THE NARROW PATH WIDENS approaching a now-abandoned football pitch where I spent my formative years. At my foot is a scuffed football and in tow are my two nephews aged seven and ten who’ve just returned from a summer in Ireland, England, and Spain with their parents and grandparents. They have returned with a new love for soccer evidenced by their persistent requests to show me all the skills they learned since I last saw them. The moment I show up to visit my parents in suburban Chicago, the boys remind me of my promise to take them out for a kick-about.
At the field, the older of the two, Liam, looks across the plot of land and asks, “This is where you used to play?” I nod and think about how, in many ways, the game is the same as it’s always been; simple in theory and complex in execution.
The question puts me at the mercy of nostalgia. In the fifteen years since I last played at this particular park, it’s clear much has changed. Where there was once a well-manicured pitch, lined and occupied by nomadic groups playing “jumpers for goalposts” is now a green expanse, more meadow than football pitch.
As we play, four neighbourhood kids, probably 10 or 11-years old, show up and ask to join in the ruckus. I take up a spot on nearby bench to watch the kids play. It’s not long before a man wearing a tracksuit and a stern expression shows up. Within seconds of his arrival, he instantly starts ‘coaching’ the new additions to the kick-about.
“You gotta pass the ball, Brandon,” he shouts. I continue to watch in silence when I hear, “You can’t let him beat you to the ball! For Christ’s sake, we worked on this in practice!”
After a few minutes of his extempore instruction, I introduce myself. We chat amid his constant interjections while the kids play. “I’m their coach. That tall one right over there, he’s my son. I tell him every practice, ‘don’t get beat on the dribble’ and ‘run through the opponent’, and it pisses me off when they don’t listen.”
I refrain from judging this man as it’s clear we see the game differently. Where I see a pickup game, he sees a practice session, which raises a valid question, what’s the difference between football practice and training?
Practice vs. Training
Practice is the act of rehearsing a behaviour over and over; or, repeatedly engaging in an activity for the main purpose of improving at that activity, hence the phrase “practice makes perfect”. Teams practice to prepare for meaningful competition. Playing a new position, formation, or implementing a new tactical philosophy takes a great deal of practice. In essence, practice is a method of learning and acquiring rehearsed experience using and applying specific skills rather than the actual acquisition of these specific skills. Practice takes place in a controlled environment designed for rehearsed run-throughs prior to actual game play.
So, if practice makes perfect, what does training make? Training should be regarded as the acquisition of specific knowledge, skills, and abilities resulting from coached and un-coached needs related to a particular discipline. For example, working on passing requires training exercises designed for passing, not necessarily holistic game play. Training’s main goal is lodged in the push for marked and measurable improvement of a a specific skill through their performance output.
Performance output is the quantitative and often, exhaustive measure of a player’s ability to perform a specific task or a series of tasks. In other words, true training tests performance inputs such as: a player’s capability and capacity to learn combined with new concept retention derived from the demonstration of maximal levels of productivity and performance in task-based activities by a player. Technical work falls into the category of training while a player’s application of that learned or acquired technical ability is true practice.
To better illustrate functional training across athletic disciplines, frame a footballer’s training session in the context of competitive runner’s or weightlifter’s training session. In each discipline, the training session is like a metaphorical bucket of water the athlete has to carry around. When the training starts, a small hole is cut into the bucket and water, a player’s ability to train, starts pouring out. Players have a limited amount of time in a training session until their ability to train (the water) runs out. At the end of a functional training session a player should feel as though they’ve been physically and mentally pushed. The increased frequency and duration an athlete can train well when they’re depleted, the fitter, stronger, and better they become over time.
A misconception with functional training revolves around the idea of mastery. Generally, less-talented or experienced players have little idea what mastery actually is; whereas more talented and experienced players tend to dip a toe into the waters of mastery, but usually stop short of prolonged immersion training out of fear of exiting their comfort zone. Elite players make mastery the objective of their training and aim to exist entirely out of their comfort zone. Naturally, these exceptional players account for the smallest percentage of players and recognise the need to push the thresholds on a regular basis. All of these sport-specific skill-sets require the following: learning, retention of skills and methods, repetition and deep practice, practice prior to meaningful competition, and revisiting fundamental skills to increase their performance output. There’s no way around this process. Executing the fundamentals (in a technical sense) to the point nearing degrees of mastery demonstrates progress.
Naturally, players will cut corners, fall behind in their respective talent pool, stagnate where others advance, and possibly halt their attempts at progress without mastering the basics. Good players survive on effort; better players thrive on ability, however, surviving on effort will only take a player so far. Valuing effort over skill and technique hides gaps in a player’s game that are exposed against superior opposition. Such appraisals result in disproportional attitudes of proficiency. For example, what’s exceptional for Player A might be the “entry fee” for Player B. In short, Player B will likely have a higher performance output than Player A.
We must not ignore the “X” factor or variable: talent. Players lacking coordination and balance, creativity, confidence, resilience, and who refuse to be challenged or are simply unable to challenge themselves, will plateau and are simply passed up and left behind by the game. Regardless of their developmental stage, players can only cover up technical deficiencies for so long. Far too often, coaches use practice to institute training basics thus undermining total team progression. For example, a coach who decides to dedicate structured practice time to modify drills and accommodate an inadequate technical level in a drill is better off dedicating more training time for those specific skills.
Although contact time with players and teams is limited, coaches habitually opt to shoehorn too many different football competencies into one session. Consider an exercise focusing on “playing out of the back”. On the surface this is a simple drill. However, with players who don’t check their shoulder, can’t pivot on the ball, take a positive first touch, assess the play, and pass the ball proficiently, the practice is no longer about “playing out of the back”. Rather, it’s now a required training session to address technical problem areas and allow time for specific skill repetition. In addition to coaching feedback, the onus must be on players to self-identify areas of their game they need to improve.
According to documentation from a seminar conducted by France’s World Cup-winning coach, Aimé Jacquet, (who also oversaw the progress of France’s golden generation) up until the age of 16, promising French players focus largely on individual technique. Each player under the FFF tutelage is required to form a relationship with the ball. Improvement in their touch, passing, shooting, and dribbling must occur before tactics are introduced – the central idea being players must be good with both feet and be able play with their head up at speed. Much criticism can be traced back English andAmerican ideals placing too much emphasis on physique and physical tools and not enough on technique.
According to Jacquet, players must spend two hours a day, five days a week on their skills. Without the frontloading of this training, players won’t play with the speed and creativity to excel. Taking observations from Alfred Galustian’s methodology, team success comes down to the abilities of individual players. When the parts of the machine are faulty, the machine doesn’t function as well. In academy settings across Europe the alignment with the belief in technique-based development at young ages indicates skill without speed is useless. By the time a player is 15-16-years old, it’s the game that threatens to leave them behind.
Practice sessions at top professional academies stem from basic tasks carried out with speed, intensity, and require players to carry out movements under duress with higher rates of success (output). This can’t happen with technically deficient players. The complexity of a top-level drill is layered on mastery of the basics. Examining the French Football Federation’s approach to player development, the differences between training and practice are evident in Thierry Henry’s (pictured) development. Henry began training at Clairefontaine at 13, where the technical aspects of the game were emphasised over physical work. Repeated skill work in isolated sessions expedited his route to technical mastery. This process enabled Henry to learn and master skills away from match play before using them in matches.
Both practice and training sessions require a balanced ratio of instruction and activity performance. Self-analysis allows coaches to think of all the wasted moments in a practice or training session lost to the unnecessary. Players and coaches don’t get that time back. In any team practice there’s plenty of “down time”, a byproduct of verbose coaching, distracted players off to the side, and “drill killers” — players lacking the focus, technical ability, and performance competency to execute the tasks the drill requires. When players with inadequate technical ability are made to perform tasks outside of their skill set and repeatedly fail to play to the standards the drill demands, the issue is two-fold. Firstly, the drills must align with the ability of the collective, not the most skilled player, on the team, the outlier. It’s not uncommon for coaches to introduce drills well above the ability level of the players. Secondly, the player must improve on their time, not the team’s time.
In reviewing the youth academy structure at Real Madrid, the 7-9 age group follows an ethos built on a one ball per player philosophy ensuring young kids with short attention spans learn the importance of balance, get maximum ball touches with all surfaces with both feet, and coordination training in an age where individuality develops. At this age, players care about their individual place in relation to the larger group (the team). With regards to attention span, it’s defined as the “amount of concentrated time and individual spends on a task without becoming distracted”. This makes coach verbosity problematic. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information housed in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the average attention span of adolescents (not seven to nine year olds) in 2014 was eight seconds. To put that in perspective, coaches lose the attention of their players within the first 15 seconds of verbal delivery. Throw in the chaos and action of playing and that finding oscillates between 8 and 12 seconds.
It’s evident that stagnation is cancerous to both practice and training sessions. Stagnation is the result of inaccurate coaching prompts and inadequate coaching, so unless there’s more value in players watching a drill, those not directly involved gain little from standing off to the side for prolonged periods of time. Bored players become disinterested players, which can curtail the session for everyone. Effective coaching methods require players to engage in “secondary involvement”. Players engaged in active recovery periods should be tasked with ball work as opposed to standing idly by while their peers continue to play. Quoting Manchester United’s Assistant Academy Director, Tony Whelan, “Seven to ten is the golden age of learning, so we work on their technique at a young age.” At Real Madrid, stagnation occurs when “games of interest” are shelved for overly-complicated drills and activities. In both academies, the philosophy is carried out patient consistency. Young player are not young adults.
In observing top academy training sessions, it’s clear coach talking is held to a consistent minimum. When coaches calculate the amount of time they talk while during stoppages of play, much can be derived from practiced habit. There’s a valuable phrase, “Coaches can say a million things by saying nothing at all”. Observation is much more effective than a constant stream of white noise play-by-play on behalf of the coach.
Much like at Ajax’s famed academy De Toekomst, at Liverpool’s famed youth training facility in Kirkby, coaches allow players to work on their communication, maximising on the ability to listen to inter-squad telling instead of hyper-correcting every nuance of the practice. Stateside, I watched two different academies practice on separate occasions and totalled 23 and 27 minutes of “down time” during each 90-minute session. My observation isn’t to devalue the role of coach instruction during practice, but that’s a significant amount of time that can’t be recovered. At top academies, direct instruction never leads to coaches performing the drill for the players, nor is it time for soapbox grandstand lectures. Additionally, indirect instruction is not “silent time” or guised as an opportunity for snide, sarcastic, and unproductive remarks to the team.
In direct observation of academy training sessions at PSV Eindhoven, Ajax, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Club Atlas, the biggest reason for stagnation in a practice or training session stemmed from three things. Set-piece training, lengthy direct instruction, and post-error hyper-corrective lectures, each of which are the biggest time thieves of a football training session. If set-pieces are part of the team’s tactical plan and integral to its success, players shouldn’t be introduced to “new” set-pieces during a training session. Instead, they should be provided details ahead of time in an absorbable format. Coaches who present, explain, and teach set-pieces in advance equip players with an opportunity to learn concepts before actual practice. A major takeaway from each academy was players are responsible for being well-versed on the session’s objectives; coaches are responsible for giving them the means to make this happen.
Every player has something to improve. A common practice in traditional settings is to simply hand a player a piece of paper with a workout, which means nothing if the players aren’t incentivised to follow through with the prescribed workout. At top academies, assessment comes in all forms. At Club Atlas, for example, it was made clear no coach can improve for the players. It was also evident the best players were usually those willing to address weaknesses and turn them into strengths with more frequency than their teammates and opponents.
With young players, ability and confidence are not mutually exclusive. In an article by Henry Winter in 2005 based on Manchester United’s youth academy’s implementation of small-sided games, René Meulensteen, at the conclusion of training session, gathered the U9s together in a circle and said, “You all have the ability, but do you have the confidence to play in front of 10,000 people, 20,000, 30,000? Use all your time training. Don’t waste it. Learn. Train hard, work hard. Take responsibility.”
Recall the comparison of practice and training sessions with serious running and weightlifting regimens. Effective programs yielding the best performance output are similar to weekly training plans in distance running or Olympic weight lifting. The reality is athletes failing to follow a plan from start to finish seldom reach performance goals expeditiously, if at all. For instance, marathon runners who can’t follow a training plan, with all of its idiosyncrasies like tempo and distance runs, speed work, strength training, agility exercises, will find actual racing (competition) extremely difficult.
There’s a reason people refer to strength exercises as “strength training” not “strength practice”. This is because the specific training is geared towards an athlete’s ability to address their weaknesses en route to yielding maximum performance output. Athlete A can’t lift weights so Athlete B can reap the benefits just as footballers can’t put the extra time in training with any hope to improve their teammates. Coaches and players who institute plans and see them to completion understand the value of consistency regarding performance output. Progress and improvement are gained in chunks of time. For instance, let’s say the majority of fitness, skill-based, and strength programs last around six weeks. More often than not, players and coaches fail to see plans through from start to finish for various reasons. But, even if it’s a catastrophe, it’s still only six weeks out of a player’s life.
Fundamentally, football development isn’t rigid and progressive like development in other sports. With so many factors affecting progress and with more players subjected to thorough vetting processes, the development of measurable training histories has become more common. For example, if a player has been training for ten years, how many six-week periods do they have in their training history? The answer is approximately 86 individual training sessions over a ten year span. The reason viewing training this way holds significance is because traditional team practice sessions don’t focus on the individual, nor should they. Theoretically, a player needs to be on the right developmental path for around ten years (or 10,000 hours) before the game threatens to pass them by. Players who start playing in the six to eight-year old age range will ideally be prepared to play at whatever the appropriate “next” level is by the time they’re 16-18.
Of course, a player’s development is littered with unknowns. Team practices will not address the needs of individuals the way individual training will. Conversely, training is not a replacement for practice. The two are supplementary to one another. The players who lead their talent pools tend to be dominant because of flawless mechanics and consistency. Skill sports demand a high degree of repeatable delivery of a skill on a consistent basis. Regardless of the level of football, there is a stark difference between training and practice. In the words of legendary marathoner, Tom Fleming, “Somewhere in the world someone is training when you are not. When you race him, he will win.”
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3