Last time I touched on how I plan my sessions using a constraints led approach. Today I’m going to try to offer more practical on-the-pitch value by breaking down my favorite training activity and explaining why I like it so much. Since most of us were coached with a lot of top-down instruction, the constraints led approach seems confusing initially. How are players supposed to learn if you don’t tell them what to do? Constraints led coaching also gets confused with the “noble savage” philosophy of the game that points to stars emerging from Brazilian favelas and dusty street soccer games with no coach other than the game itself.
Here’s the game:
The attacker and defender must stay on their respective sides of the center line (can be imaginary). The attacker scores by dribbling (not kicking) the ball onto one of the red goals. You can use cones for these, but I’ve found pinnies work better. The defender may not touch the ball at all. If the defender has his foot on the goal, though, the attacker can not score there. After a set amount of time, the players switch roles. The defender can not score. If the attacker dribbles the ball onto the goal 5 times, the defender needs to beat that score when it’s their turn to dribble.
Of course, there are two goals and one defender, so one goal will always be open. Both players will end up facing each other somewhere in between the two goals. Note that I haven’t specified the distance between the goals. This is for you to figure out on your own.
Simply put, this is the birthplace of deception. Skill is nothing more than the coupling of perception and action. The better the player, the closer the coupling. Rather than being instructed to do a scissors or a step over, the attacker observes the shape and momentum of the defender and figures out what movement to execute based on that information. Let’s say the attacker dips her shoulder to the left. She then gauges the reaction to that movement and reacts to that reaction which causes the defender to react to that reaction (or are they all actions?), and the dynamical dance is underway. You can’t teach this. It can only be learned.
But why is this game better than a regular 1v1? The key is in the rule that the defender can’t touch the ball. Because the defender must still mirror the movements of the attacker as they would in live play, but is unable to take it away, it results in an unbroken chain of action and perception on both sides. This is especially useful with young players because their ability to dribble is far behind their ability to defend. If we removed the constraint, the attacker would get maybe one or two chances to act and perceive. Also, in live play the weaker player get less chances to act and perceive because the stronger player takes the ball from them quickly (poor get poorer), but this allows two players to compete even if there is a skill gap.
Let’s ask a few key questions about the activity. These are questions I like to ask of any activity I create:
Will it transfer to live play? Yes, because it couples action and perception. It is organic organism-environment learning. The movements of the attacker and defender can be seen in live play.
Why choose it over a unconstrained game? As I said above, it provides longer action-perception coupling because the defender can’t steal the ball.
What constraints might I have to change or add? The distance between the goals. The time each player spends attacking. Occasionally players will get very stuck with their backs to the defender. This can keep them from perceiving the movements of the defender, so at times I’ll add a rule that you have to stay facing the other player.
Can it be modified to focus on other parts of the game? Glad you asked. Most of the activities I use are modifications of something I stole from a session I saw. This game lends itself to many modifications if you think creatively.
We could add a second dimension by going from a line to a box. Four goals, three defenders. The attacker now has 360 degrees of freedom instead of two directions. If I play it like this, the defenders are not allowed to cross over each other or enter the box. How could we change the constraints here? Two defenders – four goals, three defenders – five goals, get creative!
Here’s my personal favorite modification
Now it becomes a passing game. Defenders still can’t touch the ball and must defend by putting their foot on the goal. What emerges out of this game is that the attackers need to keep width and switch faster than the defenders can shift. The defenders learn how to shift together and learn to leave the goal farthest from the ball unmarked. Rather than yelling at players to switch it, we can create a game that brings it out naturally. Young players will try to dribble all the way across initially.
This is a good chance for them to learn how to move the ball more quickly without an unnatural touch restriction.
I’m sure there are countless other variations that could be used. Sometimes a small change in the constraints can make the game very different (nonlinearity). Good coaches will be creative in adjusting those constraints in ways that bring out the topic they are teaching.