Big Picture Soccor

How I Plan My Games: A Constraints Led Approach

The philosopher Mike Tyson once said “Everybody has plan until they get punched in the face”. Plans are a dime a dozen these days. The problem is, most of these plans don’t even step in ring, let alone take a punch. They tend to be vague, and lack detailed enough instructions to be of much practical use  Although Big Picture Soccer is a zoomed-out look at the game, the goal is to bring that perspective into the ring and connect philosophy to action. What I’m going to do is a step-by-step breakdown of how I use the Big Picture philosophy to create a game or activity. While this is mainly geared towards coaches, parents and players can get a behind the scenes look at what goes into planning an activity.


Step 1: I plan my activities based on something called “affordances”, which are opportunities that the environment presents to a player. Another way of thinking of it is matching problems with solutions – like a puzzle.


The implication of this way of thinking is that the situation or environment is equally important to the skill being performed. Teaching skills outside of their environmental context is like only teaching =4 without the 2+2 half of the equation. The environment here is a defender who has committed his body weight or momentum in a way that affords the changing of direction. There are several answers to this questions, but we’ll see which ones come out soon.


To create an activity for this affordance we have to think about the situation in which a defender would commit his body weight in a real game. I would say that opportunities create more opportunities. Defenders must commit when they are faced with an attacker who has an opportunity and signals that they are able to take advantage of that opportunity. For example, if you are in front of an empty net the defender must commit (usually with a full out slide) because there is a very obvious opportunity to score. This then creates a secondary opportunity to change direction into the space that the defender has vacated.


So our first clue in the creation of the game is that we must present the attacker with an opportunity. Ok, time to get in the ring and create something practical. Here’s the set up.

The attacker O scores by dribbling over the red line. That simple. What I’m going to show you is how changing the constraints creates very different games. Note the position of both players on the far left side of the box. Without me even saying, players will recognize the opportunity that this affords.


What emerges out of this initial set up is that the attacker can win simply by dribbling quickly to the far right corner. This is the space farthest from the defender, and it may be exploited without much skill if the attacker dribbles at full speed.

What would happen if we moved the players to the middle of their edges?

In this case, the defender is now directly in the center of the red space (attacker’s angles of success) At first this might not seem like a big deal, but when we remove that initial opportunity, the defender no longer needs to commit any momentum laterally, which removes the opportunity to change direction into the space behind them.


In this situation the players are learning that when they attack the far right corner with speed, it forces the defender to commit momentum laterally. It’s crucial that the attackers utilize this affordance fully. It’s the foundation that the change of direction rests on. I usually wouldn’t even mention the change of direction yet.

Notice how if the attacker begins slowly, the defender’s angle becomes much less lateral, which again removes the opportunity for changing direction.


Ok, so starting position and the attacker’s intention are necessary conditions, but what about the dimensions of the area?

If we shift the dimensions so that the box is now narrower, it also removes that initial opportunity. The defender will be able to reach the middle of the box and center their body weight before the attacker has reached them. You might notice I haven’t included actual dimensions. This is because it’s not enough to say create a 15×20 box – the parameters that bring out the opportunity will be different for every team. I’m trying to give you the tools to find these parameters.


Ok, so we’ve got the initial parameters set. When does this change of direction come in?

The opportunity to change direction presents itself behind the defender who has committed momentum laterally. Players will figure this out on their own pretty easily if the parameters are set correctly. Only now that the stage is set do we even think about the skill. From a coordination perspective, the easiest way to accomplish this is to use the inside of the right foot to draw the ball across the attacker’s left and into the red shaded space that the defender has vacated, but there are numerous other solutions.


If skills are solutions to puzzles, or keys to locks, we often give the key and hope that the proper lock appears. The problem isn’t that our kids don’t have “skills”, they don’t understand which situations require which skills. If I just taught the movement of drawing the ball across the body with the inside of the foot (usually called an inside cut) it would tell the players little about when to use that skill.


See, the skill isn’t some trump card the player pulls out to magically vanquish the defender. Players may get away with this for a little bit at low levels, but as the level gets higher all skills become situationally appropriate solutions. The attacker didn’t set out with the intention of cutting the ball to the left, they only implemented the solution when the situation appeared. Does this mean the attacker can only react to the movements of the defender? Here’s where it gets tricky. In our situation, the defender was reacting to the attacker potentially dribbling straight to the corner, which created lateral momentum, which created the situation that the attacker then reacted to by changing direction to the left. In this case, that was all a reaction to the dimensions and rules of the game. So who’s acting and who’s reacting in a real game? The truth is the causal chain has no clear beginning.


Let’s take it one step further. If the game has been set up properly and the attackers have organically learned how to change direction when the situation appears, the defenders will also learn to look for this. At this point, some clever player will slow down slightly and begin the change of direction but then continue straight to the corner – a fake of a fake. The complexity of interactions between attackers and defenders is unfathomable, and would be called an instability point or bifurcation in nonlinear dynamics. Thankfully by adjusting the parameters of the game intuitively we can avoid the chaos math equations!

So to recap, we look to foster deep learning by controlling the parameters of games in a way that allows these situations and solutions to emerge naturally. Shifting the dimensions of the box two yards might change the game entirely. For me and the nonlinear approach to learning, the main role of the coach is to predict and observe the evolution of these games and adjust the parameters accordingly. Learning of this sort creates players who are comfortable and creative because they recognize situations and are able to apply multiple solutions to solve them. On the surface, it might seem like more coaching points and directions would help this happen faster, but in the long run the players lose the ability to learn for themselves.


“Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly.” – Jean Piaget

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