How can you help develop skilful players?

All Ages

The game needs skilful players, but exactly how do we develop them? We delve into the topic with the help of our very own Pete Sturgess and Paul Holder.

The two FA coaches take a look at five points that can help your players to become skilful.
Consider how you view skill
To us, being skilful is about mastering the body, the ball and the mind – making the right decisions to solve the problems the game presents. And we believe every player, no matter their position, can be capable of this.

Pete Sturgess: Technical skill – your individual connection with the ball – is needed for you to be able to perform at a certain level of skilfulness. The same is true of physical skill, such as efficient, fluent and coordinated body movement. If you put those two things together, then there's a chance you can begin to influence a game of football.

But the real influence comes through your decision-making skills, which relate to perceiving, scanning and paying attention to things around you. Put those technical, physical and decision-making skills together, and they allow you to perform effectively.

Paul Holder: It's easy to recognise skill on the ball. But people off the ball, who read situations and get into good positions, are skilful too. Like a goalkeeper who claims a cross between two defenders. There's the timing of when to come out, judging the flight of the ball, changing your speed... it all combines into a skilful movement of catching a ball.

Small-sided games
Using small-sided games (e.g. 2v2, 2v1, 3v2) can benefit all ages. They put players in a less crowded environment and give you the chance to notice things easily.

Paul Holder: Small-number practices provide more touches, more opportunities to experiment and more similar possibilities that are repeated over and over again.

We want players to be excellent at these. What they practise in these games will help them, not only in the moment but also later on in the 11v11 format.

Take the ‘give and go’, for example. How many opportunities would you have in a 2v2 or 3v3 to do that? Loads. That same skill occurs when playing 11v11. So why don't you practice where there's more chance of it happening?

Which ball is best?

Know the returns of any game or activity
Why are we doing this practice? That should be at the forefront of your mind when planning your activities. Understanding the returns from different types of practice or formats of the game will help you select the right activity for your players – and give them the best opportunity to become skilful.

Pete Sturgess: Creating games where players can play, explore and be creative is the message we’re sending out. This was showcased in the 'which ball is best' game (see video above). The fact that it was fun also meant that we could strongly link skill development to a love of the game.

When I devised it, I was fairly certain the following would happen:

  • Play would be directional (due to having a goal at each end). This allowed me to mention body shape – could players receive the ball facing forward and think in a more attacking way?
  • The goalkeeper must roll the ball out. This meant starting positions became important, so I wanted to see what players would do if they were marked when the keeper had the ball.
  • We'd use a rugby ball and adopt the rules. This provided the opportunity for lots of changes in speed and direction, such as sidestepping opponents – which wouldn't happen to the same extent in football. Rugby balls are also more secure in your hands, which meant players could disguise intentions or offload in creative ways. I was then able to link this back to football, such as passing to a teammate at the right time.

Understand your players

Every player in your team is different. So, knowing how to cater for everyone in your sessions will help you support their individual skill development.

Pete Sturgess: The STEP principle is a great tool to use when trying to manage difference. Knowing your players, their strengths and weaknesses is also very valuable because this can help your session planning. Matching players to provide as many appropriate challenges as possible is what we’re aiming for.

You might put a good dribbler against two or three opponents who like to pass and move. Planning in this way means the dribbler gets what they need, and the others get to show what they’re good at.

Too often, we restrict the dribbling player to limited touches or insist that they pass. Why? We must develop this ability if the player has a real desire to improve in this area and shows some ability to do it well. Build upon this strength, don’t stop it or frown upon it.

Be patient We want players to become skilful by having a chance to explore and discover the possibilities on the pitch. We also want to help them develop a love for the game. To do this, it’s important to be patient, supportive and encouraging. And don’t forget that developing skill doesn't stop at a certain age. We all continue to learn as we get older – and it's the same with football.

Paul Holder: Developing skill takes time. Exploring and discovering better ways to perform should never stop, irrespective of age. Patience is probably a word not associated closely enough with coaching. Developing skill is a lifelong process and, while we never stop learning, we should also never stop exploring and discovering what’s possible.

Pete Sturgess: We want to develop a generation of players that see the game differently, that can adapt to its continuously changing situations. We want them to see all the possibilities it offers – rather than just seeing it in a very narrow and one-dimensional way that adheres to strict tactics and formations.

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