'Ball rolling' time

'Ball-rolling' time is a term used in the England FA DNA. The picture on the left shows some of the coaching principles which are to be included in all England training sessions. This blog will be the first in a series of posts which examines some of the principles in more detail, and relates them to coaching of children.  

The bottom left hexagon contains the following core principle: Aim for a minimum of 70% ball rolling time in all sessions.  This principle seems to recognise the need for practices to allow players to move, be part of the activity, and to learn by doing. It limits whole group interventions to just 30% of the session. 

As regular visitors to the MoF site will know, Ministry of Football also uses a measure of activity and movement to gauge our own sessions and to try to quantify the amount of opportunity children get to 'learn by doing' in our practices. We use Active Learning Time (ALT) as our measure, and we aim for 75% of lesson time to be ALT. We measure sessions regularly to check that all coaches understand how this can be achieved.

Active Learning Time is the average amount of time each child has to move and be physically active within the practice session. It is a 'per child' measure. This is different from the FA's Ball Rolling Time (BRT) because BRT does not measure the players, rather it measures the amount of time the ball is moving in a session.

It should be said that neither BRT nor ALT is a measure of the quality of a session, and therefore that just because a session is high or low in BRT or ALT, this does not necessarily make it a good or poor session. At MoF however, we strongly believe that in order for children to experience the joy and thrill of football, and to access flow states (which can seriously enhance learning), they need to be able to move. Our sessions are game-based, so the ALT in a MoF session will usually refer to the amount of time in game-like practice activities.

The examples below look at some common types of games or practice activity and show the difference between the FA's BRT and MoF's ALT. As you will see, there can sometimes be a substantial difference between the two.

Ball Rolling Time (BRT) v Active Learning Time (ALT)

Imagine each of the activities going on for 10 minutes, uninterrupted by any coaching. The figures show what % of the activity would be BRT and ALT.

Four lines of four children each, the child at the front of the line dribbles round some cones and back. When they return they give the ball to the next person who does the same. Of the 16 children, only four are active at any one time.

BRT 100%  v  ALT 25%

This is a tag game. There is no ball involved. However, the children are heavily involved in physical activity and physical learning. Tag games, when done well, involve all children in decision-making, competition, and team-work. Children practice quick football-specific movements like changing direction, accelerating and decelerating, moving backwards and sideways and feinting to move. The game challenges them to look around them, scan regularly and make sense of the pictures they see in a fast changing environment. 

BRT 0%  v  ALT 100%

Above is a 3v3 football game. A further team of four children waits their turn to play. A total of 10 children are present and they play for two-thirds of the time on average.

BRT 100%  v  ALT 67%

The practice on the right is a familiar warm-up in Sunday league footy. A queue of players wait their turn to play a pass to the coach, the coach lays the ball off, and the player has a shot at goal. In this example there are 9 players, and each is involved for 1/9th of the time.

BRT 100%  v  ALT 11%

In summary: If we want to try to quantify opportunities to learn then why are we measuring what the ball does? It makes more sense to measure what each learner does. It is not tricky to measure 'activity per learner', sure it takes a little longer to work it out - but it is worth the extra effort. The process of measuring ALT is a learning process in itself. A coach or teacher measuring ALT (as part of planning, reviewing or observing a lesson) will need to consider each and every learner, and in doing so will gain understanding of what types of activity are more engaging and how to progress lessons and teach within lessons without destroying opportunities to move. The danger in using and promoting the BRT approach is that coaches will measure sessions without taking into account the total lack of 'learning by doing' experienced by children standing on the sidelines or waiting in queues (see the first, third and fourth examples above).

Tips from the FA's 'Bootroom'

Whether we use BRT or ALT as a proxy for learning and involvement, there are things we can do as coaches which will make our sessions more active. The following tips on how to increase Ball Rolling Time are taken from Ben Barts excellent article in the equally-excellent FA Bootroom magazine. Ben was working with a coach to try to increase BRT from 40% and these are some of the strategies that coach used [my additional comments in italics]:

1. A problem-solving approach to practice

Less deliberate instruction and fewer demonstrations at the start of practices. As a principle, try to get the players playing using one or two sentences of instruction [see the Challenge Bank resource for ideas on how to get small-sided games started quickly in one or two sentences]. This can mean the practice can look untidy when it starts but player understanding grows as they become more familiar with the approach. Using practices that players are familiar with and enjoy and to which you can add subtle changes to can support this.

2. Shorter interventions

Practice trying to make group interventions last no longer than 30 seconds (not as a rule but as a principle). [This is not as easy as it looks! A tip is not to always need to physically bring the children into where you are. Children can take 5-10 seconds to stop what they are doing and come in to the group, and this time repeated over and over in again in a lesson quickly adds up. Instead, can you project your voice to reach them where they are, or demonstrate something for them instead?]

3. Players record feedback during sessions

Instead of using lots of group interventions, use a whiteboard where the players can record any thoughts or feedback throughout the session. Encourage players to use the board when they are getting a drink or during other breaks. This can form the basis of a review at the end of the session. [See our Treasure Hunt activity for an example of using the whiteboard for individuals to review progress].

4. Individual interventions whilst the group continue

Move freely throughout the session and practices, dropping small pieces of descriptive feedback to players. [Now known as 'drive-by' coaching, this is a very effective way of helping individuals to focus, improve, feel motivated, try new things, come up with new answers etc].

5. Ask questions that players don't verbally respond to

Use questions to encourage the players to think about and then work at during the session without always providing a verbal answer. [E.g. Ask the question, if hands go up with answers then: "Don't tell me, show me". Sometimes questions don't need answers; sometimes lessons don't need a neat review with everything wrapped up at the end; sometimes it's ok for the children to leave while still trying to make sense of it all].

6. Practice design that provides opportunity to practice themes in context

Practice design can provide game-like experiences from which players can generate their own feedback and seek to adapt their behaviour from. [Often the set-up of the session encourages particular skills in order to be successful. Thus, learning happens naturally through the learners efforts within the game and the feedback they get as a result of their efforts. For example, a four-corner goal game will contain many learning opportunities in relation to changing direction and switching play. The natural feedback generated from trial-and-error in this type of modified game can provide learning in itself without the need of lengthy coach-lead interventions].

7. Use fewer different practice set-ups in one session

Whilst it isn't always achievable, try using one practice set-up and run several different practices within the same organisation saving significant amounts of session management time. [This is so true! Session activities don't need complicated set-ups. One simple set-up can work for many activities. Coaches who use lots of cones generally need more time to set-up and take-down their activities. Try using activities where children are each other's obstacles rather than cones being the obstacles. So if you're doing a session on through-passes, then challenge the children to make through-passes between each other while they are moving, rather than through sets of cones. This has the advantage of being more game-relevant, and doesn't involve time-wasted setting up and taking in cones].

Further tips

Here are some more tips of my own:

8. "Flip" the learning

Players can prepare for the learning content in the session before the session begins. For example, sending all players a link to a tuition video or other learning content to read or watch before the session means the players should already know the main coaching points. This may save instructional and coaching time during the session itself.

9. Use video in the session

Video is often under-used in football coaching sessions. A picture can paint a thousand words. Showing a brief video of a player successfully defending 1v1 (for example) may be a much more efficient way of affecting a player than demonstrating or Q&A. iPads are becoming a popular resource in the PE environment, and teachers can use a YouTube video for example to suggest a technique or provide ideas for the children to experiment with.

10. Progress activities without telling the group

Many coaches will stop a practice in order to change players around (e.g. to switch the two defenders in a 5v2 keep ball), and stop the session in order to explain a progression. This is not always necessary. If the coach needs to switch defenders then just do so while the game goes on. Another example: If the coach needs to adjust the playing area from a normal game to back-to-back goals, then just do it. Children don't often need as much instruction as we think they do, they can usually work out what has happened without it being spoon-fed.

11. Bib children whilst they are active

Bibbing children into teams can take ages! So do it when they are busy doing something else. At MoF, our coach and teacher school PE observations have shown that up to 10 minutes of an hour's session can be spent putting children into teams. It doesn't need to take more than a couple of sentences: Coaches just need to go round and give bibs out to individuals while they are active juggling a ball or in 1v1 games (for example).

12. Give children something to do when they return from a drink break

Children returning from a break with nothing to do, standing around waiting for their team-mates - this is wasted time. Before children go for a break, give them something to try with a ball for when they return. This is an ideal part of your session to give children some ball-each technical work to try. Here are some ideas: Throw-kick-bounce-trap; Passing against a wall; A stepover turn. Show them the activity quickly once and then send them for a drink, asking them to practice as soon as they are ready. You may be surprised how quickly they return from their drink break!

Aligning England DNA

Recently I went on the FA Futsal Level 2 course. I liked the course, it was one of the best coaching courses I have attended. On the course, the England DNA was briefly discussed, although not much detail was gone into. We talked briefly about Ball Rolling Time, and it was referred to in one or two of the post-activity discussions.

At the end of the course, we were given a DVD as part of the course material, and on that DVD were demonstration sessions on the topics Defending, Attacking and Counter-Attacking. I have watched and analysed the first two sessions in each of the topics, and calculated both BRT and ALT. The results are in the table below:

* In the two Attacking sessions there was some editing of the session and small segments of activity time and coaching time are edited out. So the figures above are best estimates based on what there was to see. I wouldn't imagine the edited parts would make much difference to the overall picture.

The table shows the total amount of time in the session which was Ball Rolling Time and the total amount of non-Ball Rolling Time. The %BRT is calculated. The total number of interventions is shown, and this includes the preparation instructions at the beginning of the session and the de-brief at the end of the session. Dividing the non-BRT time by the number of interventions gives the average intervention time. Finally, I have calculated %ALT, which is lower than %BRT in most sessions because in most sessions not all 12 children were involved in the activity (e.g. in the Counter-Attacking 2 session, on average nearly half the children were stood watching on the sideline at any time).

The England DNA says that all sessions should aim for 70% BRT. What is interesting in the table above is how far from 70% all the sessions are. The average length of coaching intervention over all six sessions is 49 seconds. In the sessions, there are no "drive-by" interventions, and no individual coaching while the session continues. Instead all interventions are whole group interventions. Interventions are frequent. In all 6 sessions put together (a total of 87 minutes), there are only eight times when children are allowed to play for more than a minute without being stopped (this is compared to 37 ocassions when the children play for less than 20 seconds before being stopped). In three of the sessions, the children aren't given more than a minute of uninterrupted play at all.

Of course, this is a demo video and the coaches may be coaching more than usual in order to show what is expected in terms of technical knowledge of Futsal. And of course, these sessions were recorded before the England DNA was put onto paper. However, in my experience these sessions are representative of the kind of coaching that is demonstrated on current FA courses. The analysis above is proof - if we needed it - that in terms of BRT, the England DNA is not a description of what we already do or who we already are but a vision of a future to work towards. It is an aspiration for the future not a description of the present.

The English FA are in the process of re-thinking the coaching pathway and the course content, in order to make it fit with the DNA. There will be an ongoing dialogue on how this is done, and coaches can contribute to this in a series of regional DNA events happening across England this summer. Hopefully, this process will help coaches and coaching to improve. Certainly if we can hit the magic 70% BRT (or ALT) target more often then it will provide children with a more enjoyable learning experience, more physical activity, and more 'learning by doing'.


I'll finish this blog with a suggestion for future FA courses:

In every demo activity or session, a course participant should be given a stopwatch and a piece of paper and asked to record BRT (or even better ALT). They can then report back to the group on %BRT at the end of the activity.

This process will help everyone involved (tutors and course participants) realise the barriers to high-activity sessions and the pressures and sacrifices involved in delivering sessions where children learn by doing (rather than by listening).

Next in this series of blogs on England DNA, I will look at 'carousel' sessions (where children move round different stations) and how to run an effective carousel session with high ALT.

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  By Mark Carter, March 2015

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Mark Carter

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