What does a player-centred coaching environment actually look like?

The term ‘player-centred’ is perhaps the buzz word in coaching at the moment, but what does it look like in practice?

The term ‘player-centred’ is perhaps the buzz word in coaching at the moment.

Player-centred, or interchangeably known as athlete-centred, is a simple concept. It is characterised by a variety of coaching behaviours and methodology wherein the needs and wants of the player are the primary consideration in the decision making process. Lynn Kidman, considered gospel having written three insightful books on this topic, includes this definition in the introduction of one such book:

With an athlete-centred approach, athletes take ownership of their learning, thus increasing their opportunities and strengthening their abilities to retain important skills and ideas. This learning also develops athletes’ ability to make informed decisions during competitions, an important element in successful performance at any sporting level. It helps athletes to take a leadership role and ownership in enhancing the team culture.

Lynn Kidman

Some of the characteristics associated with player-centred coaching including use of games-based approaches, use of questioning, development of team culture which the players buy into and continuously support and shared leadership. There are other contributing factors, but these are the key components as proposed by Kidman.

In recent years, as player-centred coaching has become increasingly commonplace, its exact definition and nature has also evolved. It is probably accurate to say that today, player-centred coaching can take many forms and practices, but ultimately still retains the same key underpinnings and outcomes as originally defined.

Player-centred is now an accepted and desirable characteristic of coaches, but it is less clear how exactly coaches can bring it to life. In my own coaching context, I work in talented representative players in youth football and aim to implement a player-centred pedagogy. Below, I’ve outlined some practical ways in which I’ve tried to achieve this:

Individual development

Know the player

To be player-centred, knowing and understanding the individual player is important. This can occur through both formal (questionnaires, interviews, observations) and informal (small conversations & interactions) procedures, with the latter being effective for developing genuine coach-athlete relationships. When talking about ‘know the player’, this involves understanding a wide variety of factors, too numerous to list here but expanded on in some detail by this excellent article at Player Development Project. This can include understanding their family context, how they’ve been coached in the past, what they value and appreciate and their interest in football and other sports.

Individual development

‘Know the player’ also incorporates knowing the players strengths, weaknesses and areas of development, both from your own perspective as an educated coach and their perspective as a player. This means understanding and defining what the player needs to develop, as well as what the player wants to develop. This is critical given the importance of autonomy and motivation in youth development.

In my coaching process, individual development involves keeping a written record of each players strengths, weaknesses and ongoing development outcomes/targets. This process is supported by regular player reflection journals and informal conversations to provide them with opportunity to have input into their individual development.

It’s worth noting at this point that player-centred does not always mean player-led. Whilst there must be significant opportunity for players to have ownership in the development process, there are also moments where the coaches expertise and understanding requires them to mandate the direction or be explicit, in the best interest of the player. The simple example of this is a player who may not want to develop their weak foot, but is instructed to by the coach if this is required for ongoing success.

Game based approach

Consistent with Kidman’s initial definition, I predominantly run game-based sessions, from an ecological dynamics perspective. This will be expanded upon in a future blog, but put simply, emphasises the development of players in and through the game, rather than learning techniques or skills in isolated contexts and applying them to the game. Sessions typically involve modified small/medium/large game designs with constraints to achieve desired session outcomes, which are typically focused around the principles of play or a game moment (e.g. creating goal scoring opportunities in the penalty box).

In each session, there is typically a team theme (aligned to a football theme or problem we are working on as a group) and individual themes. These themes can be both short-term (one session or one week) and long-term (months to years) and usually involve some sort of emphasis on a particular technical/tactical/physical/mental outcome (in reference to the FA’s Four Corner model). I will spend most time in most sessions providing feedback to players based on their individual theme.

Individual task constraints

More specifically, within my game-based approach I aim to design specific individual task constraints to support players in their individual development journeys. Aligned with the individual themes described above, this can involve either setting specific challenges (e.g. score or create five goals with your weak foot) or providing constraints within the scope of the overall exercise (e.g. goals scored by Player X with a one-touch finish count double). This provides an opportunity for players to become attuned to and aware of opportunities to develop on their individual targets and outcomes within the session.

Feedback and reflection

Part of this process should involve ongoing feedback and reflection so that players have information and knowledge to support their development. In my context, this includes extensive use of video (both of the player themselves and world class examples) and post-training conversations about their progress.

To further enhance this, I have previously used reflection journals and questions the players complete at home. The challenge is to ensure players don’t feel overburdened by these tasks and to avoid ‘school-ifying’ football, whilst also developing the reflective and self-monitoring skills that will allow these players to enhance their football.

End notes

This is not an exhaustive list nor a comprehensive ‘how-to’ guide of player-centred coaching, but hopefully provides some background and context for how coaches can implement this in youth football settings. My coaching process has evolved significantly in a short period of time, and inevitably, given the complex and dynamic nature of player-centred coaching, will continue to develop further as I explore new ways of bringing player-centred coaching to life.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.


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