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Practice play not practice drills

Practice play not practice drills

Ben Nicholson
February 05, 2021

Recent research from Roca and Ford (2020) analysed the active decision-making time in training sessions from coaches within football academies in Spain, Portugal, England and Germany (Roca and Ford, 2020). The research found that the training sessions in England had on average 11 minutes per-session less active decision-making time in the practice than Spain and Portugal. 18% of active session time in England included technical work, with passive decision making, compared with 7% in Germany, 3% in Portugal and 2% in Spain.


What is a Football Action?

A football action, whether it be related to any of the three moments of the game (in possession, out of possession or transition), comprises of three stages. 1. (C) Communication The information being received from the player based on the ball, teammate, opposition, and space, all this being constrained by time. 2. (D) Decision Making, the decision made by the individual based on the stimuli received from the environment and game insight of the player. 3. (E) Execution of the decision, often referred to as ‘technique’, such as the skill of making a feint against pressure, use of different kicking variations (e.g. a driven pass) or an overlapping run, all underpinned by (F) Football Fitness. This consists of three main components:  the quality of the football actions made, the number of football actions and the consistency of the football actions made.

Practice play not practice drills

Image: Raymond Verheijen football action model



Are my sessions 100% relatable to the game?

We live in a world now engulfed by social media, certainly in the world of football. As coaches, all we have to do is log on to our twitter feed and see hundreds of animated drills developed by coaches on apps such as Tactical Pad or the latest Man United possession drill. The question we have to ask is, ‘are they relevant to developing my players?’ and ‘do they actually replicate realistic football actions’? Knowing that each football action must consist of the CDE of communication, decision making and execution, does a passing pattern actually improve the development of your players, or does it act as an ego boost for the coach when their players can execute a pattern of one-two’s around a square? The observation skills of the coach see the players executing the practice well, it’s neat and looks good on the eye, but come match day, these young players don’t recognise the signals in the game in order to play a one-two.

Key elements in recognising the signals in the game for one-two opportunities and key skills to execute where players will not gain understanding of part of the football technique through unopposed practice are:

  • Lack of understanding on how to provoke an opponent out of their space by running with the ball
  • How to play with the front foot using the outside foot and front foot to link with more efficiency
  • How to use the no look one two as disguise
  • How to make quick blindside runs to receive the return pass
  • Understanding the ‘geometry of football’ (e.g. a straight pass for an angled run).

Developing young players isn’t a quick and easy fix, it’s a long process that takes years of craft. I’ve always thought of the art of coaching and developing young players to be like a chef making a Tiramisu. It takes time, you need to get all the finer details correct. there is no need to rush the process and move on to the next stage too quickly or you won’t end up with what you require at the end which is something with style and elegance. Compare this with a Victoria sponge, they’re much easier to make. You can produce them in bulk off the conveyor belt with a bag of ready-made simple ingredients from the supermarket. Yes, you might have produced more in the space of time, but it’s not what you expect in a Michelin star restaurant.



Practice Play

Bringing the street to the training field is a method known as ‘practice play’ derived from the former England and Crystal Palace youth coach John Cartwright and his programme at Premier Skills. It’s about making coaching practice to be realistic to the game all the time, limiting ‘drill type’ work and practicing the game in training as street football.  Decision making under pressure was crucial where areas were tight. Street football in essence was practicing the game through playing. The best players in the game are those who are experts at executing their decision making with quality based on space time and pressure. We also know the game of football is directional, there are thousands of possession or positional play type practices out on the internet as well as coaching manuals. Some are great but some lack purpose. Again, it all comes back to relevance, ‘what is the purpose of the practice?’, ‘are my players practicing as realistic to the game as possible?’. As former Everton Academy manager Tosh Farrell once told me “we practice everything all the time”. Manipulating pitch size is a valuable tool in altering the conditions for players to gain an appreciation of space, time and pressure. But without direction in practice, do players have the opportunity to understand the ‘geometry of football’ if they are just playing around in a circle under restrictions of 2 touch? It looks good on the eye when players string together 10 passes within a practice but putting the coaches’ ego aside, restricting the decision-making element by limiting touches or lack of direction is not the most effective method of improving the quality of football actions through the development years. By doing this we miss the opportunities for a player to run across the area taking 5/6 touches after recognising space to exploit, moving defenders out of their position and defending the goals or gates for a takeover with a teammate. Dave Sexton, the former England U21’s and Manchester United coach, said in his book (‘Tackle Soccer’), “Good coaching will not produce a well drilled robot, but a player with the confidence to make his own decisions under pressure, and a player capable of using his initiative to create something out of unfavourable situations”.

That is what I call the ‘joy of playing’, having the freedom to make their own decisions, linking, playing with variety and executing all the football actions on the skill development ladder with an appreciation of space, time and pressure. By doing this we will be able to develop expert decision makers, who are competent and producing better and more football actions under pressure more consistently.


To summarise, football actions must always consist of the CDE within the football action model. Without this, practicing only technique with no decisions is not the most realistic method to improve the overall development of young football players.



Ben Nicholson is an Academy Coach for NEFA, a football scholarship and education programme based in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. www.nefa.co.uk




Cartwright, J. (2008) Football for the brave, M press media LTD.

Sexton, D. (1981) Tackle Soccer, Stanley Paul Publications, p157.

Roca, A and Ford, P. A. (2020) Decision-making practice during coaching sessions in elite youth football across European countries, Sci Med Football

Verheijen, R. (2020) Football coaching theory, The original guide to football coaching theory, Football Coach Evolution