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Session activity variables

A team (program) calendar is typically broken into blocks (“cycles”) – yearly, monthly, weekly – to organize objectives and develop themes. At the professional, college, and elite academy levels, cycles are aligned to competitions, provide for pre-season, in-season, and post-season activities, and generally assume the full engagement of the athletes. At grassroots, pre-elite, and other development levels, cycles are more geared toward player growth and recognize players’ involvement in other activities (e.g., high school soccer, other sports). Alignment with long-term athletic development (LTAD) theory at these levels – providing age-appropriate material – is a desirable ingredient in cycle planning.

The high-level expectation in cycle planning is that the players are advancing in a predetermined manner along the dimensions of player development (technical, tactical, physical, psychosocial). Training sessions and the activities within sessions (warmups, patterns of play, possession games, small-sided games, scrimmages, and so on) are the method for delivering the learning experiences to players

The intent of a session activity is to provide the players an environment with rules and challenges (for example, movement patterns, possession, games) where players are tasked to develop and execute solutions. The definition of the activity creates opportunities for action – affordances. The coach may modify the rules and challenges within an activity to provide new problems for the players to solve.

Players (and teams) will advance based on their abilities. Growth is generally not a straight-line process. The use of repetition without repetition – exposing players to game-related problems using varied types of activities over a period of time – is a foundation to develop durable learning in the players.

The creation, selection, and execution of session activities are driven through the application of variables. Every activity within a training session can be broken down based on the variables that are used. A classification of variables is shown below:

Consider this small-sided game:
We can break down the activity as follows:
Field dimensions and layout40x40 yards square, half-field zones
Scoring1 point per goal, all players must be in the attacking half, the team that is scored on restarts from their goal
Goals2 mini-goals, centered at each end line
Playerseven numbers (4v4), no goalkeepers, no neutrals
Possessioninitially no restrictions
Transitionno rules when teams switch possession
Communicationcoach determines their interaction with players
Scenariogame starts at nil-nil, teams play to a result
Durationcoach determines the duration of each game; for example, the first team to 5 points wins, best out of 3 games

A fundamental consideration in designing a session activity is the relationship between the variables, the expected output from the players, and the themes for the session and activity. In our example, we would expect the players to move as a unit in the attack since all four players must advance for the team to score. Players who usually sit in a defensive role must now push upfield in possession – which adds cognitive demands (recognizing when to hold and when to advance) and physical demands (jogging/running up and down). On counters, the team may need to communicate to encourage teammates to push up and to let the ball carrier know when they can score. The ball carrier may need to scan while on the ball to determine the location of teammates. The variables discourage “cherry-picking” – the player who sits near the opponent’s goal waiting for a direct pass from a teammate deep in the defending end since all players must be over the line to score. In summary, the rules encourage the team to work as a group in both attacking and defending roles.

Progressions are a commonly used tactic for coaches to inject new problems into an activity, especially when the players appear to have solved the initial problem. The cycle of problem → solution → new problem → new solution is a fundamental aspect of the real game. Exposing players to this cycle within activities develops comfort and resilience when players are faced with new problems.

An example of a progression in this activity might be to require at least one player to be in the defending end at all times. This has a couple of side effects. If they choose to have everyone drop, the defending team now has an overall numerical superiority (4v3) in their end. The attacking team faces an additional challenge in meeting a stronger opponent. In response, the attacking team can use the player in the defensive half to recycle play or switch the point of attack. A sophisticated team might have the player in the defensive half carry forward with a player in the attacking half dropping back to cover. Manipulation of one variable provides some new problems and opportunities for both teams.

There are four takeaways from using variables when creating and executing activities.

First, it is vital to understand how variables will impact player performance and the relationship with the coach’s objectives. For example, although the 4v4 half-field game has several learning benefits that we explored earlier, it would not (for example) be a suitable method for developing the movement patterns of a center forward in a 4-3-3 facing two center backs. There is a level of abstract knowledge that any coach can acquire – through books, seminars, videos, articles, and other media. Ultimately it is the coach’s experience on the field with players and a process of evaluation and reflection that will guide how to align activities with objectives. This is particularly true as every team (level, age group, emotional maturity) is different.

Second, it is crucial to balance success with failure and use failure as a path to growth and future success. Activities that are too difficult or too easy are demotivating and limit growth. The coach should determine a set of variables that provide initial success for the players before manipulating variables to create new problems. Commonly, this might mean adjusting the size of the playing space (larger or smaller), adjusting numbers, or swapping players to provide the desired competitive balance.

Suppose the players are initially struggling at an activity. In that case, many coaches will want to either (1) stop play and immediately give the players the solution using a command approach or (2) give up on the activity. It can be a challenge to watch players make mistakes, but we must allow the players the space and time to work things out if they can. If they appear stuck, stepping in and asking leading questions – what are the ideas, what are we trying to do, what can we change to get there – may help unlock the activity without explicitly giving the players the answer.

Third, many activities loan themselves to several possible themes, and in most activities, there is an opportunity to coach a countertheme. For example, in our 4v4 half-field game, we noted an attacking theme of playing as a unit. We could also choose to work with the defending team in recognizing counterattacks, looking to make recovery runs, delaying the ball carrier, and identifying cover positions. Although it is generally desirable to stay on task with a theme, improving the performance of a countertheme will improve the overall quality of the activity. Reusing an activity within a subsequent session with a different focus can provide the players with new perspectives on the roles and moments of the game.

Underlying any particular theme is the set of non-negotiables defined by the program, club, and coach.

Finally, it is generally desirable in training session design to have activities build on each other as a progression. For example, we might consider following our 4v4 half-field game with an 8v8 game with goalkeepers with the field divided into zones:


Although shown as an 8v8, we could use smaller numbers (for example, 5v5 or 6v6 based on squad size) and adjust the field sizing as appropriate. An overall theme of the session might be combinations of play through thirds of the field with support and overlaps.

In future articles, we’ll explore each of the variables and discuss their application within an overall player development structure.