The Development Pathway

By John Cartwright

What do I mean by a DEVELOPMENT PATHWAY? Well, Practice/Playing is the Pathway. Its route begins at Junior level and gradually follows ‘steeper’ Practice/Playing demands through to Senior levels of the game. From the very beginning, there must be a direct association between what is being Practiced and subsequent Playing methods.

Development here in the UK does not blend Practice with Playing  – instead of a game being a ‘test’ of the Practical ability and understanding that is being worked on, Playing generates little or no opportunity to employ the Practical work being undertaken at the time.

Football players

The game’s basics must be set out from day one and individualism MUST take pride of place at the ‘starting gate’ and remain an important feature of Practicing and Playing as further stages of development are introduced. Learning time (Practicing whilst Playing) has been reduced dramatically over the past 50 years as street games have disappeared! These small-sided games were competitive and provided a constant ‘stream’ of football situations that required both individual ability for defending and attacking and ‘team togetherness’ (tactics) all based on ‘realistic’and competitive playing situations. This ‘chaos-type’ learning of the past has been replaced by reduced Practice time and over-organised and un-realistic coaching methods that have failed to provide the qualities of skill and game understanding that the game of football needs. So what is required is a compromise – street-type learning must be re-established but in a modern context.

Learning must be acquired by gradual Practice/Playing stages — suitably arranged opposition and working spaces that become more equal in numbers but less in space as players move up the development stages from Junior to Senior levels.

Premier Skills Coaches

As each stage is Practiced along the Pathway, so the work already completed should be integrated along with work being newly introduced.  These new aspects must engage smoothly and when games follow there should be a consistency with what is Practiced with what is to be Played. During the junior period (5/6years to 8/9) ‘winning’ should not be set on the number of goals scored. The results should be according to the work Practiced – targets can be; areas to reach – highest passes made – cones set in various spaces through which players must penetrate with the ball to ‘score’- cones to ‘hit’.  etc. etc. The normal goal with a ‘goalkeeper’ is NOT needed as a  target until later development — and then, small goals and  ‘Rush Goalies’.

The stages of development must comply with the age, learning and playing capabilities of those involved. As each stage is completed the next stage must gradually introduce new aspects of the game with variations in Playing ‘targets’  to increase both ability and tactical qualities. This development process continues along the whole ‘Pathway’ — from basics to senior playing requirements.

We must rid ourselves of the ‘fracture’ between Practice with Playing.  The teaching of the game must be adjusted and a gradual, carefully organized and realistic approach to football learning must be up if we are to improve development and achieve success .

Finally, I have stated this so often over the years; PRACTICE WHAT YOU ARE TO PLAY AND PLAY WHAT YOU HAVE PRACTICED.

18 thoughts on “The Development Pathway

  1. In spite of all the ideas introduced for coaching young players, not least the Practice/Play of Premier Skills, I still believe that we do not totally elevate the acquisition of skill and excellence to the pinnacle of our football priorities.
    During the week, the children may have been given coaching designed to develop their skill and football intelligence but when they step onto the pitch for the game at the weekend everyone, not least the parents and club officials,is looking for “a result”.
    Football is a competitive game and the British competitive spirit has always been one of our strengths. But we still seem to find it difficult to find the right balance of improvement and skill development and playing to win. We struggle to find the patience which is clearly needed to develop the individualism as outlined in Premier Skills, at the expense of easy victories, achieved through an excess of physical and direct play.
    I don’t think that we are alone at this present time with this dilemma. There seem to be far fewer clever players around, of many nationalities, than there were in the past. It seems to be the Latin countries where the public are most demanding of a high level of skill, rather than a results only mentality. I noticed in Portugal, during the Nations League matches, that the home supporters in the stadiums, were very critical of poor skill performance by any of their players, despite the success which they ultimately achieved. They wanted and demanded quality and made it clear that winning alone was not enough.
    Many coaches and officials of Sunday junior teams are regular supporters of their local professional club. If they are not as demanding of high technical skill, as opposed to just a winning team, from what they see on a Saturday afternoon, then are they as demanding, and patient, as they should be with their own junior teams?

  2. Hi Steve. We MUST have a different approach to ‘winning’. Of course it is important to win, but we must teach winning in different ways throughout the Development stages. These ways must coincide with Practice. As stages move up so ‘finishing’ with goals can be introduced and this type of ‘targeting’ must comply with a gradual change in goal size along with goalkeeping development.
    We MUST learn to win through being better individuals, better tactically, rather than being just better physically than our opponents.
    The saying that football’s an easy game fails to appreciate the importance of quality that the game demands. To reach heights of excellence needed we must teach the game sensibly, with a gradualness that allows teaching to be fully understood and performance ‘tested’ in (Games) that support a proper Practice/Playing Development ‘pathway’ .

  3. Hi Steve. Thanks for your prompt reply — as always. I thought that this ‘blog’ would have had an immediate response from more people as it focuses on a hugely important problem we have in the development of our young players.
    There needs to be a shift in development thinking and more discussion should take place to improve coaching methods here. Being a critic of past and present methods, I believe Premier Skills has much to offer as a modern version of ‘Street-type’ Practice/Playing.

  4. I am noticing that more people are talking about “shifting the ball to move the opponent” when referring to game situations featuring a 1 v. 1 scenario. Last week I heard former England full back, Danny Mills, in his half time summing up, during the televised Under 21 international, England – Croatia, highlight a piece of play by Reiss Nelson, when he created a shooting opportunity for himself by first moving the ball to one side, and then quickly going back to the other side as his opponent became unbalanced, and firing in a shot. Danny Mills commented that he does not see enough of that these days – just a lot of the body swaying about by the player in possession, but with the ball stationery at his feet, which creates no problem for the challenging defender whose attention is firmly on the ball.
    I think that we have lost sight of this vital ingredient in beating an opponent due to the surfeit of Coerver-type skills, and others of a similar type, where the body is moving in all directions but the ball is invariably still. The synchronised movements of skills performed in this way often looks impressive in a stage-managed environment, but too often bears little relationship to the game where opposition, and how to beat it, together with space, become vitally important.
    So practice how you mean to play and then play what you practice.

  5. Hi Steve. Watch the world’s ‘greatest’ player —Lionel Messi. He goes ACROSS opponents and NOT at them. In doing so it creates far mor options.
    I should point out that I have been saying and coaching this far before Messi, entered football.

  6. JC [from above post]: To reach heights of excellence needed we must teach the game sensibly, with a gradualness that allows teaching to be fully understood and performance ‘tested’ in (Games) that support a proper Practice/Playing Development ‘pathway’.

    John: where can interested coaches who have little or no direct experience of the Practice/ Play coaching methodologies book on to these courses in the UK to develop the knowledge, skills and experience that will enable some of the next generation of young players to benefit from this type of thinking about the game?

    I’ve had a love/ hate relationship with football since the 1980s, but I can never seem to abandon it completely (it seems to flow within me and reinvigorate me in the moments when I think about how the very best manipulate the ball in time and space). I would be interested in helping my kids’ primary school in their annual autumn inter-school 6 A-side competition by guiding the girls’ and boys’ teams to play in a way that you advocate. Instinctively, from what I know and have learned about the game over the years – including playing against an England rep side based at Lilleshall in the mid 1980s – I can see that you are absolutely right in what you are saying about the blend of individualism allied to linking players, units and teams in time and space on the pitch.

    From what I have seen there are some decent players here locally in W Yorkshire one of which currently in yr 8 is now boarding at the City Football Academy in Manchester so it will be interesting to see if his parents decision making is good for all in the long term (who wouldn’t accept a place if offered, but I still have a concern about the opportunity cost for kids like this one). I have never been interested in following the FA structured courses to date because I am mindful that bad habits get ingrained just as effectively as good habits from ‘right practice’. That said, I do think that the FA have moved in a better direction in recent years and Gareth Southgate ought to take the lion’s share of credit for this perception, in my view (I note his playing experience under Venables and Hoddle). The problems persist, though, don’t they?

    For example, the men’s team haven’t yet performed well in tournament games in critical moments. Tonight should be interesting: watching the women’s team in recent matches getting bogged down at the back betrays the dogma of ‘insisting on playing out from the back’. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be advocating that all players with and without the ball should be playing ‘in to space/ creating space’ so an individual can choose to ‘play forwards’ and penetrate the lines through these unbalanced distances, where possible.

    Other questions uppermost, imo: If England are having a moment in football overall why did Dan Ashton, the so-called Architect of England DNA – choose to leave at such a supposedly auspicious time? And if Aidy Boothroyd is the succession plan then from what I have seen it’s not looking like a golden era is around the corner to me.

    Anyway, when it comes to football I could go on and on. To return to my original question,
    ‘Are there Practice/ Play coaching courses upcoming anywhere in the UK this year/ next year?’

    Thanks for reading & yours in anticipation and hoping there might be…
    Regards, Peter

  7. “As each stage is Practiced along the Pathway, so the work already completed should be integrated along with work being newly introduced. These new aspects must engage smoothly and when games follow there should be a consistency with what is Practiced with what is to be Played” This is vital at all stages!!

  8. Roger,

    Thanks for your comments and I can follow your line of thinking, but I need a more tangible example of what this means for players at KS1, for example. What, specifically, should coaches be doing at this young age? Moreover, who can confirm this with experiential learning during coaching courses and show me here in the UK?


    • Hi Peter. Premier Skills opened in 2002 and continued for about 10 years. During that period i introduced levels 1-2-3 but retained levels 4-5 myself. However, due to a series of reasons the business moved to New Zealand where Roger Wilkinson, continues with the Development program. Dave Williams, is based here in England and does Premier Skills work at the moment. If you go onto the Premier Skills website you may be able to make contact.
      I am retired and no longer am involved directly with Premier Skills Coaching but i write ‘blogs’ about aspects of the game as you probably are aware of. Sorry i can’t be more helpful. Best regards to you and i hope you continue to enjoy your involvement with the development of our future young players.

      • Hi John,

        Thanks for clarifying. I met Dave & Steve Haslam, too, a couple of years ago when my boys were showing more of an interest in participating at local clubs in W Yorks. It was great to chat to Dave and Steve and see their enthusiasm for Practice Play coaching and football overall. I was keen to help out at my younger boy’s sessions and wanted to deliver sessions using the Practice Play methods, but it didn’t really work out as I had hoped, partly because my son’s interest in the game diminished through the winter months. His mates are more enticed by screens it seems, these days.

        I had a part time job at a school in Bingley, Yorkshire, where a coach called Gerrard Jones had a Sat am session going for a while and I used to chat to him, which is how I heard about Premier Skills, I think.

        Like you, I still love football in its capacity to produce human performance excellence (i.e. who doesn’t love to watch Lionel’s artistic dancing dribbles ‘All Night Long’ or get a thrill from watching the graceful power of, say, Ronaldo – both of them!).

        But I hate football sometimes, too, in its capacity for making societal inequality worse. Currently, the ubiquitous shirt sponsor is increasing gambling problems here and abroad, but clubs like Wolves welcome fans’ cash, but welcome likely exposure to the mocking chants of ‘manbuttocks’, too. Also, I find elite football’s lack of attention to the climate change debate unsustainable (e.g. the situation with last season’s Europa and CL finals where tens of thousands of English fans travelled far across Europe). The game needs a re-think on this, in my view, but that’s about as likely as England’s senior men winning the World Cup in the 2020s, as promised by David Sheepshanks and St George’s Park. We shall see…

        In the interim, I would love to organise my time to help out at my kids’ local primary school. If I can arrange this I’ll get touch with Dave again. Thanks for your response. I’m curious to learn more about levels 1-3 Practice Play coaching, but also fascinated by the programme contained within levels 4 & 5. Who is safeguarding your knowledge for future generations, I wonder…?

  9. Well done our Ladies in the World Cup. BUT, they have the same problem with the game as our men ——- insufficient individual skills! When it comes to a skilful response that could produce a successful outcome, we fail to perform to a standard above OK when a higher performance level is required
    We do not prioritise Skill Teaching and Learning —- basics not brilliance forms too much of the time spent throughout the whole of the ‘Golden Years’ of Development.

  10. I have been disappointed with much of the Women’s World Cup which I have seen. The criticisms which John makes of England I could apply to most of the teams in the tournament. There appears to be a greater ‘professional’ approach by most of the competing countries, and team organisation has been improved. Most teams appear to have a full complement of coaches, fitness and conditioning trainers, but I do not see a corresponding improvement in raising the actual standard of technical skills. This must, of course, begin at grass routes level and so the women’s game faces the same problems in this regard as the men’s.
    I have been particularly disappointed with what i have seen of the French team. When women’s football first started receiving ‘live’ television exposure, I was particularly impressed with France because their game style reflected that of their men’s game in the eighties and nineties when Platini, Giresse and Tigana were at their peak. The short passing football in triangles by the women was reminiscent of that era but what I see now is a less attractive style, built on longer passes and more direct.
    As has been discussed before, the women’s game copies the men’s which is a pity because it would have been better for theirs to have its own unique style.
    I notice also that FIFA wants to increase the number of competing countries at the next Tournament, just as they want to do by increasing competing team numbers for the men’s World Cup. All they are interested in is making bigger and bigger profits, so we are likely get more scorelines like USA 13 Thailand 0.

    • Hi Steve,

      I agree. I have listened to friends and family commenting on how the women are now equally as skilful as the men, but any honest assessment can’t say that. But maybe it’s not the women’s fault. For example, do we ask U7s to play with a size 5 football? No?, then why are we asking female players to play on a full size pitch?

      The Dutch were out on their feet in the final in the second half today and the whilst this is obvs a credit to the US pressing it was almost a sorry spectacle watching another Dutch misplaced pass due to exhaustion and not being able to address the ball correctly before choosing the correct ‘skill decision’.

      I love Dutch football. It was bad & sad to see, Mr President (SO SAD, SO SAD… 🙂

  11. Hi all. As i have said for many, many years, the development methods introduced over many decades — coach education here has failed miserably to teach skills for the game of football. Technique, is NOT skill— Technique is an uninterrupted action — skill is an action against interruption
    Football , is a competitive sport and learning to play it well requires realistic teaching methods, not false ones.

  12. Algeria won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations when they beat Senegal 1-0 in the Final last night.
    I agreed with Stewart Robson’s summing up on Eurosport when he said that it had been a disappointing tournament although Algeria were deserved winners with their overall performances. Algeria scored after just two minutes and looked set to put on an impressive show. But they took their foot off the gas and were content to play on the counter and Senegal rarely looked good enough to open up their defence.
    It is disappointing when a team does not stay on the front foot but is content to coast through a match to victory, as Algeria did. African teams are now more organised due to the influence of European coaches who are hired to take charge of their teams. But this seems to be at the expense of free-flowing, attacking football.
    In the World Cups of 1990, 1994 and 2002, African teams Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal recorded famous victories against established teams from Europe and South America and advanced deep into those tournaments. It looked only a matter of time before an African team at least made it into the World Cup Final. But this has not happened and during the last 17 years the African game does not seem to have progressed as it should have. There a many very good African players in the top European teams but surprisingly the African countries have not achieved the success that was expected in international competition.
    It seems that the best European coaches stay in Europe, probably because that is where the biggest wages are paid. So the coaches of that calibre are not working in Africa and those that do are maybe of a lower grade. This seems to be the most likely reason for the slow down in progress that is currently being made on that continent. The large number of good African players in European football is proof that the playing quality exists.

  13. Thomas Hitzlsperger played for a number of clubs in the Premier League as well as in his native Germany. He also played in over 50 matches for the German National Team. He is now Head of Sport at VfB Stuttgart where he is responsible for the development and progress of young players at that club.
    He was interviewed on a programme shown recently on BT Sport which, among other topics, covered the recent emergence of talented young English players who are discovering that because of the influx of highly expensive foreign imports, are finding that they must go abroad, particularly to Germany, due to them being frozen out of first team football at their parent clubs in England.
    Hitzlsperger is in no doubt why the English youngsters are of a superior quality. He said that in Germany during the last few years, they have over-loaded their young players with information about tactics, different formations and how to change from one formation to another whilst a match is in progress. But they have provided insufficient coaching and practice on individualism and the mastery of technical skills. In Hitzlsperger’s opinion the English have focused strongly on this and it is now paying dividends and the English youngster is heavily in demand at all the big clubs in Europe.
    It is interesting to hear someone from the head of German youth development praise England in terms of its superiority in aspects of individualism.
    Bearing in mind that individualism is the corner stone when introducing the Practice/Play methodology, perhaps English football can once again be the leaders of the world game.

  14. In England a young (or not so young) player is often told that if he is receiving a kicking from over-physical opponents, then it is because he is not releasing the ball quickly enough. This often conflicts with the aims of a coach who is working on his players to be clever in possession and to stay with the ball. Of course, there have been many players who have failed to fulfil their potential due to their inability or unwillingness to part with the ball and therefore fail to capitalise on promising situations.
    It is a fine dividing line between imaginative, inspired play and being selfish with a need to grab the highlight for self promotion.
    I make this point because of the promising young English talent which has emerged during the last few years and the need to properly develop and nurture this talent.

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