Know Your Place — Coaching Players Through Individual Instructions


As a coach you often have this desire to change, help, and improve many things all at once. But, the key, I’ve found, is to slow down, focus on what can be fixed first, and then fix the other problems later. It’s a difficult task, but throughout my managerial experiences, it’s the method I’ve found to be the most successful.

I’ve been a coach for a little over a year now and in that time I’ve discovered one of the many things you wouldn’t expect when taking up this job — developing a philosophy. It may sound a bit far out, but gradually your way of coaching and doing things will transform from loose bits of information you’ve gathered and your way of seeing the game into a concrete way of doing your job. The media often likes to talk about big coaches’ philosophies as a categorical way of football they like playing, but it goes deeper and is individual for each coach, big or small. As I come to the end of my second season as coach for a team of u18s, I’ve had more time to step back and think about what I’m doing and what I’ve learned. I’ve greatly improved as a coach in large part thanks to the help I’ve gotten from my connections and sharing experiences is the best way to help others out, so that’s what I intend to do.

There are hundreds of quotes from football managers, current or past, that I could use to kick this off, but Cruyff is always a great place to start:

“If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better.”

Johan Cruyff

When you’re a player on the pitch, football boils down to a series of 3-to-5-second intervals where you either touch the ball (as an attacker or midfielder) or the player you’re marking is on the ball (as a defender or midfielder). Reminding yourself of that when you learn about tactical setups, positioning mechanisms, pressing triggers and not to mention instructions for specific games makes the whole game seem a bit overwhelming. Put simply — a player’s entire performance is judged on their ability to make a split second decision — where they just can’t follow that many instructions.

Cruyff and Pep

So, how come many players are able to make the right decision more often than not, if so much thinking goes into the game? It’s because football is an instinctive game. A defender instinctively knows when to make the tackle and an attacker instinctively knows when to press. He isn’t reminding himself “Ok, what is the exact moment that I need to press inside between the centre-backs?” because by then it’s too late. This ability to make the right split-second decision is also what separates the good players from the mediocre and the great players from the good.

But, if football is all down to split-second decision making that isn’t the result of profound reflection, then what’s the coach doing? I’ve boiled the job down to 3 things: Off-the-ball instructions, game-to-game individual improvement, and motivation. While the latter isn’t really something that can be categorically taught, the former two can and they truly test the capacities of a coach.

Off-The-Ball Instructions

If a player only spends 3 minutes of the game on the ball, what are they doing for the other 87? It’s all about positioning. I tend to let the front 3/4 move as they please as long as they keep their pressing well-spread, but the midfield and the defence have to be spot on with their positioning all the time. Mixing the formation you’re given before the game with your interpretation of your positioning based on how the opposition is placed isn’t the most obvious mental task, so I don’t believe players should have to do it. The coach is the one who should know what everyone is doing and why — the players should know exactly what they’re doing and (vaguely know) what their two immediate partners are doing.

I’ve found that simplifying a player’s position and their partners’ positions down to a few sentences puts in place very basic mechanisms for their off-ball movement, but most importantly it puts players more at ease mentally and thus makes important decision making a lot better. For example, if I’m playing a rather basic 4-3-3, I’ll tell my centre-back “Stay rather tight to [x] attacker and keep yourself higher than your partner at CB. The right/left-back will be a little higher than usual today“. This means that the player won’t be constantly reminding himself of an excess of instructions, he’ll just know what to do with his attacker and will have a vague impression of where his immediate partners are in defense. The same applies for midfield and attack.

Said individual instructions can also be used to put mechanisms in place without the players having to be overtly aware of it. Introducing a mechanism as a specific instruction to be repeated in a specific situation makes players less concentrated, because they’ll constantly be wondering if they’re in the aforementioned situation and will thus be a second late to react to the game because of the distraction. Instead, give the players concerned an individual small portion of the mechanism as an instruction and keep everything as normal.

E.g: I played against a team where I knew their right-winger would stick to the sideline and then proceed to cut inside every time he received the ball. Instead of getting my left-back to push the winger as wide as possible as I usually would, I asked him to use his body and positioning (angling himself towards the goal and staying a bit closer to the sideline too) to incite the winger to cut inside (this makes the winger take a heavier touch than normal because he has a bit more room). I then asked my right centre-back to take care of the striker, leaving the left centre-back free, whom I asked to stick a bit closer to his left-back and tackle the winger whenever he cut inside. Instead of taking all 3 players and explaining their individual to-do lists whenever the winger had the ball, I opted to simplify it by omitting information. Just like Cruyff says — “If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better.”

Game-To-Game Individual Improvement

No players are perfect and the lower down the football ladder you go, the less perfect they are. As a coach, a large portion of your job is improving your players individually to their benefit and, more importantly, to the team’s benefit. Instead of dumping a load of instructions on a player before or during matches, or in training, doing it the long and hard way usually yields better results. If you think about regular education — doing things more progressively works better than trying to cram it all at once. As a coach, you may already know exactly all 7 things you want your right-back to learn, but telling him all 7 at the start of the year and doing all the drills every week in training won’t help — you have to drag it along so the instructions become automatic in their head over time.

I used to be a right-back and I had a lot of room for improvement. Yet, when I was fucking up in a match or in training, the 30 seconds of shouting “You did this and that wrong and you have to do this” didn’t help (surprise, surprise). What did help? That one time a coach identified an error, took me to the side and taught me a single mechanism. I knew I had problems with timing the run, knowing when to be physical, choosing my pass and positioning myself, but the coach in question here told me nothing more than how to position yourself as a full-back (always between your winger and the goal, in case you were wondering) and left it at that. On the field that day, I may have made the same timing, physicality and passing mistakes as usual, but instead of making all the same mistakes with someone shouting at me, I now made one less mistake. That was my last season on the pitch, so I’m still terrible at all the other stuff, but teaching my players different things gradually so they actually learn from it has worked way better than just laying their mistakes on them and spraying them with instructions. Keep it simple, and results will come.

I’ve said this to my players before and I mean it in the nicest way possible — football players are dumb. Why’s that? Somebody who acts without thinking about their actions is dumb. The difference here is that football players have no choice, they live in a world of split-second decisions. As long as you put yourself in their shoes when giving instructions, you keep them calm and motivate them to win- your football will improve.