The Case For Multiple Theme Practices

The Case For Multiple Theme Practices


This article was published in the June/July 2006 issue of the NSCAA Soccer Journal. Used by permission.

The Case for Multiple-Theme Practices

Imagine you’re a new youth soccer coach, new even to soccer. Your team will soon be playing matches. How should you organize practices, now and throughout the season?

Your league might suggest or require that you take a coaching course. There, you’ll probably learn the one-theme approach to practice organization. It goes like this.

First, the coach selects a skill or tactic as the practice’s theme. Then, the theme is taught using a logical progression of practice activities. What makes the progression logical? Player numbers might increase from activity to activity. The opposition players face might gradually become more realistic, moving from no opposition to passive opposition to active opposition. And artificial rules and conditions might gradually fade away. After three or four activities, the practice would end with a scrimmage using the real rules of soccer.

That’s a great way to organize a soccer practice, and the most popular way as well. You might get the impression every practice should have one theme and a logical progression.

Next, imagine watching a different kind of practice. The players compete at a ball-control game, followed by a chipping game, a dribbling game, and some shooting games. Next, they divide into teams and compete at a few scrimmages with special rules. The activities have no apparent connection with each other. What’s going on?

How It Works

Welcome to the multiple-theme approach, which works like this. During each practice, several different individual skills and teamwork skills share the spotlight. The first half of practice is for individual skills like chipping, heading, shooting, and dribbling. The second half is for teamwork skills like keeping possession and, as your team gains experience, applying defensive pressure or breaking through the defense.

Each theme is practiced with one high-impact game or scrimmage, rather than with a logical progression of activities. To be considered high-impact, the activity must provide a lot of experience in a small amount of time. It must enhance trial-and-error learning, although coaching points may also be made. And it must be enjoyable enough to be used in practice after practice.

Here’s a typical practice for brand new players, using the multiple-theme approach:

A. Individual skills (45 minutes)   * Settlers, a ball control game for new players (10 minutes)  * Alligator River, a chipping game for new players (10 minutes)  * Three shooting competitions (15 minutes)  * A dribbling game (10 minutes)

B. Teamwork skills (45 minutes)  * Three-and-a-Drop, a small-sided scrimmage in which players      must use support and the backward direction (10 minutes)  * Side-to-Side, a scrimmage in which players must use the      width of the field (10 minutes)  * One Time, a scrimmage in which players may use only one      touch (10 minutes)  * Free scrimmage (15 minutes)

Why no special passing game? That’s a time management device. Since so much passing occurs during the teamwork skills, two birds are killed with one stone.

There’s no logical progression in the traditional sense, but the activities are arranged logically. Gradually, they become more strenuous and require more running. They also become more complex and cerebral. And one-versus-one battles give way to group confrontations.

Once the players are more experienced, their practice might look like this:

A. Individual skills (one hour)  * Soccer Volley , a ball control game for experienced players (15 minutes)  * A heading game (5 minutes)  * Air Control, a chipping game for experienced players (10 minutes)  * Three shooting competitions (15 minutes)  * A dribbling game (15 minutes)B. Teamwork skills (one hour)  * The same three small-sided scrimmages for practicing possession (30 minutes)  * A small-sided scrimmage for practicing defensive pressure (15 minutes)  * A game for practicing breaking through the defense (15 minutes)

The practice for experienced players is a little longer. Challenging activities have replaced a few of the beginning activities. And a few more teamwork skills have been squeezed in. But overall, the organization is the same.

One Theme or Multiple Themes?

How does the multiple-theme approach stack up against the one-theme approach? We must answer another important question first. What ends should practice organization achieve? After all, practice organization is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In other words, we need some criteria for evaluating the approaches. Here are a few:

1. The approach should allow a new theme to be covered in detail (depth).2. The approach should allow a sufficient number of themes to be covered during the season (breadth). 3. The approach should provide a sufficient amount of practice with each theme during the season (repetition).4. The approach should ensure that what is learned in practice carries over to the match.5. The approach should ensure that what is learned makes sense within the whole game.6. The approach should help players experience success with each theme.7. The approach should increase player enjoyment and motivation.8. The approach should be easy to learn, so that coaches can quickly implement it and players can quickly benefit.

Armed with a few criteria, which could themselves be debated, we can now make comparisons.

The one-theme approach dominates the soccer world because it meets some important criteria. Since the whole practice is devoted to one theme, that theme can be covered in detail. Players can experience success early in the practice, when instruction is plentiful and opposition is passive. With the practice-ending scrimmage, the theme is placed in the context of the whole game. And since realistic conditions are gradually introduced, that which is learned can carry over to the match.

What about the multiple theme approach? After one practice, it might seem weaker in three ways. Since a theme must share minutes with other themes, it won’t be covered as meticulously. Since trial-and-error learning is relied on heavily, the errors might outnumber the successes. And without a logical progression for each theme, what is learned might not carry over to the match so quickly. With these criteria, though, the multiple-theme approach catches up by season’s end.

With two other criteria, the multiple-theme approach more than holds its own. Each time out, your players get a large dose of the whole game, physically and mentally. Player enjoyment and motivation? A well-designed single-theme practice can certainly provide these. But with the multiple-theme approach, they’re programmed into each activity. You might not have a clue, but your players will still have a ball.

Here’s the kicker. With three important criteria, the multiple-theme approach is superior. During the season, more themes can be addressed. Each theme can more easily be repeated. And for new coaches, nothing is easier to learn or to apply.

Winning the Time Management Game

During your season, you’ll have a limited number of practices for covering the themes you deem important. How can you win this time management game?

Suppose a player coached the single-theme way tries forty chips during one practice, receives expert chipping instruction, and moves on to a new theme in the next practice. A player coached the multiple-theme way tries four hundred chips over twenty different practices, but receives no special instruction. By season’s end, which player will chip best?

Bet on the multiple-theme player. In soccer more than most sports, players can develop effective techniques through trial-and-error—and 400 is a lot of trials. Add some expert instruction, which the multiple-theme approach allows but doesn’t require, and the results are even better. By contrast, improvement won’t be continual when a skill is taught once and then left behind. That skill will peak during the one practice, and then begin to fade.

Using the one-theme approach, you could repeat a theme enough times during the season. Just make it the theme of several practices, or of every practice. You could cover enough themes during the season. Just move on to a different theme each practice. But you can’t easily meet both criteria. Either you’ll complete a theme and move on, with insufficient repetition. Or you’ll repeat the theme from practice to practice, and get to fewer themes during the season.

Shooting provides an even more poignant example. There are so many shots to practice! The ball to be shot might be rolling, bouncing, or flying through the air. The shooter might be at any distance or angle in relation to the goal. And the right or left foot might be required. At least thirteen different shots should be practiced regularly and with both feet. Skill with one shot doesn’t guarantee skill with the others.

That can’t be done with the one-theme approach. You might set up one or two great shooting practices using logical progressions. You might even squeeze a few different shots into each of these practices. But how will you cover the other shots? And how will you repeat all the shots on a regular basis?

With the multiple-theme approach, fifteen minutes of every practice can be devoted to shooting. Using enjoyable shooting competitions, you can cover three shots in your first practice, three more in your second practice, and so on. Within a few practices, you’ll be repeating the first three shots. And when the match calls for a left-footed volley, or a chip over the Keeper’s head, your team might actually score.

The time-management issues get more critical when fewer practices are available. A high school team, with at least three practices per week, has plenty of time for some one-theme practices. But the multiple-theme approach would still be a useful way to strengthen themes regularly. As a minimum, a chunk of every practice should be reserved for shooting.

A young recreational team might have only one or two practices per week, and less than twenty the entire season. Devotion to the one-theme approach can now be a serious mistake.

Your first practices will most likely have skill themes, like dribbling, shooting, and making the push pass. Each of these skills might receive too little repetition during the season, as you move onto other themes. And for the entire teamwork side of soccer, your players will be left to their own devices. You might have some great individual practices. But by the end of the season, your players will still play unskilled bunch ball.

Activities That Can Stand Alone

Your practice activities are an important piece of the puzzle. For the one-theme approach, you’ll need three or more activities for each theme you introduce. And you’ll probably use these activities once, until you devote another practice to the same theme. In other words, you’ll need a lot of different practice activities.

With the multiple-theme approach, you’ll need fewer activities. You’ll use each one often during the season. You’ll even use some in every practice. So your activities will have to be darn good. Run the Gauntlet, a dribbling game, is an example. The dribblers must dribble past two defenders and come out safely at the other end. The defenders, confined to defensive zones, must steal the ball or knock it off the course. The official rules follow.


Official Rules for Run the Gauntlet

Course Setup. The course is approximately forty paces long and fifteen paces wide. Walking from the corner at one end of the course, place cones after ten paces, five paces, ten paces again, five paces again, and ten paces (see scene). The cones placed five paces apart create defensive zones.

Starting Positions. Two players start out as defenders, one inside each defensive zone. The other players have soccer balls, and begin as dribblers at one end of the course. There should be at least two and no more than five dribblers in a line. To accommodate more players, an adjacent course should be set up.

Object of the Game. Dribblers try to score points by dribbling past one defender and then the other, while keeping their soccer balls inside the course. The defenders attempt to prevent points, by stealing balls or knocking them off the course. Defenders may not touch a soccer ball outside their zones.

How a Try Works. The first dribbler enters the course, makes a move on the first defender, gathers the ball in, and makes a move on the second defender. The attempt must be continuous; the dribbler may not shield the ball or pause.

How the Game Proceeds. As soon as a dribbler is past the first defender, the next dribbler begins. After all the dribblers have had a try, they form a new line at the other end of the course, and dribble back from that direction. After all the dribblers have had three tries, two of them become the new defenders. When players have all had the same number of dribbling tries, the player with the most points wins.

With such activities, the coach can freeze the action at any time to make a point or demonstrate a move. But even without such instruction, improvement is rapid. Players who play Run the Gauntlet repeatedly, season after season, develop a surprising repertoire of dribbling moves.

Ideal for New Coaches

You’re a new coach, eager for some coaching education. Which approach will be easier to learn and to apply? And more importantly, what will the consequences be for your players?

Embarking on the single-theme approach first has a few drawbacks:

1. The approach assumes your most important role is to teach. But in order to teach something, you’ve got to understand it well yourself.2. You’ll have to attend the training, which could last several days. While shorter trainings are possible, they’ll probably prepare you inadequately. 3. You’ll have to learn a lot of practice activities, even though you might use these only once per season.4. Until you complete the training, your practices will probably be unproductive.5. Once you complete the training, you’ll probably start with skill themes and ignore the teamwork side of the sport—as mentioned earlier.

Learning the multiple-theme approach first makes more sense:

1. The approach assumes your most important role is to organize. Anyone can do that.2. After going through a two-hour practice as if you were a player, you’ll be able to use the approach effectively. You’ll even understand soccer a bit.3. You won’t have to learn as many practice activities, since the same ones are used over and over.4. From day one, your practices will be great and your players will improve.5. Since individual skills and teamwork skills are included in every practice, your players will immediately begin playing as a team—regardless of their age.

Suppose the theme is support, where a player without the ball moves into position to receive a pass. To provide support effectively, the player must be at the proper distance and angle. A little communication also helps.

Before teaching support with the one-theme approach, a new coach has much to learn. What should support look like? What practice activities should be used? How are the fields set up, and what are the rules? When should the action be frozen for a coachable moment? That’s a worthwhile but complex process.

Using the multiple-theme approach, support is a breeze. The Three-and-a-Drop scrimmage requires support in its rules. Before scoring, teams must complete at least one pass toward their own goal. Naturally, teammates begin moving behind the player with the ball—often in the perfect support position—and yelling, “Drop!” The coach need only learn the scrimmage rules. Add some coachable moments and the results are even better.

The multiple-theme approach and the single-theme approach both have value, and they can be combined in various ways. But learn the multiple-theme approach first. It’s absurdly easy, and it guarantees quality practices and player improvement—as you then take on the single-theme approach.

Answering the Critics

Belief in the one-theme approach is strong. You’ll hear many reasons why a multiple-theme approach couldn’t possibly work. Here are the top five reasons, and why they’re not valid.

Reason #5: You’ll only have time for one logical progression per practice.

True, but what makes logical progressions so sacred? They’re just one way to help practice carry over to the match. Competitive games can work equally well, without being part of a logical progression.

Reason #4: With a good long-range plan, you won’t have to squeeze so much into one practice.

The desire to postpone themes until next season is understandable. There’s so much to cover and so little time. But there’s no guarantee your players will be with you next season. And if shooting is postponed until next season, and possession until the season after that, your players will fall behind players who are practicing those themes now. The multiple-theme approach makes such postponements unnecessary.

Reason #3: Since there are so many skills and tactics, you could never cover them all in one practice.

True, but not a good defense of the one-theme approach. If you think there are a large number of themes to practice, you won’t cover them all in one practice. But by squeezing a few into one practice, you’ll cover more of the total by season’s end.

How many themes must really be practiced? The traditional grouping of themes into skills and tactics has created a pretty large number. For the multiple-theme approach, a more succinct grouping helps. But that’s another topic.

Reason #2: If players have too much to focus on, they’ll become confused and learn nothing.

Anyone who believes that hasn’t experienced the approach. The players don’t become confused. They become motivated and happy. They like improving a bit in each area.

Anyway, the multiple-theme approach isn’t revolutionary. Basketball, football, and tennis coaches use it, so why can’t soccer coaches? Many soccer coaches already use the multiple-theme approach without calling it that. Either they squeeze a favorite activity, like foot skill training or keep-away, into every practice. Or they squeeze juggling, chipping, shooting, and keep-away into the warm-up for each match—apparently without confusing anyone.

And now for the top reason why multiple-theme practices couldn’t possibly work:

Reason #1: The multiple-theme stuff is just for beginners.

For new coaches working with new players, the multiple-theme approach is ideal. But as coaches and players gain experience, the approach doesn’t suddenly become irrelevant. Here’s why.

The activities are like sports-unto-themselves. They’re never fully mastered. They escort players to higher and higher levels. Even professionals can get a kick out of Run the Gauntlet, or Three-and-a-Drop.

As you coach at higher levels, the multiple-theme approach will help your team win. Unless you’re counting entirely on your recruiting, your players must continually improve. They’ll have to dribble, shoot, keep possession, and win the ball back more effectively than their opponents.

For that, you’ll need a bit of the multiple-theme mentality. Strengthen the important themes, and do so in every practice. Breadth and repetition are winning criteria!