How to challenge all the players in your coaching session

Guide All Ages

FA county coach developer, Andy Lowe, asks if a session can be truly player-centred if all the players in a group complete the same task?

FA coaching courses encourage a holistic approach. This is fundamental in the development of an environment that puts the player – and their needs – at the core of the coaching process. The modern-day coach must take into consideration aspects that previously have been neglected. Primarily, these include the environment surrounding the players, effective and individualised learning, differentiated sessions, understanding how players learn, support for each player, appropriate management of mistakes and difference. Whilst also attempting to link with the intertwined Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) model.

Rapidly emerging are the distinct links between education and the coaching environment. Gradually, the concept of differentiation is becoming prevalent and more important to the modern day youth coach. A question to consider is: why has this fundamental approach not been used effectively before?

Coaching individual players is beyond teaching topics and themes. There is a need for a differentiated coaching approach that enables young players to realise their individual potential, regardless of differing levels and stages of development.

DifferentiationIn simple terms, differentiation is the attempt to meet the needs of each individual within a coaching session. This attempt is not a one size fits all session, coaching the same outcomes to each player.

There are many reasons why a one size fits all coaching approach should not be used, but this is still evident in many sessions I’ve observed in recent years. This approach can be detrimental to player development, stifle motivation, confidence and self-esteem.

Common misconceptions are that differentiation only applies in a classroom environment or educational establishment, but this is misguided. It is equally important from a grassroots coach to an academy coach and teacher.

Differentiation is crucial at all levels, no matter the type of coach or experience. As a former PE teacher, differentiation was essential when teaching mixed ability groups and enhancing individualised learning. This work carried over to my work as an academy coach, where utilising a differentiated coaching approach was fundamental to meeting the needs of players.

Players learn and develop at varying stages and coaches may encounter players with significant differences that affect individual learning in a single session. These are likely to include differences in age and maturity, stages of development, ability, understanding and motivation levels.

Taking these factors into consideration, why do coaches set the same tasks to every player in a session?

The theme of a coaching session may be centred on receiving, with the main focus of receiving the ball to play forward, but the tasks and methods to achieve this goal should not be the same for every player. The theme and session remain centred on receiving but variances of space, task, equipment and players should be altered and differentiated to meet personal player needs. This approach is paramount to aid progress and learning, ensuring the best environment for all players.

Players progress at varying rates and it is likely that in a session players will fall into differing categories dependent on task, challenge and/or situation. Players might be striving to keep up, coping, or forging ahead. What is the most efficient way to deal with this situation and produce a successful outcome? There are common misconceptions that strivers must remain together and copers and so forth. Differentiated planning and knowledge of all players should ensure a variety of practices and tasks involving grouping players accordingly.

What does a differentiated coaching approach look like?Several approaches can be added to your coaching tool box. Do you use STEP in your coaching? At various timely intervals, the coach may adjust the space, task, equipment or players in any given practice. When combined together, the use of different sized areas, tasks, equipment and players in one session can give many differentiated outcomes for players.

1. SpaceFrequently, coaches alter the size and shape of one pitch and this can be effective. Changing the pitch by reducing size, can increase the challenge or increasing the size may make it easier for a player, depending on the practice. However, consider having multiple pitches. The theme and focus of the session can be the same for all players but this can be achieved in different parameters, with different abilities being challenged accordingly. For example: two or three different sized pitches to enable all players the opportunity to work in relation to their stage of development.

2. TaskWhen considering differentiation by task, there are a variety of options in the coaching tool box that can be used to aid player development.

We refer in coaching to progressions: making practices more challenging or simpler for individuals. Similarly, these challenges may be different for specific individuals or groups within the same session.

As coaches, we are able to set individual and group challenges within the same theme and focus. Although simple to do, coaches must be savvy and know their players, setting appropriate tasks and challenges to support learning.

Even more empowering for players is the opportunity for a variety of tasks to be set and players to have a choice of challenge they wish to pursue. Be prepared that one player may find a task fun, challenging and be engaged whilst another in the same session may find it dull and too easy to achieve. With carefully crafted and planned sessions this can be avoided. Consider some of these options.

  • Players
  • Individual tasks/challenges
  • Scenario-based tasks
  • Matching and loading: centre-forward vs. centre-back
  • Technical/tactical based tasks (individual/groups/teams)
  • Rules/conditions
  • Number of tasks
  • Time on task
  • Player decisions/choice based on stage of development

3. EquipmentVery simply, the use of equipment can add to the challenges and tasks we set our players. This can be through the addition of more footballs, different sized footballs, goals, zones marked with spots or cones to support a challenge or theme. Note of caution, aim to make use of equipment appropriately to ensure game related outcomes.

4. PlayersThe ways players are used in practices is vast. Coaches are familiar with even sided teams and overloads. However, there is a need to use the under-load method to create more game-like situations, this can be achieved in skill practices, small groups, large groups and indeed small sided games.

Knowing players, their strengths and weaknesses and understanding the differentiation model can be powerful in challenging players by mixing individuals, pairs, groups and teams.

Planning your next session?

Try to consider all of the above and reflect on the feel of the environment, the success of differentiated tasks and the benefits to your players. Remember, one size does not fit all.


This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in January 2018.

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