“The best coaches don’t tell you what to see, they show you where to look” – Alexandra Trefor

For a young player, game day is considered the most exciting day of the week. They’ve trained and practiced their skills and now have the chance to mimic their idols and showcase what they can do.
What role should the coach play on game day? What are the priorities? How should we act and utilise the time effectively? This article examines some of the important elements of a game day that need to be considered in order to make the experience a positive one for our young players.

The Environment

Creating a positive game day environment is vital to engage our players the second they arrive at the venue. The coach should be responsible for arriving early in order to set up the warm up areas with bibs, balls and cones in place. Consider a coned off area for the player’s water bottles and a white board with relevant learning objectives highlighted to be used as a reference point throughout the match. This simple aspect of game day can do wonders to heighten the player’s motivation and enthusiasm to approach the match with gusto and a positive attitude.
Having a pre-determined warm-up is important as over time, a routine can be established which the players can (when ready to) be responsible for and take some ownership over. An example of a warm-up is as follows:
• Ball each – co-ordination work on the floor and in the air (consider giving the players some freedom here to enjoy the ball and straight away begin to work on varied touches and recognition of space)

• Passing & Receiving – Opportunity to work on sharing the ball and the timing and ball speed required. Having players practice this in the same area helps them to become aware of time, space and interference, all components that will be apparent in the game.

• Opposed work – This could be 1v1 “body combat” work to focus on staying on the ball, to small group work (3v3 – 4v4) or if space allows, a small-sided game.

Within this phase of game day, it’s important for the players to enjoy some social time with their team-mates so the coach needs to feel confident enough to step back and allow these interactions to take place.

The Goalkeepers need to be considered as well. Do they take part in the same warm-up as the outfield players? Dependent upon staffing, it is of benefit for the keepers to also practice their individual ball work and receiving and releasing skills. If possible though, try to incorporate some keeper specific elements into your warm-up. Whether that’s another coach working on their handling and shot stopping, they’re given the responsibility of facilitating it themselves, or asking 1-2 of the outfield players to work with them.

Always try and leave at least 5 minutes before the game for the players to clear away the warm-up equipment and complete a short, specific but concise pre-match team talk. Here, positivity is key, along with no more than 3 learning objectives referred to, which link to the themes and topics worked on in training. The number 3 is particularly useful in learning as people (especially young people) are more readily able to cope with remembering detail if given in sequences of 3. An example of 3 learning objectives is:

  1.  Try to prevent opponents from turning in midfield.
  2.  Consider making a forward run when passing into advanced areas.
  3. Look to transition quickly with a counter press upon losing possession.

These are very tactically related objectives but you may consider incorporating social, psychological or physical objectives to provide a more holistic approach. Most importantly though, ensure that they link into previous learning from the week so far. These objectives could be written on a white board and positioned so that they are clearly visible to the players and can then be referred to throughout the game.
Whether the coach uses a tactics board to communicate the information or a micro-set up (where the players stand in their positions in a small area), try to keep the detail brief, simple and age appropriate relevant to the players. The coach should ensure eye contact with each player, a warm smile with the main emphasis of his/her instruction being to have fun and work hard for each other.

The Match

If you have any players as substitutes, it is vital that they remain engaged in the match. Even referring to them as “finishers” or “game changers” rather than subs can psychologically soften the blow of not starting the game. Make them aware that they are equally as important as those beginning the game and that staying focused will help them make a difference when they come on. Here are 3 ways to keep them interested and engaged:

• Have an analysis sheet for them to complete asking them to observe and assess the opposition. Who’s their best player and why? What formation are they playing? Have they got an obvious tactic with and without the ball? Is there a weakness we can exploit?

• Get them to observe and analyse the team-mate that they will be replacing when they come on. What are they doing well? How are they trying to overcome any challenges? The coach can also ask the substitute to feedback any information to their team-mate during the next break between periods.

• Have a small-sided pitch set up for them to spend time with the ball. If you have 2-3 subs, they can be working on any particular skill relevant to the training week or any individual development. Perhaps consider asking the opposition coach, if they have subs as well, for them to have a small game against each other.

The coach must consider their ‘in-game’ engagement and how they intend to interact and provide any information (if at all) to the players during the match. Are you going to ask questions, if so, how? Closed questions which simply require a nod or a thumbs up from the player are probably preferable to ensure that the player remains focused and concentrated on the game and not distracted. Using a command style approach may be of benefit from time to time to remind players of important key messages, but try to avoid repeating yourself and instead consider getting certain players to reinforce any messages on the pitch themselves. This type of approach works better in terms of defensive principles which require a greater degree of structure and organisation (e.g compactness, pressing, screening).

Try to avoid ‘patrolling’ the touch-line which can often make players feel anxious and nervous. A more calm and composed approach would be sitting down (e.g on a bag of footballs) which portrays an emotionally balanced persona and one that can help to make the players feel comfortable, at ease and confident to express themselves with freedom. Non-verbal communication such as a thumbs up, a smile or a nod of the head delivers feedback quickly and increases the feelings of positivity within your players.

If delivering verbal feedback, try to use player’s names and make it specific. For example, “well done Tommy, I love the way you protected the ball there, great job”. This level of detail is far more beneficial than vague, generic statements which can often get lost on players. Consistency with coach behaviour is key throughout the match, regardless of the team winning, losing or drawing. Remaining in control and emotionally balanced portrays a sense of calm and doesn’t produce any unnecessary stress or discomfort in the players. Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman state in their book ‘The Runaway Species’, that we should “learn to tolerate the anxiety of not knowing the outcome” when we have no direct control over it.

Post Match

“You don’t learn from experience, you learn from reflecting on the experience” – John Dewey

At the end of the match, it is important that the coach thanks the Referee and the opposition players and coach. If the players see you acting in this way, they will role model your actions and show their appreciation as well, regardless of the outcome of the game. Go over to the parents and thank them as well for their support. The players will love doing this as it makes them feel like 1st team pro’s!

At this point, give the players a few moments to gather their own initial thoughts and reflections of theirs and the team’s performance. At this point, coaches can consider a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ review. A ‘hot’ review is one in which the coach and players sit down straight away after the game to discuss and reflect the performance. A ‘cold’ review occurs sometime after the match, maybe even a couple of days and often at the next training session. Coaches need to decide which type would benefit the players mostly. If the match itself has been an emotive one (e.g a Cup game), it is certainly worth considering whether a ‘cold’ review would be preferable, allowing time for the players and the coach themselves to truly reflect and perhaps be more rationale by the time they see the players next.

If choosing to use a ‘hot’ review, when sitting down with the group to summarise the match and consolidate the learning that has taken place, do so with reference to the learning objectives used throughout to ensure consistency of the messages implied across the morning. Ask the players to reflect on their performances individually, in pairs or in small groups, which is beneficial for their own personal review and assessment of each other’s performances. What went well? How can you be even better next time? What changes can we make to develop our individual and team performance?

Get the players into a mindset of collecting in any equipment used (putting balls back into the bag, collecting bibs, water bottles and stacking cones). These habits are important and teach our players to respect the equipment and leave the environment tidy and free from clutter.

Finally, outline what is to come next for the team in training which will whet their appetite for the next session. At this point, the coach should reflect themselves on their own performance. Did you provide support and encouragement to every player on the team? Were you emotionally regulated throughout? Was your tactical and technical information age appropriate? This personal consolidation to review whether you did everything you could to make it a memorable game-day experience for the players, is fundamental for your own development.

Summary

“Light the fire, don’t fill the well”

A game day should be considered as an extension of your training week and not a detached occasion where more importance and pressure is placed on it. Be demanding of your players without being demeaning and look to ensure high standards of behaviour and attitude (from yourself as well). Try not to overload the players with too much information. Instead, look to spark their imagination and excitement through your positive actions and words.

The Learning Pit is a great visual to use with players as it illustrates the benefits of facing challenging situations and the deep learning that occurs when having to show resilience to overcome difficulties. It also highlights the support on-hand and the honesty needed to ask for help when necessary in order to become a successful learner and develop a champion mentality.

If we as coaches place as much importance, and set aside as much time for a game day as we do for training session planning, then we will certainly provide our players with a high quality experience of challenge, fun and enjoyment.