Give The Players A Chance To Understand

board2As a player, I was fortunate enough to be coached by someone who would later become a mentor and a close friend. His name is Mike Critchell, a coach who was and is still ahead of his time in his thinking, knowledge and the education of players. I have now known Mike for the last 19yrs, and he has been a massive influence on my education in the world of coaching and, specifically in the field of player development. He would provide me with both the theoretical and practical knowledge behind his thinking. He would and to this day continues to challenge me with ideas and questions. Guiding me in the right direction to satisfy my curiosity in developing my understanding. To this day we are very good friends and between us we continue to evolve the field of player development through the sharing and developing of new ideas that are currently being implemented within a premiership club.  However, I wouldn’t be the coach I am now, if Mike didn’t choose to educate me as a player into the why’s and how’s of his coaching methods and how that was going to impact me as a player.

My journey with Mike began when at the age of 18yrs old I was playing for a Conference League Club and he was leading all the coaching and fitness. I was a very driven person with my football and enjoyed training, but he took it to a different level to what I had been used to, and that includes having spent time playing for a professional school of excellence club. His methods were so advanced and challenged the players not just physically, but skill and cognitively. Within his philosophy he would come up with a variety of sessions, which would even capture the imagination of senior ex-professional players.

What caught my attention about Mike as a coach, and what separated him from my previous coaches was his role as an educator. He did not just turn up for sessions, deliver and then allow us to go home and forget the session. He was there to provide an education for us, an experience, which developed us not only as a players, but players who were becoming more aware of what we had to do to improve, but more importantly why we had to do it. For most players it went through one ear and out the other, but for me, I would embrace the opportunity to learn me and further my development. Before each session would explain the content and then during rest periods would explain the why’s and even encouraged feedback from players, which was unheard of.  In summary he would explain, why am I delivering this to you and why is it important for you’re development and how will this develop you as a player? A stern character, but one with passion, ambition and a pioneering coach, creating a player centered environment.

With this, the first thing I would do after training would be to write down the session and provide the theory to explain the reasoning behind it. This would take place after every session, then once I became more confident I would stay behind after training to ask further question, then I would begin to arrive early to find out what was in store for the next session and also tap into his knowledge in order to improve mine. This eventually led me to call Mike if I was not entirely sure on parts of the sessions and ask further questions. Mike would start to provide me with additional references in order to further my understanding. This then led me to imparting his knowledge with the youth players that I was coaching on Saturday morning. I too would then explain the reasons behind parts of the session, even with the players at U9’s I was working with and I would even get parents asking me questions, which was a good start.

The next stage, which I consider to be the most important, was my ability to then look at Mike’s sessions and start to create my own, developing and using his original work. 19yrs later I am managing to repay the knowledge and ideas, but that early stage of my coaching education came from being educated as a player in the how’s and why’s.  It has taken me to where I am within the various environments and with the range of players I have worked from (grass roots, within education, academy players all the way through to premier league / international players).

The education of players within the session should be at the forefront of our work, allow them to understand the why’s and how’s. Look to explain more than just the session and making the relevant coaching points. Look to educate the players in the understanding and the reasoning. From my experiences if you can educate, justify, explain, however you wish to phrase it, you will get the players to buy in, which inevitably will lead to good application from players within the session. Humans are naturally curious beings and wanted to be stimulated and learn. If given the chance players will ask questions, in order to aid their own development and we need to encourage this. Too many coaches fear being questioned and believe it is a question of their ability, knowledge as a coach, but most of the time it will be the player wanting to know and understand more. This will eventually encourage players to become independent and take responsibility for their own development. Give players the chance to understand.

I know there are a number of other players at all levels and coaches who have come from a similar fraternity who have had the fortune to learn from Mike. For my own experience I am forever grateful to Mike for providing me with the knowledge and insight into his coaching ideas cause it has taken me to where I am now. I hope I can continue to share the message and evolve his philosophy even further. To a good friend, thanks Mike for everything so far but I am sure there are more to come.

Mike Critchell has written a number of papers, delivered a number of in-service sessions, but I draw your attention to the books that he has written, which are a must read. Please see below for further information.

  • Soccer: Play to Learn and Learn to Play
  • Game Vision in Soccer
  • Warm Up for Soccer: A Dynamic Approach

Can Your Players Manage The Game?

As coaches we are constantly looking to challenge our players. Asking questions of them, working them to the edge of their ability, physically, skillful and with their decision-making. Often this occurs within the type of sessions we deliver, whether it is a possession or a defending or an attacking session. Forcing the players to work through problems, asking them questions that are relevant to the demands of the game, which can eventually be transferred across into their games.

One part of a player’s development that needs to be addressed is game management. The ability to manage the game during various phases of the competition. For example, when a team is 1 – 0 up, playing with only 10 men, with 10 minutes to go and they can’t afford to draw or lose. How do the players manage this situation? What is there approach, who becomes responsible, and how do they work together in order to achieve their desired outcome?

During these various phases of the game the emotions of the player play a big part in their decision-making, especially for example, when the opposition is chasing the game and putting on a lot of pressure on the team. Toward the latter part of the game energy levels can also influence how are team will play. Therefore, players need to learn how to manage these situations within the game. They need to learn how to assess a situation and make rational decisions during key stages and work together to ensure all the players are in the right mindset, all pulling in the same direction and not going off on their own agendas. These situations may occur as a whole team, as a unit or individually. Looking at individual players within the game, they might be up against a very good individual who is getting the better of them; the ball is purposely being played to this player because they are aware of the defenders problems. How does this individual or collection of players manage this part of the game?

These are questions that are continually asked and games can be won or lost in such situations, therefore we as coaches need to prepare our players for this. The game can change in the last 15 minutes and this is a critical part of the game. Therefore, do we prepare our players for these situations? Are we challenging our players for these phases of the game, giving them scenarios that will test their game management? A similar argument for practicing penalty shoot-outs is often topical and arises around this time of year prior to a big tournament, asking the question of do we and should we be practicing them? And more importantly, how can we really recreate the situation for what will be required in a pressured situation? We have to at least give ourselves the best opportunity for any eventuality. Give our players the chance to learn, develop and improve as players with the ever-demanding game of football. We could argue that it is impossible to replicate the exact situation, atmosphere etc, but we can still give our players the chance to practice the skill even if it is not under the same pressures.

Within games we have tried to create scenarios that will challenge players and ask questions of them, and encourage them to work as a team. For example, playing 2 x 6min games, the blue team are 2 – 1 up and all they are required to do is to either draw or win, just not lose, whilst the red team is required to win only. You may give one scenario to one team in the first half, then change for the second half. You are asking players to manage the game, the situation and work together to achieve their desired outcome. It will give them the responsibility to manage situations as a group of players, implementing a strategy or way of playing to achieve their objective. What you see within these kinds of sessions is a realism of emotions, which occur in the game itself on maybe a Saturday or Sunday when such results actually mean something. Being competitive, players will not enjoy losing or failing at their task, and as coaches we need to encourage this by the environment we create. Within these sessions you will see a lot about the character of each of your individual players, how they react to situations of success or adversity. Are they able to work as a team in all parts of the game, which players emerge as leaders and take responsibility? Which players make themselves accountable and can be trusted. After all these are the kind of players that you require when you encounter such situations and the question will be asked, which players can you trust and rely on?The most important part of this process is the stage of reflection, reviewing what we did, how we did it and why did it or did it not work? This process will enable us as players and coaches to learn and draw reference to and prepare us for these situations.


In our development programs we are working on developing independent players that on the pitch players are able to take responsibility. They cannot be relying on the manager or coach to make all the decisions. That is why it is essential that we design programs and sessions that are player centred where the player is challenged, required to make decisions, with the guidance from the coach. From a holistic developmental approach you can learn a lot about the character and psychological of your players placing them in situations with similar scenarios.

Players are required to manage all situations within the game, whether it is in a 1 v 1 situation or a phase in the game, trying to hold onto a 2 – 1 advantage playing with 10 men in the last 5 minutes of the game. These are features of the game and they need to be managed with emotion, decision-making and ability. Therefore, we as coaches need to ensure that we are preparing our players for these situations. Creating the right environment, in educating our players and transferring these skills into the game where problems for them to solve continually surround them.

Coaching Goalkeepers to Defend……Why Not?

Do we ever coach Goal keepers how to defend, for example in 1 v 1 situations, not to get beat, force a mistake and even make a tackle?

Over recent years, as the game has changed with the rules, tactics and the type of player, the expectations and demands of a goal keeper has evolved. By this, I am referring to their ability to use their feet and to distribute in order start attacks. They are required to manage back passes, maintain possession of the ball and play as the 11th outfield player. It has become a big part of their training, managing the ball, opening out to change the direction of play, clipping the ball into full backs, travelling with the ball outside of the penalty box to distribute and build from the back.

On many occasions a goalkeeper is required to play outside of their penalty box, for example, clearing a through ball using their feet, body and even their head. On some occasions goalkeepers are caught coming out to close a player down to prevent them from a goal scoring opportunity, without the use of their hands. In fact, this even occurs when a keeper has gone to defend a player inside the penalty box, and the opponent has their back to them. In doing so, they are required to defend the player, holding them up, enabling others player to recover and help defend. However, on numerous occasions they will come out with impulse, placing themselves in a situation which results them going to ground early and potentially catching the opponent and conceding a penalty or a free kick depending where the incident takes play’s, which can often result in a red card.

If this is the case, then why are we not teaching our goalkeepers how to defend, coaching key principles, their approach to the ball, distances, body shape, decision-making when in a 1 v 1 situation? The role of a goalkeeper continues to evolve and the goalkeepers themselves are required add more skills to their game and surely defending is one of them.

Develop the Person to Develop the Player

The title of this piece sums itself up in its entirety. As clubs, managers, coaches and so forth we need to focus on making sure that the environment we create, from the philosophies we work within, to how we feedback to the player are developing the person to develop the player. Therefore, making sure the learning environment we create is a player centered and we are aware of the both benefits and the consequences of our actions. For example, the feedback we provide a player can encourage two very different mindsets, one of which wishes to work hard and feels like they need to work hard to develop and the other which can lead to complacency and a false impression of there own development.

Success comes from knowing that you did your best

to become the best that you are capable of becoming

John Wooden

In order to manage this it is essential there is understanding and consistency from bottom through to top. Coaches, parents and players are educated in the philosophy and objective of the club. This is reinforced on and off the pitch, developing more independent rather dependent players.

If this is carried out correctly, the result, players become more self aware of what is required of them, where they are in their development, what and how they are going to improve. We will inevitably create independent people who take responsibility for their development. Instead of having to be told, they ask, they request. An example I use, after training we should be telling the players to go in after wanting to stay out and practice, and not to have to be telling them to stay out to practice on their areas that require development. It is a player centred environment, driven by players, educated by coaches.

There are many people who fail to achieve their potential, not because of a lack of ability, but because of a lack of good character and personality. Ability can only flourish if an athlete is willing to apply themselves and work hard. Therefore, as coaches it is imperative that we create the right environment to encourage development of the person to help develop the player.