Balancing the Demands of the Game in a 1-hour Soccer Practice
Observations made in the 1980s showed that, in a 90-minute male professional soccer game, the ball was actually in play for approximately 76 minutes. Accordingly, on average, each of the 22 players was individually in possession of the ball for less than three and one-half minutes. For adult teams of reasonably equal skill, this average meant that players spent approximately 95% of their time in the game moving without the ball. *
Three major conclusions for coaches may be drawn from this. First, because time with the ball is so short, players must have excellent skills in order to make their touches count. Second, because they are playing “off the ball” for most of the game, players must know where to move every moment, in response to the dynamics of the match, in order to maximize the benefits to be derived from their position on the field. (Playing “off the ball” is a phrase that refers to the actions of soccer players when they are neither in direct possession of the ball nor the immediate defender of an opponent who is in direct possession of the ball.) Third, proper fitness is required for players to be in the right place at the right time for the entire match.
For youth teams, which may have one or two dominant players, the average times with and without the ball can become skewed during matches. The dominant players will tend to have the ball a lot, while some players may not get to play the ball at all. It is for these reasons that youth coaches should resist the temptation to scrimmage all the time at practices. Scrimmaging is fun, however, and children of all ages will clamor for it, especially the dominant players. The trick for the coach is to strive for a blend of training which allows the players to get equal time with the ball while keeping practices fun.
For both youth and adult teams, practices should be oriented in such a way that the maximum number of balls are in use at any given time, together with the most movement possible. This has been referred to as “economical training.” In order to achieve this, a balance must be struck among the time allotted for skills, for tactics (teamwork), and for fitness. Young players usually do not need to spend too much time working on fitness. On the contrary, the coach’s problem is usually one of trying to focus their boundless energy. Of course, fitness training is more important as players grow older, but for this discussion, it will be set aside.
A format for a one-hour youth practice (U7-U9) which attempts to use the concept of economical training, and strike the balance of time allocation while keeping practices fun, might be one which is roughly divided into thirds:
First One-Third: Skill Training – One or two players to a ball.
Second One-Third: Small Group Tactics – Three to five players to a ball.
Third One-Third: Scrimmage – Seven to nine players per team.
Work on skills may be done individually, in pairs, or with someone acting as a “server.” Work in small groups will increase the amount of time players have with the ball while promoting proper movement without the ball. Five players in a small-sided game lasting twenty minutes will, on average, allow each to be in possession of the ball for about four minutes. This approximates game conditions, but uses less than one-fourth the time. With practice time always at a premium, the advantages of this approach are clear.
Small group play is usually achieved in confined squares, marked off by cones or discs, approximately 20- to 30-yards on a side. In addition, these squares may be set up with or without small goals, approximately two yards apart, without goalkeepers. Players may be set up as 2 v 1 or 3 v 2. If desired, the group having the numerical advantage can be designated as the attacking side. This can be used to demonstrate to the attacking side that, by passing the ball around, they are to try to keep getting the ball to the open player. It should be further demonstrated to the defending side that one player covers the opponent with the ball while additional defenders either cover the next nearest opponent or split the difference in order to react to a pass. If this approach is used, coaches should rotate the players frequently between attack and defense so that the defenders don’t feel put upon. (This is also the opportunity to work on set pieces.)
In scrimmages, if fewer than eleven players are available per side, the size of the field should be proportionately reduced to approximate match conditions. This restricts the time and space available, especially to the player with the ball, in order to make the scrimmage more realistic to what would be encountered in an actual game. In order to encourage movement off the ball and to promote fitness, coaches may require that a man-to-man defense be played during part or all of a scrimmage. This will also demonstrate that players must leave their man when their team obtains possession of the ball, and to track their man down when their team losses possession of the ball. This change from offense to defense and back again is commonly referred to as part of the “transition” phase of the game. (This is the opportunity to work on team tactics.)
* During the past two decades, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) has been slowly and carefully modifying the Laws of the Game, and changing instructions to referees, in order to keep the ball in play for longer durations and to encourage the attack.
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