Anti-coaching, part 1

I like to spy on other footy programmes every so often. I go and stand at the side of other people's coaching sessions, and see what they do and how they do it. I find I learn a lot from watching, whether that be watching an experienced coach, or someone who is new to coaching. I steal ideas for activities and progressions, and I try to listen to the types of questions I hear and instructions given. I look out for new ways to help the children who are struggling or challenge those who need something trickier.

There are some great coaches out there, doing interesting things. But there are also many mediocre and poor ones. I like to judge a coach and their session by thinking whether I would send my own child to learn from them. Far too often the answer is "No way!" Often during my trips, I find myself feeling the frustration of the children in the session. I hear them ask "Can we have a game yet?", and I watch them sitting in queues waiting for their turn to do something.

In particular, I have lost count of the number of times I see coaches use the dreaded Numbers Game. You know the one: two rows of kids each with a number, coach calls out a number, two kids run round a cone, race to a ball and try to score a goal. For me, this is almost anti-coaching. And here’s why: 

  1. It’s inefficient. Only two children are involved at once, the rest have to sit and watch. What are they learning while they sit and watch?
  2. It’s irrelevant. The type of 1v1 situation that is created (a stationary ball and two players running at it from opposite directions) is actually rare in football.
  3. It’s inappropriate. If you watch the Numbers Game for a while, you’ll notice that usually one of the children reaches the ball a few seconds before the other, and therefore have an easy tap in to score. Although coaches often use the Numbers Game to match children of roughly equal ability, it actually produces very few 1v1 contests that are equally contested. What the coach actually produces is a test of concentration and sprinting. 

For me, the Numbers Game represents some of the worst adult interference in children’s playtime. If no adults were present, the children would organise a game and would play. The aim of having a coach involved is – at the very least - to make this play safe and focused, and ensure that all the children are included at a level appropriate to their learning needs. By using the Numbers Game you are taking play time away from children and replacing it with sitting on the floor waiting for your turn to do something irrelevant. 

My advice to a new or beginner coach is this: Try to see the session from the point of view of a parent watching your session. Parents get a lot of stick in children’s football, but they are supremely gifted at watching their children play, and have a view point that the coach doesn’t: They spend the entire session only watching one child – their own. They notice how much their child is involved, they notice how much they concentrate and when they are enjoying themselves, they strain their ears to hear every interaction their child has with the coach, and they experience all the mini-successes and mini-mistakes their child makes.

If a parent watches the Numbers Game, they’ll see only what their child does. While the coach is busy calling out another number and thinking how well the session is going, the parent has noticed that their child has only had one turn in the last five minutes. They have also got frustrated that their child is not concentrating anymore, and that they look bored and have started chatting with the kid sitting next to them. Another parent sitting nearby has noticed that their child is finding it too easy, and easily wins the sprint round the cone and has a tap in to score each time. They have started to wonder what their child is really learning in this activity.

As coaches our task is see the session from the viewpoint of the parents of every child all at once. We must recognise that each child has unique individual needs, and we must allow each child maximum opportunity to find satisfaction for these needs in the activities we deliver. Although this is not an easy task, we can help ourselves by preparing activities which are Efficient, Relevant and Appropriate. Every activity and progression within a session should be Efficient, Relevant and Appropriate.


  • Nothing too complicated, or you spend your whole time explaining how it works.
  • Everyone involved, all the time.
  • Progressions: Can you progress without stopping the whole group? (Maximise their learning time).

For example:

If the activity is a 1v1 activity, then how about everyone goes at the same time?

That's much better than waiting your turn.

In this example, each player can score in one of two end goals. This encourages changes in direction and turning.

Swap partners often.


  • Game-related, which means decision-making (which usually means an element of opposition).

  • Autonomy - children get to choose their own way of organising the activity or of making their own rules. They decide for themselves what strategy they will use to tackle the activity.

  • Use teams: Football is a team game, so try to design an activity where individual decision-making skills are needed within a team context.

  • Space: Is the area a realistic size for the challenge? Does it promote football-specific movement? (Playing tag in a huge area usually leads to children jogging around, but in a smaller area they will have to move, dance and change direction often). 

For example:

Cones at either end. Once a player scores, they take a cone back to their end. The winning team is that which gets all the cones back first.

Two teams, enough footballs for one between two. But players are not partnered. Anyone can tackle anyone. 

Lots of 1v1s but also 2v1s, 1v2s etc.

Brings dribbling into game situation - when to pass, when to dribble? Team work.


  • Group or pair children who have similar learning needs.

  • What may be appropriate for one child is not the same as another.

  • How will you (identify and) challenge those who are finding it too easy and need a greater challenge?

  • How will you (identify and) support those who are struggling?

For example:

Introduce safe zones where you can't be tackled. This gives those who are struggling an easier task.

Challenge those who forge ahead: For an extra point, can you "split dribble" before you score?

(Split dribble is a dribble between two opponents).

There is a big challenge for the coach trying to run this 'Appropriate' activity: How to set-it up and explain it to the children in a concise way such that it doesn't end up taking 5 minutes of their precious session time. I suggest using the 1v1 activity under 'Efficient' (above) in the first instance. This should take no more than 10 seconds to explain and set-up. Only progress to the other activities if you know you have the skills to explain quickly and simply how it works. The benefit that the 'Relevant' and 'Appropriate' progressions give are easily outweighed by the negative, non-active time spent listening to a coach ramble on about cones and safe zones.

If you try this, why not drop me a comment below and let me know how it goes?

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  By Mark Carter, March 2012

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Mark Carter

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