Here is one of the major dilemmas that you face as a football coach when training young players: To master a skill, a child needs to repeat it over and over. Practice makes permanent is one of the core principles that all We Make Footballers franchisees come to understand. But doing the same action repeatedly becomes boring pretty quickly – especially for children. How then do you make repetitions fun, ensuring that every player gets the required amount of practice at different parts of the game to achieve their potential?
A good starting point is to understand the importance of repetitions. The easy option would be to avoid asking a child to repeat the same action and instead just let them get on with playing a game, but there is no long-term benefit in that at all.
Practice makes permanent because when a skill is mastered, it becomes second nature. Watch Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and the rest of the world’s finest play and it is noticeable how effortless they make it look.
That is no accident. Years of practice mean that they do not have to think about the process needed to control a ball on their chest, turn and then hit a half-volley with their back to goal into the top corner. They have done it so many times on the training ground that it is easy.
We often look at free-kick masters for the best examples of the benefit of repetitions. David Beckham was famous for staying behind after training, spending hours on end practising direct free-kicks into an empty net. Unforgettable goals like his free-kick for England against Greece were Beckham’s prize for that dedication to his craft.
The science behind repetitions is well established. At its most basic level, the more we repeat a task, the more efficient the neuron cells responsible for transmitting information become. These cells talk to each other as well as send signals to the muscles needed to perform a skill. The faster the response, the better chance of success.
Say a player is in a tight spot, marked by an opponent on the touchline. If neuron cells are responsible for alerting the brain to where the space is into which they can exit quickly transmit that information to the neuron cells that fire the muscles required for a Cruyff turn out of the situation, the chances of getting away are greatly improved. Repeatedly practising Cruyff turns would have trained those neurons for that exact scenario.
Whilst a handful of children might be interested in science, most come to We Make Footballers kick a ball around, emulate Harry Kane or Mason Mount and improve their footballing ability. Not many are raised in military-style households where repetition is a source of pride either.
We have to find other ways to ensure that players get the repetitions they need without becoming bored by it all. With our youngest players, we do this by taking the most powerful tool a child possesses – their imagination – and using it to trick, hoodwink and bamboozle them so that they do not even realise they have been repeatedly practising drag backs for 15 minutes.
Children are suddenly having to escape pirate ships. Our coaches become monsters or aliens. There is deadly lava all over the football pitch which needs to be avoided at all costs. When a child is trying to flee a volcano or avoid their coach who has transformed into a zombie, then the fact they have just completed 50 stepovers is the last thing on their mind.
When a parent asks their child if they want to sign up for another 10 sessions with a We Make Footballers franchise, we want the child’s mind to think back to all the adventures they have had with us.
By now, they have mastered that stepover through repetition. The skill is in the bank and their focus will be on the adventures that the next 10 weeks might hold. When football is fun, it is never boring.
A slightly different approach is needed with older children. They still have that wonderful imagination, but they don’t need to be spoken to like toddlers, nor can they be hoodwinked as easily as the younger groups.
Challenges still work when it comes to making repetition fun, but of a different sort. Older children need motivation and that can come from achieving a target or aim. How many goals can you score with your weaker foot? How many Maradona turns can you complete in a set period?
If there is a purpose to repetitions rather than doing the same task simply for the sake of it, then it suddenly becomes much less boring. Reducing downtime also helps. Ensuring that players are always involved and not standing around in a queue significantly reduces their chances of being bored. This is why we operate with small group sizes at We Make Footballers, so every player gets the attention they need.
Finally, older children tend to respond best to enthusiastic, fun coaches. If the coach can instil that any drill which might be seen as repetitive is in fact fun, then that tends to rub off on the players they are working with.
When a coach has a boring tone of voice or does not believe themselves that what they are putting their players through is enjoyable, then children are very quick to pick up on that and adopt the same attitude.
The very real danger when a player becomes bored is that they end up behaving badly or asking their parents to quit training. By making sessions as fun as possible, we do everything we can at We Make Footballers eliminate the chances of that happening at the same time as helping every child reach their potential through our practice makes permanent ethos.