Realistic Practices

Realistic Practices By John Cartwright

Poor Teachers and Coaches look upon the teaching process as a method of ‘distributing’ information. The best Teachers and Coaches ‘reveal the pathways’ of information.

Probably, one of the nicest compliments I received as a coach was from a former player I had worked with during my time as First Team Coach at Arsenal Football Club. Last summer I happened to meet this player who had just taken up a position with a leading National Newspaper. During our conversation on the game and its changes over the years, he said, “ John, you were the only coach I ever worked and played under who made the work understandable and visibly progressive in content. I knew what was required of me and where the work would progress me and the team towards.”

All coaches must have the required type of information to satisfy the age and learning levels of the players they are involved with. A coach must be able to satisfy the abilities of all the players; some may progress more quickly than others and every effort should be taken to provide suitable practice methods to allow both understanding and gradual progress to occur for each player within a working group.

It has always amazed me how so many coaches work in a disorganized and ‘fragmented’ way. Their programs are not constructed to provide a careful and gradual teaching process but are merely a series of ‘quick-fix’ sessions to; cover the faults in preceding games; satisfy him or herself; or appease the players, parents or both!

Probably, the best example of ‘fragmented’ coaching methods can be seen with the use of the ‘small-sided game’ with which most coaches end their sessions. The ‘small-sided game is a popular way of ‘rounding-off’ a session. It allows the game to be played ‘in miniature’ and provides an opportunity for the players to enjoy a competitive match. But has there been enough thought given to the importance of this final part of the football session? I don’t think so!

The competitive game, in all its shapes and sizes, should be an examination of practice. In the past, the street and playground provided players with a ‘natural’ learning situation that could be occasionally transferred and examined in the competitive arena. This form of learning allowed far more time for practice  and a  competitive match, when played , was a  reliable ‘examiner’ of that practice time. But that situation was lost with the demise of street football and the increase of competitive football at junior levels. Today, youngsters are ‘examined’ constantly in competition without spending enough time on the practice ground, consequently, there is very little to ‘examine’ in competitive matches today. 

The ‘small-sided’ game, played at the end of a training session or if used in a competitive match between two rival junior teams, should be an examination of practice completed, not points won! The whole development period of young players should involve a gradual, progressive learning process. There is an important place within that process for competition, but it must be introduced far more intelligently to young players than it has been since ‘organized coaching’ methods were introduced in the late 1950’s to this present day.

The ‘small-sided’ game should always reflect the aspects of practices already completed as well as those in operation at the time. The variations in the type and content of ‘small-sided’ games; the number of players, the area sizes and the ‘targets’ to achieve, must be set for each playing level to generate a reproduction of the practice work in a competitive atmosphere.

Space and time decisions that players must continually and correctly make if they are to progress in the game, must form the foundation of all practice. Competitive sport is not played with technique, it is played with skill! The use of skills in sport demands an acute awareness of space and time that prepares players for the quick decisions and actions that follow. Realistic practice, closely resembling actual competitive situations, but carefully introduced according to playing standards, should apply throughout the whole learning process. The use of the ‘small-sided’ game, whether it be in practice or competitive mode, should provide a method conducive for learning whilst simulating the actual game as realistically as possible; … what’s the point of practising unrealistically, surely it’s wasting precious time and effort!

Players of all ages want to enjoy their practice time. Nothing gives players more ‘fun’ than playing the game. Coaches must appreciate the need to change from ‘un-real, to real’ practice methods if they want to both improve their players and provide a cordial atmosphere in which to work.

At PREMIER SKILLS COACHING LTD we believe we have achieved the balance between learning and enjoying learning. Our programs, from junior to senior levels, are based on combining the important qualities associated with street football of the past with a modern approach to teaching and learning of the game.


 John Cartwright (UEFA `A’)

Over 40 years of experience as a player and coach.  John has been technical director for the English PFA and academy director at Crystal Palace.  He has coached for England at youth level and been a first team coach at Arsenal. John is a co-founder of Premier Skills Coaching LTD.

One thought on “Realistic Practices

  1. I cannot believe there has been no comments to this article. The points made hit the very foundations of our failure to produce highly talented players in large numbers. The lack of quality within the coaching framework in this country is astounding and yet we allow it to continue and provide certification for mediocrity throughout the whole development process.
    Coaches. wake up! This great game deserves better than what’s been ‘dished up’ in the past and has historically failed generation after generation of young players in this country.

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