Coaching Resources

The Discovery Phase 4-9

The Discovery Phase

Coaching in the Discovery Phase is all about:

  • There should be little to no ‘coaching’ however there is a need to organise fun football exercises
  • Allowing players to discover one’s (im)possibilities through trial and error
  • Natural development: players ‘learn FOOTBALL by playing football’
  • Replicating the ‘street/park football’ environment of the past
  • Emphasis on building a love of the game.

For U/6’s and U/7’s two weekly training sessions of 45 minutes and one game during the weekend is a suggested workload, while for U/8’s and U/9’s the length of the sessions can be increased to 60 minutes.

A training session for children in this age consists of 3 components: The Beginning, The Middle and The End. It’s important to note that coaches should respond to the players needs and manage how many and what type of practice to use in their situation. Sometimes you might go straight into a game after a brief warm up.

  1. The Beginning
    The purpose of The Beginning (better known as the warm-up) is to get the kids in the right frame of mind and activate their bodies. It’s unnecessary to run laps around the field and do stretches to achieve that: all sorts of relays and tagging games with and without the ball are much better (more specific, more fun) and also help develop the children’s basic coordination.
  2. The Middle
    The Middle is the section of the training session where we conduct fun football exercises such as dribbling, passing, shooting, etc.
  3. The End
    The last part (The End) is allocated for playing all sorts of Small-Sided Games


  • They are still ‘clumsy’ (lack fine motor skills), because they are still developing their coordination
  • They have a short span of attention and are quickly and easily distracted
  • They are ‘self-centred’ and not yet able to really work together (so do not ask them to perform team play, it is impossible for them!)
  • They play or participate for fun with short bursts of energy and enthusiasm
  • They are unable to handle a lot of information (instructions; feedback)


Just let them play a lot of varied fun football related games!

In the ‘good old days’ as a kid you learned to play football in the street or the park. There were no coaches involved who made you run laps or do stretches and push-ups. When you were with just one mate you played a 1 v 1 game, when there were 8 of you, you played 4 v 4. There were no referees either, you made your own rules and every problem got solved. You just played, every free minute of the day. Funny as it may seem, this was (and still is) the best possible way to develop a basic skill level, understanding and passion for football.

The old saying “the game is the teacher” still applies and is one of the reasons why we find so many creative and technically good players from Africa and South America where there is less structured coach led sessions for younger age groups. As parents we now send our children to a club or academy to learn to play football and, despite all good intentions, here we make the mistake of ‘coaching’ children this age. The first and most important step when ‘coaching’ the youngest kids is to take the word ‘coach’ out of your mind. Your most important job is to recreate that street football environment, be an organiser of fun football-related practices and…….let them play! This approach, where they can ‘discover’ how the game works in a natural way, is the right one for the Discovery Phase.

Discovery Phase Sessions

Skills Acquisition Phase 9-13

The Skill Acquisition Phase

The foundation of the Skill Acquisition Phase is built upon:

  • The coach focusing extensively on providing a solid foundation of technical skill.
  • If the player does not gain this skill foundation during this phase it will be very difficult to make it up later.
  • No amount of fitness or competitive spirit will ever compensate for deficiencies in functional game skills.

At this age the children are ready for a more structured approach to training.
In every session the focus is on one of the core skills, from the beginning until the end of the session (“theme based sessions”).

The Skill Acquisition Phase sessions consist of 3 components:

  1. Skill introduction, this is the warm-up as well as an introduction to the designated core skill for this session. This is the only part of the session where drill-type exercises should be used, but the creative coach can include elements of decision-making.
    – Flow, no ‘stop-start coaching’.
  2. Skill training, this is the part of the session where conscious teaching and learning of the designated core skill takes place.
    – Lots of repetition in game realistic scenarios!
    – Task-based coaching
    – Effective feedback
    – Use of questioning (ask players ‘why did you choose that option?’, ‘where do you think there might be more space?’, etc)
  3. Skill game, a game where as much as possible all the elements of the real game are present but organised in a way that the designated core skill has to be used regularly.
    – Skill games are preferably small sided games to stimulate the number of repetitions/touches!
    – The players play, the coach observes if learning has taken place.

It is also advisable to ‘wrap-up’ the session at the end, summarising the main points of the session to enhance learning.


The emphasis in the Skill Acquisition Phase is on Skill Development but this can/should not be separated from developing insight/game understanding at the same time.

If this approach is applied properly, it will provide a seamless transition into the Game Training Phase.

This principle also relates to the concept of Small Sided Football and appropriate coach behaviour (refer to chapter 3):

During the Skill Acquisition Phase, 2-3 sessions of 60-75 minutes plus a game
is a safe weekly workload, with the following session planning guidelines:

  • Welcome: 5 minutes
  • Skill Introduction: 15-20 minutes
  • Skill Training: 25-30 minutes
  • Skill Game: 20-25 minutes
  • Wrap up: 5 minutes

With 3 sessions per week our advice is to limit the duration of the sessions to
60 minutes and rest the players the day before as well as the day after the game.
So, with a game on Saturday, we recommend a training session on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Factors to consider:

Performance of the players in previous training sessions

Performance of the players in matches (NB: matches should only be assessed in terms of core skill performance, not ‘team tactics’. That way, training and matches are closely and logically linked)

Observation may lead you to conclude that one core skill appears to be especially deficient in most of the players, while another is generally strong.

Possible Cycle Planning changes:

Replace the stronger skill with the weaker one every second rotation

Move to a 5-session rotation in which each skill is focused on once, except for the weaker one which appears twice

The best advice for a coach working with players in this age group would be to attend the FFA Youth C Licence course.

This will give coaches a much better understanding of the why’s and how’s of session planning and season planning, while developing their ability to design their own practices.


The FFA Skill Acquisition training program focuses upon developing four core skills when in possession of the ball:

  1. Striking the ball
    This includes all forms of striking the ball such as short/long passing, shooting and crossing
  2. First Touch
    Controlling the ball with all allowed body parts
  3. 1v1
    All moves, feints and accelerations to get past and away from an opponent
  4. Running with the ball
    At speed (with a lot of space) or ‘dribbling’ (in tight areas), this includes techniques for protecting the ball and changing direction

These four core skils cover 95% of the  actions of any outfield player when in possession of the ball during a game of football . The other 5% consists of actions such as heading and throw-ins.

Of course we can also distinguish defensive skills such as various tackling techniques and it goes without saying that the defensive 1 v 1 skills are equally important and must be properly developed too.

We made the practical choice to develop the defensive skills as part of the 1 v 1 practices. Although the emphasis is on the attacking skills, we are not ignoring the defensive ones. So, in the 1 v 1 Model Sessions, coaches will find the box below with coaching tips for the defender as well the attacker.


“Go at the defender with speed” “Show the attacker one way/force them away from goal”
“Use a feint to put the defender off balance” “Bend your knees and stand on your toes so you’re able to change direction quickly”
“Threaten to go to one side then suddenly attack the other” “The best moment to commit is when the attacker takes a heavy touch or slows down”

As far as heading is concerned, the advice is to start developing this specific skill at the start of the Game Training Phase. At younger ages heading is a ‘scary’ activity and not much heading takes place anyway since most players lack the power to play aerial balls.

If heading is practised during the Skill Acquisition Phase we advise the use of so-called super light balls (specially devised for youth football).

As we’ve explained earlier it takes many hours of practicing and lots of repetition to properly develop the four core skills with both feet and ‘automate’ the techniques. Automate means that we’ve practised the techniques so often that we can execute them without having to consciously concentrate on the execution.

We can compare this process with learning to drive a car: in the beginning we have to consciously think of every act in the process, we even tend to look where the pedals are. But after some time we drive from A to B while having a conversation, thinking deeply about something or making a (hands free) phone call. We arrive at our destination totally unaware of the driving acts we have executed on the way: driving a car has become an automatism.

The same principle applies for mastering the core skills: many hours of purposeful practice will eventually lead to automatism and we execute the skill ‘unconsciously’. When this happens we will, as a consequence, have more time for scanning our options and making decisions. With top level players the ball is ‘glued’ to their feet while they look around and check the options.

The principle of thousands of hours of practice leading to automatism applies to everything, from playing a violin to playing golf or football. Football however differs from golf because the technical skills must be executed under constant pressure of football-specific resistances (opponents; space; time; direction), in ever-changing situations.

Scientific research (Daniel Coyle, ‘The Talent Code’; et al.) shows that in football the most educationally effective way is to develop technical skills (execution) and perception skills (decision-making) simultaneously.


When the kids start playing 11 v 11 while they are still in the Skill Acquisition Phase, (U12/13) there is a common tendency for coaches to become totally obsessed with results, and forget that the players are still in the skill acquisition phase. This has a very negative effect on training session content as well as Match Day behaviour.

Training must remain focused on skill development; it is poor practice and detrimental to the players to sacrifice critical skill training time in order to conduct unnecessary ‘tactical’ coaching.

Match Day is when the coach can start developing the players insight and understanding of the basic team and player tasks. This involves reinforcement and elaboration of the basic tasks introduced at training during Skill Games
(‘Get between the lines’, ‘Can you face forward?’ ‘Look for the killer pass’, ‘Make the field big’, etc)

It is also disadvantageous for young players’ development to specialize for a specific team position too early; let them experience the various positions and aim for specialisation during the Game Training phase (the rationale for this is excellently explained in the book ‘Coaching Outside the Box’ by Mairs and Shaw).

So, herein lies the huge challenge for anyone working with players in this important age bracket: your primary role is that of a ‘skills teacher’ focused on individual technical development as opposed to being a ‘team coach’.

Your mission is to ‘automate’ the core skills through lots of repetition, but at the same time avoid ‘drill’ practices, where there may be repetition but no decision-making.

SAP Sessions

Skill Acquisition Sessions below
  1. Session 01 – Striking The Ball

Game Training 13-17

The Game Training Phase has two main objectives:

  • Preparing players for senior football by teaching them to apply functional game skills in a team setting using 1-4-3-3 as the preferred formation
  • Developing tactical awareness, perception and decision-making through a game-related approach to training.

Since Game Training Phase sessions should strive for game realistic scenarios, the practices must include game specific resistances such as opponents, team-mates, direction, rules and appropriate dimensions. As a consequence, in Game Training Phase sessions often all three Main Moments take place continuously, but the focus is on one of them.

Game Training Phase sessions consist of 4 components: Warm up, Positioning Game, Game Training, Training Game.


Starting points for the Warm Up are:
•       Preferably with ball (e.g. passing practices);
•       If possible ‘theme related’ including a level of decision-making;
Avoid warm-ups that are more like conditioning sessions!


The main conditions for quality positioning play are:

•       Maximal use of space in order to create more time on the ball
(stretching the opponent)
•       Triangles (no players in straight lines)
•       Support play to create options for the player on the ball
•       Anticipation and communication (verbal and non-verbal).

These basic principles form the foundation for proactive possession
based football and this explains the importance of the positioning games
in training practices.

Through positioning games young players:

Learn to always create at least 3 options for the player on the ball (through proper positioning)

Improve their decision-making (by learning to choose the right option)

Increase their handling speed (less space and time forces quicker thinking and acting)

Improve their technique (passing and first touch are essential technical skills)

Learn to communicate both verbally (e.g. calling for the ball) and non-verbally (e.g. through ball speed and ball direction).

This is the reason why positioning games are on the menu of every Game Training Phase and Performance Phase session.


This is the part of the session where conscious teaching and learning of the designated Team Task takes place. For a proper Game Training practice the coach must therefore:

Create the proper scenario (organize the practice in such a way that the focus is on the designated Team Task);

Organize the practice in the right area of the field (where this particular situation takes place during the real game) and with the appropriate dimensions

Create the proper level of resistance (too easy = no development; too difficult = no success)

Make effective interventions and provide quality (specific) feedback

Ask smart questions to develop player understanding and enhance learning


This is the traditional game at the end of a session. In our approach however it should not just be a ‘free’ game. The definition of a Training Game in the context of a Game Training Phase session is:

A game at the end of the session that contains all the elements of the real game but with rules and restraints that see to it that the designated Team Task is emphasised.

During a Training Game the players are playing and the coach is observing if learning has taken place (little or no stop-start coaching but preferably coaching ‘on the run’).

Clearly, quality coaching is not as easy as it may look!

The coach must also be mindful of the Growth Spurt. Players going through this stage of maturation will have varying energy levels and are injury-prone. Proper managing of training loads to avoid over-training is essential.

Therefore we consider 3 sessions of 75-90 minutes and one game a maximum safe weekly work load, with the following session planning guidelines:

Welcome/explanation: 5 minutes

Warm Up: 15-20 minutes

Positioning Games: 20 minutes

Game Training component: 25-30 minutes

Training Game: 20-25 minutes

Warm Down/wrap up 5-10 minutes


The most important aspect of this age bracket is the fact that these players are in (or entering into) the puberty phase which is a phase of radical mental and physical changes.

Huge changes in the hormonal system cause confusion while the physical changes can also unsettle the youngsters. Physically they may sometimes suddenly look like adults but mentally they often are still children, something that may also confuse coaches. Another aspect for coaches to consider is that in general, girls enter the puberty phase slightly earlier than boys.

The main mental characteristics of the puberty phase are:

  • Sudden mood changes
  • Resistance against authority
  • Impulsiveness (first acting then thinking)
  • Accelerated intellectual development
  • Identity search which leads to a desire to be part of a group

The main physical characteristic of the puberty phase is a sudden acceleration in growth. One of the consequences of this growth spurt may be a temporary decrease of coordination and strength.

Because suddenly the bones start growing fast and the muscles and ligaments as well as the nervous system need time to adjust to the new proportions, players may look ‘clumsy’. Players are also prone to overuse injuries like Osgood-Schlatter disease during this phase.

It goes without saying that it’s of the ultimate importance that coaches working with players this age have knowledge and understanding of all these aspects to be able to guide youngsters through this critical development phase in a well-considered way.

While during the puberty phase players’ physical and technical development temporarily stagnates or loses ground, their intellectual development accelerates as does their understanding of and appreciation for teamwork. This makes the Game Training Phase exceptionally suited for developing tactical awareness and insight.

Whereas the purpose of the Skill Acquisition Phase is to acquire the core skills, the Game Training Phase is about learning how to apply them in a functional way. In the Game Training Phase the focus shifts towards learning to play as a team and developing an understanding of the team tasks during the main moments (attacking; defending; transitioning), as well as the specific tasks that go with the individual team positions.

To be able to properly develop the team tasks and the individual player tasks we need the context of a playing formation. After all, team tasks and player tasks may differ depending on the playing formation.


It is important to realise that we did not just take 1-4-3-3 as a starting point! Unfortunately this has been and continues to be widely misunderstood and far too much attention has been devoted to discussions about playing formations.

Of course there are many successful styles and formations in football but FFA considers 1-4-3-3 the most appropriate formation to develop an understanding of team play in young players.

Our opinion is supported by another very interesting quote from the Chris Sulley research on Europe’s most successful academies:


Similar to the sessions of the Skill Acquisition Phase, the sessions of the Game Training Phase are also ‘themes based’. During the Skill Acquisition Phase the ‘theme’ of a session focuses on one of the four ‘Core Skills’ (first touch; running with the ball; 1 v 1; striking the ball)

In the Game Training Phase the ‘theme’ of a session focuses on one of the ‘Main Moments’ and the Team Tasks (as well as the individual player tasks) within that ‘Main Moment’.

GT Sessions

Game Training Phase Sessions below
  1. Session 01 – Playing out of the back