Opposed v Unopposed Practices is a debate that is widely had between coaches across all sports; opposed practises refer to a practice which has opposition with unopposed practices being a delivered with little or no opponents. So as a coach what should I use? The argument between the pros and cons of opposed and unopposed practices often begin with that opposed practises allow for individuals to apply their skills or specific actions within a game based environment where they have to make decisions and solve problems. Where as the argument for unopposed practices is that is allows for individuals to practice the technique with little or no interference to learn the technique before learning how to apply it within a game based environment. In this blog, we are going to explore the differences between opposed and unopposed practices and why, when and how they may be used to support your players.

Understanding the difference between technique and skill?

Before we begin, I think it’s important that we look at the difference between technique and skill. Technique is regarded as the way in which an action is performed or the method in doing the given task i.e. when striking the ball how is the foot placed? What angle do they approach from? Etc. Where as skill is the ability to choose the right techniques at the right time for the desired outcome. This is largely debated between coaches, that unopposed practices help individuals to be able to develop the technique that then enable them to perform skills within a games based situation. As coaches, we are always looking for the most effective way of developing our players techniques and abilities to perform skills within games to help them to learn and develop new ways of solving problems. So, as coaches, if you are looking to develop your players ability to play within a team based sport such as football, what is the best way of developing the tools that they need to play the game?

What are the pros and cons to opposed practice?

Opposed practices enable individuals to assess a situation, make a decision and then perform a skill for the desired outcome. Opposed practices allow you to provide opposition for your players to try and beat or more importantly find a way of beating. As a coach, you can amend your practice design to vary the complexity of the decisions that individuals will need to make as well as the speed that they will need to make them and also the outcome that they are trying to achieve too. The more complex the opposed practice, the nearer it appears to be like the game with multiple decisions and outcomes needed for not only the individual with the ball but also for their team mates and opponents. Therefore, providing your players with game based practices that ‘look like the game’ will give them more experiences to learn ‘how’ and ‘what’ decisions will need to be made in any given situation but also what skill is required to get the desired outcome. For some children, more complexed and challenging practices can lead to ‘poor decision making’ or them ‘freezing’ with them being in a more anxious state where they’re performing consciously. Therefore, when working with your players it’s important you assess the needs of your players and you may need to vary the task, environment and challenge for the player to help support them in being able to learn and develop new skills for the practice. Some individuals will feel the need to be exposed to unopposed practice to help them to develop the technique to be more confident in this before applying it to a opposed situation. The challenge as a coach is how should your time be spent with your players?

Unopposed:

As highlighted above, unopposed practices allow for individuals to practice a technique or skill in a situation where there is little or no opposition. For some individuals, being allowed time to learn the technique before being placed into an opposed situation can help them to understand the technique needed to perform the skill but also build their confidence before applying it against an opponent. Unopposed practice can be a way of individuals exploring movements or actions in their own way, to begin to ascertain how they may then look to perform them in a more complexed and game based situation. However, as we know, football is a sport based around decision making and the ability to perform skill for a desired outcome and therefore it is important that individuals are exposed to being given the opportunity to apply these learnt techniques in opposed game based situations.

Practice Spectrum – ‘being practice aware’:

As a coach, building an awareness of the practice spectrum is a good starting point to understanding what the ‘benefits’ and ‘trade-offs’ are of the practices that you design for your players. With a practice with low interference and decisions, opposition will provide a narrow focus and specific returns and looks less like a game. However, some may argue the benefits are it provides individuals to practice in an environment which is more controlled and less chaotic to build their confidence in techniques or in their understanding of a game, however, the ‘trade-offs’ may be it doesn’t look like the game and may be more difficult for individuals to transfer the skills from the practice in a game situation. In contrast, practices that are full of decisions, interference and opposition may consist of benefits of a wider focus and multiple returns for players in terms of decision making, problem solving etc. However, the ‘trade-offs’ may be that individuals don’t get the opportunity to learn techniques that they may need to develop to perform skills within a game situation. Ultimately, the nearer we are to the game, the more the skills will be able to be transferred from the practice into the game. Being aware of the practice spectrum will better inform you of what practices you want to expose your players to whilst understanding what the benefits and ‘trade-offs’ may be.

Another area that you may need to take into account is with the children themselves: what do they enjoy? What do they want to play? How do they learn best? As I explored in a previously blog, children play football; to play football! Therefore, as coaches we have a responsibility to nurture their love of the game and the environment that we create as well as the practices we provide can be instrumental in making sure they have a sustained love of playing football.

Implicit Learning v Explicit Learning:

So how does the above inform us about how children learn and what do we need to take into consideration when looking at whether to use opposed or unopposed practices? Implicit learning refers to ability perform a technique, task or skill without any instruction. Implicit learning takes place when an individual is able to ‘subconsciously’ perform a skill without realising; often with that same individual being unable explain or describe how they’ve done it after the event. Explicit learning is where instructions are given and the individual follows the instructions to perform a given task or action, consciously making an effort to follow the ‘coaching points/instructions.’ In explicit learning we will often find individuals are able to describe how they’ve performed that skill or task.

Implicitly learned skills are more likely to be retained by the individual and with the individual being able perform the skill whilst dealing with the pressure that they may face in the game or competition. Therefore, how can implicit take place in your environment whether you are delivering an opposed or unopposed practice? Firstly, less is more. As a coach, simply provide your players with challenges or constraints that may guide them to a desired outcome without you telling them how to get there. This will allow for individuals to explore their own ways to complete a task or challenge, enabling them to find different ways to get to a desired outcome to other individuals.

Implicit learning can be applied to both opposed and unopposed practices, however, more learning will take place the more complex and challenging the situation is. Therefore, the more we expose individuals to experiences or games the more that they’re able to find their own way of anticipating, assessing the situation and then making their own decision to get the desired outcome. implicit learning can also take place in an area of the pitch or a specific game situation i.e. goal scoring inside the box. Focusing on a particular area of the pitch or a given situation will narrow the focus and lead onto more specific returns whilst giving the individual opportunities to find ways of scoring without being told by the coach how they should do it.

Explicit learning is seen as the more ‘traditional’ approach to coaching, with the coach providing instructions to the individual on how and what they need to do in a given situation. It consists of the individual actively engaging in learning a particular movement, technique or skill and simply repeated over and over again until it’s learnt. In coaching, unopposed practices tend to be a ‘go to’ for coaches to engage their players through explicit learning. Therefore, even in unopposed practices, coaches should look to engage their pupils through implicit learning by challenging them to perform a task or skill without the coaching telling them how to do it.

Constraints Led Approach:

So where can a constraints led approach fit within this? Firstly, what is a constraints led approach? A “Constraints Led Coaching is a style of coaching where the coach takes a particular technique, skill or tactic from the ‘whole’ game, isolates it in a Small Sided Game and lets the players find the answers to solve the problem”. A constraints led approach takes into consideration the task, environment and the individuals that you are working with. Some key considerations should be:

– What is the environment we are trying to create? What stimulates the players?
– What do the individuals need, enjoy and motivates them?
– What is the task and how can it be manipulated to challenge the players to find their own ways of achieving the desired outcome?

Constraints Led Approach to Coaching (CLA) Resources

A constraints led approach is a great way of challenging players to achieve a desired outcome. A constraints led approach is one where you manipulate the constraints placed on the task, individual and environment to help support their ability to implicitly learn a skill without the coach instructing them or telling how to do so. A constraints led approach enables individuals to develop their perceptual skills through affordances, which refer to the ‘opportunity to for action within the environment’. Therefore, the more we can expose individuals to a constraints led approach; the more we can challenge them to develop their perceptual skills and the action that is needed to reach the desired outcome.

Conclusion:

To conclude, there are certainly benefits to opposed and unopposed practices. However, as a coach if I have my players only for one or two sessions a week I must consider what is the best use of time. A quote that has really challenged my thinking is “we should only spend time at training doing things that the children cannot do at home”, which argues that time is best spent with the children playing games and being exposed to opposition and more team based activities. With that in mind, challenging your players with activities to learn techniques away from your training could be a great way of them exploring unopposed practice in a safe, learning environment where they are engaged in explicit learning to learn new techniques that they may look to explore applying into the team environment over time. This can build confidence, but the danger is the more we spend time in unopposed practices when we eventually go back to the game the more time we need to then relearn new skills due to the removal of perception and action from the unopposed work.

Being ‘practice aware’ is essential for coaches to understand the trade offs and benefits for your players of what the practice will provide, but it’s also important that we consider how the children will engage with the practice and what they will enjoy most to nurture that love of the game. A constraints led approach provides coaches with a way of manipulating the task, individual and environment to challenge them to implicitly learn new skills without being told how to by the coach.