? These seem like important questions to be able to answer when designing activities.

Like many coaches, I have a bookcase in my office dedicated to soccer coaching books, binders, DVDs, and other content. As a younger coach, I didn’t have a clear understanding of my philosophy on the game, teaching methods, pathways, objectives, or outcomes. As an amateur adult player and parent-coach, I had ideas on how to play the game but few on how to express these ideas in the framework of coaching a team over a period of time. I believed that by buying and reading books, watching videos, and assimilating the contents, I would be able to develop the skills necessary to coach. Indeed, a similar strategy had served me well in my professional career as a software engineer. I later enlarged my methods to include taking a variety of coaching education courses on various topics. I still use this method – I am currently a candidate on the UEFA B course – but I have become more selective on how I integrate my exposure to new information with my current knowledge and beliefs.

Consider the player who goes from coach to coach seeking instruction. I had such a player several years ago at the high school level. Each coach provided their input to the player on what they saw as needs and objectives. The problem is that the player was unable to formulate a clear identity as each coach made their (well-intentioned) opinions without an underlying common foundation.

And so it is with coaching education and content. It is truly amazing – with the advent of social media, content distribution, and online/hybrid learning – how much material is available for coaches. 205 Sports has been an active participant over the last few years through our web site and Twitter account. The problem is that the breadth of content that coaches can access comes without disclaimer or common background and often without an explicit theoretical foundation.

Given all of this information and the possibilities that any one curriculum, session plan, activity, or progression represents, it’s important that as a coach we can answer these questions:

  • What do I believe about the game and how it should be played?
  • What do I believe about the player development process – short-term and long term?
  • What are the key performance objectives (KPOs) and key performance indicators (KPIs)?
  • What do I believe about teaching and learning?
  • What do I believe about applying my teaching/learning beliefs with training session and game activities?
  • What is the evidence (research, experiences, anecdotes) that validate these beliefs?

It is this last question that should drive an examination of an overall belief system. Here is a slide that I put together for Monterey Condors Club in the context of creating a curriculum and player development program. This slide more or less reflects the evidence and theoretical basis for the content that 205 publishes.

The intent is to demonstrate a variety of sources of material which have evidence of success and are mostly consistent in theory. A specific example of a theoretical basis is the TOVO methodology (click here for more details). TOVO has the benefit of cleanly describing a set of principles and a vocabulary for communicating with players. A variety of styles of play can be layered onto the TOVO foundation.

In addition to defining a basis of our philosophy, we should be able to answer these practical questions:

  • Who are my players?
  • What is my inventory of resources?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Combining a philosophy and theoretical background (the first set of questions) with an understanding of the environment (the players and inventory) and oneself (strengths and weaknesses), the usefulness of a new idea comes into clearer focus:

  1. What is the foundation/theory behind this idea?
  2. Does the idea integrate with my philosophy or is it in conflict?
  3. Is there evidence that this idea is of value within my environment and objectives (short-term and/or long-term)?
  4. Do I understand the idea and how to teach/apply it with my players?

Consider this example of a training session activity – a simple 3v3 game:


In this activity, we identify a possible progression in which all players touch the ball before scoring. A legitimate question is whether this is a desirable condition for player development. The answer is “it depends”. It depends on the level of the players, the short-term and long-term development objectives for the players, the principles of the coach and club, and how the game is viewed. Consider these two viewpoints:

  1. We want our players to be comfortable on the ball, taking risks, and beating opponents 1v1 (or 1v2 if possible). Forcing the player to give up the ball on winning it in order to satisfy a rule rewards the defenders and takes away the opportunity for the player to immediately counter and score. Scoring creates confidence and is a primary KPO for our players.
  2. We want our players as a collective to understand how to secure possession and to be creative in breaking down an organized opponent. Without this rule, a single player in the 3v3 can dominate a weaker opponent, teammates will not work to expand when their team gains possession, and will wait to receive a ball rather than moving to provide an option. Possession abilities translate to how we play the game and is a primary KPO for our players.

Both viewpoints have validity within a context of player development. One could argue that the progression (everyone touching the ball) is an option for “more advanced” players – and this may be true.

Consider the classic model of dimensions of player development:


Many coaches spend a lot of time on the tactical (strategy) and technical (skills), some on physical, and very little on psychosocial. Ultimately (in our philosophical model), soccer is a game of problem solving – being able to examine an environment, determine a set of options, decide on a particular option, execute, and then determine success and next actions. In short, the TOVO “Manage Oneself” flowchart.

Creating an environment in which the players are presented with challenging problems and develop solutions should be a foundation of a learning model. In our opinion, not every problem should be simple and some may exceed the abilities of the players. In those cases, as coaches we must reflect on the suitability of the problem to the group and whether the lead-in and cues for the problem require changes in the future. Understanding what the solution to a problem “should” look like relative to our players AND how that problem relates to the game (in any or all of the four player development dimensions) is a prerequisite. Post-activity and post-game reflections with players – what was the problem,what worked and what didn’t, did you like it, what could we do differently in the future – helps the players grow in knowledge and confidence.

We ask the players to take risks and be brave, and as coaches we must do the same.

In summary:

  • Develop a belief system about the game and player development that has a foundation in available evidence. Examples include scholarly research, academies, federations, other trusted sources, and personal experience and values. Continually examine your belief system as it evolves for internal consistency and validity.
  • Critically examine new ideas (session plans, activities, drills, game models, etc) in relation to your belief system.
  • Do I understand the idea and its theoretical foundation? Can I draw a line between this idea and how we play the game? If not, then consider either more research or setting it aside.
  • Does the idea add value and fit within your belief system? If yes, then consider how it can be integrated into future actions and activities. If not, then regardless of its source, consider leaving it on the shelf.
  • Be willing to put challenges in front of the players that may be outside their comfort zone but within a safe environment that allows for experimentation and failures. Guide the players through reflection to personal growth.