Planning Practices

If you were playing bingo on a coaching course, the phrase you would want to make sure is on your card would be “failing to prepare is being preparing to fail” as they can’t help but mention it at some point.  No matter what course you take, planning practices is central to the teaching. Although the templates look different, both USSF and NSCAA require plans for every practice and final teaching you do on their courses.

I met with a coach recently who said he only planned sessions when he was on courses or when he knew he was going to be evaluated by his club director. His reasoning for it was that he never used the plan during the practice so why bother writing one? In this section we will try to show why writing plans can actually improve the quality of your sessions, even if you never actually look at it.

Why?

During practices, plans are like having your speech written for you. Have you ever had that nightmare where you are standing up on a stage, maybe you are best man at a wedding, or collecting that Best Actress Oscar? The room goes quiet, waiting for what you are going to say, when suddenly your mind goes blank. We’ve all had coaching moments like this, albeit probably without Ryan Seacrest or that drunken new father-in-law falling into the cake. Having any form of plan you can reach into your pocket for can save you from losing the focus of your players.

Plans also force us to think about what we are going to do, rather than just making it up as we go along. They make our brains go over it several times subconsciously before the start, improving upon the original idea. When you actually coach, you will do better than if you had gone with the first idea that came into your head. Plans also require us to structure the practice from start to finish, which helps you to stick to your topic and actually show your players how it applies at different levels of difficulty and complexity.

How?

Plans can take many forms. Some coaches like to handwrite them on cue cards, some like to print them from their computer. We recommend trying a few different ways, then sticking with whatever works for you (i.e. which one are you most likely to continue to actually do). Below we have included a few different plans taken from evaluations. See if you can work out how useful and well planned each one is.

planning3

Once you’ve worked out what your plan is going to look like, the next step is to get writing. Below is a suggestion for the steps you should take in writing a plan: –

  1. Have a topic. Ideally you have a season plan set out for what your team will be learning, so you just get it from there. Having a long term plan is proven to be more effective than having a knee-jerk approach where you say “we got scored on from two crosses this weekend so I am going to work on defending crosses” as long as your primary focus is on developing players rather than winning games.
  2. From that topic, think about how you can get a lot of repetitions of it as part of a warm up, then how you will develop it over several progressions to increase the difficulty and complexity to climax in a regular scrimmage environment. The idea is that players first practice the skill in an open environment with no pressure from defenders. They practice it a lot, increasing their confidence and success. Gradually we add in direction, teammates, and pressure to help them to perform that same skill in a more and more realistic game environment. Eventually they get to play a regular scrimmage to see how that skill is actually part of the game of soccer.
  3. The warm up should do exactly what it says – warm up players’ muscles and increase their heart rate. It also subconsciously focuses them on the practice. Running laps around the field is not considered an acceptable warm up. If you only have 90 minutes to coach, why waste 5-10 minutes of it on running around the field? “I scrubbed those dreadful, monotonous laps from the training routine. I put the ball down and we played football.” (Brian Clough) “We don’t develop aerobic capacity by running, we do it by playing three against three.” (Jose Mourinho). Find a way to get every playing having lots of repetitions of some aspect important to your topic. This is a great time to focus on technique too – working on the quality of receiving, passing, tackling or other components of the game.  Gradually you can increase the coaching points, distance, and difficulty to get the moving off the ball in their three, while simultaneously warming up their muscles. After each couple of minutes of activity, bring in dynamic stretches to increase player flexibility without increasing their risk of injury (which static stretching can do at this stage).
  4. Activities’ timing should follow the rule of age. In 90 minutes you should be going through 2-3 progressions before scrimmaging. These should be broken up with water breaks and group coaching moments. If an activity is going well (“flowing”), you can always modify your session to give it more time, as long as you are still challenging players and getting the development you want from it. Equally, if things are not working out, you can try changing activity or move to an alternative that you had planned, as long as you are sure that what you are currently doing is not going to work out.
  5. Transitions are important for each activity. A transition is a change to the restrictions of the activity. For example, after they have had success in a 4v2 game, you can transition it to 4v3, or change the size of the playing area. We like to have several transitions available for each activity. If the team are enjoying the game, this allows you to keep them in the same activity but still challenge them.
  6. All practices end in some form of scrimmage. In the old days practices would be all dribbling around cones, which was nice to watch, but players didn’t necessarily understand why they did it, since there were no cones to dribble around during their Saturday games. By scrimmaging at the end you can show them how your topic and what you have been practicing today really applies in the game of soccer. You can change the team formations and size of the field to try to bring out whatever topic you are teaching, but we recommend keeping the rules of the game as normal as possible (no neutrals, regular sized goals, regular laws).
  7. Correctly cooling down after practice is also vital for several reasons. This should take the form of light exercise for 5-10 minutes, lowering the heart rate and possibly reducing lactic acid build-up in muscles (depending how old the players are, and which research you believe!). It also gives you a good time to discuss what they just learned with the players. Static stretching then can take place with a player leading, to help develop team spirit and leadership.
  8. Rate your session. Write a few notes on the plan saying whether it worked well for this age group and what you might change if you ever did it again. Keep it somewhere safe.

Don’t know where to start? USSF and NSCAA both have lesson plan templates you can use. There are also several software applications you can download that will help you to write lesson plans on a computer and file them for you.

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