Coaching To Create Thinking Footballers

Friday, March 18, 2016

By Dave Reynolds SANFL Development Coach

The best players in our game seem to have more time than others with the ball, constantly make the right decisions and know where the ball is going before anyone else. They are the thinking footballers. But can we as coaches teach these aspects? Here are some ways.

Setting up the Learning Environment
I always encourage coaches to question everything they do, especially their choice of training activities.

• Why am I doing this activity?
• Does this activity focus on improving an identified area of improvement?
• Are the players practicing in similar game constraints that they would find in the game?

Hawthorn Football Club’s Sam Mitchell is regarded as one of the best (if not the best) kicks in the AFL. After hearing him talk about elite kicking recently he said “we probably do less kicks at training than most clubs, but more kicks in decision making environments”. This is reflected with Hawthorn being regarded as the best kicking team in the AFL, an element that has significantly contributed to them winning the past three premierships.

Small sided games are a great way to allow players to repeatedly practice an aspect of the game under game constraints. Modified numbers and game rules ensure players have more opportunities to perform the identified task, maximising development opportunities.

Game based activities under guidance improves player decision making, leading to better use of the ball under pressure, improved ability to identify and create space, understand movement patterns, contribute to team play and tactical game appreciation - creating thinking footballers.

Facilitate the Learning
There will be numerous teachable moments throughout a training session. As these moments arise you will have three options to help facilitate the learning. 

1. Tell the players your feedback
2. Allow the players to self-assess and learn from their mistakes
3. Ask the players open, relevant questions to allow them to generate the answer

Player Self-Assessment
As coaches we want to pass on our ‘wisdom’ learnt from our experience, education and assessment of the game. But one of the hardest things for coaches to do is to keep quiet and allow players to self-assess and learn from their mistakes.

Alistair Clarkson (Hawthorn FC Coach) speaks about “Let the game do the teaching” and “Modify small sided game constraints to achieve desired learning outcomes, using the game constraints as the teaching tool”.

The art of coaching is figuring out when we should intervene and when we should let players figure it out. A good guide is to intervene if players continue to make the same mistakes, if it’s a one off event give them the opportunity to learn from their mistake.

Telling Feedback vs Using Questioning
Do your players completely understand your feedback when you tell them? And do you want players to have to depend on you to assess and develop all of the solutions?

To create thinking footballers we want our players to learn to assess situations, problem solve and create strategies to improve. Allowing the players to develop the answers from focused questions teaches them to go through this process as well as maximise the learning from each situation.

Empowering Player Decision Making
If we want players to develop into leaders and be capable of strategizing and problem solving on the ground, we as coaches need to take responsibility to develop this aspect.

Creating opportunities at trainings such as tactical time outs where players are provided opportunities to assess outcomes and develop their own strategies at training can significantly improve this aspect, allowing them to problem solve in game like environments. When faced with similar situations in games they will feel more comfortable and be better equipped to implement on ground strategies.

By setting up a quality learning environment and facilitating the learning you are on the path to coaching to create thinking footballers.

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