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This content is taken from the University of Birmingham & The Football Association (The FA)'s online course, Youth Football Coaching: Developing Creative Players . Join the course to learn more.

Using a games based approach to develop creativity

So as you have seen, we believe using a games based approach to practice design is critical to enable players to be creative and express themselves in a coaching practice.

However, this doesn’t simply mean that all a coach has to do is play a match in every practice session. There are many ways in which a coach can structure and manipulate their practice design, both when planning the practice and as the practice is taking place, in order to produce a variety of ‘returns’ and achieve specific desired outcomes. Have a look at the following three methods of adapting your practice:

1. The Practice Spectrum

At one end of the Practice Spectrum are ‘constant practices’. An example of a constant practice could be a basic passing exercise focused on one specific technique requiring little decision-making and with no opposition. Imagine a pair of players passing the ball backwards and forwards across a 10-metre square.

Moving further up the spectrum, practices become more ‘variable’ with more decisions to make for the player. Using the example above, a coach could add some interference from other players in the practice as the two players move around a defined area.

At the other end of the spectrum there are ‘random’ practices. This is where a small-sided game would sit, where the practice becomes more realistic to a match scenario, involving unpredictable moments and competition with opponents. This type of practice can help players develop ‘game craft’.

In a ten-metre passing practice there won’t be much difference from one pass to the next (constant), but in a game, how often do players deal with exactly the same situation? (random).

When using the practice spectrum, one practice type isn’t more important than another. However, a coach must use the right practice for the right players at the right time.

Furthermore, it’s also important to understand the ‘returns’ a single practice can provide different players at different times. For example, you could be a target player at the end of a practice playing unopposed passes into 6 players playing a 3 v 3. Are the target players practising in the ‘same place’ on the ‘practice spectrum’ as those playing in the 3 v 3?

A coach should always start to design a practice knowing what they want to achieve and establish a desired learning outcome. The practice can then be planned with this outcome in mind from the start.

The principles of constant, variable and random returns can be taken on further when viewed through the lens of a player’s development as a whole. If a player constantly plays right back for their whole playing career, what could this mean for their development? Would there be any benefits for this approach? Would there be different returns if the player played other positions across the team on a regular basis?

2. Constraints-based approach

A constraints-based approach to coaching involves the manipulation of key constraints, or applying conditions and rules to the practice, in order to help players achieve a desired outcome. For example, applying the ‘two-touch’ rule will force players to make quick decisions and speed up the practice.

If a team has a poor record of scoring goals from crosses, then in order to practice crossing and finishing using a games based approach, a coach could set up a practice using a small-sided game with two wide channels marked out on the pitch. Placing 1 unopposed player in each channel will enable that player to have the time and space to deliver an effective cross, and increase the likelihood of the team practising finishing from the cross.

3. STEP: Space, Task, Equipment, Players

STEP is a method used to adapt the practice in order to meet the needs of the group or a specific player. Adjust any of the following aspects of the practice in order to present different challenges for players and to meet individual player needs:


  • Increase or decrease the size of area
  • Change the shape of the area (for example, a circle can encourage players to move around an area and not stand in corners as young players may do in a square or rectangle).


  • Increase or decrease the time frames in which to achieve a target e.g. 20 seconds to play as many passes as possible
  • Vary the task to meet individual player needs (e.g. try to pass the ball using a different part of the foot)
  • Use handball activities to embed the principles of play, then progress the practice to use feet.


  • Increase or decrease number of cones or gates
  • Add different coloured cones or gates
  • Use different equipment for individual players. For example, use different size balls.


  • Increase or decrease number of players
  • Play unopposed, or with passive players
  • Use different numbers in each team to create over or underload and increase or decrease the challenge.


  1. Do you use any of the methods above to adapt your practice design?

  2. Are you aware of the implications of the adaptations you make to the practice and what returns you get from your practice?

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This article is from the free online course:

Youth Football Coaching: Developing Creative Players

University of Birmingham