The Skill Acquisition Phase
The foundation of the Skill Acquisition Phase is built upon:
- The coach focusing extensively on providing a solid foundation of technical skill.
- If the player does not gain this skill foundation during this phase it will be very difficult to make it up later.
- No amount of fitness or competitive spirit will ever compensate for deficiencies in functional game skills.
At this age the children are ready for a more structured approach to training.
In every session the focus is on one of the core skills, from the beginning until the end of the session (“theme based sessions”).
The Skill Acquisition Phase sessions consist of 3 components:
- Skill introduction, this is the warm-up as well as an introduction to the designated core skill for this session. This is the only part of the session where drill-type exercises should be used, but the creative coach can include elements of decision-making.
- Flow, no ‘stop-start coaching’.
- Skill training, this is the part of the session where conscious teaching and learning of the designated core skill takes place.
- Lots of repetition in game realistic scenarios!
- Task-based coaching
- Effective feedback
- Use of questioning (ask players ‘why did you choose that option?’, ‘where do you think there might be more space?’, etc)
- Skill game, a game where as much as possible all the elements of the real game are present but organised in a way that the designated core skill has to be used regularly.
- Skill games are preferably small sided games to stimulate the number of repetitions/touches!
- The players play, the coach observes if learning has taken place.
It is also advisable to ‘wrap-up’ the session at the end, summarising the main points of the session to enhance learning.
ABOUT THE SKILL ACQUISITION PHASE
The emphasis in the Skill Acquisition Phase is on Skill Development but this can/should not be separated from developing insight/game understanding at the same time.
If this approach is applied properly, it will provide a seamless transition into the Game Training Phase.
This principle also relates to the concept of Small Sided Football and appropriate coach behaviour (refer to chapter 3):
During the Skill Acquisition Phase, 2-3 sessions of 60-75 minutes plus a game
is a safe weekly workload, with the following session planning guidelines:
- Welcome: 5 minutes
- Skill Introduction: 15-20 minutes
- Skill Training: 25-30 minutes
- Skill Game: 20-25 minutes
- Wrap up: 5 minutes
With 3 sessions per week our advice is to limit the duration of the sessions to
60 minutes and rest the players the day before as well as the day after the game.
So, with a game on Saturday, we recommend a training session on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
Factors to consider:
Performance of the players in previous training sessions
Performance of the players in matches (NB: matches should only be assessed in terms of core skill performance, not ‘team tactics’. That way, training and matches are closely and logically linked)
Observation may lead you to conclude that one core skill appears to be especially deficient in most of the players, while another is generally strong.
Possible Cycle Planning changes:
Replace the stronger skill with the weaker one every second rotation
Move to a 5-session rotation in which each skill is focused on once, except for the weaker one which appears twice
The best advice for a coach working with players in this age group would be to attend the FFA Youth C Licence course.
This will give coaches a much better understanding of the why’s and how’s of session planning and season planning, while developing their ability to design their own practices.
THE FOUR CORE SKILLS
The FFA Skill Acquisition training program focuses upon developing four core skills when in possession of the ball:
- Striking the ball
This includes all forms of striking the ball such as short/long passing, shooting and crossing
- First Touch
Controlling the ball with all allowed body parts
All moves, feints and accelerations to get past and away from an opponent
- Running with the ball
At speed (with a lot of space) or 'dribbling' (in tight areas), this includes techniques for protecting the ball and changing direction
These four core skils cover 95% of the actions of any outfield player when in possession of the ball during a game of football . The other 5% consists of actions such as heading and throw-ins.
Of course we can also distinguish defensive skills such as various tackling techniques and it goes without saying that the defensive 1 v 1 skills are equally important and must be properly developed too.
We made the practical choice to develop the defensive skills as part of the 1 v 1 practices. Although the emphasis is on the attacking skills, we are not ignoring the defensive ones. So, in the 1 v 1 Model Sessions, coaches will find the box below with coaching tips for the defender as well the attacker.
1 V 1 COACHING TIPS
“Go at the defender with speed”
“Show the attacker one way/force them away from goal”
“Use a feint to put the defender off balance”
“Bend your knees and stand on your toes so you’re able to change direction quickly”
“Threaten to go to one side then suddenly attack the other”
“The best moment to commit is when the attacker takes a heavy touch or slows down”
As far as heading is concerned, the advice is to start developing this specific skill at the start of the Game Training Phase. At younger ages heading is a ‘scary’ activity and not much heading takes place anyway since most players lack the power to play aerial balls.
If heading is practised during the Skill Acquisition Phase we advise the use of so-called super light balls (specially devised for youth football).
As we’ve explained earlier it takes many hours of practicing and lots of repetition to properly develop the four core skills with both feet and ‘automate’ the techniques. Automate means that we’ve practised the techniques so often that we can execute them without having to consciously concentrate on the execution.
We can compare this process with learning to drive a car: in the beginning we have to consciously think of every act in the process, we even tend to look where the pedals are. But after some time we drive from A to B while having a conversation, thinking deeply about something or making a (hands free) phone call. We arrive at our destination totally unaware of the driving acts we have executed on the way: driving a car has become an automatism.
The same principle applies for mastering the core skills: many hours of purposeful practice will eventually lead to automatism and we execute the skill ‘unconsciously’. When this happens we will, as a consequence, have more time for scanning our options and making decisions. With top level players the ball is ‘glued’ to their feet while they look around and check the options.
The principle of thousands of hours of practice leading to automatism applies to everything, from playing a violin to playing golf or football. Football however differs from golf because the technical skills must be executed under constant pressure of football-specific resistances (opponents; space; time; direction), in ever-changing situations.
Scientific research (Daniel Coyle, ‘The Talent Code’; et al.) shows that in football the most educationally effective way is to develop technical skills (execution) and perception skills (decision-making) simultaneously.
When the kids start playing 11 v 11 while they are still in the Skill Acquisition Phase, (U12/13) there is a common tendency for coaches to become totally obsessed with results, and forget that the players are still in the skill acquisition phase. This has a very negative effect on training session content as well as Match Day behaviour.
Training must remain focused on skill development; it is poor practice and detrimental to the players to sacrifice critical skill training time in order to conduct unnecessary ‘tactical’ coaching.
Match Day is when the coach can start developing the players insight and understanding of the basic team and player tasks. This involves reinforcement and elaboration of the basic tasks introduced at training during Skill Games
(‘Get between the lines’, ‘Can you face forward?’ ‘Look for the killer pass’, ‘Make the field big’, etc)
It is also disadvantageous for young players’ development to specialize for a specific team position too early; let them experience the various positions and aim for specialisation during the Game Training phase (the rationale for this is excellently explained in the book ‘Coaching Outside the Box’ by Mairs and Shaw).
So, herein lies the huge challenge for anyone working with players in this important age bracket: your primary role is that of a ‘skills teacher’ focused on individual technical development as opposed to being a ‘team coach’.
Your mission is to ‘automate’ the core skills through lots of repetition, but at the same time avoid ‘drill’ practices, where there may be repetition but no decision-making.