Coach education

4. Use simple, varied activities

Activities should be designed to help children explore and solve the problem in the Problem Statement. Activities should be age-appropriate, meaning they should be simple enough for that age of child to easily understand. Once the children understand how the activity works and experience success, then the coach can make the activity or task progressively more complex if needed. 

An example is given in the video here. The Problem Statement for the session is 'How to Defend as a Pair'. The coach wants the children to explore depth of defending and what happens when one of the two defenders presses the ball. The coach has set-up a very simple activity, which is game-related within which he can assess what the children know, teach defending as a pair, and give feedback, support and challenge as required.

Another example is given below, also on Defending, this time defending individually. Again the coach has considered the problem statement How to Defend Patiently on Your Own, and designed a session where all children are active and engaged in exploring the problem:


Coaches at MoF sessions will have balls, bibs and cones (enough balls for a ball per child). They will also have 4 pop-up goals to use. Coaches are encouraged to:

  • Use new and different equipment, and use equipment in different and interesting ways
  • Introduce new equipment to the group if it extends learning or engagement
  • Keep practice design simple - otherwise we spend too long explaining how things work and not enough time playing 

Importantly, children - even our youngest children - should be asked to look after their own equipment, for example - to set up their own squares or gates, to get their own ball, to put their own bib away etc. They should also be encouraged during activities to change or adjust equipment if appropriate - by making an area larger or smaller for example. 

Types of Practice

Constant practice involves a player repeating specific movements with the aim of acquiring, refining or maintaining technique. In a constant practice a player focuses on learning the same technique under constant conditions. Elements of competition and challenge may be built into constant practices to increase a player’s motivation.

Variable practice involves a player practising a variety of techniques and skills under different conditions. A passing practice which incorporates passing the ball over varying distances and heights, using different speeds and techniques, is an example of a variable practice. Variable practices are less predictable than constant practices.

Random practice involves a player practising a variety of skills under different and changing conditions. Practice is often unpredictable with players making a variety of decisions. Random practices challenge players to transfer their technique into games, encouraging the development of tactical and game understanding.

Coaches should experiment with different types of practice, and try to find the right balance to fit the age/stage (needs) of the players in the group. All types of practice are necessary in order to develop a footballer: Constant practice is required to develop ‘muscle memory’ while random practice will develop game understanding.

It is important to remember that a random practice is most similar to the game of football itself. Football is a chaotic game, and some of this chaos should be replicated in MoF sessions so children are comfortable with taking in lots of information at once. For example, real football doesn’t have cones to dribble round but it does have opponents to beat. At MoF we want to create skilful football players (i.e. players who make good decisions), so we need to use random, opposed practices. Remember: Constant practice can be given for homework.

Realism and repetition

The core skills of football and futsal are not acquired quickly. Ball mastery or game understanding take time. Children need lots of chances in order to improve. They need lots of exposure to similar situations in order to find solutions they are comfortable with, and to experiment with what works for them, and to become confident to try new things. So our practices and games need to contain lots of opportunities and similar situations. Of course, children may get bored if we just do the same exact games and activities week after week, so we need to be clever in our game design. We need to offer different set-ups week after week, in activities which link to each other and contain exposure to similar problems.

If we want children to get better at playing the game, then our practices and activities need to be game-like. This means they need to contain decisions, and this will usually means they need some kind of opposition. Decisions in the game of football are made difficult because of the opponent, so we need to include the opposition in our activities so children can experiment in real game situations. Clever teachers and coaches will be able to offer children some form of opposition without necessarily going into a fully opposed game. This can be done by using areas guarded by defenders, safe zones, 3v2 or 2v1 overloads, or defenders who are restricted in how they move for example. 

Transitions and progressions

As coaches, we love to come up with progressions to activities. When watching an activity with a group of coaches, it is common for all of us to have ideas of how we might adjust things in order to make the game more interesting, more difficult, or to pose new problems and bring out different outcomes, solutions and ideas. 

We need to be mindful of the experience of the children we serve. The children love the game of football or futsal because it is simple. When we take our activity away from the game, we need to consider why we are doing it. What is the effect when we move away from the realism of the game, and what benefit does it really have? Note also, that for each transition or progression we introduce, it costs us and the children time in explaining how it works and then getting used to the new rules.

Finally, if it is the children's game, then how much say should they have on what progressions look like, and when or if to introduce them?

Dealing with odd numbers

When group sizes are of odd numbers, pair work and small-sided games can be tricky. Here are some solutions:

For pair work:

  • Include an Assistant Coach if you have one
  • Make a three if possible

Try not to join in yourself, as these means you are less able to coach others and manage the activity.

For small-sided games:

  • Have a smaller team of higher ability players. There’s nothing wrong with playing a 5v3 or 4v2 etc. It is realistic preparation for adult football where very often players are outnumbered in their area of the pitch.
  • Don't have a magic player who plays for whichever team has possession. This is not realistic to real football, and most of the time this player gets very little of the ball.

Using goalkeepers: No child should spend more than 5 mins of an hour’s session in goal. Share this duty around. Encourage goalkeepers to come out and play too – and for outfield players to use them to pass to.

For small-sided games with older age-groups, assign each team a captain and ask the captain to ensure that everyone gets a turn in goal. Then all you need do is stop the music, shout “New Goalkeeper!”. Or you can ask teams to number themselves for SSGs and then remind them to change every few minutes.

Tag games and football movements

Tag games can be really engaging for children. They are usually simple to explain, and can contain lots of involvement, engagement and activity. However, there is a great deal of difference between a poorly delivered tag game and a brilliant one. Here are some things to consider:

  • Area size: If the area is too big, then those being chased can actually just hide in a corner for most of the time. When they do need to move, they can run in big arcs, with very few changes of direction. Making the area smaller means we get more feints, stops and starts, accelerations and decelerations and changes of directions - which is probably what we want as these are more relevant for football and futsal development.
  • You can't be out! Don't use tag games where you can be out. The children who are lower ability then spend most of the activity watching instead of moving and learning. Instead, if someone is tagged, we need to find ways of getting them back into the game. Maybe they leave the area, complete a task like 5 keepy-uppys and come back in.    
  • Introduce a ball. Tag games can be even more engaging and football-relevant if each child has a ball at their feet. We created a great tag game called Mario Karts where each child has a ball and they need to see how many other people's feet they can hit with their ball. They get a point if they hit someone else's ball, and deduct a point if they get hit. We then tried this with four teams, so yellow bibs try to get red bibs, red bibs try to get blue bibs and so on. We also tried this where it was optional whether you held a ball in your hands, or bounced a ball, or dribbled a ball - so that different confidence levels could all be involved at once.

Drink breaks

Players will only need 2 or 3 drink breaks during an hour’s session. Keep them snappy, don’t waste 5 mins on a drink break, 30 seconds is more than enough. Remember to get a drink for yourself too, especially if you’re doing two or more sessions in a row.

When sending players for drink breaks, how can we ensure they spend minimum time away from learning? Give them something to practice when they have finished. Show them, demo, then send them for a drink – asking them to practice as soon as they’ve had a drink. This gives the keen players something to be doing rather than waiting for others to return. (e.g. ‘Who can do “throw-bounce-trap”? Get yourselves a drink, and then come back and show me!’)

Skill circuit or carousel

An engaging way to deliver pair or small group work is through a skill circuit or carousel. This involves the coach setting up a variety of simple stations for pairs or small groups to work round. You can read more about this here.

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Mark Carter

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