Make Training Fun and Player-Centric to Develop Creative Players

This is the first half of an article by Ian McClurg, Founder of 1 v 1 Soccer, UEFA “A” licensed coach and former Toronto FC Academy staff coach in the Best of Amplified Soccer Training Volume 1.  This article can also be found in Ian's book, Play the 1v1 Way: Soccer Tips from an Emerging Talent Centre.

Summer, 2013: I have just returned from coaching at the Wolves FC North American camp in Rome, Georgia. At the four-day residential camp I had the pleasure of working alongside Gareth Prosser, the Wolves FC academy director from the UK, and his excellent staff. When I returned home one of the first emails I received was from Steve Bottjer at Red Nation Online asking me what my thoughts were on the recent performance of the Canadian national men’s team at the 2013 Gold Cup. I had to be honest with Steve and say that I had missed the games as I was coaching. But after listening to Steve’s re-cap of our team’s performance in the tournament, in which our men lost to Martinique and Mexico and drew with Panama, and failed to score a goal the entire tournament, I could only conclude that the common themes are once again at the forefront of our national men’s team program: We cannot retain possession very well and have insufficient players at that level who excel technically and can offer creative solutions on the field.

The question made me reflect upon the last few weeks. During that time 1v1 have hosted a Wolves FC player ID camp in Burlington, Ontario for 70 players. From this, 15 players were invited to the national camp. The Wolves staff have commented upon the good technical skills by displayed by North American players but also on the challenges they face when under pressure from opponents or when they have to solve problems for themselves and find creative solutions. What struck me most about watching the Wolves coaching staff in action was how many times they openly discussed adding an element of fun and enjoyment to the sessions. A key consideration in the lesson planning was: “Will the players be engaged and enjoy the session?”

That may seem like an obvious goal when coaches plan training sessions but on many occasions that is not the case. On many occasions training becomes “coach-centric” instead of “player-centric” and sessions are designed because they are “coach favorites” or are easier for the coaching staff to manage, rather than being effective for the players being taught.

The Wolves coaches believe strongly that to learn effectively, young players must be enjoying what they are doing. (Somehow, just writing that sentence, it seems like an obvious point!) The coaches from the UK also believe that young players must enjoy variety in their training and need to be challenged to solve different scenarios on the field. In small-sided games they changed the rules every 4 to 5 minutes (for example, moving from one-touch to two-touches to unlimited touches on the ball) to challenge the players to think for themselves on the field to achieve positive outcomes. On the last day a chipping contest was added as part of the warm up. It was very challenging technically but when players were divided into teams and it was made into a competition, the players’ enjoyment level — and the resulting tempo of play — immediately went up. The youngsters were engaged and loved every minute of it. The coaches reviewed the key points with the players after every round of competition and the least successful team was required to sing a song to the other groups… which only added a fun element to the activity. (I do have to add a note of caution here — coaches should always ensure that these things remain lighthearted and are never humiliating.)

When I look at a lot of young North American players in action, to be honest, they look frightened. Frightened to make mistakes, even frightened to stand out and be the most dominant player on the field. This mode of “playing scared” simply cannot be right. The pressure and the need for results smother our best young plays and they are frightened to fail. Our young players play too many competitive games and have to deal with the expectation levels placed upon them by coaches and their families. 

Get the rest of this article and much more in the Best of Amplified Soccer Training Volume 1. Preview Here