Developing Players

By Ben Dyer

Coaches love to win games and, generally speaking, a winning team is also a happy team. Good results usually mean happy players and satisfied parents but, as a coach, does your obligation extend to more than this?

Too right it does! 

A clear mandate for all coaches, regardless of your reasons for putting your hand up to coach, is to ensure that your players improve. Playing in a winning team doesn’t always ensure that this happens, but the training environment that you create will go a long way towards giving each and every player their best chance of developing under your coaching.

Traditionally, footy training sessions involve all players in the team participating in the one drill. Most players will derive some benefit from that approach, but is it to the detriment of the development of some players? Within any team there are players with a range of abilities, different strengths and weaknesses, all sorts of body shapes, and often different levels of fitness. Will the “one size fits all” approach cater for everyone?

Let’s consider some minor changes that could be made to ensure that all players derive maximum benefit from training sessions.

Creating player specific focus areas

All players, even your best few, have areas of their game that can be developed. It doesn’t take a great deal of time to consider the strengths of each individual player, and to identify areas of their game that are open to improvement. It can be as simple as creating two columns (“strengths” and “improve”) and making a list.

Involving the player in this process can be very valuable and it gives them ownership of their football development. When you’ve identified some important areas of focus, you’re then in a position to work out exactly how you’ll improve them. At higher levels, clubs implement individual development plans, or IDPs, to formalise this and make the IDP a point of reference for the player.

Creating specialist groups

Within your team there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll have players who have similar areas of focus. So after everyone has trained together for a few basic warm up drills, how about you break up into three smaller groups for the next 15 minutes? 

The ideal size of these breakout groups will depend on the skill being targeted for development and the size of the overall group. The key is that the group is small enough to enable the coach/assistant coach to deliver individual feedback and work closely with the players.

There could be a group that works exclusively on their short kicking. Another group could include some of your taller players that need to learn how to use their weight in contested marking situations. Perhaps another group could include players who need to improve their ground ball handling under pressure. Creating these smaller specialist groups affords players the time to work on their deficiencies.

Making use of assistants

Breaking into smaller groups is difficult if you’re on your own at training. If you have assistants, why not give them the opportunity to assume responsibility for a particular group? Giving them ownership of the group can be very empowering and will assist their own coaching development greatly.

Under your guidance, your assistants can plan drills or design activities that specifically target that particular skill that the group is looking to improve. Everyone has been involved in teams where the assistants just stand around or move markers for the head coach. Make use of your assistants in any way that you can – you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what they can bring to the table.

Do any of the parents of your players possess a particular skill set that you could tap into? Is there a parent with a background in personal training who could oversee a conditioning group? Or a parent who’s an accredited athletics coach who could assist certain players with their acceleration? The more resources you can access, the better!

Exposing players to all positional requirements

At junior level it’s vitally important that all players develop the skills required for all positions. A 14 year old who may currently be suited to a key forward role because due to being big and strong could very well be a creative running defender in four years’ time, highlighting the need to prepare the player for this possibility.

Regional representative squads are typically full of players who play in the midfield or as forwards and considerable work always needs to be done on refining the defensive side of young player’s games. Teaching players how to be accountable, how to defend one on one, how to run both ways, and how to respond when the opposition wins the ball are all skills that will benefit them as they progress through the grades. A coach who sees the bigger picture will ensure that there is a place for this in their training program – for all players.

These suggestions will not necessitate a radical overhaul of your training sessions. It goes without saying that working on your structures and ball movement as a team will always have its place in any training session. You’ll be amazed at how much individual improvement can be made by implementing these small changes, and collectively how these improvements can influence your team’s overall performance on match day.