Coaching Outside Of The Box
Behaviour is shaped by motive, that’s why the police are always trying to establish what the motive is. Without it, its near impossible to tell what the individual in question was actually up to. Unlike in many other forms of ‘teaching’, football coaches are concerned almost entirely with the behaviour of their pupils or players. The football coach does not simply transmit the requisite knowledge that they know will be sufficient for the child to pass a test, a test which, if the teacher has not conceived and written it themselves, is likely to adhere to standardised questioning and content requirements. In this sense, lauding the teacher for their ability to have their class pass written tests can be similar to championing someone for finding a trinket behind a bush when it was they who hid it there in the first place. A pupil may pass an exam on ‘ethics’ but whether they will embody these principles in day-to-day life is another question entirely.
The football coach is primarily concerned not with knowledge but with action. Teams do not win by saying how they are going to do it, they win by doing it, by an acting out of their convictions. Of course, if you are able to buttress your triumphs with a certain rhetorical swagger then great, Zlatan and Mohammed Ali will be remembered as such outliers but, generally speaking, talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words.
Ok, so if coaches are tasked with priming the behaviour of their players then the concept of ‘motive’ needs to be unpacked. Action is target oriented. The old joke asks the question — ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’. The answer would seem to be that, according to the perception of the chicken, the other side of the road is more desirable than the one where it currently resides. To be motivated to move from A to B, B must be seen as preferable in some sense, otherwise why would you be moving there unless, of course, you are just wandering blindly?
This idea is also true of perception. We are not passive receivers of an external objective world, our senses are ‘directed’ at those certain stimuli which we value. If this were not the case we would be unable to even move, paralysed by a flood of infinite stimuli, a rabbit caught in the headlights of reality. You need to pay attention to something, and the thing that you pay attention to is, by definition, the thing that you prefer among the set of ‘all the things that you might pay attention to’. Your girlfriend or boyfriend for example. Its why some things are more likely to ‘catch your eye’ than others, values shape perception, are you a dog person or a cat person? The animals to which your attention is drawn is a result of this underlying value. United or City, Coke or Pepsi, its all a matter of value.
So, how might the coach apply these ideas to their training sessions. To try and answer this question lets zoom in one specific exercise and see if we can understand what the hell is going on.
The exercise I’m going to look at is one that may well be familiar to you. I first saw a variation of it delivered — via YouTube — by Miguel Cardoso (ex Shaktar, Rio Ave, Nantes) at the NSCAA conference in Philadelphia. A version of it cropped up again whilst watching — again via YouTube — a Bayer Leverkusen training session during Roger Schmidt’s time at the German club. I call the exercise a ‘Transition Rondo’.
It’s a simple set up, the size, shape and internal zones of the box can be manipulated as per the coach’s preference as can the make-up of the teams, but the key rule which remains constant is this: In order to end their turn as the ‘chaser’, the defender(s) must gain control of the ball and then dribble it — whilst maintaining control — over the threshold of the boundary line.
Simple enough, basically it’s a rondo with an extra stipulation for the defenders. You can no longer claim to have simply ‘got a touch’ to be freed from the defending shift. I never really understood this rule anyway. A football match does not stop if an opponent’s pass brushes your knee, it is better to actually intercept the pass and then, crucially, do something positive with the turnover. And it is here where we can circle back and see how our discussion of values, motives and behaviour might become relevant.
It is becoming increasingly common for coaches to demand that their players are able to launch counter attacks immediately upon the moment the turnover occurs. And the transition rondo certainly primes this type of behaviour as well as forcing the defending players to ‘intercept’ rather than just ‘block’ opponent passes. But, in my view, it is perhaps even more interesting to observe the behaviour which emerges, as a result of the ‘transition rondo rule’, among the offensive players who have just given away possession.
It is all very well telling you players that you want to win the ball back in six seconds. Its all very well shouting instructions of ‘win it back’ when possession is lost, but it is another thing entirely to actually condition the players to move their bodies in such a way that this behaviour becomes second nature. And this is the beauty of an exercise like the transition rondo. The ‘possession players’ are forced to react by closing the space on all sides of the intercepting player, if they don’t he can escape, and you will have to do the chasing. The rules of the game have now been formulated in such a way that the players behaviour is conditioned in a Pavlovian manner. It is ‘better’ for the players to counterpress as a failure to do so will result in immediate defeat and all of the consequences that come with losing. Nobody likes to lose, least of all footballers who are all trying to stake their claim for game time.
This type of training adopts a Darwinian approach, if the players fail to elicit the behaviours that are required to succeed in the game, they will lose, and, like with Pavlov’s dogs, the consequence immediately follows the behaviour. There can be little doubt in the player’s minds that the two events are strongly correlated. It is a goal of coaching to render these sub-optimal behaviours (in this case allowing the defender to escape or ‘not counterpressing’) extinct by facilitating games which select for optimal football actions such as ‘closing the time and space of the opponent’.
I have used variations of this exercise with players from a broad scope of ages and abilities, from small children taking their first steps in organised football to professional players preparing for competitive league matches and the results have almost always been positive. Of course, the intensity and quality vary dramatically but that’s not so important to worry about when coaching young players who may be new to certain types of ideas. Indeed, I have used various forms of narrative in an attempt to make these ideas more accessible to youngsters. I have named the game ‘Prison Break’ where the possession team are the guards and the defenders are the inmates who must escape with the ball. A little bit of ‘good vs bad’ usually gets things going. I have even cited the circular storm clouds of Fortnite to help the kids understand why it is more difficult to act when your time and space is reduced.
I said before that the fundamental rule was constant, but this is not entirely true. Like all rules of football exercises, it can be varied in accordance with the coach’s preferences. Perhaps, rather than encouraging your players to move quickly with the ball post-transition, you would like to work on conditioning an immediate pass to move the ball away from the pressure zone. No problem, instead of asking the defenders to dribble out the box you can place two (or however many you want) mini-goals around the exterior of the box and reward them for passing into them. It may then be beneficial for the counter-pressing players to adopt a more ‘option-oriented’ approach whereby, instead of rushing the ball carrier, they pay greater attention to the location of the mini-goals and attempt to position themselves to block the passing lines from ball carrier to goal. The possibilities are endless.
What seems to be more constant is the truth that this approach of behavioural manipulation through appropriate rule implementation is a highly effective method of training design. There are many different labels given to this method and fair enough, I guess you have to call it something, but, as I alluded to earlier, I see far greater value in the understanding of actions and the motives which drive them than the mere referencing of words. And it is in this sense that I hope this piece is of some use.