Train of Thought – Situating training exercises in their appropriate place on the pitch

The mental side of the beautiful game is at least as important as the physical side, but is often neglected by coaches in training sessions. In this series, Travis Norsen, author of Play With Your Brain, will discuss small tweaks to standard training exercises and the large positive effects they can have on players’ decision-making and soccer intelligence. This week, Travis explores why you should situate your training exercises in their appropriate place on the pitch.

Like other coaches who recognize that (as Johan Cruyff pointed out) football/soccer “is a game you play with your brain”, I try to incorporate game-realistic decision-making into everything I ask kids to do during training sessions. Traditional skill-focused drills, in which kids stand in lines waiting to perform some pre-assigned physical action, just don’t transfer well to in-game performance.  Becoming a good soccer player means not just learning how to perform various physical skills, but learning how to decide when, where, and why to perform them.  Therefore, I always prefer exercises that require that kind of cognitive engagement — so players are learning when, where, and why to perform a certain action as they practice the action itself.

But there is a spectrum here. Not all drills and activities will achieve the highest pinnacle of cognitive engagement. Sometimes, in short, the players just need to hone their performance of a certain physical action. The point I want to develop here is that there is a simple thing coaches can and should do, to improve the transfer of skills to in-game performance, even when doing activities where cognitive engagement is otherwise fairly low.

To start with a somewhat ridiculous example, suppose that in the game on Saturday, your team was penalized 10 or 15 times for illegal throw-ins, and tended to always lose the ball on throw-ins even when the throw-ins were legal.  So you decide to spend 15 minutes at practice on Monday just working on throw-ins.  (I consider this example “somewhat ridiculous” because I personally would probably never spend precious practice time this way, but bear with me.)  In particular, suppose you decide to have the kids line up in pairs and practice a way of doing throw-ins that is more likely to allow the team to keep possession:  the thrower throws the ball to the feet of her partner, who immediately one-touches it back to the feet of the thrower, who is now in a good position to do something smart with the ball.    

Now my point is simple.  I have often seen activities like this happening at some random place in the middle of the field that the team is practicing on, as shown in the left panel below.  But if you’re going to have the kids doing this activity, wouldn’t it be better to have them do it in the place on the field where the activity would be happening during a game, as shown in the right panel?  

Just this one trivially simple change will help your players remember and understand what they are practicing and why, and will greatly improve the likelihood that the skill you’re practicing successfully transfers to next weekend’s game.  

Another example.  Suppose you want your players to work on passing and receiving technique.  So you have them make groups of 4 and simply pass the ball around a square of cones with some technical instruction:  create space to receive the pass by retreating a few steps from the cone (which can be thought of as a stationary defender), receive with your back foot and an open body shape, and pass the ball to the next player’s back foot with your second touch.  

This is, I think, a perfectly reasonable drill.  But where should it be done on the field?  

If you don’t really think about that question and just use some random available space in the middle of the field, the drill might end up looking like the left panel below.  But note that this creates a number of unfortunate effects.  For example, the players are making nothing but square horizontal and straight-forward/backward vertical passes.  And there are two players clogging the same wide channel along both sidelines.  And your team’s goalie may experience no connection at all to what they will be doing in the game on Saturday.

By simply putting the squares of cones in different places (and orientations), though, like in the right panel above, the same exact passing drill can be made to involve much higher-quality and game-realistic passing.  For example, now we have (far superior) diagonal forward and backward passes, wingers with their backs to the sidelines receiving/making passes from/to more interior spaces, and even a highly game-relevant role for a goalkeeper.  

The lesson should be clear.  If you are, occasionally, going to have your players simply practice some technical skill without a large element of decision-making, you can make the drill much more game-realistic and hence much more likely to translate into improved game play, simply by putting some thought into where to situate the drill on the practice pitch.  

And by the way, the point applies quite generally, not just to technical drilling on the low-cognitive-engagement end of the spectrum.  Even activities with a bigger inherent decision-making element — say, a 4v2 rondo — can be improved by situating them thoughtfully on the pitch.  For example, you could easily set up three rectangles for three 4v2 rondos so that the three groups of four offensive players are in roughly the positions shown in the right panel above, and now practicing the same high-quality and positionally-relevant diagonal passing with defensive pressure and more freedom/necessity to move appropriately off the ball.  

So, whatever you do with your team at your training sessions, put some thought into where, exactly, to do it, and you’ll see everything you’re working on (even your less game-like training exercises) translate more efficiently into improved play in games. 

So there it is! Why you should situate your training exercises in the exact area of the pitch that they take place in during games. If this article resonated with you, be sure to give it a clap, comment below and follow on Twitter @coachingtms. Be sure to check out more of Travis’ work on Train of Thought below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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more in this series

You might also enjoy…

-> 13 Warm-Up Activities with the Ball
-> Restricted vs. Conditioned Games – Coaching Soccer
-> Progressive Possession – Full Session Plan & Key Coaching Points


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