Children can learn well without us. They don't actually need coaching in order to play together, or to learn. In fact, coaching - otherwise known as "well-meaning adult intervention into children's play time" - can actually have a negative impact on enjoyment, creativity, inclusion and learning. 

As coaches, we always need to consider:  

  • What can the children do without me? Therefore, what is my role?
  • What overall impact am I having on the lives of these children?

Play is important, and uninterrupted play is rare these days. If we are to stop children's play time or alter it's fundamental format, then firstly it needs to be for a very good reason, and secondly, any intervention should be expert and effective.

Lots of what goes under the guise of 'coaching' may actually have a negative overall impact on children's development and enjoyment. This is what is referred to as "anti-coaching", and more can be read about this in the blog post links below:

Minimise "non-coaching" interventions

MoF research into primary school PE showed that children have the opportunity to be physically active in PE for just one-third of the lesson (APLT = Active Physical Learning Time). This research included observation and evaluation of 81 PE lessons across 11 different primary schools (and did not include time changing in and out of PE kits). The same research showed that children spend half of their PE lesson sat or stood still listening to or watching the teacher. The same pattern of frequent, lengthy interventions can be witnessed in most children's football - with coaches stopping games and activities regularly and spending far too long to introduce, explain and organise the next activity.

As teachers and coaches, we need to understand that the children's time is precious. Of course, we need to spend some of that time teaching, and this will sometimes involve stopping the group. But we need to minimise the amount of time we spend explaining and introducing activities. We need to keep activities simple and easy-to-explain, so that children can spend more time doing rather than listening or watching.

Types and styles of coaching intervention

  • Command
  • Trial and error
  • Q&A
  • Observation and feedback
  • Guided discovery

Which kinds of intervention do you usually use? Why? As coaches, we could usefully consider what kinds of intervention might be best in different contexts. 


Questions are a great teaching tool. They can challenge players to think, elicit new ideas, and check comprehension and understanding. Coaches should plan which questions to use in a particular activity or game. Think about what you want the children to learn in the activity, and then plan how you can help lead them there through the use of appropriate questions. Planning which questions to ask at what time in the session (and exactly how you will ask them) should be part of your session planning. Questions should relate to the learning outcomes you want to achieve.

Examples of questions:

  • How many ...? (touch)
  • What stops you ...? (space)
  • How will you know ...? (decisions)
  • How can you see ...? (scanning)
  • How can your team-mate help you? What can you do to help your team-mate?

Remember questions aren’t the only teaching tool we can use, and don’t overdo the use of questioning. The more questions you ask, the less power they have. Sometimes children will not know how to say the answer to a question, or they will try to explain and take ages. In these situations, ask them to show you instead (“Can you show me…?”).

Do you need to stop the entire group in order to ask them something? If the question is only relevant to two or three of the children, then just get them in instead and let the rest of the children continue to play and learn.

Connecting with children

Children are different from each other. They each have their own individual needs. So... under what circumstances would we stop the whole group?

Where possible we need to make our interventions specific to individuals or small groups of children. This could typically happen by taking a child or two children aside while the game or activity continues. The benefit of this is that it allows us to better connect with those individuals and to personalise our feedback and intervention to what they need. The child may be better able to respond to this type of intervention as the rest of the class is not watching them or listening, and we may be able to spend more time with them without rushing as the rest of the class are engaged in a learning activity.

Motivating children

Here are some good tips for motivating players:

  • Change activities (or challenges within the activity) on a regular basis, every 10-15 minutes. Children have a limited attention span and need tasks to be changed or made more difficult depending upon age/stage
  • Include the players/children in the planning process, perhaps give them the option of two activities. Or help them to set their own rules. Simply asking the players to set up their own gates for a dribbling activity usually increases motivation and focus through a wider sense of ownership of the activity.
  • If someone misbehaves, criticise the action or behaviour NOT the person
  • Use points as rewards e.g “You get 5 points if you can pass against the wall before you score!”
  • Challenge the players – e.g. “Can you stop Billy from turning?”
  • Ask players to give themselves marks out of 10 for how they are doing on an activity. Ask them to set themselves a target (e.g. 9/10) and then give them 5 minutes to see if they can get there.
  • Praise can make children feel more confident. Relate the praise to a specific action carried out during the session ("I liked that turn Jade, you really moved quickly with the ball into a new space!"). See below for more on Praise...


Praise can be a very effective coaching tool. But we need to consider what the effect is.

Be careful with praise! When we praise a particular decision, we may be sending a message that there is a correct and singular solution to a problem. This may encourage repetition of the same decision and solution in future, without necessarily understanding why it was a good solution in the context it was first used.

At MoF, we set up sessions as an exploration of a problem together. We tell the children that there are many possible solutions and to be creative. We acknowledge that football is changing and tomorrow's footballers will be able to do things that we can't imagine today. So, consider that it may therefore be contradictory to say "Yes, Omar, great pass!" Perhaps better to ask: "Omar, remember that pass you made, why did you chose that option, and what did you think of it as a decision?"

Vocabulary and communication

Q. What three ‘C’s are the most important when coaching children?

A. Communication, communication, and communication.

Be careful what language you use with young children. They won’t necessarily understand football-words like ‘trap’, ‘time’, ‘man-on’, ‘turn’ etc. To a 3-year old, a ‘dribble’ is not a word they associate with football. You may have to teach the children these words, or you may choose to use their words instead. Use language that is relevant / appropriate to the age/stage (needs) of the children in the group.

Squatting or crouching down when talking to children will mean you are on their eye-line and they aren’t forced to strain their necks to look at you. If you are talking to a group of children, you may find it easier to keep them calm by squatting, as this will encourage them to also sit. Alternatively, you may choose to have a “team-bench” which is your meeting place for your group – somewhere the children sit as you (briefly!) explain what is happening next.

Be careful with your use of the word “Stop!” Try to find more imaginative ways of getting the attention of the group. Use the music to help you.

Remember that we all learn in a wide variety of different ways. Some sports halls will have whiteboards that you can use to assist your teaching. Or you can use a small portable A4 whiteboard. This is a very valuable coaching tool, and can save lots of teacher-talking-time.

10 top tips for Effective Communication

(first appeared in the FA Boot Room in Feb 2019)

1. Less is more

Some of the best learning happens when children work things out for themselves. This may prove time consuming during your session, but it can be hugely beneficial as children can explore their own ways of learning and create strategies for when they don’t know what to do. Because of this, don’t be too quick to intervene and give answers to problems the children seem to be struggling with – they may just be working things out.

2. Plan it first

During an effective session the coach shouldn’t be the centre of attention. When planning your session ensure the children can be active without lots of input from you. This means you can take the role of observer and plan how you can help. Preparing your interventions and what you are trying to accomplish before you speak is crucial. When you do, try to be clear, coherent and complete. If you find yourself rambling then try to pose a question instead. A good question can stimulate the same amount of thought with fewer words.

3. It doesn’t all need to come from you

Helping children find their own solutions with their teammates may be a more powerful approach than listening to the coach. To do so, it is important that you facilitate communication, rather than deliver it. Allow children time to talk to each other and discuss ideas. Here are two methods to try:

Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce

Ask a good question. Give time for the children to think about it. Pounce on someone to answer. Rebound or bounce their answer back to the rest of the group for them to consider and respond.

Pair and share

 Ask a good question. Encourage children to discuss this with whoever is standing next to them. Listen for interesting responses which can be shared as a whole group.

4. Who is this message for?

Do the whole group need an intervention or are some fine to carry on? If three children in the class are struggling with the task, then you don’t need to stop everyone.

Intervene more at individual and small group level - as would happen in a maths class. Having children work in smaller groups or teams may also help with this. In your next session, try to stop the whole group a maximum of four times, with all other interventions at smaller group level. It’s more difficult than it seems.

Use interventions wisely to allow the session to flow whilst helping those who are struggling with a task.

5. Make changes while they are active

When children are playing in the playground, games move quickly and rules, spaces and people are fluid. They don’t usually need to stop to have lengthy talks about small changes. Children are adaptable, observant, masters of play. Make progressions to the activity or group without stopping the activity. If you want to add another tagger to a tag game, change the size of the area or hand out bibs - just do it as they play. Keep the kids active and playing.

6. Get yourself timed

Find a friend or colleague with a stopwatch and ask them to time your interventions. You might even ask them to stand behind the group as you intervene and give you a signal once you’ve talked for 90 seconds. If you want to measure Active Physical Learning Time, then a good way is to choose one child in your group, and ask a parent or coach to record the amount of time that child has had to move and be physical. Also get the overall time for the session - this can give you a percentage. You may be surprised by just how much you talk.

7. Use simple activities

Sometimes it’s hard to be concise when the activity we have planned is complex. Instead, start with simple activities and make changes as you go. Don’t try to explain everything at once. Reducing your instructions will give you more time to make important contributions later in the session. Here are more tips:

  • Plan how you will explain the initial activity
  • Start by showing the children the physical area. This is best done when the children are at the side of the area
  • Use a quick and simple demonstration if you think it would help. A whiteboard is often helpful too – but only if it’s used well
  • No need to over explain. Check for understanding with quick review questions
  • If just one or two children don’t get it, then no need to repeat everything - you can help them later whilst they watch the rest of the group
  • For quick interventions don’t bring all the children in. Use a ‘freeze’ moment - a quick 5-second progression or demo - then restart.

8. Use technology

If you are delivering a football lesson focussing on staying on the ball, you could use part of your lesson to teach and demonstrate techniques for shielding the ball and dribbling out of trouble. Or you could show a slow-motion video of Lieke Martens or Lionel Messi before the practice.

9. The game is also a teacher

Clever activity design will help you bring out the outcomes you want, leaving you less to communicate with words. For example, if you’re working on combination play use a scoring system where a goal is trebled if everyone on the team has touched the ball in the build-up. This will encourage combinations to happen in the game and allow you to get into more specific teaching with individuals or small groups

10. Paint quick pictures with your words

Recently I went to watch a coach deliver PE at a school in Charlton. He was delivering a throwing and catching activity, similar to the way we might work with young goalkeepers. The coach wanted the children to get their hands ready to receive a pass before the ball arrived. So he told them to imagine they were wearing a t-shirt made of glass, and they mustn’t let the ball smash their t-shirt. Most of them immediately started to get ready to catch, with knees bent and hands up and open, ready in case the ball came in their direction. When some of the children forgot, all the coach had to say was “your t-shirt” and they quickly remembered.

Allow for creativity and invention

"Young players should not be pressured by their coach to quickly pass the ball in order to allow for better team-play and winning. They should frequently have the opportunity to be in love with the ball, to dare to improvise their play and take risks, without fearing the possible consequences of having committed a mistake or to have lost the possession of the ball" - Horst Wein, German university lecturer, Olympic medal winning coach, author of over 30 books on coaching, youth coaching expert

Tips for developing creative players

  • Don’t expect all children to come up with the same answers to the challenges they face.
  • Embrace variety, and help children to do the same by sharing the answers they come up with. (“Matt, show us all again how you managed to get past the defender”). This will help them to learn from each other.
  • Encourage mistakes. Often many mistakes are necessary before success happens. Reward experimentation with praise.
  • Help players understand why and how something failed or succeeded, encourage them to think creatively.
  • Allow play to happen, don’t stop games repeatedly.

"Can you teach creativity by getting kids to copy ten tricks used by the top Brazilian players of all time? But who taught the Brazilians?" - Paul Cooper, co-founder of Give Us Back Our Game

Click here for more from Horst Wein on developing creative players.

The teaching style for development of creativity

"As a coach we need to be clever and creative at finding ways for young people to learn for themselves. Did you learn how to use a computer from someone telling you what to do the whole time or by exploring and finding your own way round it? Do music teachers sit in piano lessons shouting at children "black key, white key, white key"? - Nick Levett, The English FA

Coaches need to think about when and how much to use a command style of coaching. Certainly, all coaches at MoF need to use a variety of coaching styles, but in order to help children develop creativity we need to give them the freedom to explore football activities for themselves.

For example, setting children a scenario ("you are 2-0 down with 5 minutes to play, how will you change your tactics?") is a great way of exploring the imagination, creativity and game understanding of young players. They may come up with different ways and methods you might not have considered but they need to be given the chance.

Allow children the chance to develop their own way of doing things. Remember that learning is a mysterious process and one that we are all still engaged in (coaches too!). Don't be too rigid, allow players the opportunity to suprise you with their creativity.

The importance of Creativity

Success in adult football often arises from making the most out of the few moments of possibility that arise in a game. Games can be chaotic and frantic. Yet at times, there suddenly appears a moment of opportunity. In some games, these opportunities arise only once or twice, and we need to develop players who can recognise how to create these moments and how to take advantage of them when they occur.

The Dutch landscape painter Hans van der Meer has excelled in taking memorable photographs of Dutch football. He usually works high in the stands, usually near the halfway line, from where he aims to capture what he calls 'the moment of tension':

"Every Monday in the newspapers you see the same stupid, boring close-ups taken from behind the goals with long telephoto lenses which distort the space. Those pictures show you football situations but you have no idea what they mean. Two players fight for the ball. So what? Where on the pitch are they? ... Football is a game of space. So why should you leave the space out?"

When we coach children, we need to make them aware of the space around them in order that they begin to recognise when and where they can best use their creativity. Young footballers need to constantly experiment with trying new things in order to learn what's possible given the space and movement around them. Van der Meer describes these moments of possibility very well:

"There are one or two moments when a situation develops and you understand something will happen. This is the moment of tension, or possibility. This is what I look for. You see the possibilities. The next moment they are over - the game moves to something else. Everyone in the crowd shares this tension. The pleasure of going to football is that you all feel this together. It's like chess. When newspapers report a chess game, they don't show you the final move. They show you the dramatic position ten moves from the end because that is the most dramatic situation. The midfield is often more dramatic than the penalty area. The moment of the goal is not particularly interesting. What happens before the goal: that is much more interesting."

(below: photo from Van der Meer's work on 'European Fields')

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Mark Carter

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