by Jeff Pill
The women’s soccer game on the international level has been improving steadily over the past decade and a half (FIFA, 2008). In observing the 2007 Women’s World Cup, the 2004 and 2008 Women’s Olympics, the most recent U17 and 20 youth World Cups, it is readily apparent that the game has been evolving rapidly, and that the United States Women’s National team, although still a top four competitor, needs to show marked improvement in several aspects of their play in order to maintain a top ranking (US Soccer, 2008). For US Soccer, this brings with it the task of attempting to maintain their superiority in those areas of the game that have served as a strong foundation for their success in the past. These foundational abilities are their winning mentality, fitness, and athleticism (US Soccer, 2008). Recent successes by Brazil, North Korea, and Germany highlight the fact that the United States is forced to develop in those areas of the game that remain weaknesses, namely technical proficiency and “soccer savvyness,” sometimes referred to as “soccer brain” or “tactical effectiveness”.

All three of the countries mentioned above: Brazil, Germany and North Korea, excel in their tactical understanding, and the ability of their players to arrive at solutions to the problems that the game presents them, with the ball. All three countries possess technically gifted players, at every position on the field. All three countries have players that possess high levels of tactical awareness, especially at the small group level. Finally, all three countries have players that are creative problem solvers, and often display the abilities to improvise both individually and as a group.

In short, we see a lack of creative, problem-solving players who are willing and competent enough to solve the tactical demands of the game. This leads to an obvious question, how can coaches develop players into independent, critical thinkers and problem solvers? Also, although these problems have surfaced at the international level of competition, does this have any implications on the youth game?

Coaches need to match the evolving needs of modern players with evolving methodology. The methodology must match the current state of the game and its players, at all levels. In short, the choice of what coaching methodology to employ must start with an assessment of player ability in relation to the demands placed on that ability by the game. We need to ask ourselves what type of player we want to produce. Do we want players that are?
• Structured or instinctive?
• Dependent on the coach or independent?
• Obedient to instructions or able to solve problems?
• Focused on the coach or on the game?

There is a huge need to develop players that:
• are instinctive
• are creative
• take initiative
• express their individuality
• are able to think independently
• understand options
• solve problems
• “own the games”

There are times during the game when player movements and patterns need to be highly structured and disciplined – for example, attacking and defending restarts. However, even in this case the players who succeed are often the ones who are able to improvise or do the unexpected. Because so much of this sport is unstructured and constantly changing, players have to be creative problem solvers during free play moments. The coach’s methodology needs to reflect this element of the sport (Pill, 2007).

Coach-centered methodology:
In a coach-centered methodology, coaches often find themselves putting players through drills that require certain prescribed responses and solutions to problems.
• The focus is the coach.
• The coach creates exercises and directs the session.
• The coach provides solutions.
• The coach tells players what to think.

Players learn primarily from feedback that is provided by the coach. The focus is the coach’s expectations, and it is the player’s job to execute the coach’s directions.

Player/game-centered methodology:
The player or game centered coach quickly gets players into game situations that challenge them to arrive at a technical and tactical solution.
• The focus is on the player.
• The coach creates a challenging game environment.
• The coach provides options, and acts as a resource for the players.
• The coach asks players what they think.
• The game develops the players.

Players learn primarily from feedback given by the game. The focus is on playing, and thus on solving soccer problems. Instead of turning their attention to the coach, and asking the coach what he or she wants the player to do, the player attempts to determine what the GAME is asking them what to do (Martens, 2004).

How often do we see at the youth level in particular, a player turning to the coach during the course of a game and asking that coach for a solution to a problem, often times at the first sign of trouble? Better yet to have players approach the game with the mindset of, “what do I need to do to be successful? How can I break down this team’s defense? How am I going to stop their attacking players?”

Coaches must choose games that put the players into environments that replicate the demands of the real game that is played against an opponent. These environments must be realistic. Once this is accomplished, the coach then has five basic methods available for imparting information to players. We call these methods the “coach’s toolkit”.

The Coach’s Toolkit:
When coaching while using the games approach, the coach must choose how he or she is actually going to “coach” during the sessions. What follows is a list of the five methods that the coach can use in order to impart knowledge or information to the team:
• Allow the conditions of the game to coach the themes. Let the conditions of the game bring out a certain aspect or solution.
• Coach the individual within the flow of the game. Provide suggestions as play continues, or pull the player aside (e.g. “Sarah, can you get wider to give yourself more space?”).
• Coach the team as the game continues (e.g. “Can we step together to keep them under pressure? They’re locked in their own end!”).
• Coach at natural stoppages.
• Coach using the “freeze” method (US Soccer, 2007).

Games vs. drills
Game-centered training implies that the primary training environment is the game, as opposed to drill-type environments. Practice games are what players actually face during competition. They are 100% realistic in that the problems that each player faces in the game are replicated in the training environment. Games are designed so that maximal repetitions of the desired skill or tactic are produced. Therefore, players become better at transferring what they have learned in training to the game itself. The game experience takes up the vast majority of training time.
Many drills are not realistic; therefore players find it difficult to transfer what they learn in drill environments to the game itself. This is not to say that drills which closely replicate one aspect of the game should not be used in training. Dynamic, demanding drill environments used at the beginning of a practice session often prepare players to play the game by breaking down the complicated picture that the game presents into manageable pieces.

Continuous play
Continuous play in training reflects the real game. It also demands rhythm. Players cannot go all-out for an entire 90-minute stretch. They need to know how to control the rhythm of the game so they can last the entire time. Continuous play also demands focus. Players must stay focused for long periods of time, just as they do during the game (US Soccer, 2007).
To provide continuous play during training, coaches must coach “in the flow” of the game and not interrupt play with stoppages to make coaching points. Feedback on the field provides players with immediate guidance. This feedback applies to the real game and is therefore directly beneficial to players. It also allows continuous play.

This approach allows the players to solve and “fix” their own problems. If the coach allows for continuous play, players are able to have practice regaining the game when things have broken down. They become better at being able to get from “plan-C” back to “plan-A”. The game of soccer is one of transitions. The players constantly find themselves transitioning from attack to defense, and defense to attack. Even while attacking or defending, players often must modify or change their approach entirely, because of the fact that what is first attempted does not work. For example, an attacking player may think that they can attack successfully in one area of the field, only to find that the defense has reacted quickly, and stopped the attack. The player with the ball must then change the point of attack, and try again some other place. If the coach is constantly stopping training, when the initial attempt has broken down, then the players never get to “practice” transitioning in to the second option. This transition constantly happens during the game itself. Thus, by consistently stopping play, the coach never adequately prepares the team to solve the problems presented to them during game days. If the coach is constantly “freezing” the action when things break down during play, the players never get the chance to practice this vital game skill, that of “fixing problems” when things have gone wrong (Pill, 2007).

The balanced approach
The above methods must be balanced and constantly evaluated with the end result in mind: What type of player are we trying to develop?
Each of these methods has its place in helping to develop young players. Neither method should be used to the exclusion of the other. Therefore, the most effective developmental model for young players includes a balanced approach that employs direction — for the purpose of clarity (demonstration), structure (rules) and discipline (behavior) — within an environment that also allows players to experience the game (repetition) and encourages experimentation (discovery) and trial and error (lessons). Information and guidance from a knowledgeable adult, delivered at appropriate times during practice and matches as well as off the field, can play a vital role in a player’s development (Pill, 2007).

When providing guidance to players, keep the following points in mind:

• There should not be so much information that players get overloaded, nor should there be so little that players lack the necessary purpose to make decisions.
• Instructions should make sense in terms of what’s happening on the field and should be based on the principles of soccer.
• Players should be allowed some room to think for themselves, based on what’s happening on the field.

When teaching technique to younger players (U10 and U12), it can be beneficial to give them some amount of directed repetition, especially at the beginning of the session. The coach gives instructions throughout the repetitions of the different techniques and can provide specific examples of how to execute these techniques, through demonstrations and by allowing the players repeated opportunities to practice. This can be done in structured but active exercises involving lots of small groups and lots of movement — no lines or lectures. As you move into the second half of the session, players should then be given freedom to practice these techniques in a free-flowing game.

GAMES THAT TEACH

What follows is a list of games that have proven to be particularly helpful in providing player development opportunities. They are all games that require players to solve problems and to arrive at solutions. They are designed to replicate the demands of the game, and to encourage repetitions of a prescribed action or decision. Each game can be modified to fit the particular demands of different age groups, and can be used as the main teaching vehicle for a variety of topics as listed (Pill, 2007).

1. Flying changes
Setup
• Mark out a 40 x 25-yard field with centerline.
• Using cones, set up three goals on each endline.
• Divide players into two teams.

Sequence
• Teams play 3 v. 3; extra players wait behind the goals.
• If the ball leaves the attacking team’s half, the three attackers leave the field and are immediately replaced by the next three players.
• These three come on right away with a ball and try to quickly counterattack.
Variations
• Teams play 2 v. 2 on a smaller field.
• Set up just one goal on each end line.
• Play 4 v. 4, allowing one player to stay on the field all of the time, thus encouraging a diamond shape to the attack.
Game teaches:
• Attack tactics: finding the free player, finding the free goal, counterattacking, recovering and defending after losing the ball
• Defense tactics: providing pressure, cover and balance; recognizing when to step aggressively and put attackers under pressure, and when to drop and delay the attack; taking away options; using zonal defending principles
• Technique: shooting, passing

2. Four-goal game
Setup
• Mark out a 40 x 40-yard field.
• Set up one goal on each sideline.
• Divide players into two teams.

Sequence
• Teams play 5 v. 5.
• Each team defends two goals and attacks the other two.
Variations
• Use two balls if more touches on the ball are wanted.
• Change the goals; teams have to attack and defend.
Game teaches:
• Supporting and unbalancing with width, depth and height of attack
• Switching the point of attack
• Channeling attackers when defending and putting them in positions where they are isolated
• Technique: shooting, passing, heading

3. Four-square game
Setup
• Field is half of a standard field.
• Mark out 10-yard squares in each corner of the field.
• Divide players into two teams.

Sequence
• Teams play 8 v. 8.
• Attackers score by passing the ball into one square and then out to a teammate.
• Each team can attack any of the four goals.
• Whichever team has the ball is on offense. The other team defends.
• It should be easy to keep possession because the defense has to worry about so many goals. Attackers should be patient and avoid unnecessary risks.
Variations
• Play with two balls to open the game up.
• Allow attackers to score by dribbling into and then out of the square.
• Scoring combinations must involve three different players.
• Limit players to two touches.
• Teams play 7 v. 7 plus two neutral players.
Game teaches:
• Maintaining balance on attack and defense (don’t bunch up around one goal)
• Looking to attack the goal that is open (learn to recognize where pressure is coming from)
• Defense tactics: creating opportunities to double-team opponents
• Technique: shooting, passing, receiving

4. Bread and butter
Setup
• Mark out a 30 x 45-yard field.
• Set up one goal on each endline.
• Divide players into three teams of four (A, B, C).

Sequence
• Team A plays against Team B to score on one goal. Team C stands on the endline and supports both of the other teams.
• If Team A scores, they quickly try to attack the other goal, while Team B switches places with Team C.
• Supporting players are limited to one touch on the ball.
• (Variation: play with two neutral attacking players)

Game teaches:
• Attack tactics: after scoring a goal, looking to play quickly before the other team has a chance to come on and get organized
• Playing the ball to target players
• Principles of attacking and defending play
• Shooting mentality
• Goalkeeper: positioning, shot-blocking, distribution

5. End zone game
Setup
• Mark out a 30 x 50-yard field.
• Using cones, set up a seven-yard end zone at each end.
• Divide players into two teams of four.

Sequence
• Teams play 4 v. 4.
• Attackers score by getting the ball from one end zone to the other, either by passing or by dribbling.
• After scoring, they immediately attack the other goal.
• End zones can only be entered by the attacking team.
Game teaches:
• Principles of attacking and defending play
• Counterattacking
• Technique: passing, receiving, dribbling

6. Six-goal game
Setup
• Mark out a 30 x 25-yard field.
• Using cones, set up three goals on each endline.
• Divide players into two teams of four.

Sequence
• Teams play 4 v. 4.
• Each team defends three goals and attacks three.
• Use normal possession rules for balls that go out of bounds.
• Keep score.
Variations
• Teams play on four goals.
• No goals: Attackers score by dribbling over the endline or by stopping the ball on it.
• Field is longer than it is wide.
• Make teams bigger (up to 8 v. and increase field size accordingly.
Game teaches:
• Attacking: keeping possession of the ball, making defenders earn the ball instead of giving it to them, maintaining good width to unbalance the defense, quickly changing the point of attack
• Defending: zonal defending, keeping first defender balanced, avoiding lunging in, keeping the ball under pressure, covering goals first, providing good cover, keeping spaces between defenders tight, maintaining balance as a team
• Technique: shooting, passing

Conclusion and summary.
Women’s soccer at the international level continues to evolve. Fifteen years ago, there were only a couple of teams that would have a legitimate chance to win a world championship. Currently, there are half a dozen teams that on any given day could win the event, perhaps even one or two more. The increasingly competitive arena, coupled with the fact that the United States have not been winning on a consistent basis, have caused many to evaluate carefully how we are identifying and developing players here in this country. We have been able to learn a lot by observing the training and playing environments of the different countries that we are competing against.

During the last Women’s World Cup, the United States displayed a very determined, yet predictable style of play. In an analysis of their semi-final match played against Brazil, they had nineteen attempts where they had possession coming out of their defensive third of the field. One of their backs had the ball, and there was a build-up leading to that possession. From this situation, they were only able to play through the three lines (positions) of the field one time successfully. This direct style reflected the lack of ability and willingness to solve the problems in the game with creativity and skill. Instead, they determine to solve the game with their athleticism, and play directly in to the forwards, or even directly over the opposing backs. The result is a very predictable attack that is easy to figure out and adjust to. As the other countries have increased their athleticism, this solution to the game becomes less effective, as was seen in that emphatic win by Brazil.

It is to be noted that one year later, under the direction of a new coach, the US women were able to capture the gold medal in the Olympics, by playing a much more indirect style, relying on a more sophisticated attack, which relied less on the athletic dimension. However, it was not as an emphatic win as it has been in the past as the U.S. lost their first game in group play to Norway, and failed to develop a consistency in their style of play against the top level teams. Their mental toughness carried them through several contests, as well as some spectacular play by some individuals in defense.

As a result, the continued cycle of player identification and development takes on an even greater significance. As mentioned above, the US lacks the creative-technical player that the top teams in the world have. We must take a close look at the standard training model that is used in this country. Over reliance on coach centered training has failed to produce the kind of player that is needed in order to continue to excel at the international level in women’s soccer. This type of training is part of our sporting culture here in this country. A casual observation of our major sports that are covered by the media reveals teams that are led by strong coaches, and it is this coach’s way that is often given the most credibility. Just notice how often the camera focuses in on the coach during an American football, basketball, or baseball game being covered on television. In contrast, when you watch a soccer game on television in Brazil, the coach is rarely shown on screen. When he is, it is usually in relation to a goal or spectacular play, as he celebrates with the other bench personnel. It is either that, or the camera finds him sitting on the bench and taking notes as he observes the team playing in the game. Clearly, in those cultures, it is a players’ game. As a result, the players are determined, skillful, take initiative to solve problems and make decisions. True, there is a team tactic that is followed, often determined with input from the coach, but it is clear that the players are the one to implement the plan, and are mostly free from interference by the coach during the game.

This is the game that has evolved to what we know as the modern game of international soccer. It is a player-centered game. Now, the coaching methodology used to prepare players to excel in this game needs to evolve as well. Reliance on coach centered, drill oriented training is not an effective way to produce those characteristics that are needed. Instead, a player-centered, games approach needs to be the methodology used. Creative, skillful players will be the outcome. These are the players that are exciting to watch, and effective at solving the problems presented to them in the game.

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