Play the Game, Not the Rules

One of my favorite classes when I was studying to obtain my UEFA coaching licenses in Spain was Methodology. These teachers were always the most creative and imaginative of the year, which I later learned to be a good attribute to possess in this subject. We covered many topics in this subject but one of the most crucial was the design of training sessions. As youth coaches, our main objective is player development and one of our best tools to achieve this is proper training session design. For this reason, a good coach should be able to develop training sessions, and more specifically exercises, that have a purpose in the development of the player within the sport, all the while encompassing all the necessary aspects required of personal growth beyond the sport, like conditional, coordinative, cognitive, socio-emotional, volitional, creative, mental, and bio-energetic.  

The first question we must ask ourselves before anything else is why do we train? The obvious answer would be to improve a player in the context of the sport. However, I would go further and describe a training session as an opportunity for the player to live out situations that they might see in a match. As coaches, we have the creative responsibility to foresee the circumstances a player will face in upcoming matches, and construct exercises which will deliver high quantities of the desired match situations.

Personally, this is one of my favorite tasks of coaching because we become architects of individual and collective experiences. There is no better feeling than seeing the result of a perfectly created exercise where players are living out a game-like experience within the confines and safety of their familiar surroundings. 

Having tackled the ‘Why’, we now must dissect the ‘How’. Rather than fully delving into how to design a training session, we’ll just be discussing one of the tools that a coach has at their disposal in the creation of exercises: modified rules.

Read: Coaching in Context: Teaching Tactics and Technique

From time to time, I get emails from readers asking for suggestions for exercises for certain tactical points. In my experience, my training exercises stem from the same basic format and with the use of modified rules yield different desired results. These modified rules are established to organically generate certain tactical and technical actions.

I like the Spanish word for ‘modified rules’, ‘Reglas de Provocacion’, because it explicitly states what they are used for. The literal translation would be ‘Rules of Provocation’, signifying that they are provoking something. And indeed they are. Done properly, they are inciting, stimulating, prompting, and instigating small parts of football to prepare our players for when they are confronted with them in matches.

There are no limitations regarding what modified rules can be. Although, we do tend to see the same types of modified rules at all levels of coaching. For example, number of touches, number of players and neutral players, different zones, dimensions of the area of play, number of goals, different systems and positions, or other special rules. As long as the coach is creative, the possibilities are endless. Within those given examples, coaches can mix and match modified rules to create the perfect exercise. This is what makes training session design so creatively gratifying.

Having said that, before we get too excited about the possibilities we must always come back to the purpose of training, to create match situations that will prepare the player and further develop them as players and humans. I see many coaches make the mistake of creating the ‘perfect’ training sessions using all kinds of equipment and modified rules but along the way they forgot what they were training for. They became so caught up in delivering the ideal training exercise, they neglected the game itself.

Looking at some of the modified rules one by one, we can see where many coaches go wrong. For example, take the number of touches rule. I’ve seen this rule used as a norm to make players play faster. For example, let’s imagine that a coach has set up a 6v6 plus goalkeepers in a reduced space where each team has to score on a regulation sized goal. The coach has noticed in previous matches that his team is too slow in front of goal and as a result is failing to score. For this reason, he implements a two touch restriction (if a player takes three touches, the ball is turned over to the other team). The game is fast flowing, the players are playing quickly, there are quick combinations in front of goal, and more importantly players are finishing chances. All in all, it’s successful training session. Job well done coach! Or is it?

In the next match, the coach notices the same problems as before. The team struggles to create chances, they don’t get any clear opportunities in front of goal, they can’t seem to get shots off, and they finish yet another game without scoring.

Read: Intentionality in Sport: LA Galaxy case study

The coach is confused. However, if we look back at the training exercise, did it create real match situations with real match conditions? As far as I’m concerned, the exercise which I described does not translate to a real match. Yes, it looks nice and players are playing quickly but has the two touch restriction been beneficial within the context of a football match? No. By placing a touch limit, the coach has stripped the players of one of their most vital tools, dribbling. Especially in the final third, the best players rely on their dribbling abilities to beat defenders and get a shot on target. The coach has created a game where his players will succeed but it is not applicable to a match. The players have learned to play his game, not the sport.

Instead, the coach could have made a game where the team practices getting in behind the back line. For example, a game of 6v6 plus a neutral player with goalkeepers in a space of about 45x65 yards. The space is divided in thirds with the middle third being the largest. The game is played in the middle third and the objective of the game is to progress into the field third. The player who progresses into the final third then has a 1v1 against the goalkeeper to try and finish with a goal. As you can see there are no restrictions on the game play, but from how the zones are setup and how a team scores a point we produce many game-like situations that might help the team in the final third. The high quantity of chance creations produced from this game is transferable to a match and could alleviate the problem of finishing while keeping the game in the context of the sport.

6v6 + Neutral + GKs Finishing Incision.png

This is just one example of how a coach might implement unnecessary modified rules into a game just for the sake of doing so, without thinking about what that rule does to the game. When creating our sessions, we must always start with the why. Why am I doing this exercise? Why am I implementing this rule? If you can clearly justify the use of a modified rule and it doesn’t deviate the game from football, then you are on the right track.

Our training sessions should be small windows which focus on distinct parts of football. They should magnify and project distinct aspects of the game. They should replicate and multiply interactions we wish to improve. In order to succeed in our replication of the game, we must be loyal to the game. Dissect and simplify whilst preserving the integrity of football. As my methodology teacher Oscar Cano Moreno once told us, “Play the game, not the rules.”

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