Constant practice and how the human brain learns


I have been reading a lot about football coaching recently and it has led me to believe that there is a growing school of thought that for training drills to be truly effective they must mimic as closely as possible the game of football, with opposition and stress. I agree to a point, and can’t fault the logic, but if you study the way our brains actually learn, then repetition is the key, and maybe it’s a little too soon to discard constant practices in favour of ‘random’ and ‘variable’ drills?

Lets accept that the definition of Constant, Variable and Random drills is:

Constant – players repeat a certain drill many times in a row with no change in difficulty or interference. An example might be two players standing 10 yards apart, and simply using the inside of their feet to pass, control and pass back.

Variable – where the size or conditions of the drill ask the player to think a little more. So passing to each other in a small area, with other pairs of players also passing a ball in the same are. There is movement, decision making and bodies in the way which causes interference, but still no opposition as experienced in a match.

Random – where the drill mimics the game of football as closely as possible. So with opposition. With a defender trying to tackle or intercept. Pressure on the player to act quickly.

So back to how the human brain learns. There are basically three types of memory. Before any brain scientists pull me up here, I totally accept that I am simplifying.

Sensory memory – lasts for a fraction of a second, and consists of sight, sound, touch, smell. Millions if not billions of these memories are fleetingly made and lost as quickly every single day.

In order for a sensory memory to become anything that you are even remotely aware of consciously, you need to pay attention to that sensory memory. To test this theory, I want you to take a quick test with me. It is ideal to test this in an area that you are not completely familiar with if you can. When I say ‘go’ I’d like you to glance around the area you are in right now and see how many red items you can see in 5 seconds. Only 5 seconds, then come back to this article please. Ok, GO!

You’re back? Good. We’ll come back to this in a second …

Sensory memory is anything that crossed your ears, eyes, nose, mouth and taste and thousands and thousands of things so every second. Fractions of a second per item,
and most of it is gone without you ever knowing it was there in the first place.

This leads us onto short-term memory. This is a section of our memory that can hold between 3 and 7 items of memory for around 20 seconds at a time. If we pay no attention at this stage, when a sensory memory has made it to short-term memory, then it will also be lost. Attention is the key once again, and without repetition in our conscious memory the memory doesn’t survive.

In order for a fleeting, fraction of a second memory from your sensory memory to even be conscious to you, it is essential that you paid at least some attention. If you paid zero attention to a sensory memory, it will not make it into your short-term memory.

In that 5 second look around your area I asked of you before …you would have taken in thousands and thousands of small items that were immediate forgotten.

Now, please don’t look away from this screen. Can you recall any of the red items you saw in your area?

A few I would imagine, assuming there were any, because you were asking your mind to seek out and pay attention to items that were red. Don’t look away from this text now please … How many blue items did you see in that previous 5 second scan? Harder to recall I’d imagine? Now, if you are in your favourite comfy chair in the living room then you will be able to remember a few because the blue items would have benefited from multiple periods of your attention over a period of time, and that leads us neatly onto how long-term memories are made. Through repeated attention being paid, as many times as possible.

In order for us to remember something for longer than about 20 seconds, and start to code that memory from short-term memory to long-term memory, you have to pay some attention to it. The more attention you pay, the stronger the coding into long-term memory. The queue of short-term memories being made and quickly lost is constantly moving, especially in this digital age where there is always a ping or a bleep to distract you and become the latest piece of short-term memory made, leaving another to be lost. There is a constant conveyor belt of 20 second (max) thoughts, being destroyed by a lack of our attention to them.

You know that feeling that we have all had when you ‘forget where you left your keys’ right? You don’t actually forget where you put them at all. You fail to make a sufficiently strong memory to be recalled. If you walk into the house and dump your keys with no attention paid at the time to where you dumped them, then you don’t make a memory. Therefore there is nothing to remember later. If you have a place that your mind associates with keys, and you consciously make a point of always putting them in the same place, you will never lose your keys again. Your brain, with every placement, makes a stronger connection between the coffee table and your keys for example.

So back to football. The more you repeat something, the more you strengthen the neural pathways in your brain that leads a fleeting memory into a short-term memory, and more importantly leads a short-term memory into a long-term memory . This is especially true with 5-11 year old who are said to be in the ‘golden age of learning’. The first time they pass a football with the instep, and aim at another player they are creating a neural pathway and every time they pay attention to repeating that technique, they are strengthening that neural pathway.

So repetition and attention build what we call ‘muscle memory’ and surely only constant practice, while paying attention to that technique, and lots of repetition can help a player successfully master a technique? You could argue that during a game a player is passing, but their attention is being divided many ways at a time, and therefore mindful attention on the technique of passing is less.

So I would suggest, as an example, that asking a 7 or 8-year-old to make 100 passes with the instep every training session (with occasional intervention from the coach to correct technique if necessary) must surely be a great way to get the correct technique into the players muscle memory? So much so that when they need to make a pass in a game that correct technique is the default reaction. Then, when the correct technique appears to be second nature we can move that player on through the use of variable and random practices to start to replicate the game of football.

A fantastic book on attention and the human brain can be summarised neatly by this video – – It is worth watching and explains better than I how long-term memories (longer than 20 seconds) are made.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions or counter-ideas on this in the comments?




Teaching kids how to make the space to receive a pass; an idea and request for new ideas

I’d be really interested to hear ideas from coaches who have found a simple way to help kids understand why and how they should create space for a team mate in possession.

Last year while coaching an under 7s team, I came up with a concept I call ‘Invisible lines’ which has had moderate success, but I can’t help feeling there is a far simpler way to articulate the idea?

The aim of Invisible lines is to help the team in possession make space, so that their mate on the ball can pass. This is not a coaching drill as such, more something I explain and demonstrate before a keep-ball/ Rondo type drill.

I ask the kids to imagine that there is an invisible line between the ball and them at all times, and that to help your mate who has the ball, its great to try and find some space that also has a clear invisible line between you and the ball.

I demonstrate this concept by showing them this pitch layout on the iPad.

Invisible lines


I then develop a Q&A with the players, and ask them what pass ‘Player 2’ can make in this position?

I ask what could the other players do to help Player 2 find a pass? I encourage them to show me on the iPad where players 3,4 and 5 might move to in order to make space.

Finally, I set the players up in the positions on the diagram. I ask player 2 if he can make a pass, which of course he can’t, and then in turn ask players 3,4 and 5 what they could do to help in that situation.

As always, I’d be very grateful if you could share your thoughts, ideas and feedback in the comments.




How would you have countered Mourinho’s tactics yesterday?


Having watched the Liverpool v Chelsea match this weekend, I got to thinking about how an attacking, attractive footballing team can overcome a team who ‘park the bus’ as Chelsea did on Sunday. So I’d like to explore the subject, using Liverpool v Chelsea as an example, and I’d love coaches to get involved in this conversation by adding your ideas and thoughts via the comments?

Liverpool have blown teams many away this season, especially at Anfield, by attacking at pace with very mobile, quick-thinking forward players. That starts with Gerrard in the holding midfield role, who is able to play long, accurate balls to players like Sterling, Coutinho, Sturridge and of course the newly crowned PFA Player of the Year, Luis Suarez.

Liverpool usually create space by exhibiting great movement and by attacking at pace. By getting the ball forward quickly and to feet, with movement off the ball, it often pulls defenders out of shape and creates spaces for the forwards to exploit in between defending players. They also have a forward line who can beat a man, which of course helps.

I can recall two occasions however this season where opposition teams at Anfield have ‘parked the bus’ in as much as they packed the defensive third of the pitch in order to limit the space in which Liverpool want to attack. Against Chelsea, that defensive mentality was ironically best illustrated by Chelsea’s first goal. When Steven Gerrard’s slipped, he was just in his own half and Demba Ba was the only Chelsea player anywhere near him.

A few weeks previously, Sunderland tried a similar tactic, but they defended with a slightly higher line and it took a free kick from distance to break the deadlock and for Sunderland to then come out and play.

So it got me thinking. What can you actually do about it as a coach, when faced with a team that have 10 men behind the ball? For long periods yesterday Liverpool were camped in the Chelsea half, passing the ball in front of ten Chelsea players, and finding no space to play in the final third. In the end, Gerrard, Allen and others resorted to shots from just outside the box, without any joy.


Although it didn’t work for Liverpool yesterday, I am thinking that shots from the edge of the box might be one of the tactics to employ when there are eight or nine players defending the penalty area. Trying to work the space to get as near as you can, and then aim to hit an in-off shot, sounds more like billiards than football, but it is difficult to know what else to do in such a crowded penalty area? To try and wriggle through that many players with dribbling and quick passing is extremely difficult. Maybe practicing hitting shots from the edge of the area, at pace, that are around knee high to the defenders would offer the maximum chance of a defender deflecting the ball past a partially unsighted goalkeeper? Or maybe even slightly higher than the knee to tempt the defenders into using their hands?

Yesterday, Mourinho set out to frustrate from the off by setting up with ten men behind the ball, and time wasting in order to take the pace out of the game. He closed off the space in the final third to stifle Liverpool’s attacking flair, and fortuitously nicked a goal at the expense of the slipping Steven Gerrard. His tactics ultimately worked, but it would have been interesting to see how Chelsea would have developed from there had Gerrard not slipped, because they never looked like scoring without that bit of luck.

So how would you have changed things if you were the Liverpool manager against Chelsea yesterday?



Training session – under 7’s tactics for goal kicks

Following a discussion on Twitter with Daniel Gregory about the retreat line rule in youth soccer, and the pros and cons of that rule, I have posted a few thoughts about how we set up our team to ensure that the defender who receives the ball always has a pass they can make.

More generally, we always tell our boys about movement off the ball and to imagine that there is an invisible line between the ball and them at all times. If that invisible line has an opposing player on it, you need to move in order to find space to receive a pass. Having that invisible line in their head is a way of them constantly checking to see if they are in a good position to receive a pass.

Specifically for goal kicks, we set the boys up very narrow in a 2-2 formation (Square) with both defenders roughly in line with the goal posts. This leaves space on the wings, as the opposing players who are waiting to charge from the half-way line will generally mark our players. So if our players are very central, so will the opposing players be.

On the training pitch, we show the boys what that looks like on the 24/7 Coach app (see picture attached) and then set the boys up in that position so they can ‘feel’ what that set up looks like.

The players set up very narrowly, to leave lots of space on the wings
The players set up very narrowly, to leave lots of space on the wings

As soon as the goalkeeper kicks the ball towards the defender on the left-hand side, the opposing players have started to run towards the ball from the halfway line. It of course varies from team to team, but it is usually 2 or 3 players that bomb forward. At least 1 of those players will head for the defender who is about to receive the ball.

The defender receives the ball, as the opposing players rush into your half.
The defender receives the ball, as the opposing players rush into your half.

As the defender receives the ball, they are close to being closed down from the opposing players rushing from the halfway line, but if the pass from the goalkeeper is solid enough there should still be time to control and turn. As the defender is receiving the ball, the forward on the left-hand side makes a quick run out towards the touchline, creating sudden space, which the defender can then use to pass the ball through before the opposing defender reacts.

As the defender gets the ball under control, the forward darts wide to create space to receive the pass.
As the defender gets the ball under control, the forward darts wide to create space to receive the pass before the defender can react.

Id be very interested to hear your feedback on this, or any coaching points related to it in the comments?


Retreat line in mini soccer is a good thing … do you have a different view?

retreat line

In mini-soccer, the FA introduced a rule concerning goal kicks. The rule reads “Law 16. Goal Kick. Procedure. A player of the defending team kicks the ball from any point within the penalty area. Opponents must retreat to their own half until the ball is in play. The defending team does not have to wait for the opposition to retreat and has the option to restart the game before should they choose to. The ball is in play when it is kicked directly out the penalty area.”

I think that it is a good thing for the age group I coach (under 7’s) for the reasons I will explain below. Others disagree though. It is a rule that divides opinion, and I’d love to hear what you think about it in the comments?

Pro retreat line.

The biggest benefit of the retreat line is that it encourages players to play football, with the ball on the ground. Imagine the scenario without a retreat line … a goalkeeper looks up, ready to take a goal kick, and all four of his outfield players are marked. In that scenario, the goalkeeper is likely to try and kick it long. The understandable rationale being that if the ball is going to be lost then it is done as far away from their goal as possible.

I believe that the retreat line offers the goalkeeper an easy pass, to feet, and encourages the team to pass and move from there. Not only does that encourage the passing of the ball, it offers all players more touches of the ball, which will aid their long-term development. More touches = better ball mastery. Or as your parents used to drum into you, practice makes perfect. The whole reason that mini-soccer was introduced was to offer more touches of the ball to each player.

Too often in the past, English coaches would encourage defenders not to play with the ball. Cries from the touchline of ‘get rid’ directed defenders to lump it forward the big lad up front, and that tactic robs the other defenders and the entire midfield from a touch of the ball. That is one thing if you are a Premiership manager trying to set up to play to the strengths of the players you have, but if you are trying to develop young players, then I think it is better to encourage them to receive and pass the ball more often.

As with many things in youth coaching, I think it comes back to the fundamental motivation of the coach. Are you trying to win this game, or develop the players in it for the long-term? If it is the former then your thinking will be about getting the players ready for that game, if it is the latter, you will see the game as another opportunity for the players to develop skills.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

If you wish to submit an article to be published on the blog, then please email it to me at





Possession. My ideas and thoughts after completing online FA Licensed Coaches Club course


The FA Licensed Coaches Club recently released 6 new online CPD courses, to support coaches who are qualified to either level 1 or level 2. These courses take around one hour each to complete, and consist of watching coaching videos and then answering questions and they count as 1 hour towards your CPD quota.

I have just completed the possession course, aimed at 5-11’s and run by Pete Sturgess. The most interesting idea that I took out of the session on possession was the idea that players have to be completely comfortable with the ball at their feet before they can start to play with their head up. It makes a lot of sense, and I have probably been guilty in the pass of encouraging players to keep their head up before they are comfortable with their head down. I will definitely appraise my thinking on this very important topic as a result, and will probably encourage a head up approach far less for the under 7’s I coach.

The three video sessions showed Pete at St George’s Park, surrounded by coaches and with a team of boys to instruct. The games helped players practice keeping possession of the ball individually rather than passing when put under pressure. I had only just written a blog post about how England internationals seem to be far less comfortable on the ball when put under pressure than their Spanish or Brazilian counterparts, so the timing was interesting. I had long thought that coaching in England had produced a crop of players uncomfortable when pressed on the ball, so it was interesting to see how we can help players become comfortable keeping the ball at an early age.

The first game took place inside the centre circle of an 11-a-side pitch.  There were around 6 boys inside the circle with a ball, and 6 boys outside the circle without a ball. When the coach said play, the boys outside the circle went into the circle and tried to win a ball, while the boys in possession had to try and keep possession for as long as possible. It encouraged the players in possession to be creative in the ways that they can keep the ball away from an opponent without trying to carry out a specific shielding technique, and it is always great when you can give players the empowerment to improvise. To solve problems. Just keep the ball is the instruction. I think I would add coaching points when needed to show how to shield the ball, but I really liked the session and can see great value in it.

What are your thoughts about keeping possession under pressure, and how to best coach that to young players? Do you have a view on how coaching hasn’t prepared the current crop of England internationals to be more







Should coaches tell young players not to dribble?

An interesting debate started on Twitter recently when @tashapearson17 tweeted “Refd a u10 game this morning, where the coach discouraged any dribbling.completely wrong for the kids to hear at that age.”

My thoughts are that at under 10 level, the players should be encouraged to express themselves and develop all skills, not be moulded into playing just one way.

What are your thoughts on this?

Please get involved in the conversation by leaving your thoughts in the comments.