The Power of Improvisation

By Ian McClurg, Founder of 1 v 1 Soccer, UEFA “A” licensed coach and former Toronto FC Academy staff coach. Find out more about 1 v 1 Soccer at

As coaches, we are all trained on the importance of planning and organization. When I first started coaching, I would typically write a training session plan on a Monday night and revise it numerous times between then and Saturday’s training. To deliver a good session, I thought, I simply had to follow this process. But while I was in this plan-revise-deliver mode, I often marveled at the more experienced coaches that I worked with, who seemed to simply turn up and deliver a high-quality training session. What I’ve learned since then, though, is that far from being unprepared, these coaches were just following a different path — one that combined preparation with improvisation.

I’m not advocating that we as coaches should ever consider compromising our core principles of planning and organization. What I now firmly believe, though, is that we should be more flexible and open to trying new things during a training session and a little more in-tune with the unique dynamics of the environment that we are teaching in, a little more in touch with “coaching in the moment.” For all your planning and organization as a coach, you really cannot know for sure the mindset of the players until you arrive at the session and observe the warm-up and even the players’ body language as they walk into the training facility. You also don’t know how their technical touch will be that day. Who knows, maybe some, or even many of the players that you are working with are having an off day. Maybe they are not responding as well as you had hoped to the activities that you had planned. For many years, I tried to plan a couple of alternative activities in mind for these occasions. I still do that to this day (old habits are hard to break) but what has changed is that I’m more trusting of myself to take a training session, where it needs to go.

Again, at face value this appears a little reckless as it does contradict the core coaching principles of planning and organization. But like those experienced coaches I used to observe, I do stick to my planned topic but on many occasions add a new core move into the warm-up, after observing the players for a few minutes doing other warm-up moves. I might notice something that they are struggling with. For example, maybe a player’s touches on the outside of the feet aren’t working as well as usual, so I will add a couple of new moves or combinations of moves that I’ve never previously introduced to help them through the rough patch. Recently, I turned up at session with a plan to work on passing, noticed the gym had 8 long benches and randomly placed these around the gym and re-designed my session on the fly to incorporate the benches as passing walls.

These ideas are like little light-bulbs going off in your head. At first, I was reluctant to introduce them as I had never really thought of them before and felt they needed further analysis. Now, I trust myself enough, to incorporate them into a session and document them later, noting the specifics of the change, and whether or not they worked. The “trust-yourself” model works like this: You have a spontaneous idea in the moment, standing on the field with the players. It seems to make sense at the time and seems to fit in nicely with the flow of the session. My advice is start believing you’ve made the right call — after all you know your players and you know the game. You then go back later and assess what worked and what didn’t, and you keep the “good stuff” for later use.

This approach is completely consistent with how I’ve argued we should teach players to solve problems themselves on the pitch, and not as coaches constantly telling them what to do. At 1v1 we ask players to use their imagination, try new things and be prepared to make mistakes during training. We as coaches can ask the same of ourselves and push the limits of our coaching abilities.

Coaching is, at least according to the “formal” definition, a teaching, training or development process in which an individual receives support while learning to achieve a specific personal or professional result or goal. Further that process by being innovative and trying new things when providing support to your players. They will thank you for it because their learning will be fun, spontaneous and more enjoyable.

And you will grow massively as a coach.

This article is an excerpt from “Play the 1 v 1 Way: Soccer Tips From and Emerging Talent Centre.” This book is aimed at parents, coaches and players, and details both McClurg’s philosophy on development, as well as practical tips for building young male and female players looking to take their game to the next level.