Let the Game Be the Teacher: A Whole-Part-Whole Approach to Practice

The following is an excerpt from John O'Sullivan's latest book, "Every Moment Matters: How the World's Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams."

When I began my soccer coaching journey, I was frustrated by the way U.S. Soccer* instructed coaches to build their practices. We were told to start small, one child or two per ball, and then build to larger, more complex activities before finishing with a game. I tried this at first, but I found that it looked great on paper but did not work in the real world. If you have ever coached young children, you know what I mean.

They don’t all show up on time. They show up in various states of readiness. They do not need a warm up. And if you start with a small activity that needs lots of explaining, as each subsequent child shows up, you end up explaining the activity multiple times. The kids who show up late have little incentive to hurry across the parking lot as they certainly did not sign up to stand in lines. They showed up to play.

I have always believed that a whole-part-whole approach or, as it is sometimes called, play-practice-play, is a far better method — especially for children 12 and under. Whole-part-whole essentially means to let them play a game first, break it down to a teachable component in the middle, and play again at the end. This solves multiple issues.

First, it does not matter when kids arrive as you only need two to get your first game started. Once your numbers get big, you can break into multiple games. Children tend to run across the parking lot and harass their parents to get them to training on time when you play first. And, playing first does wonders to work off the excess energy that tends to come along with young children who have been sitting in a classroom all day and were handed a sugary snack on the drive to training. Plus, they signed up to play the game, and it’s easy to make sure that they get plenty of game time when they start and end with some sort of game.

There are those that disagree with this approach, arguing that you have to start small and build to larger concepts, but that line of thinking demonstrates a misunderstanding of the difference between technique and skill. This is not to say that we cannot use breaks in the action to do some fundamental movement or stability exercises or a few reps of an isolated technique, but they can be interleaved with the games. You can also modify games, such as attacking and defending multiple goals or altering the shape and size of the field. And you can also do some coaching during these early games, focusing on the theme of your training session so that you are already drawing attention to the topics you are going to cover that day.

Thankfully, U.S. Soccer* and many other sporting governing bodies are now recommending a whole-part-whole approach to practices, especially for our youngest athletes.

As children get older, they certainly need more movement and flexibility/stability in the beginning of training in order to prevent injury, but even professional soccer players play rondos, and basketball players do shootaround activities, albeit not at full speed. Just think about it this way: the kids are there to play, and the more playing you do, the more engaged they will be. The game is a wonderful teacher.

* U.S. Soccer Grassroots courses: Five things to know about play-practice-play.

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(John O'Sullivan is the founder of the Changing the Game Project and the host of the Way of Champions Podcast. His latest book, Every Moment Matters: How the World's Best Coaches Inspire Their Athletes and Build Championship Teams, from which this article was excerpted, came out in December of 2019. It is available in paperback and Kindle.  His previous books are, Is It Wise to Specialize?: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Early Sports Specialization and its Effect Upon Your Child’s Athletic and  Changing the Game: The Parent's Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Youth Sports Back to our Kids.)

3 comments about "Let the Game Be the Teacher: A Whole-Part-Whole Approach to Practice".
  1. Ben Myers, March 12, 2020 at 3:48 p.m.

    This is not new, but it definitely bears repeating for people more recently involved in soccer.  When Dean Conway was director of coaching for Massachusetts Youth Soccer in the 90's, his slogan propagated through all the licensing courses run in the state was the same: "Let the Game be the Teacher."  Been doing that ever since.  Kids have fun and learn the game simultaneously.

  2. beautiful game replied, March 14, 2020 at 9:50 a.m.

    If it's not new, why hasn't this methodology been implemented on a full scale develoment program? If it's not new, than it must have been shelved by so-called experts running the programs. In spring 2019 I watched a youth soccer development program sponsored by a local semi-pro team. There were about 15 players on each side of the field getting instructions from their mentor(s). At least one third of the time was allocated to warm-ups and instructions for motionless player, one third of the time spent on snake formation dribbling cone drills, and the last part was a scrimmage. This methodolgy in kid's development has been going on for decades. Very few of these programs have any innovation. It's all about management and fee collection. The sytemtic problem stays alive because of a poor process. The whole-part-whole approach must become a Standard Operating Procedure. In the military, you train to fight and you fight as you are trained. If that doesn't make sense to USSF and the soccer community, nothing will.

  3. Bob Ashpole, March 14, 2020 at 3:35 p.m.

    The traditional practise session works well for technical training, which is the primary objective of U10 and U12. Play Practive Play works best for very young children and for tactical training. 

    I am also a believer in warmup and cool down activities, but am very out of the box in my view of what is an activity. It is true that young kids are limber enough that they don't require stretching, but there are other purposes of warmups beside achieving full range of motion in joints.

    Bottom line: the session needs to be tailored for the specific athletes and the specific training objectives.

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