If you haven't heard it yet, there is a new training methodology in soccer town called Play, Practice, Play. It's not really new. We've been doing it in the context of US Youth Soccer for more than a year now and you'll find correlation with an article titled Teaching Games for Understanding: A Comprehensive Approach to Promote Student’s Motivation in Physical Education published in 2017 (see Resources below for full citation). But it may be new to you. I know it's still new to many who are just coming into the sport and it can have a profound impact on how we look at the game. Let's talk about play, practice, play; what it means to players, coaches, and parents; and what effect it has on the way we look at the game.
As a former multi-sport athlete, the thing I remember the most and perhaps the thing that had the biggest effect on the rest of my life was practice. Games were fun and they certainly gave us a chance to measure progress being made in practice sessions, but practice is where the most growth and development happen. It's where we learn to work as a team, where we get the most guidance on work ethic and behind-the-scenes tips on how to play and improve, and where sweat is forged into gold. As a coach, I put a lot more time and attention into practice than I do into games. I tell my players that they own the games. I own the practices. I make the most difference as a coach on the practice field. That is my classroom. Games are players chance to show what they've learned.
It makes sense to spend time thinking about practice & trying to find the best practice experiences that we can if we want to become better at the sport we love. It makes sense to emphasize practice if we want to maximize the development experience that youth sports gives us both on and off the pitch. This is what US Youth Soccer did when they re-designed the practice methodology.
Play, Practice, Play vs the Four Phase System
Play, Practice, Play is now built into every grassroots coach's training education under US Youth Soccer. For coaches (and players) who have been around for a while, this new system of training stands in contrast to the older Four-phase system. It used to be that we were trained to deliver a warm-up phase to get bodies in motion without injury. That would be followed by three additional phases of training - each one progressively more complex than the last one, and all of them united around a common theme.
An example of a common theme might be a focus on moving as a unit during a defensive phase of play in the defensive third. A progressive series might include warm ups, defending 1v1 down four channels, then defending 2v2 down two channels, then defending 4v4 down one channel, etc. In the fourth phase of this style of practice, we might execute a scrimmage with the hope of seeing the methods taught in training being used on the field in a game-like environment.
This is a coach or curriculum based approach to training. It's designed to progress players through a series of increasingly more challenging scenarios so that at the end, players have hopefully acquired new skills relative to the main theme. this is the way I coached myself for several years and it's still being used in the more competitive training environments. There is nothing wrong with it, but modern thinking is that we lost a lot of players as a result.
Especially in the grass roots programs, motivations to come play are not as focused on on structured development. Fun is a huge motivator. The four phase method of structuring training has more of a "work" based structure that Play, Practice, Play.
Play, Practice, Play, on the other hand placed emphasis on game-like scenarios and fun. It's structured to put kids into game-like situations as soon as they show up on the field. The first phase of training is labeled the "Play" phase. It's the first thing that players are greeted with when they arrive. The thinking here is that if kids have "play" to look forward to right away, they're more apt to show up on time or early.
I like to set up "gathering" exercises. A set up a series of small sided game environments and as players show up, they pick up one of the two colored training vests next to the field and start playing. The first two players play 1v1 into pop-up goals until a third player shows. 1v1 turns into 2v1 until a 4th player shows. 2v2 turns into 2v3, 3v3, etc until the field is full at 4v4. Then newly arriving players start in the 2nd field and build up until that one is full.
This "Play" phase keeps play contains and increasingly pressurizes play as new players arrive. It also serves as a dynamic warm up exercise to get bodies into motion safely.
After a period of time, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, we break for the Practice phase of training. This phase is more directive and is in keeping with the theme of the practice as I talked about earlier. The coach is more involved at this point and engages with the team in constructive ways. This might include additional games that simulate phase of play or field conditions that are the focus of that session.
Finally, the practice phase breaks for a final "Play" phase of training. This is at the end of the session. Players are left to play in a game-like environment - maybe a small-sided game - where once again, the coach is observing for improvements to the team along the lines of the session main theme.
The big difference between the two methods of training is the fact that the play, practice, play method is player centric vs coach centric. There are more game-like activities over drill or exercise activities. Fun during practice is emphasized over structured training.
But a few words of caution:
Taking Care with Play Practice Play
Some coaches, I have noticed, have interpreted their role in a Play, Practice, Play environment to be less important than it was in the traditional four-phase method of training. After all, we're just letting our kids scrimmage more, right? Not exactly.
Just as there is a difference between listening and active listening, there is a difference between just letting the kids play and maximizing the play experience. Maximizing the play experience means carefully designing the environment so that it is the right size for the goals a coach wants to accomplish. Size and shapes matter.
Smaller fields increase pressure and give the upper hand to defense. Larger fields open up more space and give the advantage to the attacking team. Wider square fields emphasize width where narrowing longer fields emphasis penetration under pressure. Goal placement affects direction of play and simulate angled passes or more direct attacks. Larger goals with goalkeepers emphasize playing out from the back and 1v1 with the keepers whereas pop-up goals on either end emphasize lighter, more accurate finishing technique on the ground.
Coaches do well to pay attention to the details of shapes and sizes, numbers and configurations to adjust emphasis in support of training objectives. Coaches also do well to practice active observation.
Observing during play, practice, play sessions actually, in my experience, requires a great deal of focus and flexibility. A coach must be comfortable with the sessions main theme and all the elements he or she wants to teach. The coach has to pick up on those elements and the contributing factors in individual players as they play together in a very loosely structured game. We can't control for variables like we do when we have players work on specific drills or activities, so picking out what's relevant from what's not can be challenging.
Any experienced coach observing any session or game is bound to pick up on a multitude of individual things that players need work on - from body shape to communication. They key in play, practice, play is to notice not only what's relevant and ignore what's not, but to have the instinct to act at the right time. When coaches are trained on this method, it becomes obvious that it's better to "interrupt" run of play action when a player notices themselves that they have tried something that didn't work. If the something that didn't work is related to the session main theme, that's the moment to capture. A coach needs to be alert for those moments.
Timing interruptions in the run of play so that they are most meaningful to players takes a careful eye. No coach should be working their cell phone or checking their email during these play sessions. They must be ready to act in the most meaningful way.
A stoppage in the run of play during the practice phase of training might include a carefully worded dialog and question:
"Freeze where we are!! Take a look at what we just did here... I noticed that Ryan had some difficulty trying to turn the ball under pressure. Do you see that we have two defenders applying pressure here? What could Ryan do to improve the teams chances of getting the ball to the goal? What would happen if, instead of trying to turn into pressure, he passed the ball back to Vincent down the left channel? Could Vincent then play the ball up the center or cross the ball to the right channel? In soccer, we call that playing the ball in the direction we're facing. You guys want to try that? Great! Play!!"
The play, practice, play method would then have us return the players to their game and see how they attempt to now apply the lesson they just learned. The coach acts to guide players on their learning journey. They journey takes place within the game itself.
What to Do With Drills and Structured Activities
I am not saying that drills and structured activities are a thing of the past. In fact, they are still used a lot in more competitive soccer practices. I personally believe they will always have a place in practice sessions of all levels. Lots of touches on the ball still brings confidence. Foot coordination still requires repetition. However, the mixture may change to accommodate the varied interests and motivations of the players we coach. When we're coaching players who are motivated mostly through fun games, then use fun games to teach. When we're coaching players who respond well to drills, repetition, and choreographed activities, then use those to teach.
Sometimes, we just need choreographed finishing drills to ensure everyone gets the maximum number of finishing touches on the ball (including the keeper). It's okay to use them - even in play, practice, play - during the practice portion of the training session. Just be sure to put the players back into a game situation at the end to test for improvements and/or look for areas that still need work.
A Parent's Perspective
I think the most important thing parents need to look for is a coach who is thinking meaningfully about the way they deliver skills and motivation. It's a balancing act for coaches and that balance is different with each new group of players, and often with each new season as our young players grow and mature. What worked last season may not work this season.
In trying to find the ideal team environment for your child, look for coaches who can not only articulate their coaching style and philosophy, but take their own continuing education seriously.
Everything I said today about the play, practice, play coaching method may be replaced by something even better in a few months or a few years. Studies into child psychology, physiology, and communication are improving our understanding of the coaching arts every day. Coaches who educate themselves on a regular basis will be able to bring the latest methods and the biggest tool sets to the field to help your young player develop.
- “Five Things to Know About Play-Practice-Play.” Home - U.S. Soccer, 27 Feb. 2018, www.ussoccer.com/stories/2018/02/five-things-to-know-about-playpracticeplay.
- Hortigüela Alcalá, David, and Alejandra Hernando Garijo. “Teaching Games for Understanding: A Comprehensive Approach to Promote Student's Motivation in Physical Education.” Journal of Human Kinetics, De Gruyter Open, 20 Oct. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5680683/.