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Player-centric coaching - 6 ways to improve players' learning

For many coaches the time has finally arrived to return to coaching.

It’s an ideal opportunity to consider if you are providing your players with appropriate, enjoyable and relevant training sessions.

Are you allowing players to find their own solutions to football problems? Or are you supplying them with answers and constant instruction instead of allowing the game to be the teacher?

In very simple terms, the player-centred approach applies to most areas of the football development industry. Particularly with youth development, focus on each player’s individual needs ensures coaches plan training to get the best from each player.

The player-centred coach takes the long-term view and puts development ahead of the result. Of course, winning is still important, particularly for the players themselves, but the primary concern of the coach is the development of the individual and the team.

A player-centred approach allows players to learn by trial and error and gives some autonomy to their learning. Here are six ways to support the often-used phrase - let the game be the teacher.

  1. Encourage players to take responsibility for their own learning by educating them on how elite players live, behave and train.

  2. Involve players by asking them what they want to get out of their football development.

  3. Ensure players are active throughout the whole session.

  4. Create game-related scenarios which involve players having to make decisions and problem solve both on and off the ball.

  5. Encourage players to self-reflect to recognise their strengths and areas for improvement e.g. ask them how they feel about their performance.

  6. Set performance or learning goals with players to improve their motivation to achieve e.g. make successful passes; beat 2 players by dribbling past them; get 5 shots on target etc.


1. Coaching through games

Try to use games to improve players’ understanding and decision-making capabilities by using a whole-part-whole approach where sessions start with a conditioned and opposed game, then specific skill weaknesses are worked on, before finally returning to the game. Do not be concerned about natural chaos or players making mistakes - this gives players the confidence to express themselves rather than being fearful of failure.

2. Question for understanding

Continually check for players’ understanding. Observe the decisions the players are making when in possession and out of possession of the ball, as well as using verbal questioning to gauge the progress of learning. Be wary that the verbal questioning does not take too long - it is important that you take time to listen.

3. Plan for the needs of all players – specific needs of the individual should be tailored within the session to support personal learning

Sessions and practices must be designed and amended according to the players’ needs. Practices can be differentiated so that more able players undertake challenging activities and the less able players have simpler activities.

4. Democratic leadership

Involve other staff and key players in a leadership group. Strategy and tactics are determined by consensus where the whole group agree on the way forward. You may influence this process but should also remain open-minded.

5. Hands-off approach

Step back and allow players to express themselves. Use this time to observe and analyse performance before generating feedback in an interactive manner.

6. Informal learning outcomes

Use the games as the vehicle for coaching. Learning is a by-product of the conditioned nature of the games used in practice which enhances decision-making and game awareness. Practices are largely game-related scenarios where players must solve problems. The practices can have set performance and learning goals for the players to achieve e.g. make 10 successful passes or beat an opponent before passing etc. This helps to motivate the players and also establishes a learning environment to encourage the key focus areas to be implemented.

7. The ‘sell’ and ‘ask’ styles

A useful approach used throughout sports coaching is to adopt the ‘sell’ and ‘ask’ method. Dependent on the situation, it can be used to great effect.

The ‘sell’ style might be used during half time to get the players thinking about what is needed to improve.

When using the ‘sell’ style:

· Decide on what is to be done

· Explain what is required and the objectives

· Ask the players questions to confirm understanding

· Define what to do and how to do it.

The ‘ask style’ can be useful when there is more time to coach. Establish team leaders and players who are able to make decisions for themselves on the pitch.

When using the 'ask' style:

· Outline the training requirements to the players

· Invite ideas and suggestions from the players

· Make the decision based on the players' suggestions

· Define what to do and how to do it.

A simple checklist to regularly gauge that your session is achieving its desired outcomes:

What is the benefit for EVERY player?

Are ALL the players practicing correct technique?

How can EVERY player be stretched and challenged?

Is the practice fun and engaging for EVERY player?


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