The Coerver Approach to Player Development

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Panos Sainidis is Technical Director at Coever Coaching in Greece. He has a degree in physical education from the Università degli Studi di Scienze motorie e sportive (ex-ISEF) in Italy, played for a local amateur clubs in Athens for several years and futsal at a high level during and after he finished his studies. Panos has been coaching for twenty years in several sports but during the last five years has been teaching football using the “Coerver Coaching” method.

Coerver Coaching prioritizes 1v1 training. Why is that so important?

We focus a lot on 1v1 for mental, physical and tactical reasons: –

  • Tactically – it’s a situation that a player will meet hundreds of times in a game so it is a highly necessary and game-related skill. Top-level players target 1v1 moments to break compact defenses, or to pass, shoot or run with it. So it’s obvious that, much of the success of team is dependent on individual and small group skills.
  • Mentally – because it improves what we call the soft skills (that cannot be measured), like concentration, confidence, competition, anticipation, awareness, decision-making and creativity. It also challenges kids to deal with feelings of success and failure, learning to manage them over time. Coever inspires players to have a growth mindset, to be always looking to try new things to become successful.
  • Physically – it improves the hard skills like coordination, flexibility, balance, fast feet, muscle building and strength, and it improves specific football fitness. That is why Robin Van Persie said that “1 v 1 Skills are a must for all players to learn. It’s not just a trick, there is a purpose.”

So how do you go about teaching 1v1 moments to players?

We do it step by step. We start by teaching kids (using star models) independently from the level they are and the talent they have, with each move taken from the Coerver Pyramid of Moves which is part of the Coerver Pyramid of Player Development (8 sets of moves, 47 1v1s, and 18 mirrors) developed and delivered by Alf Galustian and Charlie Cooke over the last 30 years.

We follow this up with the decision-making components around when and where. Some players learn faster than others and are better at applying it. Then we stretch kids out (push them out of their comfort zone), using our method the Coerver skills bridge.  Through well organized sessions where play, practice, exploration, experimentation, and missed decisions are essential components, we assist them in discovering the knowledge that fits for them. In other words, we help them develop their own style in a fun and safe to fail environment.

I focus on praising novice players and challenge them to do the unexpected. Keeping the balance between success and failure is very important. I want them to be successful but not too much because that can be boring and won’t stretch them. Being successful builds confidence, but too much builds arrogance and there is a fine line between these two concepts.

Many top level players seem to focus on 1-2 moves and do them really well. Should players find a move that works really well for them or spend equal time learning several?

It’s true: I’ve noticed that top players use a small number of moves that fit better to them and execute them in a brilliant way. What I also am aware of is that the same players during their daily training routine practice ball mastery and complicated moves. This helps them to move freely with the ball, and to maintain fast feet, but also it is fun. So I‘m convinced that Robben, Messi, Ronaldo know not only Coerver Coaching’s 47 moves but even more.

It’s about having a culture. It’s like school.

If you want to become a doctor you don’t study only biology and anatomy. From an early age you learn how to read and write, mathematics, history, geography and so on. At college you tend to specify your knowledge. Top players learn in a similar way – creating their own signature moves and executing them successfully under pressure. I would advise kids to always try to learn as many as they can, try lots of different sports (even for a short period as it will help them be healthier in the future), dance, acting, study literature, poetry etc. The more they’ll learn the more creative brain they will develop.

At what age should players start to work intensively on Coever-style technical training?

In Coerver Coaching a kid has the chance to start training from the age of 4. We have a program called First Skills, with the aim of bringing them into the magic world of football through a pedagogical approach, which is appropriate for their age. The program improves balance and coordination, through play and fun. It’s a period during which, if youth coaches know what how to do it they will light the football-fire in the kid’s mind and soul.

How does your approach change as they get older?

At 7–11 years old the workout is more intensive. This is the skill acquisition phase, which is very important. At the same time they develop their ego (me and my ball and the opponent phase), and develop their own style. Training is more often, but it’s also more about “deliberate play”, which means that kids come to learn and experience new things through play and fun. They don’t yet understand the value of training, and we as coaches should always try to enhance curiosity and happiness.

12-16 years old is the game effective use of skills phase. The kid progressively transforms into a skillful team player. Deliberate Play transforms into Deliberate Practice. Team, team-play, and cooperation are new social messages, which appear more and more often. Training is now more frequent and intensive than before, as each day the target becomes clearer.

Finally, some will pass to the last phase – which involves position specific training, between 17-21 years old. Training sessions are personalized in relation to a player’s team position.

How do you encourage players to practice moves in their free time outside of organized training sessions?

We give players homework as part of their training. I give them exercises to practice freely at home, which gives them the opportunity to learn to coach themselves. We do it in a competition environment to encourage them to practice harder in order to win and get rewarded.

Rewarding the best player has different impacts upon them. Indirectly, it also acts as a message to the others that effort achieves results. I also reinforce this message by telling them stories about top players and how much homework contributed to their development. Learning that hard work pays back and the satisfaction that comes from knowing you tried your hardest, will help them to overcome obstacles later in life.

Which moves do you think are most effective for players to learn first?

The Coerver Coaching Pyramid of Moves consists of three groups: Change of Direction, Stop and Starts and Fakes and Feints. Each part contains moves categorized in relation to the purpose and defender’s placement: –

  • Fakes and Feints are used to create space either side of a defender so you can run, shoot or pass when the opponent is either in front or behind the attacker;
  • Change of Direction is used to shield the ball and to turn into space when the defender is either beside or in front of the attacker; and
  • Stop and Starts can create space by using changes of pace when the defender is to the side of the attacker.

Changes of Direction moves are very useful to shield the ball and to turn into spaceand considered as foundation moves to the “possession game”. That’s why top midfield players like Xavi use them hundreds of times in a game to protect the ball, and create space to pass or run with it. For example a team cannot afford to lose the ball in the middle third of the pitch while attacking, because a quick split pass can create severe problems to an unbalanced defensive line. That’s why midfielders use these moves very often in order to complete their main mission, which is to protect the ball.

How do you like to set up your 1v1 grids and what do you vary?

Setting up a grid has to do with the topic the coach wants to teach. I try to set up a grid that allow me to progress throughout the training session making the fewest changes possible. In this way I don’t lose training time making big changes. This is important because losing five minutes per training activity, four times a week, means losing 4000 minutes per year.

I vary the size of the grid in order to change pressure and the shape of the grid in order to constrain them to use the daily topic’s set of moves more frequently. I change goals and number of players to enhance problem solving and creativity, and keep them engaged and focused. Some other changes prevent them from feeling bored. All these changes have a clear purpose, which is to keep their brains in a learning mode as much as possible.

How much of a typical 75-90 minute team training session should be spent on individual and 1v1 technical training? Does it vary by age?

As I mentioned before 1v1 is a hot topic in Coerver Coaching and in football too. So when 1v1 is the training day’s topic all activities are designed around it. The aim of a well-planned training session is to be up to date and to progressively expose kids to all possible situations associated with the topic. At the same time, players need to face all possible problems and discover different solutions to each one. When kids are able to solve a problem unconsciously, fast and in an unexpected way, we can talk about them having skills that will be sustained in high pressure situations.

When you build to bigger numbers (2v2 up to 11v11) how do you teach players to know when to pass and when to try to win 1v1?

During the skill acquisition phase 1v1 and 2v2 are the main focus of my training plan. That doesn’t mean that I exclude small-sided games (conditioned or unconditioned) with larger number of players (3v3-4v4). I include them in every session because they are fun, the conditioned ones constrain them to learn and create more problems to solve because they are even more game related. I use small-sided games involving even larger number of players when I want one team to be outnumbered like 5v3, 6v4, 8v4 but never 11v11.

In small sided games kids will try to beat players 1v1, but I can easily constrain them to pass the ball and be member of the team. Through patience and well-planed sessions I manage to help them grow up in football terms. Practicing lots of 1v1s is a phase that all kids have to pass through, and of course it’s not the only answer. For us, Coerver Coaching is a foundational skill for kids to acquire during the development years.

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