A Model Coach

By Roger Wilkinson

I was watching a tremendous coach the other day. It was interesting the way that every aspect of the practice seemed to seamlessly lead into the next. I analysed the ingredients of his performance that made it so special and these are some of the key factors that I identified.

Managing the group 

The team he worked with were well presented, they were attentive, well turned out and keen to learn. They greeted the coach and their fellow players on arrival and then went in to a warm up zone to knock up against rebound boards for a couple of minutes before starting.  It was obvious that he had set up a strong culture and the players knew exactly what was expected in practice and behaviour wise.

Key factors – Players have to know what is expected of them, their responsibilities and how they fit in to the group on and off the field.  It’s self-evident that before coaching and learning can take place the culture must be established.

Introductory part of the session

He quickly reviewed the outcomes of the last session and then explained the aims and objectives of the current session and then went straight in to the practical work. Every player was involved and he guided the players discovery by introducing the coaching points in a sequence that added one skill on to another. He was very bright in using demonstrations and clever imagery to enhance the players game understanding.

By progressively closing down the area size and space, adjusting the numbers of opposition and increasing the speed of the work he ensured the players were challenged and showed improvement.  He used the first session warm up to inculcate in to the players high level skill.

The special knack he seemed to possess was that whilst coaching he was constantly assessing the player’s improvement and introducing new aspects of the work at the right time when they displayed competence and understanding.  The players always looked comfortable in adding skills and understanding to their game.  I think it was because his coaching position was a couple of metres back from the pitch which enabled him to view and assess all aspects of the practice.

Key factors – Know the detail of the work.  Coach in sequence.  Guide discovery with verbal imagery and realistic demonstrations.  Work hard to assess the learning of every player so that when the time is right you can introduce new detail and challenges.

The middle practice of the session

At the start of this session the coach introduced opposition to make a 4 v 2 in a single 15m x 15m grid situation. It was clever the way he gradually introduced opposition so that the players would be able to recognise how to transfer their skills from the introductory session so gaining confidence and success.

The coach was gently reminding the players how to make their skill link in to the team work needed to protect the ball but gradually added on to the players the understanding of movement and support in order to link their individualism. What struck me was that it was so well thought out and delivered with easy to understand coaching points that the players had no problem linking the tactical work with the earlier developed skills.

The coach then added direction in to the game to make the possession more realistic. It was great the way the kids learnt how to develop positive possession keeping the ball until they created space to run through and create an overload in the other grid.

Key factorsWhen going in to small sided practices introduce the opposition in a gradual way so the players can be successful in confirming their learning and get success before increasing opposition. Extend the practice in to a directional game because it adds the important realism to the session.

The Final Practice of the Session

In this practice the coach played a game 4 v 4 plus 2 floaters .The floaters overloaded the team in possession to enable them to find it easier to successfully  keep possession  and to establish the skills and tactics the coach had developed in the first two practices. The work he had introduced in the first two parts of the session were so real in allowing the youngsters to play effectively with a great understanding of time and space. The coach worked really hard in developing in each player the tactical understanding of how and when to use the skills they had to conjoin as a team and use a football language to communicate their decisions.  I was really impressed with the way he varied the tone of his voice and also used imagery to make an impression on the players.

At the end of the practice he intelligently used question and answer to re confirm all the key learning points he had coached.

Key Factors – Even in the game part of the session gently, in sequence, re affirm the skills and tactics that have been prepared in the previous practices. When preparing a session start from the end game and work backwards.


The coach was an experienced practitioner who had worked at all levels of the game. Every time I watch him I learn something new because he is always re discovering himself and discovering new aspects of the game. I just wanted to share some of the insights I learnt the last the last time I saw him.

Just as importantly the kids being coached were challenged, learnt, improved and enjoyed every part of the session.  That’s probably because from the start every player was involved all the time.

25 thoughts on “A Model Coach

  1. I think this skill set definately comes with alot of experience. By being on both sides of the fence, the coach was able to set his standard and players would have to adhere to that. Its common that players will listen and be more attentive to coaches theyve heard are ‘well linked up’ or by new coaches that theyve never worked with before in the aim of getting scouted.
    Although you say he is rediscovering himself and different angles of the game, the fact that you, fellow coaches and his players are doing the same says alot about him. Im sure his communication skills are very effective and done in various ways in a simple fashion.

  2. The way that Roger Wilkinson describes the session is how I have understood the Practice/Play methodology should be coached and presented to the players. That is, in a progressive and seamless sequence of work.
    The initial stage of level 1 has the coaching area of 7 gates and each player has a ball and must move around the area,avoiding other players by turns and dribbling skills and then looking to go through (penetrating) the gates when they are free of any other players.They must call “running in” as they go through the gate and accelerate as they pass through as they would have to when penetrating the space between two opposing players during the game.
    This is when I have encountered problems, because I have found that many players cannot relate those gates, (formed by cones), to players. I have had difficulty in developing the right pace to the practice because they should be accelerating through those gates, i.e. an increase in pace and then decelerating into a turn and then accelerating out of the turn.
    The problem, I have found, really comes to light in the ‘Small Area Practice’ which follows on from this ‘Small Group Practice’. This is when you play a 3v1 or 4v1 possession game with 3 gates in half the original area and you must go through a gate before passing the ball on. So many players just want to pass the ball, the object of ‘staying with the ball’ to penetrate a gate is just not an instinctive reaction.
    I have experienced this problem with an Under 13 team and I find it
    very worrying. I have concluded that that even at the 12 – 13 age range they have become already conditioned to see football as an exclusively
    passing game and have already lost the sense of individualism. So clearly we must ensure that the Practice/Play concept is presented to children at the youngest age group, (under 7 or lower), so that, first and foremost, the idea of individualism is developed.

    It is very alarming when you find that an Under 13 player has lost the
    element of individualism, but if you consider that if he/she has

  3. (continuation of previous post)……
    possibly played for up to 6 other clubs, in the various age ranges, before coming to your team, then it is not really surprising that the sense of individualism was lost, if the coaching at the other clubs always centred around moving the ball on as soon as you received it.
    It is clear that the Practice/Play method must be presented to children at the youngest age range, Under 7s or below, so that the concept of individualism is introduced and developed right from day one.

  4. (continuation of previous 2 posts)………
    I would be interested to hear any observations from other coaches if you have encountered similar problems and how you set about rectifying them

  5. What do you expect when from the first time they touch a ball every person on the sideline is yelling at them to “kick it” and “get rid of it” every they get the ball (even before they get it). I have college players who try to blurt that nonsense from the sidelines during games – my greatest pet peeve!

    • I try to rectify it by 1) educating parents and players on appropriate sideline communication, 2) encouraging players to dribble and take on opponents in practice and games, 3) incorporating individual ball work in every session to increase players competence and comfort with the ball

  6. Steve-Have you tried to implement a condition where the players have to take say 3 touches before they can pass?

    Roger-Interesting post with plenty of good learning points for us coaches.

  7. Hi all. It seems i will have to introduce everyone to the ‘route finder’ practice. This encourages players’ young and old to remain on the ball and develop the skills of touch and awareness that are essential for the development of individualism and game intellect. Used correctly, all players new to a group or longer term members , can interact quickly and effectively both in the improvement of their their individual skills on the ball as well as i improving their combination qualities.
    So glad to see the interest in practice-playing methodology —remember nothing stays the same, additions and variations to the work are essential over time — even the vision towards which we aspire can be ‘tweaked’ but not corrupted or dismantled. Without a recognizable and attainable focal point, effort becomes simply time consumption and time waits for nobody — so use time efficiently and effectively and give the kids working with you every chance to achieve greatness rather than the mediocrity we see so much of in our game today. Good luck and great coaching!

  8. Dave I,

    Just wondering why you believe the 3 touch rule would work ? when trying to improve individualism in the game why would you put a rule on how many touches they could take, surely that beats the objective of what your trying to achieve. Thats like coaching a long distance runner but telling him he can only run the first 100m, i dont think it honestly works, the aim of individualism is for the player themselves to make necessary decisions on when to pass, run shoot etc, ive watched alot of rogers work and as the coach of a saturday under 16’s side i have done the work produced by roger and john and its proven it works.


    • 3 touch is a minimum NOT A MAXIMUM I wasnt advocating players needing to pass after three touches.

      Three touch works as part of a process of continous improvement where kids are habitually taking only one or two touches.

  9. John Cartwright has stressed continuously on this blog, and elsewhere, the crucial neccessity of a vision. A concept shared by everybody regarding the game-style to be adopted by a team, club or National Association.
    I thought it might be interesting to share the vision which I have submitted to the hierarchy of the Under 13 team which i assist in coaching, using Practice/Play methodology. It would be interesting to hear the views of other coaches and also read their vision if they wish to submit it.

    “The VISION for our team is a possession-based game in which we do not ‘force’ the ball, but when forward advance is not possible we play the ball back to supporting team-mates in order to re-build attacks down other avenues and routes which may demand many passes and high levels of patience.
    We do not give up possession cheaply, or part with the ball hastily, but instead, as a team, we remain in possession and, as individuals, we stay with the ball, for long periods, in order to achieve our aim of dominating the game.
    Our model is FC Barcelona.
    Every player,coach,team assistant and parent associated with ………..FC Under-13s must sign where indicated to show that they agree to buy into this VISION.”

    Any thoughts anybody?

  10. Steve, interesting thought to have everyone physically ‘sign up’ to the Vision.
    We just created / evolved a Vision, Coaching Philosophy and game Style for our club. It is now in printed form and distributed to all coaches / managers. Our Chair is in the throes of cascading to all paying members (parents and players) for the purpose of communicating our approach and its rationale.
    However, I think we may have missed a trick here and I really like the idea of signing parents and players up to the Vision etc in the same way as we get everyone to sign up to our codes of conduct.

    The Vision and Game Style described in the document sounds along the lines of what you have posted above. I think it is important to overtly state that the approach is a “risky” one in terms of results in the short term. That being the case, parents, especially, need to understand that we are trying to teach the young players the game not merely how to win. So signing to say they understand and agree to the approach is a good step, I believe.

    As we have ‘launched’ the document mid-season, we may have to implement the necessary statement into the membership forms for next season – however, we have had no dissenters to the proposed approach at the time of writing this post.

  11. I am interested from his comments to what extent Steve encourages his team to play in the ‘tight.’ Do they for example play very short passes to each other?
    Have they got a false nine in the Messi type role.

    To play in a similar vein do they look to overload or have a mix of that and use a specific formation to outnumber. It is interesting is it not, that Guardiola tweeks his tactical arrangement and sometimes looks like he is going with a nominal back three.

    To what extent does Steve’s team build the game from the back ?? And whilst I am an advocate of Barcelona, theirs is not the way to play, but a way to play. And it may be, that elements of the Barcelona way are incorporated by coaches.

    However, the top-idea that everyone associated with the team buys in by signing – especially the cheerleaders! Out of interest Steve is your team an isolated example in your club?

  12. In essence the ‘re-starters’ when it gets over-tight for Barcelona are the players ‘sitting off unmarked’ normally the back players, who then role it off into another angle for more SS keep ball. This then allows for sideways overloading, switching, interchanging etc. Its like everybody within the shape moves, and the keep ball in the tight gives time for Xavi and Messi to get where the ball is – or have a momentary breather – before going off again. Sometimes you think the English thought of constantly looking to penetrate is actually not part of their makeup; they revalue, wait, wait, wait and go when they are ready! It is almost a case of English first language speakers brought up with the FA way and English values – the overuse of the cross – FOR US to RETHINK, how we visualise football!!!

  13. WOW! We’ve really started to create some real thought about player development and playing abilities. Steve, your parent involvment is great– we had a similar interconnection with work and watching when i was Academy Director at Palace; whilst the players practised the parents were briefed on the work and how we expected it to filter into our players’ competitive match-play.
    Coaching is about setting an achievable target and then applying a continuous,progressive work schedule towards it — the coach knows the route to take and HOW to get there; the players absorb the information and reproduce it in competitive play; and the parents understand the philosophy and encourage their children towards greatness.
    Can’t be much better than that can it!………… PREMIER SKILLS, ‘ ding-dong’. At last we are making enough noise to wake-up coaching from its long sleep. I wish i was younger to ‘rattle’ coaching’s cage even more, we might find some truly great potential locked away inside.

  14. In relation to Rogers post, this is what I see so often from grassroot coaches.

    No explanation to the child of what they are working on, usually because they have not decided yet.
    A warm up that either involves running around a pitch, or they do not have a warm up.
    No session plan.
    Progressions made up on the spot.
    Copied a game from the internet and do not know what or how to coach it.
    Drills that bear no relation to the game.
    Mistakes highlighted by stopping play or the coaches favourite saying “hard luck” is used all the time.
    Dribbling is never encouraged, but passing is always encouraged.
    No idea of how to manage the differences between players.

    Think about this, 10 years of coaching once a week adds up to about 10 weeks of a 40 hour a week job. It really is never enough, not even close to the 10,000 hours of practice required to become a expert.
    Grassroots needs coaches that are experienced and only concentrate on the coaching, allowing a parent to run match day.
    Academies have it easy in comparison, children that want to learn, good facilities, help if needed, all of a decent ability.

  15. I have just watched Barcelona vs Santos and have a number of points to make.

    Firstly, they lined up without a traditional centre forward, so no one to hit back to front in the English way, or into the channel. By definition they have to therefore play differently.
    The magic ‘quartet’ often go into the front areas between the lines to show for passes; however, the central defenders have no one specifically to mark!

    Secondly, and this is why it is not a real ‘whirl’ as Steve Haslam suggested it may be angling towards – 6 outfield players basically hold their shape. Alves, Busquets and Thiago will move more than normal in their roles, but no where near the same extent as the Magic quartet do, whom in essence ‘whirl’ about.

    Puyol Pique Abidal


    Alves Thiago

    The Magic Quartet of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas play where they want to!

    Thirdly, although they managed to pass the ball regularly to the two wide men Alves and Thiago they didn’t cross in the English manner — circa 1999 Beckham with that space would have turned and whipped in cross after cross.

    The current crop of English speaking wingers ( sic) would dribble vertically down the flank and look to beat the fullback 1v 1 and cross or cross early.

    Barcelona had no body playing up top looking for a cross in the traditional manner.

    Fourthly, in effect by counting Alves, Busquets and Thiago as midfield players Barcelona get 7 in that area to overload! That is by adding in M,X, I and F.

    Fifthly, they play wide and then start these attacks differently by coming inside with the ball or just using the width to play across the pitch to change passing angles. Instead of the goal being in front – and something to move towards – it is now to the side. They therefore, have demagnetised their play as the English FAs approach requires the ball to be as near to the opponents goal as quickly as possible. A throw-back to Newton methinks. Perhaps, Charlie Hughes was related!

    They often play to ‘unmarked players’ seeking to play to the marked when it is on for them. And often just give the ball back to the closely placed colleague who just gave it to them.

    Sixthly, I have coined a new position for the likes of Xavi, for when he plays for Barcelona he is no longer a midfield player but a ‘POSSESSION PLAYER.’

    Seventhly, not only is the cross almost abandoned, but heading also is reduced in rank as only something they do when the opposition requires them to do it; or if they elect to rarely stick in a high ball.

    Eightly, their fullbacks rarely play the out to out ball – down the line – that so often ends up as a throw in in the English FA stimulated manner. They play on little inside angles, ensuring that straight-line play is virtually obsolete.

    Ninethly, the POSSESSION PLAYERS’ were all happy to ‘keep the ball’ by passing back to Pique, and off they went again. Although, it seems they play so much one, two touch football, they can all ‘STAY WITH THE BALL’ with ball, as they manipulate it through ‘tight spaces’ to open up new potential passing angles to get back into their routine.The ball is often a personal Keepsake.

    Tenthly, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, Barcelona play the game on THEIR TERMS; with a thorough disregard for the opposition, and whenever they take the field, they are cocking two fingers up at the English FA, and the friendly English speaking accolytes that are ruining Pele’s ‘beautiful game.’

    As after thoughts, I digressed briefly flicking through to the QPR – Man Utd and by god it was different – even if I only watched for a few seconds; and this kid Neymar, the Santos starlet, HE COULD PLAY FOR BARCELONA.

  16. The transfer in the above writing did not show that Alves plays wide right, Thiago wide left and Busquets; allowing the Magic quartet to play WHEREVER.

  17. I did not see the Barcelona-Santos match yesterday which was screened by a channel in the UK which is only accessible to a limited number of the population. However, I would question certain points raised by Brazil94.
    He seems to suggest that the cross is not something that a team committed to superb football, as Barcelona are, would contemplate. A cross, in fact, is a pass and, well delivered with all the qualities of a good pass, is as good as any other football technique. In recent weeks I have seen Barcelona score two brilliant goals from crosses. One was a header by Fabregas, which came from a left wing cross, ( i forget from whom), on a pitch in Bilbao which was fast resembling a lake in the torrential rain and so the conditions demanded this line of approach. The second was the third goal against Real Madrid which came from a beautifully delivered right wing cross from Alves which curled around the back of the Madrid defence for Fabrigas, again, to score with a header at the far post.
    I have mentioned before that in the early sixties Ron Greenwood spotted the havoc that could be caused to opposition defences with crosses to the near post – a previously undefended area with the stream of crosses all aimed to a big centre forward at the far post. Hurst, Peters and others scored goal after goal in that near post area for club and country and other clubs copied them as time went on. But the quality of the cross was all important and Ron Grenwood used to stick a corner flag in the ground, (representing a full back), for the wide men to curl the cross around into the near post. “You don’t have to beat the full back”, he used to say, “curl the ball around him”. In actual fact, after a while West Ham had a problem because their quick,tricky young right winger, Harry Redknapp, who worked tremendously hard to perfect his crossing technique, eventually stopped doing it because of the influence of the crowd. They loved his trickery and dribbling skill and started to roar at him to take the full back on and beat him. The supply of crosses started to dry up and Hurst and Peters became frustrated as their near post runs were unproductive. Normal service was resumed when a replacement was found and Redknapp was made fully aware of what was expected of him.
    Years later, when he was the England Manager, I recall Ron Greenwood putting on a session on near post crosses for Coaching Association members in Mitcham. I remember him telling the wide players to try and make their crosses curl away at the near post so that the keeper would think he could get it but at the last second it would curl away from him as the striker flashed in to score with a glancing header into the opposite corner of the net. “Tease the keeper” I remember Ron Greenwood kept saying and although we were all amateurs/grass roots there was improvement and everyone was inspired by the work.

  18. David W wrote:

    “In relation to Rogers post, this is what I see so often from grassroot coaches.

    No explanation to the child of what they are working on, usually because they have not decided yet.
    A warm up that either involves running around a pitch, or they do not have a warm up.
    No session plan.
    Progressions made up on the spot.
    Copied a game from the internet and do not know what or how to coach it.
    Drills that bear no relation to the game. ”

    I think these are fair observations, but alot of this comes from either press ganged or novice coaches. As you say, it takes experience to be able to devise appropriate sessions. I am firmly of the opinion that the time has arrived for part-time but experienced and knowledgeable coaches to take over the coaching of grassroots as you suggest .

    It is a key point that the young players should have it explained that we are trying to learn the game, not just organising a football related session – I do explain what we are doing, why we are doing it and what we will see in the way of improvements in the game as a result. Fortunatley, I have 3 sets of parents who are teachers so have been able to receive positive feedback on the way I deliver the sessions in terms of planning and interactive feedback and review with the players.

    “Mistakes highlighted by stopping play or the coaches favourite saying “hard luck” is used all the time.”

    My personal crusade (as well as educating parents) is to eradicate the word “unlucky” from the English football vocabulary. It is not “unlucky” – It is either a genuinely “good effort” or there is a coaching point, in which case, make it !

  19. In reply to Steve Haslam. he mentions he questions several points and then ONLY goes onto mention one ! That of crossing. He did not seem to read my words clearly, whereby I was talking about the traditional English cross of the ball being ‘hung up.’ And he misinterpreted by suggesting that I was suggesting that a superb team like Barcelona would not contemplate the cross. That is clearly wrong. I was stating that Barcelona did not really play with front men and so they looked to use the wide position differently. It is also interesting that Steve jumped to the defence of crossing – and correctly cited, it is in fact a pass. Would a European/South American jump to its defence so quickly; or is it so, so ingrained with us English speaking football people. However, what about trying to avoid sticking in crosses with our teams and tell them to attack from wide areas differently as Barcelona so often do – Now that would be interesting! Furthermore, he made no attempt to comment on some of the other points.

  20. I discovered this blog shortly after writing a post on the old blog attached to “Keep the Ball”.
    It is remarkable that what I wrote about is still relevant to points raised here nine years ago.
    I was commenting on moments of quality and skill evident in a recent re-run of the 1987 FA Cup Final, Coventry-Tottenham, screened by ITV during this period we are experiencing of football ‘black-out’.
    The discussion between myself and Brazil94, contained in the above comments, centred around the poor quality of crosses in the modern game. Again I had been reminded of this on Monday evening when watching the Coventry-Tottenham Final.
    As I describe, Waddle for Tottenham and Bennett for Coventry, each produced beautifully struck crosses to provide goals for Allen and Houchen respectively. On both occasions the ball is curled skilfully around a closing down defender into a space to be attacked by each of the two strikers.
    Nine years ago I felt that the poor quality of crossing was due to lack of work done on the training field. My feelings are still the same and it just requires more hours being spent on crossing practice, with particular attention being given to curling the ball. I can only conclude that those hours were not being put in back in 2011 and they are still being ignored in 2020.
    The great shame is that crosses use to be a strong point of English football, together with the ability to attack those balls with well timed runs.
    In 1987 my belief is that Bennett and Waddle spent a great deal of time on crossing practice and Houchen and Allen similarly gave an equal amount of time in timing their runs to get on the end of them.
    As has been stated before, it is of no benefit if we give greater attention to technical elements in our game which have been weak for a long time if, at the same time, we then ignore those things which we have traditionally been good at.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s