Session review: how to encourage skilful play

Guide All Ages

Want to know how to maximise opportunities for skill in your coaching? We put two of our sessions under the microscope to see how it's done.

Creating the right environment helps to develop skilful players. In the examples below, we consider how this translates into a real session – and what it looks like in action.


Suey Smith: quick counter-attacks

For the full session, click here.

Let’s look at the activity.

The aim of the game is to receive the ball and try to score. The team in possession start with a 2v2 in their own half, before having a 2v1, in their favour, in the opponents' half. If the opposition win the ball back, they counter.

This practice helps create opportunities for skill in three simple ways:

1. It’s a small-sided game

Using small-number practices means players get plenty of repetition of the objective as well as touches of the ball, which is a central component of skill development. Small practices also give players more opportunities to explore and discover the possibilities the game presents – encouraging creative responses.

2. It’s realistic

This activity looks like football. It’s directional and has goals, a halfway line and opponents. This makes it easier for players to transfer the skills they practise to matchday.

3. It uses a large area

Which is a great way to promote opportunities for skill. Because the area is long and wide, players have enough space to figure out what they need to do and how they can do it. It helps the team play with their heads up – allowing them to spot spaces, threats and the movement of others. This informs players’ decision-making and the individual tactics they use to try and score a goal.

Sure, there’s a benefit to making the area smaller (when you feel your team are ready for an increased challenge). But, in this case, having more room to manoeuvre gives players a chance to control the ball properly and the time to perfect their technique.

In addition to these three elements, Suey Smith also helps to create the right environment by:

  • providing a clear explanation of how to play the game
  • getting into the activity as quickly as possible
  • giving positive feedback and encouragement to the players
  • dealing positively with mistakes and errors – often by ignoring them and letting the players try things out.


John Allpress: receive to play forward

For the full session, click here.

In this activity, John Allpress uses a whole-part-whole approach to his session – which is great for skill development.

When using this method, a coach observes a match and identifies something that the players could work on. The coach then creates an activity for the team that focuses on this need, like receiving the ball to play forward. Once the activity is complete, the team play a final match – where the coach gets to see if players put their practice into action.

Another thing to note is the fact that there are no constraints in the session. This helps the players to explore, try things out and develop their individual techniques and tactics.

Despite using a different approach, this activity does share some similarities with Smith’s counter-attacking game.

It resembles the real game – as well as being competitive, which is important for teams of this age and stage of development. And the area is large enough for players to achieve their objective: there’s space between defenders, to the side, in front and behind them. This helps create space and provides a chance to work on their movement, scanning and awareness skills.

Allpress creates the right environment by:

  • using probing questions rather than giving instructions – this lets players think and discover their own solutions
  • staying calm, non-judgemental and positive when players make mistakes
  • using the word ‘try’ rather than ‘must’ – giving players confidence and freedom to give new things a go
  • gathering the group together now and again to see what they think and how they can do better: this is a great way to foster ownership in the players’ learning.


There's no set, or quick, way to make a player skilful. It takes time and plenty of practise.

To provide the opportunities your team needs, it's important to prioritise realistic, small-sided games. But don't stop there. You should also consider the wider environment: give players the chance to solve their own problems, try things out and explore the game.

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