Coach education

9. Adapting for difference

At MoF we welcome all children of all abilities. We have never selected or trialled children, and we never will. This is because we believe that football and futsal - and the holistic benefits that derive from playing and enjoying these games - should be rewards for everyone,  not just those with a neat left foot. We have a finite number of spaces on our programme, and they are filled on a first-to-enrol basis, regardless of ability.

Children at MoF are grouped according to their learning needs. This is not an exact science, and will take into account their abilities, confidence, friends, age, athleticism and attitude. Children are not grouped by age as they are at school or in most other football programmes. We are able to respond to changes in learning need by moving children when they are ready for a different group.

Even though we take ability into account when we group children into sessions, in every time slot we have a real variety of different children. This means that working at MoF is potentially more difficult than coaching at the local pro club academy (or other selective programe where they only want to teach the children who can already do it, and aren't interested in how they learnt to do it in the first place). A MoF coach should be just as excited about working with a new footballer as they are about working with one who has magic ball skills.

Many of the children on the MoF programme are late to football. These days that means that they are 8-12 years old and they have only just shown an interest in football or futsal. One of the continued and most consistent successes of MoF over the years has been our ability to integrate these late-starters into our programme and allow them to catch-up with their peers who have been doing organised coaching drills since they were 5 years old. One of the ways we do this is by allowing them an entry level into football which is appropriate for them (i.e. not based on their age) and then responding to changes in their motivation, confidence and ability by moving groups when they are ready. 

Desirable difficulties

We need to ensure that all children are challenged at a level appropriate with their confidence, ability and motivation. It is desirable that every child finds an activity, problem and session difficult in some way. This could be the difficulty of working with someone new, the difficulty of a new role or new activity, or most often the diffifulty posed by the opponents in a game.

These difficulties are desirable because they are crucial to learning. Without the challenge, children will not need to explore new ideas and solutions. We believe that it is within this exploration - often a social exploration where children share ideas and thinking - that new learning happens and ideas and beliefs are built on.

Adjusting the difficulty and complexity

In any group / activity / task, you will have some players who find the activity easy and some who find it difficult. Different groups will emerge:

  • Forging Ahead  - These children excel at the task. They are often seen as the star players, by their coach and peers. It is vital that these players are challenged so that they continue to develop and fulfil their potential.
  • Striving to Keep up - These children may need the task to be made slightly simpler, or allowed to carry out the task in a manner that suits their needs. There may be many reasons why these players are struggling to keep up. The reasons could be to do with physical capabilities, technical skill, or an understanding of the practice.

“The skill of the coach is to identify which players within the group need to be challenged further, which players are OK to continue with the original task, and which players need support in order to catch up with the rest of the group”   – The FA’s ‘The Future Game’, 2010

How can you make the task easier for those who are striving to keep up? How can you make the task more challenging for those who are forging ahead? Use the STEPs template (below) to help you find ways of changing individual tasks. It is very important for coaches to consider how to amend the task for certain players. These changes to sessions should be thought about before the session and should comprise part of the coach’s session plan.

Coaches don’t need to stop the session in order to assist those players who are struggling, or to challenge those who are finding it too easy. In fact, it may not be a good idea to single out those players in front of their peers. Instead, coaches can have a quick chat with players during the activity. (e.g.  to challenge a player finding something easy: “Josh, can you keep your head-up while you receive the ball, and use the other foot to make the pass?”)

Grouping children within groups

A typical group of MoF children will be between 8 and 14 in number. However, often we will split that group into pairs or smaller groups, to play 1v1 or 2v1 games or other small-sided game formats.

It may be a good idea, at times, to group (within the group) so that children of similar abilities work together. This may be desirable so that the challenges (the desirable difficulties) they face are most appropriate to their current level of skill and ability to solve the problems inherent in the whatever game we are playing.

However: Coaches should remember that each session is a new one. Our pre-conceived ideas about who is highest ability and lowest ability need to be erased, and we need to observe with fresh eyes each session, so that we can really see who is struggling and forging ahead. We need to notice sudden improvements in children, and we need to recognise which children are maybe having a day when they need a lighter challenge than usual.

What abilities are we grouping by? Typically, in football, when we talk of ability we are describing ball mastery or game understanding. But it may be just as relevant to think about other abilities, such as ability to work with others, ability to follow rules and play fairly, ability to listen to instructions and listen to other people's idea, ability to try again when it doesn't go right etc.

Children need to work with a variety of other people. If you've ever been in a PE lesson where you were paired with someone who didn't work well with others, then you know how frustrating this can be. It's not fair for a child to be paired or grouped with others who can't work well with them for the entire session. Instead, it would be more appropriate to switch children among groups every so often, or swap partners when doing pair work. If we believe that children need to intereact in order to share ideas and challenge each other, then we may need to ensure that we switch pairs and small groups around in order that ideas can pollinate successfully around the larger group.

STEP for managing difference

  • Space. The space in which the activity is happening - includes size, shape of area.
     E.g. modify the space by increasing or decreasing the area in which a task is to be performed or changing the distance or areas in which to score points. In a tag game, a smaller area will make it harder for those trying to escape.
  • Task. What players need to do in the game or activity.
    E.g. modify the task by changing the demands, the rules of the activity, the number of times the child is to repeat the task, teaching cues, direction/level/pathway of movement or length of time to complete the task. In a game of tag, a child who is finding things very easy could be given a different way of travelling, eg. hopping where possible.
  • Equipment. What is being used? E.g. modify the equipment by changing the size of the target, level of equipment, amount of equipment, height of the equipment or the arrangement of the equipment. The ball is the obvious thing in football, but there are different ways of travelling with a ball.
  • People. Who is involved and what roles do they have? E.g. modify the people involved by having children work alone, with a partner, bigger teams, smaller teams, as leader or follower, on different activities, or in a small group. An obvious example in football games is to switch children between teams, or play 5v3 instead of 4v4 etc.

STEP - an example

Good coaches know when and how to adjust and progress activities. These coaching decisions are critical in order to deliver great sessions. Coaches can use the STEPs template to help them consider how an activity needs to be altered to fit the age/stage (needs) of the children in the group.

  • Space - Challenge or support players by varying the size and shape of the space that you work in. A smaller space will make a drill more challenging. Instead of using a square for a possession session, try and use a triangle or a circle to challenge the players. A long, narrow pitch will encourage a very different type of attacking and defending than a short, wide pitch.
  • Task - Vary the difficulty of the task or challenge so that all participants can achieve success. Success is an important part of learning. Success is a great motivating tool, as long as it is not too easy and not too hard. If the task is too hard or too easy, children will get bored or frustrated with the session. That may be evidenced by disruptive behaviour.
  • Equipment – E.g. use a smaller ball to work with to see if the children can still achieve success. Or turn the goals round so a team can no longer shoot from distance. In the set-up above, we see that the objective of the game is to knock a ball off one of the cones. When this happens, the player steals the ball and cone and takes them back to set them up at their own end. That player's team now has less cones to aim for. And the opposing team has more cones to aim for.
  • People – Teams and opposition should usually be evenly-matched, but coaches can change this set-up to give a particular group of children a new challenge. (e.g. in a 3v5 - “Can you three players defend these two goals for the next minute without conceding a goal?”). Children learn from each other, and they don't always need a coach to tell them what to do. Often, they will pick things up by working with and watching their peers.

'Change it'

Another framework for adapting activities is provided by 'Change it', below. It is worth considering how these factors can help progress or regress challenge levels for individuals, small groups or the whole session. 

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Mark Carter

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