Performance Tip # 28: Supplement Team Training with Individual Training









Several studies have confirmed that the number of hours of “deliberate practice” play a greater role in the development of young players that go on to play at higher levels, rather than innate talent.

A positive linear relationship was found between accumulated individual plus team practice time and the level of skill when a group of international, national and provincial players were assessed. ( Helsen, W., Hodges N.J., Winckel, J. & Starkes, J., (2000) Journal of Sports Science)

We have all heard about the 10,000-hour training rule — the theory, as advocated by Malcolm Gladwell and others, that if you truly want to be good at something, you have to devote at least 10,000 to practicing it.

While training volume will help assist young players maximize their soccer potential it is the quality of the training that can have the greatest impact. Practice must be intensive, focused on training goals and players must be receiving the correct feedback in order to make the correct refinements in order to excel.

Young players at the top academies in Europe, including the famous La Masia training academy in Barcelona typically only complete 70 minutes of team training per day per day. However, this leaves time for less formal individual or small-group training that will engage the players more and be completed at full-pace. In this environment the players have to be technically, mentally and physically on the edge and repeatedly making correct decisions while executing skills in small spaces. Read More

Players typically learn within a team setting by following the typical coaching process:


However, the challenge becomes when the coaching process is not specifically linked to an individual player’s own goals. Team coaches typically plan practice activities with the objective of improving the performance levels of the overall team, rather than focusing on improving the individual performance levels of their players. It has been proven that effective goal setting can accelerate the development of elite athletes so it is important that young players are in an environment where their individual goals are being determined, monitored and a plan is put in place to achieve them.

In addition, just like a young Messi when he was coming through at Barcelona, young players should set time aside to practice individually. Or, alternatively, they may also wish to seek out an Individual Performance Coach to tailor a training development program specifically for them.

More and more players at the professional and amateur levels are now beginning to work with Individual Performance Coaches. Arsenal player Theo Walcott, after not making the England squad for Euros 2016 realised he was neither fit enough nor strong enough and started working with Performance coach Bradley Simmonds. He is now playing the best football (soccer) of his life and has scored five goals in eight games this season. This form has now earned him a recall to the England international team.

What is Performance Coaching?

Performance coaching can best be described as a process to help players to maximize their potential and achieve their individual soccer goals. The objective of Performance coaches is to help players:

  • Set practical, achievable goals
  • Develop new skills
  • Identify and maximise strengths
  • Develop tools to overcome weaknesses
  • Identify road blocks to achieving their true potential
  • Aspire and drive towards a higher level of success

The best players in the world were developed as a result of combing team coaching with a significant amount of individual training.  It has been a proven method of player development for many generations and it is important that all young players are combining both, in order to maximize their full potential.

Performance Improvement Tip : Be smarter than other players

cruyff-quote-simple-footballMen’s Health magazine reported in 2012 that research by Predrag Petrovic (PhD and lead researcher at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm) concluded that soccer players score

within the top 2 to 5 per cent of the population when tested on memory, multitasking and creativity. Soccer is a rapidity changing game with quick movements of the ball, teammates and the opposition. It is a random game when compared to other North American sports such as NFL football or basketball where there are more stoppages and set plays. Petrovic argues that adapting constantly to a changing environment (which elite soccer players do) develops skills that are easily transferable to executive business functions such as changing strategies and suppressing old, out-dated plans.

We often assume that elite athletes depend upon their physical attributes more than their mental capabilities. However, to play sports at a high level, players face both physical and mental demands. Players require a high level of cognitive skills such as attention, memory and visual processing to read situations and make good decisions. They must also be capable of taking snapshots of information on the field, identifying patterns of play and making decisions on the best way to confront specific opponents. 

In soccer, players have no option but to multi-task. They must combine agile physical movement with the ball with processing information on what space to exploit and how to respond to the efforts of opposing players, in order to keep possession and build attacks against the opposition. In an effort to teach multi-tasking we frequently ask our young players to juggle or pass a tennis ball while executing soccer movements. This is something that every young player could practice at home by themselves – juggling a tennis ball in their hands while dribbling at the same time.

The ability to successfully manage change is also an important attribute that should be developed by young players. Change in the soccer environment is not restricted to the rapid movements on the field. Young players have to be capable of adapting to changing positions and formations that they play. Their teammates may change from week to week or season to season, and the coaching staff that they work with also typically changes on a frequent basis. One minute they may be playing with a team in form, who are dominating opponents, and the next their team is struggling to keep the ball during games. Many young players also play on several different teams. For example, they can suit up for a club or academy team, a representative team (like district or regional) and a school team — all in the same week!

There is an old saying in soccer that if you stand still, you will be quickly overtaken. Young players should not avoid change, they should learn how to embrace it. Developing the ability to successfully manage change and improving memory, multitasking and creativity skills will see young players develop quicker than their peers. They will be “smarter” on the field than their opponents and this can give them critical performance advantages. 


Performance Improvement Tip : Develop your creativity

Indian youth practice their football skills at the Allahabad University campus in Allahabad on June 10, 2014.    AFP PHOTO/SANJAY KANOJIA

Indian youth practice their football skills at the Allahabad University campus in Allahabad on June 10, 2014. AFP PHOTO/SANJAY KANOJIA

In the modern game, it is the teams that are the most creative in the final third that have the most success. Teams do not necessarily have to have the most possession to win games (Leicester City last year) but they do have to be successful at unlocking defences. Defenders are individually better in all aspects of the (technically, tactically, mentally and physically) and defences as a group are much better organized.

Creative players are the most valuable on the field as they are good in 1v1 attacking situations. These players are the ones who can go past opponents and take them out of the game to create overloading situations for their own team.

It is important to remember that it is not only strikers who play a significant role in a team’s attacking play. The majority of teams in the English Premiership typically play with only one striker. Therefore, midfield players and full-backs have important roles to play in the attacking phases of play. Brazil has long used attacking full-backs arriving late in wide positions to overload defenders, to generate crosses or create dribbling opportunities into the box for goal-scoring opportunities.

It is the quality of the attacking play in the “final” third that makes the difference. The teams that best control possession in these areas with short 1 and 2 touch passing and penetrating dribbling runs typically create more goal scoring opportunities by pulling well-organized defences out of position. So, what type of training should young players focus on to achieve success in the modern game? To be effective in the attacking third of the field requires the following qualities so young players should search out opportunists to practice these skills as much as possible:

• Good technique in tight areas
• Ability to play quick 1 and 2 touch passes
• Quick thinking to make effective movements off the ball
• Imagination, skill and courage to take players on in 1v1 situations
• Early finishing using both feet
• Ability for quick transition — from defense to attack, and attack to defense

Young players must ask themselves if they are part of a rigid, linear development system where creativity is being coached out of them? Wayne Rooney spoke of how he wanted to stop playing at age 14 because Everton Football Club asked him to play a different way. He was a young boy who loved the game and was very good at it. The good news is that he was talked out of quitting by Colin Harvey, a senior coach at Everton. However, how many other creative players, like him, have been lost to the game?

At the moment, I’m looking at the rapid growth of street soccer and futsal in Europe. I am seeing very dedicated and creative young players practice the latest freestyle skills and demonstrate outrageous plays when they play futsal. It makes we wonder if both are better avenues to remove the pressure on young players in todays structured academy environments. Street soccer and futsal develop creativity by placing less adult restrictions on young players. Young players can, and will, practice for hours with a ball to learn a new move. Is it because both street soccer and futsal provides young players with an unstructured environment, on their own terms, with less direction from adults where they are left alone more to experiment and improvise?

A coach in British Columbia named Rick Gruneau once sent me an email speaking about some of the differences he had experienced when he spent a week at the Spanish club Espanyol in 2010. He asked the coaching staff what the two most important things were that they taught in training, the answer was immediate, though, for a North American, surprising: “Joy and technique.” Joy because, as the coaches put it, “We are a small club (compared to Barcelona and Real Madrid) and these players are precious investments for us. Every time a player burns out or leaves the game we not only feel that we have failed the player, we lose our investment in him.” And technique, because football is “primarily a game where the challenge is to exercise the best technique possible under pressure”.

Rick went on to recount his amazement at the “joy” in training sessions when even in the most competitive training there was a lot of laughing and mutual back patting, where players would spontaneously break into applause when another player did something out of the ordinary technically. It was not something that we experience very often in North America.

Young players should play as much futsal and street soccer as possible and seek out environments that will best support them to be creative. In the long-term this will better equip them to be successful at the higher levels of the game.

Performance Improvement Tip : Self Assess your Performance

soccer-success-formula-newAn important part of youth development is developing the entire person — not just the soccer player. We expect young people to go onto the field of play and make smart, correct decisions by themselves — so it is vital that we begin to develop these qualities early in their development.

When I talk to academy coaches across Europe or professional scouts they place a large emphasis on the psychological attributes of young players when evaluating potential. Is the player self-motivated, taking responsibility for their own development, has a strong mentality to overcome set-backs and do they have a strong capacity to learn?

The best players in the world have dedicated their life to a constant process of self-improvement. As they have amassed training hours and game -time they have had to navigate through challenges such as injuries, growth spurts, loss of form, criticism, self-doubt and external pressures from family and friends.

One method that young players can use to take greater ownership of their own development pathway is to self-asses their own performances, both in training and games.

When I was visiting the Crewe Alexandra academy more than 10 years ago, I noticed that they strived to have their young players take greater responsibility for their development. They had each player rate themselves after every game on a score from 1-3 (Poor/average/good) on the following criteria:


  • Preparation for Match/Enthusiasm
  • Team Attitude (We not Me)
  • Individual Goal One (assigned by coach for each game)
  • Individual Goal Two (also assigned by coach for each game)


They also had the young players give themselves a performance score (out of 10) for their overall display, as well as describing their best and worst moment of the match. The players completed this information after every game and handed this (in their player book) into the coaching staff. The

coaching staff then provided their own feedback, in terms of scores and comments before handed this back to the players.


If the teams that young players play on do not have a similar feedback system in place, then there is no reason why young players cannot implement their own version of a player book to track performance progress. This kind of performance feedback is critical for elite athletes. They must understand their current performance levels, and must be seeking improvements on a daily basis (during training and games). This will help them understand their own strengths and areas of improvements.


Sample Individual Player Feedback Form

Position Played _________________

Game Performance Objective #1: _______________ Assessment Remarks _____________

Game Performance Objective #2: _______________ Assessment Remarks _____________

Game Performance Objective #3: _______________ Assessment Remarks _____________

Overall Performance Score: 1-10________________Assessment Remarks______________

Technical Performance Score 1-10 _______________Assessment Remarks_____________

Tactical Performance Score 1-10_________________Assessment Remarks_____________

Physical Performance Score 1-10_________________Assessment Remarks____________

Mental Performance Score 1-10 _________________Assessment Remarks____________

Preparation for Match/Enthusiasm     Assessment Remarks_________________________

Three things did well ________________________________________________________

Three things Can Improve ____________________________________________________

Best Moment of Game _______________________________________________________

Most Challenging Moment of Game _____________________________________________


Player Tip: Start maintaining a training/games log to self-assess and track your performance


Coach Tip: Implement a two-way feedback system with your players in terms of individual player performance


Parent Tip: Encourage your child to learn to assess their performances and take more responsibility for their own development




Performance Improvement Tip: Dare to Dream

dare-to-dreamDuring this summer I was fortunate to travel to France to watch Northern Ireland play in the Euros. We over-achieved as a small country of only 1.8 million people. The team successfully navigated through a tough qualifying group containing Germany, Poland and the Ukraine to reach the last 16? Why does a small nation like Northern Ireland hold the record as the smallest nation to win a game at the World Cup finals? How can we be ranked as high as 26 in the FIFA world rankings? The players dared to dream!

Northern Ireland golfer Rory McIlroy sent an inspirational video to the team before the Euros. It highlighted that for many years Northern Ireland has punched well above its weight and produced world champions and top sports teams. Success has been achieved with many of the same attributes that Leicester City used last year when they went on to win the English Premiership against all the odds. Hard-work, determination, persistence and a contagious belief that obstacles can be overcome to reach the higher levels. Young players must also embrace this commitment to work hard and believe that they do can achieve great things through a commitment to get better every day.

The tide is turning in soccer at the highest levels! The top teams and the so called big players are under pressure. They are being out-worked, out-fought and sometimes out-thought by supposedly less talented opponents. In football (soccer) there is no place to hide on the field. If you are not putting maximum effort in and supremely motivated, you will be found out. Some of the top teams and players who are not on top of their game and letting their standards drop are now been humbled by their smaller opponents.

I think everyone is ready for a new era when the players and teams who are humble, hard-working and willing to do whatever it takes to overcome any obstacles in their path are achieving success. It is a refreshing change and provides our young players with better role models who are humble and demonstrate on a daily basis that success has to be earned.

It is achieved over the long-term with great determination, persistence and hard-work!

So, how do young players seek out and execute the little things that would give them an advantage so that they can dare to dream and over-achieve? Maybe, they implement the 1% rule and achieve all those little improvements that add up to significant performance gains. It can be as simple as getting to training a little bit earlier for some extra warm-up. Maybe it’s going to bed 30 minutes earlier. Maybe it’s trying new moves in training that you have watched on television. Maybe it’s planning ahead so they have a proper snack before training and have hydrated properly.

As a result of all these little things, which may in themselves constitute miniscule improvements, players can perform as much as 4 per cent better each week (that’s 1 per cent better, times 3 training sessions and 1 game each week). After a month, that could mean being 16 per cent better.

Lots of these little things over a period of time make the difference for young players. They are taking ownership for their development, thinking for themselves and striving to be the best they can be. There is no better feeling in sport, and football (soccer) is no different, at looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing that you have done everything you could.

Coaches and top teams seek out these types of players. Teammates love being around them and parents feel proud knowing that their children have developed a set of skills that will be useful throughout their journey in life.

Young players who dare to dream…and put the work in, can over-achieve!
Player Tip: Identify and implement those “little things” into your training program that all add up to significant improvements in performance

Coach Tip: Educate your players on what “little things” they can do on a regular basis to improve performance

Parent Tip: Help your child develop good habits in preparation for training and games.






Performance Improvement Tip : Self Manage your Mental Skills

bill-beswick-v2-0One of the key attributes that determines the success of young players is their mental skill-set. Typically, top professional clubs will assess mental attributes such as attitude, focus during training and games, confidence, composure, self-motivation, aggressiveness and creativity. Players can be very good technically, are intelligent in their decision-making and have strong physical attributes but if they do not have strong mental skills – then ultimately performance levels will be negatively affected.

“Champions must have both skill and will, but the will must be stronger” (Muhammad Ali)

In soccer, young players face challenges on a daily basis. The best players will assess these challenges and successfully find solutions. When humans are faced with a challenge, we typically have two choices – fight or flight.  The best young players will fight and not run away from challenges. They will embrace them and once they accept a challenge they become more confident in their own ability. This also triggers emotional responses such as excitement and determination which produces high energy levels. As this sequence continues then young players will successfully develop a resilience (mental toughness) that will allow them to fully maximize their technical ability, game intelligence and physical attributes.

I am a firm advocate of young players practicing and developing their mental skills on a continuous basis, just like they would their technical skills. One of the best resources that I have came across to help young players understand themselves better and improve their mental skills is the work of Sports Psychologist Bill Beswick.  I first met Bill at Middlesbrough Football Club in 2005, when he was assistant manager to Steve McClaren.   Bill has worked at Derby County, Manchester United, Middlesbrough & Sunderland in the English Premier League and contributes to UEFA Pro Licence award courses for a number of European Football Associations. He has international experience with the England U18 and U21 squads.

The reason I was drawn to Bill’s work is that in his book “Focused for Soccer” he provides young players with a series of self-assessment check lists on attitude, that can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses. He then goes on to provide practical action plans on how to improve confidence, concentration, competitiveness and overall mental toughness.

Bill’s philosophy is based on the belief that psychological skills are not magical but can be learnt (like other skills) through instruction, repetition and perseverance. He sets out, in his book, a recommended process for players to follow in terms of incorporating these new ideas into training as they strive to achieve higher performance levels:

  • Use self assessment tools to determine areas that can be improved
  • Set three goals that are progressive steps that are relatively easy to achieve
  • Visualize as you would want to be and image what it would feel like
  • Practice visualization techniques to achieve the set goals
  • Monitor your progress through reflection
  • Repeat and repeat actions so that they are new and positive habits
  • Enjoy your new performance gains with more confident displays in training and games


Taking control of this aspect of performance will provide young players with an important advantage over teammates and other players that they compete against. It will also help to develop good life skills that can be used in the future to be successful.



Focused for Soccer by Bill Beswick


Player Tips: Read Focused for Soccer and complete the self-assessment questionnaires and recommended action planning process

Coaches Tips: Read Focused for Soccer to gain a greater insight into sports psychology and utilize Bill Beswick’s recommended strategies for teams

Parent Tips: Read Focused for Soccer to improve understanding of what mental attributes required to play at the highest levels. Provide support and assistance to your child as they try to improve this aspect of their performance





Performance Improvement Tip # 27: Develop your interpersonal skills

communicationLast week it was reported that Manchester City Manager Pep Guardiola has banned Wi-Fi from the clubs training ground in an effort to improve the inter-personal communication amongst the players. Good communication is a very important component for all successful teams, both on the field and off the field and greatly affects the dynamics and overall mood of the team. You only have to look at the strong comrade amongst over-achieving teams such as Leicester City (EPL Champions last year), Wales, Northern Ireland and Iceland (at Euro 2016) to understand the significance of good communication for sports performance.

At the youth levels, it is important that young players recognize the importance of this early on. Professional clubs in Europe that I speak to educate their young players on the importance of being comfortable speaking to other members of the group, members of the coaching staff and the professional players at the club that act as their mentors. There is also an on field requirement of communication where young player’s must be proficient at calling for the ball and providing information to other players during training and game situations.

Research has confirmed that the development of psychosocial skills plays an important role in talent development. Psychosocial development is the development of the personality, including the acquisition of social attitudes and skills from infancy all the way through to maturity. A study by Larsen., Alfermann, D., & Christensen, M. (2012) confirmed that explicit psychosocial skills such as motivation, self-awareness and the ability to work hard are very important to talent development. However, they also concluded that implicit psychological skills such as general interpersonal (social) skills where even more important for young soccer players when dealing with their transition from youth to professional soccer.


Implicit psychological skills are those that are only indirectly practiced and rarely talked about and include:

  • Awareness of team member personalities
  • Wanting the best for teammates
  • Knowing team strengths and weaknesses
  • Teamwork skills – being part of the group
  • Trusting teammates
  • Making your teammate better
  • Dealing with information from parents and school
  • Dealing with information from club and coaches
  • Handing social life and school
  • Socializing skills
  • Making friends
  • Verbal communications skills
  • Sharing information with others
  • Utilizing coaches and experts to improve performance
  • Interaction skills within a competitive environment


Sports psychology tends to focus more on the explicit psychological skills such as self-awareness, goal-setting, motivation and self – organization. However, there should be a recognition amongst young players that being a good person and developing good communication skills with teammates and coaches is a key requirement for their talent development.

Resources :  Video from Nike Academy – Communication and Leadership



Larsen., Alfermann, D., & Christensen, M. (2012). Psychosocial Skills in a Youth Soccer Academy: A holistic Ecological Perspective. Sport Science Review, vol. XXI, No 3-4, August 2012   


Player Tip: Recognize that communication with others is an important skill-set for elite sports athletes. If you are not comfortable around others may a point in learning more about them and engaging in dialogue

Coach Tip:  Give some thought how you can build camaraderie amongst the group.  Talk openly about each player’s strengths in front of the entire group

Parent Tip: Teaching your child to be respectful of their coaching staff, opponents and teammates and communicate openly within the group will greatly enhance your child’s development



Performance Improvement Tip: Learn different positions

formationsOne of the challenges we face in North America is our tendency to place young players in specific positions at young ages. Typically, coaches will place children in positions based on physical size, level of aggression, speed and technical ability.

Less skilled players are asked to play as defenders, aggressive players are asked to play midfield and fast and skillful players are selected as forwards. The problem with this is that coaches are typically making these decisions to win games, not to develop players. Also, many young players adopt a mindset that they can and only will play one position. This limits learning and growth as a player.

As a young player I played every outfield position. This helped me to gain a good understanding of the game and an opportunity to practice many diverse skills. One week, I was able to try 1v1 moves against defenders and supply crosses for the forwards. The next week, I was playing central defense and using my defensive skills.

In the modern game, at the highest levels, players can find themselves playing in more than one position, during each game. Sometimes a team may be chasing a game and play with more forwards on the field or alternatively be trying to protect a lead and play with more defensive structure. It is a requirement of the modern game that players need to be able to adapt and play in different positions.

Many of today’s professional players started their careers in different positions. Lionel Messi, for example, was considered a wide player at Barcelona during his early years and considered too small to play centrally as a forward. Cristiano Ronaldo currently plays on the left side for Real Madrid after playing the majority of his games for Manchester United on the right side. When I travelled to the English Club Crewe Alexandra more than 10 years ago their academy teams systematically rotated their young players through a different position each playing period. If a young player started as a left fullback for the 1st period, they would play central midfield for the 2nd period and then rotated to play as a left winger for the final period. After every three or four games they would have experienced playing in all positions.

By contrast young North American players would typically play two or three seasons or even more playing in only one or two positions. In my opinion this places young North American players at a significant disadvantage. They do not learn all aspects of the game, nor are they exposed to the opportunities to solve different problems on the field. It can also limit their opportunities later on to join higher-level teams, as coaches may have established players in “their” positions.

Young players can gain an advantage over other players by playing in multiple positions and accelerating their knowledge of the game.

Player Tips: Be open to play in multiple positions. In fact, seek these opportunities out to improve your knowledge of the game

Coaches Tips: Develop intelligent and well-rounded players by exposing your players to multiple positions. This will benefit their game knowledge more than teaching tactics to them at young ages

Parent Tips: Encourage your child to embrace change and try different positions. Successfully being able to adapt to change is a major component of being successful in todays modern game. Your child will benefit enormously from learning these skills at a young age

Performance Improvement Tip # 26: Develop your balance – it is an important skill often overlooked

sprywpressBalance is an important skill to develop for young players. Players are required to complete soccer tasks balanced on one leg. Passing, receiving, shooting, crossing and dribbling are all completed while balancing on one leg. Many players and coaches overlook balance and take it for granted. However, it is like any other skill – it has to constantly worked on and improved in order to improve performance. The best players in the world all have great balance and this allows them to complete soccer specific skills and movements at high speed, without losing their footing.

“Balance is an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”

There are a few key considerations that players must keep in mind in order to retain good balance:

  • Keep their center of gravity low.  This can be achieved by young players adopting a posture where they are on their toes, leaning forward and having their knees bent.
  • The arms should be used to create leverage for the rest of your body to maintain balance, but arms should not be waving all over the place.
  • When in possession of the ball, young players should take smaller steps and increase the number of times that they touch the ball.

Developing leg strength is ultimately one of the most important things in developing balance. In terms of developing the physical attributes of players I am an advocate of UEFA staff coach educator and Sports Consultant, Roger Spry. Roger has worked with Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger and his innovative approach to training incorporates martial arts and dance.   Rather than focus on traditional athletic ability, his work emphasizes creativity, physical agility, dexterity and the ability to add disguise. Roger refers to his work as “technical conditioning” and much of the work can be done with the ball.

Young players can implement many of Roger’s training activities in their own individual training program and enclosed below are some videos that can be used to improve leg – strength and balance.