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Martin Dighton
Children Organising and Planning

The FA’s 10 Tips for Winter Coaching

Practical advice to help coaches fully engage with players when working outdoors

Coaching is a people business. Without people, coaching can't take place. We understand that keeping your participants engaged and motivated throughout sessions can be a real challenge, never more so that when the conditions are less favourable. This can make winter a high risk time for relapse and even drop out.

Craig Blain, UK Coaching's Development Lead Officer for Research and Innovation

1) Young children are not mini-versions of adults

We must understand and recognise that we can’t treat children in the same way as we would our peers. We must always consider the well-being of each child in our care as the priority. The session must fully engage the young players, no matter what the weather.

2) Get the players moving as soon as they arrive

In poor weather, keeping the players busy is vital. Young children will get cold quickly, almost without noticing, and when they are cold they will really struggle to warm up again. Telling children to run around a bit more won’t help either – it’s too late by then.

An arrival activity is therefore vital. The children should arrive warm and getting them active early is crucial. Little games of tag, mini 1v1s or 2v2s, and small fundamental movement games will all do this. Make sure you have this section in your session plan ready to go, whatever the weather.

3) No queues and keep all the players involved

Having queues of children waiting for their turn is a big no-no in any session, let alone on a cold, wet day. Think of ways to make sure all of the players are involved at all times.

If you’re struggling for equipment, could you set up two or three smaller areas, rather than one, in order to reduce waiting?

4) Use games during training

Consider what the players expect football to look like. The first question they usually ask is: “When are we playing a match?” Wet and cold sessions are perfect for match time, as it keeps them all involved and active. Play mini 3v3s on a couple of pitches to keep everyone involved, and then carefully manage how you intervene to coach.  

5) Work with individuals rather than stopping the whole group

Children don’t like coaches talking for ages at the best of times, but on a wet day it’s even more important to keep communication concise.

Can you coach individuals whilst the game plays on around them? Could you give quick challenges to players ‘on the fly’ as they pass you? Could you set yourself a challenge to intervene for no longer than 30 seconds? The kids would really appreciate this.

6) Consider practice design and progression

Spend time on planning the session. Will you use a technique-skill-game format, whole-part-whole or a myriad of other templates?

Which will increase playing time the most and which may lead to times of relative inactivity? How can you create excitement and therefore engagement? Can you always have a scoring system in place? Can you ensure that if any defender wins the ball, they have a way to attack and score to keep games flowing?

How you progress the session needs to be thought about too. Can you progress some players without stopping all of them at the same time?

Think about working the session with players in groups; perhaps advance the better players first before gradually progressing the weaker players later on, meaning that they’ll get the extra practice time they need.

This also means that as you talk to each group, two-thirds of your team are still active and warm.

7) If in doubt: play matches

If you’re ever in doubt, or get caught by the rain or bad weather half-way through a session, revert back to several small matches. Smaller sized matches promote ball contacts, in and out of possession play, transition and game craft.

They also ensure that players are never more than one pass away from the ball, so engagement and activity levels stay high.

8) Have some rules about correct kit

It’s important to have some rules or conditions regarding kit. I’ve had children arriving in t-shirt and shorts for sessions in December, and I’ve had to take the hard decision to turn them away.

Parents sometimes feel that it’s okay because they’ll be running around playing football, but they will only be warm if they start off warm in the first place. Perhaps having a club wet-weather policy would be a good idea?

We can take note from cricketers playing in early April or late September. They wear lots of thin layers and this helps to retain heat. Encourage your players to do the same. It’s no different to what my mum used to shout to me as I ran off to training: “You can always take some layers off, if you get too hot!”

9) Safety and welfare are top priorities, but each individual is different

We have a responsibility to the children and their parents to look after them and to always make decisions in their best interests.  Safety and welfare are the top priority, but we also mustn’t shy away from playing, just because the weather isn’t great.

In a grassroots setting I worked in previously, we had a rule – if the kids turned up, then we would play. It was the choice of the group and their parents if we played.

This meant that sometimes we played for just 30 minutes instead of the full hour, sometimes the session plan went out of the window and we just played little games and sometimes we led sessions with only three or four kids.

What we must always understand is that every child is different; some will love and thrive in challenging weather, whereas others will hate it. Either way, they are likely to remember the experience.  

We must make certain that our coaching fosters a love of the game and a love of playing it. Make sure that when you are next faced with poor weather, you make decisions and plans based on the best interests of the little people that turn up each week to play the great game of football with you.

10) Find a way to use the weather to create memories

Some of my fondest experiences as a child were playing outside in terrible weather.

I still remember my first game in snow, and the excitement playing with an orange ball for the first time gave us, the sliding tackles that seemed to last a full 30 yards through the midfield mud-pit and the diving headers that gave such a splash landing that, if you timed it well, could soak the watching parents.

We must appreciate that we could be building memories for our players. Let’s make sure they are positive ones so that the kids can’t wait to play the next time it rains!

This blog post has been provided courtesy of the Football Association, and you can read the original article online. You can also follow Martin on Twitter: @martin_dighton.  

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Martin Dighton