How the right football environment can create skilful players

Guide All Ages

The environment you create has a big impact on your team. Get it right and you can help players develop. Get it wrong and you can hinder their enjoyment and chance to be skilful. Here are some tips to give your players the best platform to thrive.
Cast your mind back to when you were a kid at training. Chances are you stood in line waiting for your turn to strike the ball at goal, hoping that the end-of-session match would happen soon.
Not a very productive environment.

If you experienced this, it doesn't mean your coach ignored development and enjoyment. It's just that things could have been better. They could have been more fun.

Without fun you’re not motivated. Without motivation you lose interest. And if you’re not interested, you might not turn up. If players don’t turn up, how can we help them fall in love with the game?

That desire, that passion for playing football because it’s fun, to keep coming back because it’s enjoyable – we need that. It’s what will help us develop a generation of players that see the game differently. Players that are skilful.

To engage your team, you need to provide a safe, fun, inclusive environment, one that they can’t wait to return to. Here are a few ways to do just that.

Encourage creativity
Being creative goes hand in hand with being skilful. Players need to be able to master the ball and solve the problems that they face in games. But how can they do that if they haven’t been encouraged to be positive on the ball first?

If you want to develop your team, you need to build an environment where creativity is valued – and stimulated.

Try asking your players to explore and discover:

  • how to hide and manoeuvre the ball in small spaces
  • if they can stay on the ball for as long as they can before passing
  • receiving the ball in a position to play forward.

Positive and open communication

Positive communication is key to setting a friendly environment for your players. A good starting point is offering genuine praise. For example, if you spot a player staying on the ball for longer than usual, tell them. This shows your team that you notice – and value – that action. It could even encourage them to do it more often.

It’s also important that you allow for two-way communication. Sure, there may be times when you need to point out a solution, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time. When explaining your next activity, ask players what they think they could do to achieve the objective. This gets them thinking and can lead to them figuring out creative solutions themselves.

If your players know you’re willing to listen, they’re more likely to feel comfortable in raising any concerns or making suggestions.

Allow freedom
To help develop skilful players, your environment needs to focus on objective-driven sessions rather than being too topic-driven. This is because, just like open communication, they give players the chance to make up their own minds on how they achieve a goal.

Not sure what this means?

An objective-driven session is where you set the group a game problem or group objective in your practice, such as: get the ball over the halfway line as quickly as you can. Here, your players will simply explore and discover the best way to do it. They may find that playing out from the back with short passes works best. Each player can contribute in their own way, allowing players to practice what they’re good at.

A topic-driven session is where you would give the players a specific topic. In this case: playing out from the back with short passes. You’re effectively telling them how they need to achieve the objective of getting the ball over the halfway line, instead of letting them discover other possibilities.

If you create sessions that are too focused, you can reduce your players’ exposure to real football situations. This means that, when faced with the various problems they may face in a game, they won’t have the tools to make a skilful decision.

Now, if freedom isn't a massive part of your session yet – or you coach very young players – your team won't be used to making lots of decisions. This means you need to start slow. For instance, you could put three cones down and ask a player to make the area into a square with the final cone.

Once they’re comfortable with small steps, you can start to give your team more autonomy.

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Steven Gerrard: make sessions enjoyable

Embrace mistakes
No one likes getting things wrong – especially in front of others.

But if you spread the message that mistakes are accidents, that they’re something to learn from and not something to fear, you can change your players’ perceptions. Just like you’re not going to have all the answers right away, acknowledging if you’ve made a mistake can be a powerful statement.

For instance, if you're not getting the returns you want from a session, holding your hands up and making a change sends a clear message. You've tried something and it hasn't gone how you want, but you're learning and adapting – just like your team need to.

To become skilful, players must be able to explore and discover the possibilities in the game. Mistakes are inevitable – such as losing the ball under pressure because they haven’t shielded it. But what players learn from those mistakes will give them the tools they need to play the game.

Be a role model
To create the right environment, you also have to be a good role model for your players. This means being consistent, kind, patient, fair, honest and non-judgmental.

This approach might be harder than you imagine, but these qualities form the basis of any secure and trusting relationship.

A harsh and judgemental environment won't encourage players to try new things or be creative. If you want your team to explore and develop, you need to be positive, supportive and allow for mistakes. When you're patient in your approach, give your players time and encourage them to practise, you open up the possibility of them becoming skilful.

The better your environment is, the more chance you have of developing a love of the game. This means that players are more likely to come back, week after week. Which, in turn, creates greater opportunity to develop skilful play.

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Gareth Southgate: the importance of role models

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