Coach education

3. Use games for learning


'We can discover more about someone in an hour of play than in a year of conversation' - Plato

To play is a right of being a child. Yet, play time in football has diminished in quantity and quality so that for many children there is no time in the week when they can play 'unadulterated'.

An important role of the MoF Coach is to provide children with game activities which have all the creative freedom of play, but with an expert adult coach who can help bring out the learning from the game.

"Many people regard play as a process not an outcome. It has no defined purpose or agenda other than what is in the mind of the child at that moment. In reality, there are levels of adult control depending on the situation, but what is most important is that no adult is at that moment, steering what is happening. Enablement of play through 'light touch and design' is a particular skill if it is to remain 'play' rather than an adult-controlled activity of arguably less value." - Play report, All-Party Parliamentary Group for a Fit and Healthy Childhood

What is a game?

A game of football can still be a game even it is conditioned or modified. However the following core components will need to remain if the activity is to be a game:

  • A purpose, or way of scoring or winning
  • Rules of play
  • An opponent, or someone trying to stop you doing something (i.e. competitive)

Games at MoF should never include queues, and never include children being "out" and sitting or watching the others who remain "in". If a child is out then the coach needs to think of a way that they can get back in (e.g. a task to complete).

In order to keep the realism and relevance to football learning, games at MoF should typically include a ball, and include a directional element. They should keep as many of the rules of football as possible, although some of these rules may be excluded or made simpler in order for children to play freely (e.g. no offside, and dribble-ins instead of throw-ins). 

Source (above):

Games, realism and repetition

The games that we run and deliver at MoF need careful consideration. They need to allow for maximum learning, and this means they need to include as many appropriate learning moments as possible for each child.  As the graphic above illustrates, we must consider how representative our practices are of the real game of football, while at the same time also considering the amount of involvement and "repetition of similar situations" that will occur for each child.  

Consider the two set-ups below. One is a traditional dribble relay race, and in the other everyone has a ball and dribbles without crashing between others. In the second activity, other people are interfering with space, and getting in the way. By providing this interference and including potential crashes, we wake up the brain and force decision making to happen. The second activity is therefore more real and more suitable for almost all ages and ability of learner - it provides more technical development through ball control repetitions, and the more realistic setting ensures that children need to control the ball with their head up and looking around. 

We could make this activity into a game by playing 'Follow the Leader' in pairs, and the follower needing to escape the leader and the leader needing to keep up. 

Finally, on realism: The games of football and Futsal are played to sidelines, so all coaches need to use them.

Team size and game formats

Reduced team size means more touches, more involvement, more engagement, more decisions per player. You can read more about the evidence for this here.

For the Sunday sessions, where classes are usually 10-14 children, the main game formats should be 3v2, 3v3, 4v3. There may also be times when three 2v2 games are useful. For 6pm and 7pm groups, it may be acceptable to deliver a 5v5 game (if only 10 children attend), but we do not have the space for larger formats. For Futsal Club sessions, obviously the main format for games needs to 5v5. However 3v3, 4v4 games may also be very beneficial.

Creating a game which explores the Problem Statement

As already explored, the activities we deliver need to be simple. The children must (at least to begin with) easily understand the rules and any conditions we set. We may need to condition or modify the game in order to get into the 'meat' of the topic quickly, and/or in order to manufacture lots of similar and relevant game situations which are relevant to the Problem Statement we are working on. For example, the graphic above shows a simple modification to a 3v3 game to use when looking at any of the following Problem Statements:

  • How to Counter-Attack
  • How to Create and Use Overloads
  • How to Defend a Counter-Attack
  • How to Defend When Outnumbered

After scoring a goal, the goal-scorer leaves the field temporarily, and while that happens the attacking team can now attack an outnumbered defence. This situation allows the coach to assess, teach and give feedback to children on their ability in relation to the Problem Statement, and to guide the children in exploring the topic. The coach may need to consider what happens if not many goals are scored - as if not many goals are scored, then the modification to the game which creates the outnumbered situation will not occur. If this happens, then what extra modification could the coach make? Perhaps, to adjust the condition so that whoever shoots at goal must leave the field temporarily. Or even further: the shooter and the assister must both leave the field. (The latter would give 3v1 counter-attacking situations, which may be needed for working with very able defenders, or struggling attackers).

In summary, when making modifications to the game, consider what is necessary in order to explore the Problem Statement. Ensure that the modification results in realistic situations that enhance the coach's ability to teach and the children's ability to learn.

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More on using Conditions

Coaches need to think carefully about the effect and impact of imposing conditions on games. Is the condition actually benefiting the skill development of the children? For example, some coaches believe that imposing a conidtion of 'one touch only' will improve the children's first touch and make them quicker players. However, in imposing a condition of one touch only, the coach is taking away a critical decision from the child. The child no longer needs to decide how many touches to take when the receive they ball. By taking away critical decisions from the children, we are stifling their creativity and skill development.

"In matches the critical decision, as to how many touches a player needs to exploit an opponent or move the ball to a team-mate or execute a shooting opportunity, ultimately sits with the player; consequently the best players tend to make the best decisions more often. This is not to say that laying a challenge down within a session or practice is wrong. But rather than hijacking all the players' decisions by being absolutely prescriptive and demanding for example, one touch play, the coach may set the challenge as one touch play but add the caveat of when it's on to do so; in this way the critical decision belongs to the players"  - John Allpress, National Coach at the English FA

Consider the following example:

The coach has imposed a condition on the game so that each team has to make five passes before they can score. An attacker has just won the ball from an opposition defender, and is now through on goal, with only the goalie to beat. However, they now cannot score as they have not made five passes. You may argue that this doesn't matter, as the topic is about passing or keeping possession. But consider the impact of this strict "five-passes" condition on the rest of the game too:

  • The goalie: Does the goalie need to make any effort to come out and narrow the angle?
  • The defender who lost the ball: Does this defender need to make any effort to recover and protect their goal?

No, they don't. The condition doesn't just affect the attacking team, it affects all decisions made by everyone on the pitch. It takes the practice away from the real game - for everyone. Lots of real learning is being lost because of the strict condition imposed.

Here are a couple of ways we can encourage what we want to happen, without manipulating the practice too far away from the real game:

  • Try to make 5 passes before you score
  • If you score after making 5 passes, it's worth double

The table below (from coach educator, Ben Bartlet) shows how some topics might be explored using 'Restrict, Relate, Reward':

  • Restrict is where you condition or constrain the game in order to get more of your outcome
  • Relate is where you help the learners understand the real application of the learning
  • Reward is where you amend the scoring in order to encourage certain outcomes

Technique and decision-making

"In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team" - Jean Paul Satre

Skill acquisition needs children to be exposed to challenging situations, situations where success requires good decision-making. In order to make these challenges relevant to football, we need to include opposition.

"Real football learning and skill development arises not from repetition of one-dimensional movement patterns, but rather from an interaction and adaptation to the specific demands of the task or game being played" - Rick Fenoglio, Co-Founder of Give Us Back Our Game

Skill is the ability to choose the correct technique at the right time. It is about decision-making. For example, which type of pass to use in order to kick the ball across a crowded area to the other side of the field. MoF aims to develop skilful players. This means we need to use activities that are opposed and therefore include elements of game-related decision-making.

"Coaching children the game of football predominantly revolves around the acquisition of technique rather than a blossoming understanding of space. Ball manipulation - mastering a set of techniques and turns - is still vogue. Coaches can persist for hours refining children's execution of set movements, in the hope that these techniques will transplant into a game. Examples of children 'step-overing', scissoring and shimmying - unopposed - in wide open spaces are not hard to find. Proof, some may say, that such techniques do transfer from practice into the game. Sadly lacking however is the game understanding of when, where and why not; crucially the the skills that matter most." - Peter Glynn, FA Skills Coach Team Leader

Technical development is an important part of skill development - as the more techniques a child has, the more solutions they have available to choose from. However, it is argued that techniques learned in isolation of decisions do not carry over well into game-situations. It is also argued that children can invent and learn new techniques for themselves when they are required to do so in game-like situations. For example, when challenged by a defender who wants the ball, a child can learn for themselves how to shield the ball.

The true balance between technical and skill activities used in MoF sessions will also depend on the age/stage (needs) of the children in the group. Children aged under-6 will be limited as to what skill activities they can succeed in, and it would be acceptable to use more of the session for technical activities with this age group. For older players, technical activities should provide a smaller proportion of the MoF session. Children should be encouraged to practice technique at home for homework instead.

What do we mean by 'decision-making'?

"Behind every action must be a thought" - Dennis Bergkamp

Coaching courses for coaches of young players are nowadays often aimed at improving the young player's decision-making skills. Making good choices is a huge part of being an effective football player, and it is vital that we help children learn to make good decisions while they are young, so they can grow into clever football players as they get older. But it is worth thinking for a moment about exactly what it is we mean by decision-making.

The types of decision-making situations that occur in a  fast-moving team sport like football are far removed from the types of decisions that children make in the rest of their lives. As coaches, we can talk to players about space and movement and time. We can stop the game at critical moments and re-create for the child the decision-making situation, or we can show the players situations on tv or on a whiteboard. (The UEFA 'A' and 'B' coaching courses used this Stop-Stand-Still method for years as their main source of teaching). But is this really realistic preparation for making decisions in the heat of a game?

The reality is that the considerations of space, time and movement in a game of football are being constantly processed by the player in a very abstract way. Players, spaces and angles of view are constantly changing, and no situation is ever exactly repeated no matter how long you play football for. Very rarely does deliberate or rehearsed thought enter a child's mind when they are immersed in a game. There is no time on receiving a ball to weigh-up all the options using the same thought processes they might use to choose which chocolate bar to buy at the store. 

So what are the implications of this on the coach?

Firstly we need to help some players have more time and space to make decisions,. This can be done by adjusting the games we play to create natural unopposed situations or moments when the game is stretched and a player with the ball has more space and time to "think". For example, playing with wide players who can't be tackled, or playing 5v3 instead of 4v4. Both these examples will create a bit more room for the players who would otherwise struggle to make a decision before losing the ball.

“Great players are individuals. That’s what makes them great players. They do not conform readily. They do the unexpected. If they did what was expected they would be ordinary players. Coaching is for ordinary players" - Matt Busby

Secondly we need to learn not to keep stopping the game. Let the children play. There is no great benefit or relevance of stopping a game for a few minutes to talk about all the options available in a given situation. Certainly if lots of similar situations keep re-occuring then it might be a good idea to ask the player concerned why he made a particular decision, and point out to them what other options they had. But the game doesn't always need to be stopped in order for this to happen.

What is a good decision?

Let's look at an example. A child has the ball and dribbles toward two or three opponents that stand between him and the goal. He has a team-mate available in space offering a safe pass. What would a good decision be?  Most coaches will agree that the best decision in this example is to pass the ball safely to the team-mate and avoid the opponents. However there is a HUGE problem with teaching children that this is  always the best option: We want to create the type of player who has the confidence and skill to dribble and take-on two opponents. And therefore we need to allow the children we coach to experiment with doing so. We need to praise the effort and creativity shown in trying to take on opponents, otherwise we will only ever produce safe and scared players.

“I watch academy games and I see humdrum stuff all the time. I don’t see anything exciting or exceptional” Alex Ferguson

England very rarely produces the type of player that is comfortable with dribbling at many opponents. Not since Gascoigne twenty years ago has England had a world-class dribbler. These types of players nowadays seem to come from South America and Africa. There is an argument to suggest that in England our coaches and adults in football are guilty of coaching our children out of taking risks. Coaches must remember that in order to produce a new generation of creative, skilful footballers, we must allow children the freedom to become comfortable making their own decisions and learning from their own decisions.  They need to be allowed to make decisions that are different from the generally accepted "best" decisions, different from the decisions the coach would make.

"We're all born with immense natural talents, but institutions, mainly education, tend to stifle them. By not encouraging risk-taking, we are educating people out of their creative capabilities." - Sir Ken Robinson

Imagine the 1986 World Cup if Maradona had spent his childhood being 'educated out of his creative capabilities'...


At top-level adult football, possession switches 6 to 9 seconds. This change of possession is known as a transition. On a transition, the role of the team switches immediately from attacking to defending or vice versa. (The England FA DNA defines transition as “the process of recognition and response in the first few moments following the regain or loss of possession”).

Transitions are key moments in the game. We need to include transitions in all our game-related practices. And we need to coach these moments too, and help children explore how their roles and reactions need to change immediately a transitions takes place. If we are using defenders in a practice, to guard an area or goal, or to try and win the ball back, do we include something realistic for them to do when they win the ball? E.g. a goal to score in when they gain possession. This helps the defenders learn to win the ball for a purpose, and it also includes the transition from attack to defence for the attacking team, giving them practice at recognising and responding to their loss of possession.

For more advanced and/or older children, we may need to help them explore the skills needed to anticipate transitions and respond to them before they actually happen. For example: "What will happen if your team-mate intercepts that pass? How might your movement help support them?"

Example: The challenges below give examples of how a game-based approach may be used to help teach transitions. Small teams can pick a challenge, plan a strategy, play the game, and review what went well and what could be done better.

Winning & Losing

When our teaching and learning is based around playing games, it is natural for the children to keep score. This competitive nature of children should not be discouraged. However, we also need to consider the following:

  • For younger children, ensure that children are not feeling excluded or teased when losing. At ages 5-7, some children will not react well to having a displeasing scoreline rubbed in their face. We need to help children to win graciously and to accept losing.
  • If scorelines are very heavy, have we really grouped the children correctly to produce a fairly contested game? If one team is clearly better than another, then swap players around to create a more even contest.

Rather than focus on the score, it is often a great idea to help children to focus on the processes of playing and learning instead. So if the group is exploring the Problem Statement "How to Attack 2v1", then maybe they could tally each time their team is able to successfuly execute a "1-2" (wall pass) move. The coach could ask the children to mark this down on the whiteboard each time they are successful with it. This helps the children focus on something beyond the score, and redefines winning away from the scoreline and onto the learning process. It also allows the coach to see which children are being successful (or think they are being successful!).

Game-based learning frameworks

It is certainly worth coaches exploring different research, theories and frameworks on game-based learning. Here are two frameworks which would both be valid to use at MoF:

Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU)

TGfU (or sometimes called Game Sense) is a method of teaching and learning through games. The idea of TGfU is to teach games through games by breaking a game into a simpler format and adding complexity as appropriate. These modified games aim to increase tactical understanding for all particpants and knowledge and understanding is shared and elicited through questioning from the coach and peer-peer collaboration. (For more info:

The Constraints-led Approach (CLA)

CLA believes that skill and skill development is a result of the interaction between the individual players, the task and the environment. Each of those three factors can change and be adapted, such that the context changes. So for example, we can amend the task in a football game by adding an additional goal at each end of the pitch. This 'constraint' will mean adaptations by the players, recognised by different behaviours.  A good coach can manage some of these constraints in order to promote (or 'afford') certain outcomes, situations and skill exploration.

"CLA is a style of coaching where the coach takes a particular technique, skill or tactic from the ‘whole’ game, isolates it in a small-sided game and lets the players find the answers to solve the problem. It’s the design of games using different scoring systems that require the players to use particular techniques or strategies to win the game. Simply tell the players the scoring system and then just let them play. Allow them time to determine the most appropriate strategy/response rather than explicitly telling them the solution." (Source:

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Mark Carter

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