An important measurement for a soccer player’s development is how much skill s/he learns that “carries on” to the next team they will join. In other words, as players grow, mature and change teams and levels, the main question remains:
How much of what they’ve learned in the past is useful to them in the future?
The best way to improve a player’s skills or technique ability is through constant repetition and high intensity of contact with the ball. Games provide very limited technical benefits since players don’t get many touches on the ball. When you have 22 players sharing one ball, each player only gets on average 20-40 ball touches per game. In fact, depending on position and amount of minutes played, some players only touch the ball 10-20 times per game. This should not be our coaching philosophy of developing players.
In a well structured practice that is geared towards technical development, players would typically touch the ball hundreds of times in one single practice. By keeping the player-to-ball ratio small (1:1 through 4:1) and using small-sided games, each player would easily accomplish 200-400 touches, and often even more, in a 90 minute practice session. The coach’s role is to provide players an environment where they can get challenged, learn, and excel so they can achieve their potential. It is obvious that practices provide much better technical development than games.
In terms of tactics, in a well constructed practice, under the guidance of a knowledgeable coach, the potential for learning how to solve soccer tactical problems is enhanced by more repetition and more scope for the coach to provide feedback. The use of small-sided activities further increases the learning opportunities. Great coaches understand the tactical side of the game but most importantly know how to explain and pass that knowledge to the players.
A quality practice will be more effective at teaching the tactical principles than a game. Games improve team cohesion and teach players functional roles. But since cohesion and functional roles are to a large extent team-specific, the long term benefits from games are limited. Also, when players are tactically intelligent, cohesion and roles are easy to teach and it doesn’t take many games to accomplish.
Again, it should be clear that practices have a much bigger impact on the technical and tactical development of players than games. Players experience many more touches on the ball and more learning moments in practices compared to games. In fact, the number of ball touches in games for each player is practically negligible. Hence, practices should outnumber games by a large ratio.
In conclusion we believe practices are more conducive to long term technical and tactical development since they provide the skill foundation that is transferable from team to team and from level to level. Where games tend to develop ‘perishable’ benefits, such as team cohesion and match fitness. Games are the ultimate test for players to try out executing their skills and ideas at game speed situations. When players succeed in those situations they become more comfortable and their confidence increases. Training and games go hand in hand because one without the other would not complete our athletes from a technical, tactical, physical or psychosocial aspect. We truly hope that players and parents have a much better understanding on the importance of training and the impact it has on developing quality athletes without ignoring the games.