Soccer in the US is going through a major era of transition. The new Play-Practice-Play model, implemented by US Soccer aims to revamp the traditional session plan in favor of a completely new philosophy. According to US Soccer “The concept of Play-Practice-Play is to allow young players to experience the game and game-like situations as much as possible. This approach differs from traditional practices that may have children standing in lines, running laps and participating in drills that don’t resemble the game of soccer” (1). In its essence play practice play aims to develop players through game like situations only. In this methodology there is no room for unopposed practice or drills. This is not a post discussing the pros and cons of Play-Practice-Play (I’m saving that one for later). Rather, I wanted to outline the value that I think unopposed practice still possesses and how there is still room for it during training sessions.
Opposed vs Unopposed Training
The inspiration for this blog post came from a U.S. Soccer Coaching License Courses that I recently attended. I’ve had the Play-Practice-Play philosophy outlined and most coaches have been flexible in their understanding of it and saw it as something to integrate into traditional training sessions. The instructor of this course, however, was adamant that there was no room for unopposed drills or technique work of any kind during practice sessions. His argument was that in order for kids to more effectively learn the game of soccer they must learn all the skills in a game like scenario. A sound argument and not one I disagree with. I believe that you have to maximize the time you have with the players. What I do take issue with however is that we need to have one without the other. It is my opinion that the majority of every team training session should comprise of opposed play. In order to develop relevant skills, team training should present players with scenarios that most closely resemble an actually game. I should highlight here that I said “majority” of each “Team Training”. In order to master basic skills I personally believe that there is room for unopposed training within practice. It all comes down to what maximizes training time. The following is just some of the benefits that I believe unopposed training possesses and how you coaches can utilize it to maximize their training time.
Technical Skill Acquisition
The game of soccer is all about decision making. The best players make the best decision the majority of the time. This would play into the argument that opposed training is more effective to develop skills, as a player has to be able to make good decisions under pressure. But in order to do this a player first needs a base level of technical ability so that they are able to stop thinking about the ball and start thinking about the players around them. In order to acquire these technical skills, players must practice them over and over until conscious thought become the subconscious and the mind can focus on making the correct decisions. This is where unopposed training comes in to play. If a player was consistently exposed in pressured play and game like scenarios, the number of repetitions they would be able to perform would decrease dramatically. It has been suggested that a player will only have the ball between 60 and 90 seconds during a game (2). If this is the case and a player only ever is exposed to a few repetitions of focussed practice during an opposed drill then how can a base level of technique be established?
The argument I have heard to this point is often “Players should be practicing on their own at home” and this is where all unopposed practice should take place. I don’t disagree that players should practice on their own in order to hone technical skills. But what that says to me is that the coach is not taking ownership of a players technical development and placing it entirely on a player. Practice outside of established training sessions is very important. But it has to be focussed practice with correct technique. A player may practice incorrect passing technique again and again on their own at home and then can’t complete the desired pass during a game, even though the correct decision has been made. Correct technique is taught first unopposed so as to maximize the repetitions. This is why I think supplemental training is important. I may be biased (being a supplemental trainer myself) but I think coaches should take ownership of players technique during practice. A youth player who cannot pass the ball effectively is going to be even more ineffective when under pressure. Instruction and skill acquisition during unopposed play first then becomes the most effective way of maximizing training time.
Both international and premier league coaches include unopposed passing patterns in their training sessions. Pep Guiardiola is a big proponent of unopposed pattern play. With all of the teams he has coached, training will often include unopposed patterns that may be prevalent within a game. It is first worth acknowledging that youth soccer teams are not Manchester City. It is also worth recognizing that soccer is not a sport where you can design plays. It is a constantly changing picture and no two situations are the same. But unopposed play can be used to help players recognize patterns that occur often during games. Playing into the strikers feet occurs is often an effective way to get the ball up the field. But this requires a striker checking into the space to receive and players recognizing that a pass into the striker is available. The most effective way to recreate this situation, and conduct many repetitions of it, would first be doing this in an unopposed pattern. Unopposed play allows players to recognize certain situations as and when they occur. It teaches players to look for the striker first and recognize cues. After they understand where to look and what to look for, then defenders can be introduced. It all goes back to maximizing your time during training. Having players start in opposed pattern play first will reduce the chance of success and understanding. Starting the players in unopposed play first allows them time to recognize and understand through many repetitions. Opposed play after this allows for the progression of decision making.
In my opinion, unopposed training also has its benefits when developing confidence in players. Starting a player off against a defender means less successful reps. This only exacerbated when a weaker player comes up against a stronger defender. We have all been in training sessions where a player may do everything you told them to do but does not have a chance of executing a drill because a defender is just too strong or quick for them to be successful. Unopposed play on the other hand increases the chances of players successfully completing drills. Developing confidence in the drill or technique first increases the chances that players may use it in a game as they have previously been successful in executing. How likely is player to try something in a game if they have never previously successfully complete that drill?
Training sessions are about maximizing your time. An effective training session will allow players to progress and learn the most in the time they have available to practice. In order to develop decision making the majority of team practice should comprise of opposed play. However, there is room for unopposed play during training sessions. Skill acquisition, recognizing patterns, and developing confidence are just some of the benefits of unopposed play. I think that there is still room for unopposed play in modern training sessions. Unopposed or opposed it is all about what you, as a coach, thinks will allow players to progress most effectively.
- Matt Needham
Beestera Soccer Training
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