Distance: football’s Reality Check!

By John Cartwright

Everything we do in life concerns decisions on distance (time and space); the ‘how long / how far/ ifs/ what’s/ where/ when’ etc. decisions we make occur continuously every day of our lives.  Can one imagine the possible disasters that could happen should our decision-making on distance be incorrect?

In Association Football, there has been a re-occurring argument over the use and benefits of unopposed Drill practice (Technique) and opposed practice (Skill). The belief that reality can be assimilated may be fine for computer games, but in my opinion, it is not justified when concerned with the learning of a competitive sport like football. I firmly believe that in any competitive sport any action practised initially in a non-competitive manner and then having to follow with a competitive input at a later date to establish reality, is a misguided learning method and a wasteful use of time. Street Football, was the game’s ‘player provider’ in the past here as well as throughout other parts of the globe, and this situation still appertains today in poorer football playing countries. The chaos learning, small area and competitive nature of these games provided players with many vital playing requirements; none more important than an instinctive awareness of distance. Without opposition one cannot ascertain distance and the associated aspects that relate to it in the game of football.

Apprenticeships and periods of work experience in Industry and Commerce for the young are about learning by doing; simply at first, but within the realistic atmosphere of actual job requirements. By preparing young people by using a hands-on approach makes graduation easier for them to more difficult levels of work.  Apprenticeships were once a part of football’s development scene; Academies, have replaced them. Youth players entering apprenticeships in the past had studied at the ‘University of the Street’; modern day entrants into Academies are likely to be recruits of ‘Coaching conformism’.

All practice should conspire to meet the needs of actual purpose. The importance of implementing APPROPRIATE, competitive realism at all age and ability levels defines the very ‘art of coaching’. The classroom is not the football field; the learning of Shakespeare’s plays does not correspond to learning how to play football. Each may be performed before the critical eye of spectators and each have specific difficulties in performance, however, the actor does not have someone interfering with the reciting of  pre-rehearsed lines and movements on stage, whereas, the footballer is beset with a host of playing variables plus competitive opposition to thwart his/her performance on the field.

The acquisition of acute distance awareness in football is the difference between the possibility of becoming a talented player and having no chance of playing at top level. Being able to quickly discern distance activates numerous associated decisions, actions and reactions to situations as they occur. The gift of distance perception defines decisions, on type of action required, the space available, the speed of an action needed, the direction of entry into and exit from situations, pass or retention of the ball decisions, passing and finishing distances etc. If football was a non contact sport the use of non-interference practice would be fine, but football is a highly competitive game and so players should practice how they play. I often hear people say “the game at junior levels is too competitive”.  And they are correct!  But to suggest as some do that games should be non-competitive is ridiculous; how can one be expected not to win! No, it’s not competition that’s the problem, it’s how we introduce it and use it that’s the problem.

Distance appreciation is the defining quality of star players like Messi etc. Their ability to quickly assess actions and variations to them during highly competitive game comes from continuing to practice the same situations they learned as kids in the street.  The fantastic facilities available for training today at Academies here does not seem to have produced the quality of player once produced on the street. Everything is in place to develop high quality performers except the most important feature of all……..quality coaching methods!  Our persistence to continue with an over-theoretical, athletically ‘camouflaged’ and an academically influenced coaching dogma that has historically failed is truly amazing.  The injection of a modernized version of street football practice methods to develop players who can bring sparkle to our game is urgently required. In this way, exciting players who are prepared in a realistic way, will be able to make the fast and finite decisions needed for the game of football and so replace the boring, robotic, ‘hyped’ standards that have become so prevalent here.

13 thoughts on “Distance: football’s Reality Check!

  1. Learning complex movement is a two stage process as scientists who study the human brain will attest. We learn things(slowly) at first using one part of our brain & then apply ( at normal speed) that learning using another.
    As a kid playing street football, I did the same. I practised on my own or with a mate something I wanted to master & then tried it in a game with a load of other kids of all shapes & sizes. The vogue for small-sided football is a good one. The best of these for young players is Futbol de Salao using weighted size 2 ball. Look up the study by Iain Milligan, Andy Borrie and Rob Horn (Technical Analysis of Futebol de Salao and Mini-football) of Liverpool’s John Moore University available as a PDF on the web. I have watched 1000’s of games of Futbol de Salao myself over many years. It works!
    Keep up the good work as there are so many robot coaches out there who need help.

  2. John very well articulated as usual.

    Please don’t stop trying to work with and influence the FA. I have heard great things recently about PS work from people who have not been interested before. Also persons from the FA are showing a real interest in the work.

    Keep posting.


  3. Hi Andrew. I understand your point about learning being a two-stage process. However, this ‘gradual’ process of learning for the game of football can be achieved in a single manner by the use of — subtle changes in practice area sizes — carefull judgement on overload numbers against — an equally careful introduction of competitive oppostion. Space and time for players (DISTANCE) appreciation can be acquired at the same time as benefitting from enough (DISTANCE) to develop the touch and feel for the ball — the positioning of opponent(S) and colleagues — the deccisions to share or keep the ball.
    Coaches are always moaning that there is insufficient time to work with players; this is so, therefore, we must use the time more profitably. We cannot return to street football as it was, but Premier Skills is about using a modern version of the street game. The lost singular practice time must be replaced with practice time that combines the two-stage process you mention in a singular and realistic way — the Premier Skills way!

    • Hi John.
      Re when you say…”I firmly believe that in any competitve sport any action practised initially in a non-competitive manner and then having to follow with a competitive input at a later date to establish reality, is a misguided learning method and a wasteful use of time.”
      In the days of street football there were also, running alongside these games, small, imaginatively thought-up practices by those generations of the time,which I think you could interpret as an equivalent of todays drills as exhibited by Coerver, Concept4Football, etc. I am thinking of two or three friends passing a ball against a wall in turn to return with a first touch,second touch, weak foot, outside of the foot, back heel, etc. etc. The wall might be flat or it might be rutted with an unpredictable return pass received.
      What i am saying, were we not practising in a opposition-free, drill-like situation which we then took into the street game when larger numbers of friends appeared?
      I am asking this question because it has been my experience so far when working with the Practice/Play methodology, that I must first introduce some unopposed technique work to establish what i am looking for before going into the Level 1 Small Group Practise. I mention the above example as an indication that perhaps the street football model was perhaps not quite the ‘chaos situation’ that we have so far thought which I feel was due to the ingenuity of the participants.
      Whatever we conclude, we have just had some fine examples of superb technical skill at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand we have some brilliant technical play in the Africa Cup of Nations, which we recognise as ‘coming from the street’, and then last night Zenit scored goals of breathtaking skill and imagination against Benfica in the champions League, which i would suggst came from innovative, intelligent coaching.

  4. Interesting point Steve -In the ‘old days’ we practiced by dribbling on the streets with a tennis ball playing wall passes off walls we still had opposition in our ‘imagination’ pretending there was a defender and dribbling round him.Sometimes when by ourselves we would pass against the nearest wall or doorway introducing recieving feints and varieties of passing
    .Usually if there were friends around we’d playa game with sides anything from one aside to twenty aside depending on the numbers.The game was the teacher with the added value of younger kids learning off the older kids.
    The streets are no longer available.
    So our coaching programme has to be cleverer.
    The point you make about developing the kids at a young age to play with individuality and to be able to do the level 1 curriculum is valid and so true.
    That is why we’ve developed the foundation stage course as well as,football homework,one to one course with rebound work and parent as first coach courses, Keep an eye on the web site for the dates theyare running we want to see you there as your input will be valuable as always.

  5. Hi Steve. When i was a kid i used to watch my uncle when he was driving his car. I followed his movements at home using a round flower vase as a steering wheel and a piece of wood to use as a gear stick. I did all the movements, including hand signals, but when i got into a car at 17 i couldn’t drive it and needed driving lessons in the ‘competitve’ atmosphere of traffic-filled streets before i was considered a safe driver.
    I grew up on the East End streets of Bethnal Green after the war during the ‘golden years’ of street football. Individual practice time was minimal both in the street as well as in the school playground and the game, no matter how big or small in numbers, was the ‘crucible’ of skill and game learning. Speedy recognition of situations in competitive play and equally speedy responses to them can only be acquired in the competitive ‘cauldron’ .The Academic input of coaching methodology has not recognized the importance of ‘chaos’ learning and playing qualities and their approach has ‘regimented’ practice;- orderly conformity producing robotic mediocrity has been the result for our game. It’s how we have introduced practice and administered it that has always been, and still is in the majority of cases, the reason for our failure to produce an abundance of individually skillful players able to play an attractive and effective style of football.
    The denial of space at the very beginning of the football learning experience does not have to be a ‘suffocation’ of space. As i stated in the article, this aspect of teaching the game is ‘the very art of coaching’. Throughout all levels of the game, the correct use of space and opposition numbers must be correctly applied according to practice requirements — even when involved with a parent, it is best practice for the parent to offer suitable space and time denial to the child so that distance and the associated aspects required for the game are prevelant — by using suitable ‘realism’, the child is practising how he must play and will play how he has practised. If allowed to become ‘razor sharp’ at distance awareness a youngster ‘ built in England’ might, one day, reach the standard set by Messi!!

    • I thought that during the live broadcast last night of Barcelona v. Valencia, the former Barcelona player, Albert Ferrer, made an interesting observation. He said that Barcelona players are always running into spaces. He also said that the ball is arriving in those spaces as the player is running so that the player and ball arrive in the space together. You never see a Barcelona player run into space and then stand waiting for the ball. If you stand still then you are easy to mark but a running player, running into space as the ball arrives, is difficult, if not impossible, to mark. When a number of players are all running into different spaces, then it makes Barcelona a nightmare to play against.

  6. Hi Steve. I watched the Barca./Valencia game last night and heard Ferrer’s comment on passing and movement. He is saying that a player or players has recognized space and the player on the ball has also recognized both the movement and the opportunity to pass the ball. His passing selection is the end product of numerous decisions on necessity and the type of pass he sees is required to do the job. All of those decisions concern a sound appreciation of DISTANCE:—- selection of best placed movement of the players – space available to player selected for the pass – type of pass needed to reach this player – required length, height. speed of the pass – timing the delivery of the pass.
    Football isn’t an easy game, it requires hours of practice to be able to assess and produce an appropriate skill or skills when necessary. You play AGAINST opponents, so practice AGAINST opponents. The ‘hands-on’ approach (opposed practice) should be how we introduce children to the game and how they should continue to PRACTICE HOW THEY PLAY —- against suitably applied opposition — throughout their devlopment years — and beyond. A fox would not develop a cunning awareness of chickens if there were no chickens to be aware of. Players must develop the same ‘foxy’ eye — for opposing players not chickens of course!!

  7. John,

    I run camps every summer, which means we only have about 5 days to work with kids before we send them off for the rest of the summer. In the past we have really focused the sessions on small sided games, and used a few Coerver excercises to build toward the game. I think we saw last summer that most of the kids really just had no comfort level with the ball, so 1v1 was not very productive in the way we used it. How would you suggest training kids from 5-10, in an environment that provides some realistic intereference? I always have to keep in mind that these kids may not play beyond 10 years old, but maybe more would if we could inspire a few! Thank you for sharing your insight….

    • I would definitely stick with the Coerver Exercises (I’m a Coerver Coach, ha) and even get a Coerver Licensee to help, but in the mean time just as John points out above time and space can be used as their “defenders”. Do more exercises/skill races/competitions in which the quickest and most proficient win. Example: Who can get 20 toe taps the fastest? Who can touch their ball 20 times before getting to this line? The Red light-Green light Game- purple light means turn around and dribble in the opposite direction, Blue light means turn left, yellow light means turn right, etc. With kids at the age you speak of, ball mastery and being comfortable with a ball at their feet is paramount, so get creative. As you’ve seen, until players at a young age are comfortable with a ball at their feet the game can’t be played. Encourage dribbling and arial control as much as possible so that they gain confidence with a ball and passing ability will come. If a player can’t control a ball out of the air or off the ground how will he ever pass it? Get creative, have fun with them and always have a few ideas in mind because each group of kids will be different and respond to exercises differently; something might work the first hour and tank the next hour.

  8. Hi Damien. Sorry i have not replied earlier but have been away from my desk so have missed your question. First, i suggest you do a Level one Premier Skills program. It will provide answers you are searching for.
    However, briefly; —– the combination of ‘technique and skill’ practice that we have developed is a modern concept of street football. Suitably arranged area sizes combined with equally suitable opposition number(s) provides both the time and space for players to gain individual confidence on the ball whilst at the same time acquire the important awareness needed for competitive play. As players develop and are ‘assessed’ in these realistic, competitive situations, the coach can adapt the size of the practice area and follow this with a gradual increase in opposition number(s). This form of work method is ongoing and provides the players from day one with a realistic Practice/Playing format that will develop individuals who are able to conjoin with team-mates when required to do so. TOTAL FOOTBALLERS’ TO PLAY TOTAL FOOTALL .
    Good luck and best regards……………. John

    • I don’t know if they come to the US, but there are Coerver Coaching clinics held in the US taught by Charlie Cooke himself. I attended one in February in Florida

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