Most athletes, coaches, and players in sport can understand when they’ve experienced a poor training session. When coaching, you can tell what went well and what didn’t when you review if you met the goals set for the session, player engagement and enjoyment, pace and flow of the session… the list goes on. However, knowing the difference between a good and bad session comes from experience. You can’t know what it’s like to have a session “flow” well if you’ve never experienced it, leading you to believe that all sessions are executed in a choppy manner, for example.
Today we’re going to be taking a look at the worst session I’ve ever coached. It comes from the same season as my first ever coaching experience, which you can relive here. This session was done with a group of 16 year old boys in a recreational league where the goal was to just have fun and work on the basics. The skill level was low, mostly made up of players who had only ever played recreationally. That’s fine, not every player needs to play competitively. The issue is that I ran the session as if it were an academy side looking to develop players for the non-existent first team.
We will be reviewing the drills used, the flow (or lack thereof), and quality of coaching. Afterwards, we will be taking a look at what could have been done better. Acknowledging our errors and improving because of them is of the utmost importance. We, as coaches, are responsible for the development and improvement of our players. If we cannot hold ourselves to the same standards as our players, then we are not fit to lead.
There was none. At least, there was no session plan that was written. I would “prepare” the session by watching YouTube videos of drills I thought looked cool. I was completely disregarding the skill level of my own players and any sort of long term plan, as the session theme and ideas changed on a weekly basis. For example, instead of using “periodization” through a macrocycle, where we strictly work on one theme before going on to the next, the session was made of drills that did not relate to one another whatsoever.
I was trying to check off too many boxes which led to me checking off no boxes. So, no session had a “session” plan, but what made this session in particular the worst was the drills used and how they were used. The sessions would only last 60 minutes, and were once a week. It was crucial that I make the most of the limited amount of time I had with these players, yet I failed to do this on a consistent basis for reasons which I will explain as we go.
I use periodization almost exclusively now because of how simple planning a season as a whole has become while allowing us to work on the goals we set for the team over the course of a season. Along with periodization, I also ensure that every drill includes four attributes: social, technical, tactical and physical. When creating a drill, we must ask: “How can we get the players to be more communicative, while improving their technical ability, tactical understanding and fitness levels?”
Before we began practicing with the ball, I had the players run 2-3 laps around the football pitch to “warm up” . Afterwards, we moved into 10 minutes of static stretching. Following the “warm up” I would explain to the players what we’re working on during the session. While I still do explain to the players briefly what we’re working on during the session before they begin, this session’s chat was poor. A player asked me: “why are we working on so many things at once?”. A simple question that has stuck with me ever since because I could not answer it. If the players are questioning why we are not consistent with training, then they must know something is “off”.
DRILL 1: Passing in a Straight Line
By this point, we have used up 15 minutes of the 60 minutes given to us for the practice time. A bad start. The first drill I had them do during the worst session I ever coached was a simple passing drill where the players would partner up and pass the ball to their partner, run backwards behind a cone about 15 feet behind them and then on to a return pass from their partner. The two partners would take turns doing this movement.
While not an objectively bad drill, it was not incorporated into an overarching theme or concept we as a team were working on. None of the drills I organized that day did. This drill would go on for about 10 minutes before giving the players a drink of water and moving onto the next drill. We have now used about 25 minutes of our 60 minute practice time. Spoiler: the next drill is not a progression from the first one. As a matter of fact, it is completely unrelated.
DRILL 2: Shooting Line Drill
The next drill is a very basic and archaic shooting drill. I had the players line up one by one where they would run into the penalty area onto a cross from a teammate outside of the penalty area. This drill was especially slow and hard to watch. There was no “rhythm” to the drill because every few seconds the play would completely stop until the crossing player puts a new ball in.
The problems with this drill are, for starters, that it does not relate to the first one at all. Shooting and finishing are not the same as passing and receiving. Secondly, this is not a scenario that may come up in a game. A forward running onto a cross is almost always opposed. This drill is nothing more than an exercise to work on finishing, albeit inefficient and outdated. This drill would go on to last about 15 minutes, bringing us to 40 minutes out of our 60 minute session.
After just five minutes I could tell that players were getting bored and frustrated with the drill. They were not happy just standing around waiting for their turn to hit a ball that may or may not come to them, as the quality of crossing was questionable at times. The drill seemingly lasted forever and it was clear that the players had lost interest in the drill and the session by this point.
DRILL 3: The Small Sided Game
The third and final drill for the session was the small sided game. Small sided games are the backbone of my sessions. Every theme, idea or concept my teams work on will inevitably move to a small sided game that rewards the players for using what we worked on in practice. You’ll have a hard time finding coaches that disagree with this style of session planning and for good reason: players just want to play. The small sided game gives players the ability to “play” within the constraints you’ve given them to force them to improve.
The reason why this small sided game in particular made this session the worst I ever coached was because it was everything but a small sided game. I often got 16-18 players show up to these practices, so I would make two teams of 8-9 and let them play the remainder of the practice with the normal rules of a full 11v11 game. I did not use any restrictions that forced the players to do what we worked on in the session because I 1) did not work on anything specifically in the session and 2) did not know how to set restrictions for players to improve them.
A great part about small-sided games is that you can find a lot of teachable moments in an environment that is as close to game-like as possible. This is where a coach could make comments to their players about how to best approach certain scenarios. During this session we worked on passing in a straight line and shooting, unopposed, on a goalkeeper. The players could not use what they learned in practice because I did not teach them anything nor did I create a small sided game that allowed them to demonstrate what we learned. So, most of my coaching points were just me yelling at the players to "move the ball faster" or "switch the play", among other useless comments.
All sessions have flow. The players and coaches work in a manner that sees each other move from one drill to the next in as smooth of a transition as possible. While in the drills, the players understand their objectives for the drill and are done with purpose. During this session I stopped any opportunity for “flow” to exist because the drills were not complementary to one another and were done without purpose. If players are going to pass like I asked them to in the first drill, they should, by the end of the session, understand why I asked them to do so. The same idea goes for the shooting drill. If the players know they’re working towards becoming better at executing a certain theme, they’ll be more inclined to do better.
My “coaching points” were far too frequent, leading me to stop the session several times to explain what was being done incorrectly. The first two drills were overly technical with no underlying social, physical or tactical themes, meaning that my “coaching points” were often just criticism of how each movement was being executed. Shouts of “It needs to be done faster” or “this isn’t good enough” echoed throughout the pitch. These are not coaching points. This is almost close to harassment when we consider that this is a recreational team just looking to have fun.
My coaching points, coupled with the selection of drills, made every minute feel like an hour. I was counting every minute until the session finished and I can only imagine that the players did the same. Every pass, shot or movement felt forced and I could see it in the players. They did not want to practice with me. The feeling of knowing that the players are having a worse time playing football than not is one that I will never forget.
First thing we need to do is set goals we want to achieve for the season ahead. This can be done by taking the age, skill and playing level of the players into context. In this case, the players are 16, relatively low skill level and are playing recreationally for fun. The goals for the season should be to:
1) Have fun
2) Improve the basics (passing, shooting, dribbling etc.)
The next thing we need to do is set “themes” that can be worked on over a few months, weeks and then individual sessions. For example:
May - Passing
June - Shooting
July - Dribbling
August - Receiving
Now that we have set themes for each month, session planning becomes simpler. We can make our session according to the technical goals we have set for ourselves. Using the example above, the month of May allows us to work with several “sub-themes” in regards to passing. We could spend one week working on short passing, one on long passing, one on switching the side of play and one recycling possession. How you vary your sessions is dependent on the goals you have set for your team at the start of the season.
We have set goals for the season and themes for the months ahead, so we need to ensure that player enjoyment is at the forefront of every session. The games must be fun and exciting to play. This can be done by ensuring that a ball is always in play, stoppages are rare, and that coaching points are more than just “that isn’t good enough”. All of these can be achieved immediately by any coach by always having a ball in hand for when the ball goes out of play, ensuring that a new ball is in play immediately. Coaching points can be made when you’ve run out of footballs or when you see a team struggling.
We can improve the technical ability of a player by giving them an environment to do so that does not feel like it is “training” and more so a game. With just 60 minutes per week to train, the bulk of the session should be small-sided games that sees each player get as many ball actions as possible. So, if we had 16 players show up to training, we could organize four games made up of four players, playing in games with the themes for that month worked into the games. This is better than just explicitly working on the technical ability outside of a small sided game environment as the main objective is to have fun.
Continuing the theme of passing in this revised example, we can now change the drills to be more in line with the goals we have set for ourselves and the team. Before we begin the first drill I will not have the players run around the pitch like I did originally. That is a waste of time. They are here for 60 minutes, there is no need to get “warmed up” for what is likely to be a relatively easy session for 16 year olds. I will also be removing the static stretching as it is also just as useless at this level, especially before the session.
Drill 1: Switching Play
Using just four players, we can teach our recreational team to pass wide, take advantage of the overload, as well as force them into a one versus one where they can dribble or pass. We are now asking our players to do more when on the ball and off the ball, all while working on our overall theme of passing.
Drill 2: Recycling Possession
This second exercise differs from the first in a few ways. The neutrals are placed opposite to the goals while the goals themselves are now parallel. The attacker is more than welcome to try to beat the defender one versus one, but if they have trouble, they can pass backwards to a neutral and try again. We are now continuing to teach our players how to improve their technical ability (passing) while also teaching them how to solve a problem in the game environment.
The drill is simple enough that it can be modified easily without disrupting the theme and idea, but complex enough to teach recreational, low-skill level players new ideas. Given the goals outlined for ourselves, this is perfect and does what we need it to.
Drill 3: The Small Sided Game
We can improve the larger small sided game by adding objectives. We can use our 16 players much more effectively now that we have a theme for the month and session. The small sided game example used is a 6v6+4, meaning that the attacking team will be attacking with 10 players. This will inevitably lead to more shots, crosses, passes and overall ball actions per player. The restrictions can be what you choose to make them. The example given has the neutrals in the wide areas, encouraging the attackers to use the wide players as the “spare player” when attacking, or as a back pass option if they cannot go forward as there will be two neutrals on each side with one being in a more conservative position than the other.
Now that the small sided game rewards players from working on what we practiced in the first two drills, the players will be more inclined to do what was practiced in a real game. At the end of the session the players will be able to acknowledge that what they worked on built up to a larger small sided game. At the recreational level (and arguably the competitive level) the session should mostly be games that fall under the umbrella of what you want to work on.
The worst session I ever coached was one that was misguided, without purpose, and directionless. There was no clear goal that was being worked on and the players knew that. When players are not content with training, they will train poorly, even at the recreational level where all they want to do is have fun! The session must also have a clear progression for the players to follow in order for them to best showcase what they’ve learned once you reach the small sided game.
By coming to a session with a session plan, goals and an understanding of what is being worked on, the practice will naturally “flow” better. The players will be having fun and executing the drills with purpose, while the coach can jump in when needed to make their coaching points that relate to the session and theme.
Acknowledging my worst ever coaching session is important because it reminds me of the standard that must be set in order to develop the players to the best of their abilities. I now know what not to do when planning a session and what I need to strive for. Despite the group being a recreational youth team, playing for fun, my job is still to improve them in some capacity.
Being limited to 60 minutes of training per week can make improvement hard, but something is better than nothing. I can tell you for certain that players hate standing around (at all levels) and are curious enough to want to know what they are working on. By undermining them, you put a halt to any sort of progress and make them resent coming to training in the first place.
Make sure your sessions achieve the goals and themes you want them to, make sure the players are training with purpose, and do not have the players standing around for long waiting for their turn.
I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___