By John Cartwright

For years coaching here has relied on the use of Phase-play as a method for teaching specific situations or ‘slots’ in the game. These phases, be they for the use of an individual or a small group, are constructed by the coach to familiarize players with either individual situations or aspects of team-play. I feel that this type of coaching practice has several flaws and is unlikely to produce satisfactory improvements, in either individual or team performance.


 I believe Phase-play methods are simply a carry-over of the structured development methods used here when coaching skills and movements for the game. This method of isolating a situation and then practising it as a singular ‘slot’ in play, does not satisfy the important playing ingredients of realistic continuity in the game. There are two specific faults with Phase-play practice:

1. It does not involve enough playing situations prior to or beyond the actual phase of play under scrutiny.

2. The recognition of a Phase-play situation and acting on it successfully in the competitive ‘heat’ of a match is highly unlikely.

Staged restart situations are more likely to prove successful from Phase-play practice, but more fluid and open play situations tend to be less so simply because they are more difficult to construct or recognize in a competitive atmosphere.

 I have always believed that an on-the-ball situation developing in one area of the field derives from what has occurred in the area from which the ball came and is dependant on the actions of players in the area(s) into which the ball may go. Phase-play often limits practice to singular situations, thus reducing more expansive options that may be available to players. 

Restricting game-flow opportunities from area to area to players in practice is not the way to develop spontaneity, integration and game variations in those players during competitive match-play.

The movement of the ball and players through def/mid/att. areas of the field with the conclusion of a goal is what the game is about. Movement of players as well as the ball through these areas requires ability, concentration, timing and game understanding. Combined practice through these areas that offers players a total look at all the possibilities, options and needs is what is required if we are to develop the quality of player that can play at the highest levels.  Because of the competitive nature of football, the matter of interference to the flow of the game is a vital issue if success is to be achieved by both the individual and the team. Whether in att. or def. mode players must be capable of making and changing decisions on situations speedily and correctly.  Unless players follow a development program based on realistic practice involving playing alternatives and options and forces changes of decisions to be made as happens in a game, it could quite easily be said that the practice time is wasted.

Phase-play practice resembles the methods used in the theatre when a Director wishes to modify or change a section in the performance; he/she reconstructs the section in question, it is rehearsed and included in the next performances. This may be suitable for the theatre where action prior to the newly learned ‘slot’ and action immediately after it remain unchanged, but it does not satisfy the needs of a game that requires the immediacy of choices and responses to situations that are never exactly the same. The reliance on pre-determined practice methods and ‘straight-line’ thinking has produced ‘straight-line’ players who can only play ‘straight-line football’. The use of unrealistic practice has been at the forefront of our football decline and Phase-play practice is yet another example of the orderly, classroom mentality that dominates our coaching; — organisation and simplicity are preferred to spontaneity and skill!

A ‘chicken and egg’ situation (what comes first?) is evident in our game; is it, poor individual skill that needs a simplistic playing style, or has a simplistic playing style only required poor skill levels to play it?

 Either way the result has proved a disaster for our game. From the teaching of individual skill to group and team instruction, coaching here has taken individual fantasy from the game and replaced it with combined futility.

Until we open our minds and subsequently our coaching methods, we will continue to produce football mediocrity and have the audacity to call it football greatness!



  1. This is an article that has long been needed.
    Choreographed “starting positions” for practices develop a miniscule understanding of a particular moment of the practice.That moment MAY not occur in many games.I have worked with and observed a great number of potentially terrific young coaches here in the UK and Ireland.They need to be mentored by the likes of your self John (as I have been fortunate to experience ) and I,m sure they and the game would reach the heights it/they are capable of.Thanks for another terrific post

    • I agree totally with the above post and feel that this has been what’s been missing in my own coaching methodology. Altogether, while running albeit mediocre sessions, the necessity to relate this continuously to the game as a whole, including the important transition from losing and receiving the ball is as essential as ever. As a young coach, I believe this is what is severely missing with the FA’s proposed methodology at Level Two and beyond. Look at how F.C Barcelona played against Arsenal, given not only their constant precision, individuality and skill level, but also the level of intensity they exert when the ball is lost. This pressing game, coined by Rinus Michels and Cruyff as the vital six seconds of transition is one of many reasons for their continued success and relative dominance in European football. In Xavi’s interview a few weeks back on this very website, he explained the need for a game as simple as piggy in the middle (with no stops) as paramount in developing a players mentality and you can see that Guardiola demands this from all of his squad.
      I generally believe Premier Skills bring this all to the forefront and as a result, is groundbreaking stuff.
      Many Thanks John.

  2. Another good blog John and I totally agree. I have never agreed with phase of play practices simply because they are totally un-realistic as football is a sport/game with complexity and constantly flows because of what the players do, have done and will do.
    The decision/action of a player/s determines what will happen and ultimately the destiny of the next moment and the next and so on… Games are hardly the same and this is what makes football so popular, its unpredictability. So why coach players to do a certain action/decision in the same area always when that area in every game will always presents another situation or a different problem.
    Rather like life we can’t plan certain actions/decisions we make – but when we have made a mistake the chances are we will try to correct a mistake however the next opportunity won’t be the same as the previous so we have to be flexible and spontaneous.
    With the FA announcing a revamp to youth football with 5 a-aside to 7 a-side to 9 a-side etc… people all of a sudden think England have a change in mentality and grassroots football will improve and therefore compete by putting in structure similar to other nations. However there was no mention of the coaching philosophy, ethos, vision or teaching coaches how to coach. It’s all well and good having 9-a-side, but just because the game has been reduced will not prevent coaches from doing drills, unopposed practices and phases of play for 11 year olds, who essentially want to express themselves and experiment with the ball.
    Thanks John for this blog.

  3. Hi DAV. Thanks for your comments. I watch so much football in this country at ALL LEVELS and it is frightening to see the poor standard of both individual and team play that is being served up. Unless more bravery and invention is applied to the teaching and playing of the game here, we will continue to develop players with minimum standards and not the highest qualities success requires.

  4. Posted by Dav Dhillon –
    “However there was no mention of the coaching philosophy, ethos, vision or teaching coaches how to coach.”

    Sorry Dav, this simply isn’t true. The new approach to coaching beig proffered by the FA does exactly this – it sets out a philosophy of how young players need to be coached – from the PLAYERS perspective not the coaches. Using small games, rather than line drills, practices which allow players to self correct whilst having lots of goes at the skills needed in the game are exactly what the FA is promoting.

    It is easy to keep having a pop at the FA for what they USED to do – speak to coaches who have undertaken the new youth awards. Speak to the grassroots coaches like myself who research the best ways to be a coach / teacher (yes teacher, for that is what it is).
    The use of the principles of TGfU and Problem Based Learning are all elements that a large number of grassroots coaches will at least have heard of these days(and certainly a lot of people whom I personally know and speak to about coaching) as well as striving to use such methods in order to help develop creative and adventurous players – all education that is currently being offered by the FA.

    As I’ve said before, are they perfect – probably not – but don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap that you accuse the FA of being – stuck in the past – they are not and I know some excellent coach educators who are anything but ‘old school’.

    We may not get the coaching revolution referred to above, but, believe me when I say I am witnessing a coaching EVOLUTION every single day.

  5. Thanks for your comments Steve. I’m also a football coach and I too have been on the new FA courses. These courses do promote a different approach to the other courses. However I still don’t believe a vision has been devised.

    If there was a new vision why are there 2 different coach education pathways? It’s true that I’m quick to have a pop at the FA, however they have spent a hell of a lot of money in the last 10-15 years and people have been making a noise about how coaching needs to change and the general belief was they were not listening. And all of a sudden these new courses pop up and it makes things ok. People start going on these courses and the FA pocket more money as they are now able to please more coaches. If there was a real shift in vision/belief there would be a single pathway, a single vision.

    I have heard Trevor Brooking mention how the new courses will help the future game by encouraging/teaching children to use the ball and play football from the back like the Brazilians, Spanish, Dutch, Germans etc… This is what worries me, Brazil, Spain, Holland, Italy, Argentina, Germany don’t have the same vision as each other, they have their own vision.

    Most nations have an individual vision that must have a cultural link. Brazilians love to manipulate the ball in a great variety of ways. There has to be a cultural reason for this? The Argentineans love to produce players who love the gambeta (the dribble) but don’t really produce/or use effective full backs like Brazil. We could go on with the different philosophies but in my opinion everyday culture must influence a nation’s football vision.

    How do we implement a new vision when there are 2 coaching pathways and when we as a nation have the belief we have the god given right to be the best at everything? If there is a coaching evolution happening due to these new courses then we will see evidence of this in 20 years or so when English players know how to treat the ball and know how to use and create space at a World Cup Tournament.

  6. Posted by Dav Dhillon on February 27, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks for your comments Steve. I’m also a football coach and I too have been on the new FA courses. These courses do promote a different approach to the other courses. However I still don’t believe a vision has been devised.

    Well then, I will have to disagree entirely – the vision of how to coach young players is definitely included – I’m not sure why you think otherwise? There is no defined approach to the way the game MUST be played, I’ll grant you, but isn’t the point that the ‘direct play’ approach from the 70s to the 90s was somewhat discredited as being too prescriptive and not fluid enough? You can’t have it both ways !

    If there was a new vision why are there 2 different coach education pathways?

    There are two coaching pathways for specific reasons, currently. One is historical and provides a standard recognition of coaching ability to at least a minimum ability. It’s about a means of recognising if a coach who is to be certified as a teacher understands certain aspects of the game sufficiently well to be able to coach it to others. In essence, this is about the coach. Aspects of the ‘traditional’ courses are being evolved to include elements from the new Youth Awards as a means of educating coaches to another way.
    The second reason, as I see it, is that it will take time to evolve a whole new raft of coaching qualifications which contain all the new content and which will also be “recognised” officially by other associations

    The sec It’s true that I’m quick to have a pop at the FA, however they have spent a hell of a lot of money in the last 10-15 years and people have been making a noise about how coaching needs to change and the general belief was they were not listening.

    Well, they obviously have been listening (and researching and devising a different approach) so don’t criticise because they ARE changing if you are critical before that they WEREN’T changing – again, you can’t have it both ways ! Also, they make money from coaching courses – so what? Education costs money – should it be free just because the FA produce it? Do Universities provide education for free? Of course not

    And all of a sudden these new courses pop up and it makes things ok.

    Well, the courses haven’t just “popped up” as you say – it has taken years of research, effort and development. No new course on any subject ever just ‘pops up’.

    People start going on these courses and the FA pocket more money as they are now able to please more coaches.

    Well, I go on lots of courses – the FA’s for sure as they are the governing body in this country, but also others. Premier Skills, to name one. Should I not spend my money then and should I expect that education for free or completely disregard one approach over another? Not if I have an open mind !

    If there was a real shift in vision/belief there would be a single pathway, a single vision.

    Again, I disagree entirely – there is no one right way to teach/learn/ educate. There are multiple facets to the process. To pretend that there is only one way is, I would suggest is naïve.

    I have heard Trevor Brooking mention how the new courses will help the future game by encouraging/teaching children to use the ball and play football from the back like the Brazilians, Spanish, Dutch, Germans etc… This is what worries me, Brazil, Spain, Holland, Italy, Argentina, Germany don’t have the same vision as each other, they have their own vision.

    SIR Trevor Brooking does not say we have to be the Brazilians, Germans etc. What he says is THEY have a way of playing and whilst we should be aware of their preferences we should not lose sight of what makes us what we are. For example, I know our ‘never give up’ attitude / approach is much admired by the Dutch.

    Most nations have an individual vision that must have a cultural link. Brazilians love to manipulate the ball in a great variety of ways. There has to be a cultural reason for this? The Argentineans love to produce players who love the gambeta (the dribble) but don’t really produce/or use effective full backs like Brazil. We could go on with the different philosophies but in my opinion everyday culture must influence a nation’s football vision.

    So long as it doesn’t rely purely on ‘Direct Play’ which is what we have criticised for years…..right??

    How do we implement a new vision when there are 2 coaching pathways and when we as a nation have the belief we have the god given right to be the best at everything?

    I don’t believe we do….any more. Grassroots coaches are making strides to be the best they can be so that they can encourage the players. We clearly are NOT the best (and only were, briefly, once !) and hence open minded people are making changes in an effort to strive to be better and which MAY lead us, at some point in the future, to be the best. But if we don’t try, we won’t know.

    If there is a coaching evolution happening due to these new courses then we will see evidence of this in 20 years or so when English players know how to treat the ball and know how to use and create space at a World Cup Tournament

    This is true – I may still be alive to see whether it works or not. But don’t continue in a blinkered criticism of an FA you want to provide changes when it is trying to change. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.
    Alternatively, of course, you could always devise your own set of courses which add value rather than just criticising someone else’s efforts to make a positive change.

  7. PS Dhav, sorry, couldn’t find a way to differentiate the text on my response from your original post so it may not be so easy to follow as it would otherwise

  8. The FA have produced, presented and issued certification to their coaching courses since they became responsible for coach education back in the late 1940s under Sir Walter Winterbottom. At no time up to the present, except for the period under Charles Hughes’ reign as Technical Director who, unfortunately, introduced ‘Direct Play’ methodology into coaching, has any person as head of the FA’s Coaching Dept. provided a suitable national playing vision for our game. To this day, for the FA to produce coaching programs without first establishing a playing vision to aspire to, is illogical and confusing to say the least– ‘A REAL CART BEFORE THE HORSE JOB’ for sure!!! I’ve yet to discover anyone who can find their way when they don’t know where they want to go — NO DESTINATION EQUALS NO ROUTE POSSIBLE!! Seems simple logic to me, but something our national association seems unable to work out–TO GREAT COST IN TERMS OF COACH AND PLAYER WASTAGE AND CONTINUED DISCREDIT TO OUR GAME.

  9. Coach,

    Could you provide a few examples of how you would implement your ideas in a practice situation. Thank you.

  10. Hi JIM. All practices should be as near to the realistic game situation as possible. According to what you are attempting to work on, arrange your practice area into equal thirds or quarters. The aspect or (phase) that you are attempting can then begin from a supporting area, then into the area in which the situation is under scrutiny and then on to or back to either of the other areas according to the way the practice develops. Once the practice is started each player involved must adjust and move as the situation requires — as happens in the real game and the practice should be allowed to continue until the ball is dead. At this point it is the coach’s reponsibility to make any necessary remarks etc. to the players before restarting the practice from another situation that allows the problem under the spotlight to be re-tested again. Variables in options that occur during the practice must be allowed to be taken by players. It is vital that players respond individually to all situations and are ready to adapt quickly and not simply respond to drilled and manufactured practice requirements. The movement of both ball and players into and out of areas of the game must be less structured than at present in order to produce inventive and imaginative players able to play in game-styles that are more attractive and effective.

  11. It is clear from the posted comments that John Cartwright’s blog on ‘phase of play’ coaching strikes a cord with many people who are involved in coaching at all levels.
    In September 2010 I passed the Level 3 (UEFA ‘B’) FA Coaching Certificate after 2 years and i had to work my socks off to get it.As well as the actual course that i was on I went as a guest to as many other Level 3 courses as I could and assessment days in order to see as many sessions as possible to be clear in my mind as to what was required.Finally last September I was successful in getting the award at the third assessment attempt.
    Whilst I was working on the level 3 I also did modules 1 and 2 of the new FA Youth Award.On one of these courses the instructor said to us all to prepare a session for the players we coach to put it on with the other members of the course.Everybody on the course worked with different ages and varying abilities but almost all at ‘grassroots’.I said to the instructor that i was currently doing the Level 3 course and consequently it was players of 16 years plus who i was particularly working on in order to get as much experience as possible of doing Level 3 work in preparation for my assessments.So I said to the instructor on this Youth Module – “shall I do a phase of play practice?” He looked at me and said – “have you ever known any player who enjoys being coached in a phase of play?”
    Basically,it was becoming apparent that the FA themselves did not believe in the phase of play approach and gradually i heard rumblings that “it was not the real world”.
    There became the scenario that there were 2 worlds – the world of the FA courses,which were “not the real world”, and the real world back at your club,school etc which is where you were actually taking your qualification if you were successful.
    So there we have it – the unreal world of the standard FA courses or the chummy,happy-clappy nature of the FA’s Youth Modules.
    To put my own situation clearly on the line: I have coached in adult/older youth football at reasonably high standard grassroots level for many years.I did find the Level 3 course of considerable benefit in improving my ability to ‘see the picture’ of what was going wrong,both on the training pitch and in match play,and ‘painting a new picture’ for the players of how the picture should be.To me that is what the Level 3 course is about and that is why it is a big jump from Level 2.
    However,as the instructor on the Youth Module intimated,the method of stopping the practice to move the players about and paint the picture is not popular with players at any level or age group in my experience.
    From what I have done so far the Levels 1 and 2 of Premier Skills are enormously superior to those corresponding levels offered by the FA and its Youth Award.I have not yet seen very much of the of the Level 3 of Premier Skills to really comment on a comparison with the FA’s Level 3.With older players I actually work very closely from the coaching books of Tony Carr and the late journalist/coach Eric Batty, but i realise that the drill practice element of those approaches will not be consistent with the Premier Skills methodology.I must wait for the opportunity to do a Level 3 Premier Skills course before commenting on that.
    I am sure that everyone who has done Levels 1 and 2 of Premier skills can see a much clearer pathway in the coaching route than that being offered by the FA,for all its constant changes.

  12. Hi and once again intersting comments from Steve in relation to the FA and their practices. The one thing that runs through a lot of the postings from John C and Roger is the emphasis on the idea that the FA don’t have a playing vision with the exception of Charlie Hughes and of course this is correct.

    To put it in perspective we have even a less of a vision in New Zealand whereby coaches produce substandard football with no real thought to preparation involving clear build up play. One could go on. I want to mention one thing and Steve Haslam who writes on here will totally verify what I am about to say and it is that teh best of the foreigners do infact at some point in their training use movement (shooting )combinations which might be called drills to establish an idea or pattern and focuus on the half turn, spiinning, joining, lay-offs, balls in, clear cut backs etc.

    And whilst this might seem to be in isolation to the game the practice at some point is utilsed in the fluid game situation. And with young players the concept of painting a picture is important to imbed the idea in the minds of developing players.

    The great Eric Batty- told us – in the early 60s he watched teh great helenio herrrera of Inter Milan work on a full pitch with two goalkeepers – one at each end Luis Suarez in midfield and Sandro Mazzola partnered up front by Piero and all they did was this. The gk found suarez in midfield who either set it up to a front men and got it back or they scissored and he knocked the long ball and finished unopposed with a shot. They readjusted and worked on the same combination going the other way.

    Now if drills/combinations are used to estabalished a certain pattern in attack for example with great players witness Suarez and Mazzola then maybe they have a place with lesser players!

    I just believe you need both the Pemier skills method and the combined team movements because players do not necdessarily natural know when to run and where to run off the ball.

    I know for example that Carlos Alberto Parreira did movement practices because I saw it in the flesh at Valencia.

  13. The coach must ‘PAINT THE PICTURE’ of what he/she expects from a practice along with possible variations. These variations must be introduced into the work to satisfy any difference in repeating the initial ‘PICTURE’. The importance of interference in practice must not be overlooked and the ability of players to recognize how such interference can cancel or delay a movement. We must be able to create players who are able to recognize whole situations and not simply parts. In order for this to be achieved, players must assess — their own space availability/ and that of the player on the ball–the delivery options of the player on the ball–timing of runs short to feet/long to space — types of ball receipt—team support and linkage–individual play opportunities. Coaches must understand that a practice area is not a classroom for a single subject to be taught, it is a space that allows for diversity and invention; an ‘arena’ in which fantasy can be an actuality and not just a dream. The practice area is a place where ‘football Princes’/princesses are born; the stadiums are where they are ‘crowned’! And you, the coach/teacher, must have the keys (IDEAS) to create this abundance of rich talent for our game.
    If we are to produce talented players our coaching methods must provide them with the fast minds and adaptability that is the hallmark of players of top quality. We have continued along the path of over-organization in coaching for too long and the result has been a ‘production line’ of mediocrity unable to adjust to the requirements of top-level football.
    Allow practices to ‘roll’ and encourage variations to the obvious. When we produce players capable of thinking ‘outside of the square’ we will start to be real contenders for major honors —— and not ‘hyped’ pretenders!

  14. I am not sure whether you responded John to what I was saying, however, Steve haslam stated that he does practics from the work of Eric Batty and Tony Carr – with whom I wrote the first book.

    Eric’s book ‘Soccer Coaching the Modern way’ incidently is on the shelf at the Italian coaching centre – an italian translation – in Coverciano outside Forence. I took a photocopy of the cover when I was there. His book has some derivitives from the great Hungarians of 51-56 -Puskas, Kocsis et al. And was influenced I believe by one of Sebes’ deputies Geza Kolocsai.

    In most of my training with senior players I encourage practices to ‘roll’ as John suggests but having been influenced by Eric, John Lyall and John C himself – and seen JC do combination type work in the past ( written in my notebooks) I subscribe to a mix of Practice/Play Premier Skills and the combined team activity developed by the likes of Greenwood and Herrera.

    If it is good enough for Parreira to do movement work with the likes of Romario, good enough for Capello with Baresi etc, good enough for Greenwood with Keegan and so on etcetra etcetera then it is good enough for me with lesser players to PAINT THE PICTURE.

    Players like to shoot, so instead of the traditional very old style of a simple lay off and shoot throw in a liitle combination working off a simple set up and spin or a 3rd man run with a cut back etc and players will get something out of it.

    It may well be valid that working with amateurs a couple of times a week that most of our work should be of the Practice/Play variety however, I am standing by the great work done by Tony Carr which is representative of John Lyall and the genius of Ron Greenwood as being a totally legitimate way of working that can add intelligence of movement to the technical quality of players.

  15. Out of interst John has complained about the lack of discussion/comment on here so I am doing my best to get people thinking because Premier Skills is a wonderful programme of work and John a superb practioner as is Roger Wilkinson.

  16. Hi Stuart. Thanks for showing an interest in the ‘blog’. I have seen all of the people work who you have mentioned and they are or were all fine coaches. However, times change things and although emphasizing something within the game of a senior player or team who already have a playing expertise is fine and may be transferable into a competitive game, it has become obvious to all who watch football that players have become too regimented in their responses to situations. Individual ‘flair’ has been almost excluded from the game here (as well as in many other cuntries) and practice methods have been the cause. Modifications to old and established ways are part and parcel of progress. The game is crying out for invention and skill, that is why i’m trying to create new ways to extend and improve practice and make it fit the needs of both realistic game requirements as well as ‘produce’ exciting players to play it.
    The past is past, the future of the game is in desperate need of inspirational thinkers and brave coaches ready to alter established coaching ideas and deliver players who have game understanding to fulfil their teams’ tactical needs, but also have the extra quality of unpredictability in their game.

    • I know I’m late into this discussion, but I’m a big fan of the Premier Skills philosophy and see the value in it and so I read through the archives regularly. Reading this thread has caused a light bulb to switch on in my head and I wonder what people will think of it. I’m American and I’ve lived over in the UK for about 8 years now which means a lot of the everyday normal occurences of UK culture stick out like a sore thumb to me because they are so different to what I’ve experienced. The same way British people pick out things in America that I never thought about like the fact that we never leave the country or we call the baseball championship the World Series despite it being limited to our league never occurred to me until I came over to the UK. One of the things I love about Premier Skills is that there is a clear philosophy and a logical progressive methodology to implement it. You have said many times yourself John that football is about individuals combining together when necessary and I think that in itself is the secret why England struggle internationally. I think you are right in your belief of the importance of flair and individuality being expressed by players on the pitch. What’s more frightening than a team of 11 players who can all beat a man 1v1?!!!

      One of the things I’ve observed about the culture here is that it is a bad thing to stick out. If you are too good or too bad at something, people will criticise you calling you arrogant if you’re too good or rubbish etc if you’re too bad. I often joke to my English wife that the best thing you can do in England is keep the status quo. It’s been my observation that you’re not good at being good. An interview with an English footballer after they’ve done something spectacular (such as Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick against City) will show you that as they’ll usually say something along the lines of how fortunate they were that it went in and almost have an embarrassment at really appreciating they did something remarkable. One of the readers above talked about how much culture plays a part in the football played which I believe to be true as well. Reading football history and seeing how the game grew and changed makes it very difficult to conclude that culture doesn’t have a major impact in a country’s playing philosophy. I’m just wondering from my own observations if perhaps a major contributor to the lackluster football played over here is down to a fear instilled by the culture. I love the title of your book Football for the Brave for that exact reason and you often talk about playing without fear John. I’m just posing a question/thought to anyone that cares to respond about how important the environment we create as coaches is to allow for bravery and individuality. It will, of course, be impossible to change the culture of the country, but I do wonder if the culture of the country has played a massive part in the lack of individualism. I would hopefully like to highlight the need for coaches to not ignore the massive psychological aspect involved in coaching players to be great individually.

      I believe in the PS philosophy as I’ve said before and I think the lack of an identified playing philosophy is a huge part of the problem as to why England aren’t producing world class talent like the rest of nations, but I do wonder if there is something more to it. I can’t believe that everywhere else in the world has a massively better methodology and yet they still produce top class players. So, what is it? I’m just posing the question. I’d be curious to hear any one else’s or your (John) thoughts.

      • On the subject of individual ability and a teams ability.
        I think we put a wrong focus when talking about individual skills.
        We’re talking as if individual skills form a good team, when it obviously does’nt. It can, but it’s sertainly not a rule imo.
        There are teams consisting of nothing but world class players, but without performing at all.
        Man City?
        What I strongly believe in is that we need to turn things around.
        Not “individual -> good team”
        But instead
        “team -> good individuals”
        Look at FCB.
        Sure they have world class players, but they also have players that would never be interesting for a club like i.e Man City.
        Yet, these players (Montoya, Pedro, Tello to name a few) can start in FCB in CL against Real Madrid or Man City and perform really really good football.
        What I think is the reason is that every single individual in FCB understand, respect and accept the teams way of play.
        Zlatan Ibrahimovic was’nt bad in Barcelona, yet, they sold him cause he did’nt “suit” the team.
        Same goes for this season with major injuries to key defenders such as Pique and Puyol, media quickly started to speculate who FCB was going to buy in the next transfer window.
        The FCB President said that they will not buy a defender, cause it will have a negative effect on the development of young defender Bartra.
        He also said that a new player need time to adapt, and that the groups structure have to be maintained rather than buying a “world class” defender.
        I think this is a very healthy way of seeing things.
        Good group structure, and a group that understand, respect and accept the way of play will act as a solid base for individuals to shine.
        Look as Messi.
        Why is he so good in FCB, but not at the same level (he’s still good) when playing for his country.
        I think the teams solid structure and the ability of every single player to put the team first is supporting Messi to perform at the level he does.
        Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that a high individual skill is required to perform like FCB does and have done for the last 7-8 years, but the reason why they are much better compared to other teams with a similar or even higher skilled set of players is directly related to.
        1. Group dynamics
        2. Put the team first in all situations
        What’s always amazes me is how good they are at playing according to the principles of the game.
        Just look at a “map” over the principles of football while watching FCB, and it’s obvious that “Tiki Taka” is’nt a filosofy.
        It’s nothing but pure football according to the principles of the game.
        Hold that same “map” and watch a Man City game, and the difference is obvious.

        Sorry for bad english.

  17. The majority of methods used by coaches to develop football skills in our young children consist primarily of skill drills with lots of repetition of the skill to be learned. This is done on the notion that as a child first attempts to learn a new skill, the body begins to lay down a neuromuscular or motor pattern of the movement that the player can access whenever he plays football. The young player, in terms of skill acquisition, is viewed as a motor pattern learner and so the theory goes, by repeating or practicing the movement or skill, the pattern eventually becomes engrained into the players neuromuscular football related arsenal of skills. Possibly the coach may have demonstrated the technique to be learned.

    There are several problems with this very common approach. The first problem arises when the player has to use the skill in the ever changing environment of real football play. Techniques learned by the player on their own usually don’t transfer into effectiveness in match play or games. WHY? Because essentially the player has to relearn the skill (almost from scratch) within the ever exchanging context of playing the game.

    Consequently it makes you wonder whether the skill would have been better developed within the game context in the first place in order to minimise the transfer time. Secondly and perhaps most importantly this motor programme approach grossly underestimates the abilities of children to learn highly complex movements quickly if given the correct environment & stimuli. Furthermore, by trying to duplicate the demonstrated movements of the coach, the player-learner will be less likely to experiment and find their own ways of manipulating their body (and the ball) in order to be successful on the pitch. History shows that the best players developed their own way of playing and being skilful.

    By playing hours of conditioned ssg and the coach using Q&As,giving nuggets of information, the children develop a real understanding of the game. Physiologically, performing successful skills in football is a highly complex task involving coordination, strength, spatial awareness, body control in the context of the immediate challenge facing the player. To young players, each of these challenges is unique and the children need as much game play as possible to decipher game situations and find solutions using their new skills their own way.
    (Rick Fenoglio, Sports scientist at Manchester University)

  18. I can understand John’s adherance to the method he has created as a throw-back to the old fashioned and almost lost ‘street football’ whereby players learnt awareness of time and space which is crucial in the game. This is understandable as he has for a few years now totally sided with his concept.

    I have been on Premier Skills courses and also remember watching John work at Charlton and like many can vouch for his brilliance as a coach.

    I can understand his frustration of the technical level of the average British player in relation to the foreign player, many of whom are still involved in a form of street football during the important formative years. This frustration is ten-fold in New Zealand because the technical level is poor amongst the domestic population. Furthrermore, many senior players – playing at a reasonable level – lack basic game understanding and fluency of both control/touch/ball manipulation etcetra.

    I wrote the ‘Youth Soccer Coaching’ with Tony Carr in 1996 and in a sense it was tribute to the work West Ham had been doing over many years. They were for a long time praised for playing a different way to most of the English teams and produced some top class players/and football because of the philosophy instilled by the management.

    I am siding with John in terms of his method of Practice/Play because of the time/space conundrum whihc affects our football significantly and witnessing a young Brazilian of 19 at my club, you can see he has this and is at such a different level than the Kiwi boys as his football was developed in Port Alegre.

    My argument is that to establish an idea such as getting on the half turn and incoporating it into a combined movement this type of game understanding can be developed through a shooting combination. It does not have to take up all the practice session. In fact most can be Practice/Play but it has a part to play, so by John dismissing totally out of hand this type of work with average players I think is a tad unfortunate. Tony Carr in the introduction of the 1996 book ( he subsequently wrote one in 2005 – still incorporating drills amongst other game practices said,” I only gradually add opposition to the drills, so that players can learn what is termed a ‘one-and-two-touch passing game’ before confronting the difficulties of dealing with opposition.” I think we can all agree that Barcelona are predominantly a one-and-two-touch passing team; with of course superb ball manipulation and screening skills.Tony of course does a lot of his work in game situations with the time/awareness factor coming out BUT does a mix of practices.

    My experience is that shooting combinations can teach and idea, help produce understanding of movement – such as two strikers scissoring – and be enjoyable. Then opponents can be added to get a reponse from the attacking players, because fundamentally you have to react to what the opponents do.

    John talks about modifications yet Practice/Play is a radical overhaul I would suggest. Furthermore, the type of work West ham did and do is not especially aligned to much criticised English FA anyway. I think saying the ‘past is the past’ and dismissing it, is rather over-stating it. John will know from his own experience surely when playing against West ham Youth teams with clubs like Charlton that they often play quality football. I think of the team that beat Coventry in the two-lgged final of the Youth Cup with Joe Cole, Michael Carrick in their ranks as a very good Youth Side. Steve Haslam who is a regular contributer to the blogs on here tells me that Tony is till producing quality teams and players. Steve himself has admittd on here – and he is a strong advocate of Premie Skills – that he uses practices from Eric Batty, Tony Carr and from a wide range he has seen from training grounds in the UK and Europe.

    I myself work with my players in terms of Practice/Play but I keep an open mind to other possiblities and will continually back the type of work developed by Ron Greenwood because as I was once told if you can do it one touch the opposition almost become superfulous. And at the highest level of the game it often is one-touch so that you can find the extre space for Messi types to run with the ball.

    The beauty of this blog is opinion, however all of us advocating invention and skill are delighted that John is pioneering/ pioneering/promoting a method that at its heart has the

  19. Completion of previous blogging:

    The beauty of this blog is opinion, however all of us advocating invention and skill are delighted that John is pioneering/ promoting a method that at its heart has the essential element of the past – that of ‘street football – ‘streetwise football!’

  20. Thanks Dave and Stuart for your interest. My concerns about coaching methods used so extensively here and in many other countries goes back a long time. They say unless one has experienced something personally it is difficult to fully understand it. My own introduction to the game was in the streets and on the debris of the war-ravaged East End of London and in the refined space of my school playgrounds. Playing on grass on football size areas occured very, very occasionally, and when it did, the space available made the game seem like ‘a walk in the park’– it was so easy! The football qualities i acquired in these ‘Practice/Playing’ situations provided me with the ability to reach Schoolboy and Youth international levels and full Professional status with selection to First Team football AT 17 YEARS OF AGE. This was achieved with only the minimun amount of coaching when i reached 16 years of age. The street had been my football ‘Academy’.
    My problems playing the game began when coaching frowned on the individualism i possessed and provided me with information that was both incorrect and too orderly and structured. THE TEAM BECAME THE DOMINANT FACTOR AND NOT THE INDIVIDUALS WHO MAKE UP THE TEAM. Almost overnight i lost the ability to see and exploit opportunities that had once been so natural — what had been so easy now became so hard. Instead of coaching opening the door, it slammed it shut and i followed the route so many youngsters take —– the road to mediocrity and obscurity!
    Dave, as you have written, the importance of realistically ‘DOING’ something allows for adaptations and variations to be made to suit the complex nature of the game. THIS IS WHAT PRACTICE/PLAYING IS ALL ABOUT –THE REALISTIC ‘DOING’ OF THE GAME IN PRACTICE. REALISM IN PRACTICE PROVIDES A SMOOTHER INTRODUCTION INTO THE COMPETITIVE MATCH—–IT’S STREET FOOTBALL IN A MODERN CONTEXT. IT’S DOING WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE!

  21. If you look at the flow charts,or ‘coaching pathway’ as they are termed,which have been produced by the Football Association you will see that a professional footballer can start “doing his badges” at the Level 3 (UEFA ‘B’) stage.In other words,Levels 1 and 2 are not obligatory to him as they are to any one outside the pro game (i.e.the grassroots level).
    Herein i believe lies the enoromous difference between the Football Association Coaching Scheme and the Premier Skills methodology.In the Premier Skills each level links with the previous one.’Staying with the ball’and ‘Passing and receiving’ are in each level from Level 1 to Level 5.You could not go into Premier Skills Level 3 if you had not done and thoroughly understood and had considerable practical experience of coaching the work of Levels 1 and 2.What the FA seem to be saying is that their levels 1 and 2 are for grassroots coaches in junior clubs,schools,youth clubs etc and let the pros jump all that for the serious stuff from level 3 onwards.
    The way i see it,the Premier Skills approach is an entirely different philosophy and right from the word go it is tackling the problems and defficiencies in our game rather than the cosmetic, game-orientatated approach of the FA.

  22. Very interesting comments for a “lay person” like myself; many thanks to everyone. Do you all agree that part of the major English problem has been the poor quality education at all levels? Few our top stars were scholars of the game and were taught to analyse & coach from a young age. There is a peculiar English culture of relying on “The Gaffer” rather than thinking for oneself. Is this partly cultural?
    Our former legends still achieved greatness in spite of our system, how? Is it a surprise that “a few” of the 1966 World Cup victors were from Upton Park?!
    Even when I was a lad, top English players were not encouraged to express themselves except the likes of e.g. Hoddle, Waddle, Barnes in the 80s, Gascoigne, McManaman in 90s. (N.B. All revered abroad) In fact isn’t McManaman a living expression of the English problem?! He was simply too good for English football. He was articulate, could think and dribble. Coaches couldn’t understand him, yet in Spain he was almost a God even amongst the Galacticos… It has always felt (to me) that English players almost need a special licence to express themselves i.e. they needed to be a major big shot to do something uncoached, random and unpredictable. Whereas in the modern game all players especially midfielders need to be able to think quickly, innovate, react to tight situations a la Paul Scholes, Xavi, Fabregas. It’s informative that even Xavi almost idolises the maestro Scholes in his interview! Has Wenger in his pursuit of technical football been given enough credit for changing the English game, I think not? After all Arsenal still can’t win a trophy…… Do we expect too much from them given the scale of resources they have to compete against? Why do the FA think it’s OK for ex-pros to jump in at Level 3?! What does it say about their own education?
    Finally, Dalglish & Ferguson were brought up on “street football”; of course they were also taught by total legends. BUT how have they continued to be so successful over many years despite the game moving on? They can’t just be living on their reputation are they?!

  23. Hi Mark. Thanks for your interesting and very analytical comments.
    The point you bring up re: Dalglish and Ferguson really answers all the questions about why they have been successful whilst the British game has deteriorated; the answer is their selection and use of quality individual talent throughout the teams they have managed over the years.
    Barcelona are showing us the error of our sticking to poor coaching and development methods. In ALL positions Pep Guardiola, their coach, has elevated players of quality from their own development ranks or brought in high quality talent from elsewhere.
    I have been fighting for years to make the coaching hierarchy here realize that the design of our coaching methodology and the development methods used here have not nor will not produce players capable of reaching the highest standards in the game. Generation after generation of our young talent have been lost because they have not been taught properly.
    When will those in positions of power within at the FA begin to listen, cast off the fear of change and start to move this country’s football along a sensible and successful path? Will it be in my lifetime? I doubt it!!

  24. John,

    Thanks for responding about implementing your ideas in a practice situation. I appreciate it and will think about ways to employ it in my practices. Regarding the current debate, here in the US, where “street soccer” never existed as far as I can tell, we are very coach-dependent on learning/playing the game. I think that in our case, we must blend the “street soccer” practice of “Let the game teach” with the “skill” or “patterned” approach to develop skillful players. I coach a U7 team, have been coaching since U4, and I try to blend these elements together. They still have a long way to go, but my team has been complimented several times on how they play the game. We still have setbacks here and there, namely aimless boots, etc., but I hope that our practices of blending the free-flow of street soccer with coaching insights and skill direction will create some talented players. Thanks and looking forward to reading more thoughts on improving the current state of soccer/football.


  25. Dave…loved your points from a sports science angle. I too believe the “motor pattern” theory to be seriously flawed. I work a lot with primary school teachers doing PE support with a particular emphasis on invasion games. I have applied the Prem Skills approach to Basketball, Tag Rugby and Handball as well as Football and as well as being always able to “play the game” the children are engaged for a full lesson period which makes even Ofsted purr.
    Drill practice is for the advanced player and is extra homework. I encourage all my players to do “homework” which necessarilly means drill. An aspiring pianist needs to do skales. An aspiring footballer needs to do “motor pattern” stuff but the coach must teach the game in the context of his vision. At grass roots we just don’t have time for detail….personally my vision is to play like Barcelona so we play keep ball every practice night; then we play keep ball for our warm up (25 mins usually) ….then we play keep ball on the pitch and …..funnily enough it works. You get good at what you practice

  26. I think that you need to work very hard to properly understand the Practice/Play philosophy and the methods.When you have spent many years coaching by practices and drills and phase of play methods then it is not easy to change.I have found that it is necessary to repeat the premier Skills courses several times,not just to do a particular course and then move on to the next one.
    After the licence-holders Course in Wolverhampton over the last weekend i am now seeing that when i have been doing the drills/practices approach i have been taking the players by the hand and saying “when this happens then you do this but when that happens then you do that.”The decison making has been taken away from the players by the coach but by Practice/Play the player must make the decisions.Similarly when using drills/practices then there is not the time and space constraint as in practice/play and so the skill development (technique under interference) is not tested as it should be to develop the all-round player.

  27. Hi Steve. It’s not that difficult to understand, for all Practice/Playing is about is using the same realistic situations one used in the streets etc. You learned whilst you played. All this is now re-introduced in a modern context— it’s street football playing and learning again —– and we’ll PRODUCE a production line of TALENTED INDIVIDUALS who can really play the game! Sports’ cars not ‘old bangers’.

  28. I agree with John, the Practice Play work is brilliant in that it is easy to understand and logical. I think what Steve is saying is that there is a lot of detail in the Practice Play work – On the Practice Play courses there is often 7 or 8 sessions worth of detail shown in 1 session (this is obviously because it is not practical to have a Level 1 course that lasts 2 weeks) I think as with any good session/methodology you need to see it 2 or 3 times before you can really appreciate all the detail in it. I know on the course I attended in Wimbledon they told us that after completing the Level 1 course we were allowed to attend any other Level 1 courses free of charge- I thought this was a fantastic idea as it allows you re-enforce what you have seen.

  29. Hi Alex. You have put into words exactly what i meant.I think that I chose my words badly because Practice/Play is not complicated or difficult to understand but like any new idea you want to have a thorough grounding in it and when perhaps you have spent many years working by different methods then repeating courses several times is extremely beneficial.
    On this theme I should like to thank Roger Wilkinson and Sam for the superb course which they put on in Wolverhampton last weekend and i am sure that I speak for everyone else who was on the course.It is clearly the responsibility of everyone who takes the Practice/Play courses to spread the word among their colleagues and coaching associates.This can be done by getting other coaches to take courses but also by having in-house coaching demonstations to impart the methodology to other coaches/managers in the same club or league.
    If everyone takes this responsibilty then Practice/Play can be the vehicle that leads British football out of the dark tunnel in which it has been lost for so long.

  30. I know this is an old post now but the situation regarding the FA not having a clear playing philosophy has now surely been addressed with ‘The Future Game’ books.
    Has the publication of this concise breakdown of a clear English footballing vision, concerning both players and coaches not gone some way towards a positive leap forward for the FA?

    • Dan, in my opinion, yes, it has gone some considerable way towards engaging us all in the future of the English game (no pun intended).

      It’s not the finished article, IMHO – I think it could go even further; but, in the Spirit of positive intent it is just what the doctor ordered.

      I feel that it could be even more proscriptive but I think the genuine coach with knowledge and an enquiring and open mind will be able to join the dots and help us all towards an improved interpretation of the national game. I believe the ‘Grassroots’ version to be the best in which to invest if yours is a grassroots club as a reference point for your coaching “workforce”.

      Premier Skills content on the Practice Play courses (I have done 1 & 2 so far) are very, very good and recommend them. But, so is The Future Game and the FA Youth Award Module courses content. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive and certainly I honestly believe the PP1 & 2 courses to be complimentary to the FA Youth Award Modules, (or vice versa depending on your perspective) especially Module 2 around “Developing the Practice”

      • So it isnt only me then! Lots of posts on here refer to this lack of a playing/coaching vision. Maybe TFG books haven’t been promoted enough?

        I have done the YA mod 1 and 2 and must say I was massively impressed and took a lot of valuable info back to our grassroots club.
        I am looking to do PP1/2 as soon as there is one on near me this year.

  31. Spot on.
    It’s much better to create sessions that involve many aspects, even if you only want to practice one specific aspect.
    By creating a session involving a great number of aspects, will not isolate a specific aspect, however, when that perticular aspect occurs, it’s so much more real, and the session in it self is much more effective.
    Football is about recognizing situations and act from that, not act in a situation you’re “forced” in to. It eliminates every single step leading to a certain aspect of the play, and does’nt help the player to recognize the situation once out on the pitch.

    I do however think that to be able to act properly require a solid base technique. This base technique should be a huge part of the first years for players up to ~8-9 years old. Once the players can control the ball in isolated sessions, we can start to implement opponents and options. Once the base technique and passing is up to standards required to actuall act correctly, the very foundations of the game can be implemented at around 10-11 years old players.
    This is the age where clubs/football associations need to put efforts in form of education and economy to start building players. As it is now, at least in Sweden, the years from 10-11 to 14-15 is almost throwned away due to the clubs not beeing able to put good enough coaches due to a poor economy.
    I’m trying to work my way around this issue in Sweden. Things are going really slow, but some small steps are taken. I’ll keep on fighting.

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