Pre-Season Training For Young Players

John Cartwright

I have been asked to give my opinion on the work that young players should do prior to the beginning of a new season. I will not go into specific work aspects as this will take too long to cover in this ‘blog’ I will simply say what I believe should occur during the important development years.


Before any attempt is made to develop young players one should first have a formed a vision of how one believes the game should be played here and then create a plan of action (age-specific programmes) to achieve it. We must also establish exactly who we consider to be young players before any discussion on types of training is discussed. The Law requires a person to reach the age of 18 before he/she is considered an adult. In football we tend to make the assumption that youngsters are able to attempt heavier/more difficult work-loads much earlier than 18. The mistaken misuse of competition from an early age along with 11v11 games introduced too soon to young players are both serious faults in our development.

Preparing young players for pre-season training should not be attempted until they become involved in competitive match-play at 13/14 plus; up to this point their ‘season’ should be a yearly continuation of the practical work programmes that they have followed from the beginning of their development years.  The introduction of the full game must be carefully prepared for and young players should not be ‘thrown into’ games’ of this type and ‘positionalized’ before they have first acquired a high standard of individual skill and game understanding. The early attempt to ‘copy-cat’ the senior game with unskilled and tactically unprepared young players who rely more on effort than ability is verging on child neglect and we should display more adult concern at this stage in our development of youngsters. The playing of competitive games at all levels should correspond to the work being covered during practice (play what’s being practised). We must understand that the use of designated numbers of players for games at varying age levels…..4v4 to 11v11….. can only be of real benefit if the work supporting these games has provided players with the necessary qualities required at each particular stage in their development.

Pre-season training with older players involved in competitive matches should also contain the continuation of the work programme that they have followed from the start of their development.  Much of the basic requirements of the game will have already been covered in these earlier levels of the practical work and these will provide the foundation for more difficult practical and tactical work involved at higher programme levels; but also there must be a gradual introduction and increase of physical work.

Coaching isn’t easy. At the vastly important foundation stages of the game the coach should have more than a basic qualification. This early stage in the development of youngsters requires a coach, in close conjunction with a Mentor, to have a deep understanding of the game and to have devised a playing vision; suitable programmes of work at each age category as ‘pathways’ towards the playing vision; bravery to follow the ‘pathway’ (player development not just winning matches); timing of the introduction of work; patience and demeanour.


We have a very long way to go before we begin to produce skilful, intelligent, powerful, exciting and ‘inquisitive’ players for our game and this will only begin happen after we re-think and remodel our coach-education and player development methods. Surely, after the debacles over the summer months with our U/20 and U/21 squads finishing at the bottom their qualification groups and returning home early from both major competitions, the time has come to dispense with the failing development methods we continually ‘tweak’ but never fully re-design………..but don’t hold your breath,……. ‘it aint gonna happen’.                                                 Very few have taken the risk to draw attention to our long-term football demise; there has been a disgraceful lack of courage by many to speak the truth about our failing standards because of the fear of being reprimanded from above and ‘sent to Coventry’; the use of  ‘hype’ to cover poor performances; greed and selfish attitudes — have all resulted in little of any consequence being done to make the significant changes that are so necessary to our game !!

Let me shout the truth as I have done for the last 40 years about our playing standards …. WE AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH BECAUSE WE DON’T TEACH THE GAME CORRECTLY AND WE AREN’T GOING TO GET BETTER UNTIL WE DO !

8 thoughts on “Pre-Season Training For Young Players

  1. An excellent article and vitally required reading for our National Association and everyone who is involved in the junior game, whatever their capacity.
    John writes: “Before any attempt is made to develop young players one should first have formed a vision of how one believes the game should be played here and then create a plan of action (age-specific programmes) to achieve it.”
    We still seem to be no nearer in creating this national playing vision,where everyone in the country, who has taken an FA Coaching Qualification and then takes charge of the coaching and running of a childrens’ team, has a clear idea of the path in which he/she is heading in terms of developing a clear and agreed playing style. We have ‘flavour of the month’ coaching events put on by the FA, when a coaching topic is put on as a presentation; we might be told that the Italian way is how we should be heading because we suddenly realise that our defending is poor and the Italians have always been brilliant defenders; or we might be told that it’s the Barcelona/Spain way becaue that’s the best football that has ever been seen; and now the pendulum has swung to the German model because they are starting to dominate in club and international football. But no-one at the FA’s Coaching Department has drawn up a playing vision which suits the playing strengths and characteristics of the English game.
    John also writes: “We must also establish who exactly we consider to be young players before any discussion on types of training is discussed”.
    I find that so many youngsters of 15 and older have been totally neglected in their vital earlier years in the development of technical skills and game intelligence. If they have reached 15 and above and are incapable of receiving the ball and protecting it then what chance have they of competing at the same level with their compatriots in Spain, France, Germany etc ? But we are not getting it right at the early years learning stage. I know that there are very many good people who work with those childrern in the very young age groups, but I do not think that they are bering given the fair chance that they deserve, because the FA Youth Award Modules do not address this situation as they should. I found thast there was some good work in Module 3 but I was disappointed with modules 1 and 2 because the fun element of the games, although important with young childrten, was over-emphasised in comparison to the technical improvement element.

  2. Hi Steve. Those of us who can remember the ‘street football/school playground’ days will agree that we played the game for hours without any of today’s ‘trappings’ . It was fun and a great learning experience at the same time. Coaching methods since have failed to find a satisfactory way to combine these important ingredients — except the game-realistic approach to development of the Premier Skills PRACTICE PLAYING coaching methodology.

  3. I sincerely hope all junior coaches read this article.It gives the vital underpinning knowledge so necessary for successful grass roots and professional academy coaching.As with all of John’s articles it is worth reading it 2 or 3 times to gain the extra insights he provides.The great thing about JC is that he can also show the work practically, as well as theorising, which is a lost art in the power point age.

  4. Roger Wilkinson writes: ” The great thing about JC is that he can also show the work practically, as well as theorising, which is a lost art in this power point age.”
    I thoroughly agree with this statement. Recently I attended an FA Licensed Coaches Club Event, run by a top FA Staff Coach. The event began at 9pm and finished shoertly before 4pm. There was some work in the afternoon on the training pitch for 30 minutes, but the rest of the day was spent in a lecture room, with the inevitable power point presentations, with the attendee coaches sitting at tables.
    Although there was much interesting and informative discussion, the time given to practical work was far too short.
    A few days later I attended a coaching demonstration by John Cartwright at the Crystal Palace FC Academy. John gave a brief introduction on the training pitch before he began his session, and at the end he held a Q and A to help clarify points which had come out. But for the rest of the time, the session was given over entirely to John’s work with the young players, with his points and observations, and how he progressed the work, an education for everyone present.
    I have no doubt that modern technology has had benefits for sport in general, football included, but I am convinced that you can’t beat getting out on to the training pitch and working with the players. This is how players learn, and I believe, it is how coaches learn.

  5. England Womens’ Team elimination from the Womens’ Euros, with just one point from three matches, completes a miserable summer for England teams, in various competitions, for male and female players alike.
    The England Women displayed so many of the playing weaknesses of their male counterparts: a lack of imagination, no spark of invention or game intelligence, in either individual performance or team play; out-dated tactics, cruelly exposed in particular by the brilliant French, and an inability to spot problems quickly enough to put things right before it is too late.
    Inevitably, there are calls for a change in the Womens’ Team Manager, but this, as usual, fails to address the real problem. A total change in content and structure of the National Coaching Scheme, to be replaced by the Premier Skills methodology, is the only solution. But I feel sure that all we shall get is a change of Manager so that someone else inherits much the same problems. We are told that because the present manager, Hope Powell, has been in the job for 15 years then staleness has set in and so it is time for a change. But she is only following the FA Coaching edict, so why should it be any different with someone else at the helm ?
    As as been said before, it is our young players who are being let down: they are not having their talent and potential developed and brought out in the early,formative years. Now it has been shown that the girls are suffering just as much as the boys, and still no-one at the FA seems brave enough to admit this.

  6. Really great article. Emjoyed it a lot. As a former coach of young players I completely agree with your points. If our U20, U21 and Ladies team have all put in appauling performances surely it is time to encourage more English players in the Premier League….we were all wary of Platini’s 6+5 rule but I desperately want to see this now implemented in the Premier League. Surely asking English teams to play English players isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. After all, Spain do a similar thing and look where they are…..

  7. The biggest problem for me is the point you draw on about “Coaching isn’t easy”. Most coaches at local grass roots clubs start because their son/daughter joins a team and the team needs a coach. Yet this is THE MOST IMPORTANT phase of a young player’s development. It’s where they learn the basic ABCs for not just football, but all other sports too.

    I personally think the FA Level 1 and the Youth Appropriate Module 1 courses should be combined so new coaches understand how significantly what they coach and more importantly the way they coach it will affect the long term learning of the future stars.

    I know you didn’t think much of the YAM1 course you attended, but I had a massively different experience on the course I attended and it really was a lightbulb moment for me in my own development as a coach.

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