How to Best Utilize the Play-Practice-Play Methodology Outside of the Grassroots Level

A few years ago the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) decided to reorganize most of their coaching education methodology, which included launching their new grassroots coaching pathway in an attempt to rejuvenated player development across the country. The focus of their new launch was the creation of the Play-Practice-Play (PPP) Methodology, based off new research in child and adolescent development. PPP sets out guidelines for grassroots coaches to structure their practices in hopes of maximizing players time on the ball, for players to enjoy the game, and to make practices as game-like as possible.

Although PPP can be fairly controversial, depending on who you talk to within the United States, and has some shortcomings, USSF admits this is not the one-all methodology. Rather they hope for it to be a foundation methodology to get all grassroots coaches across the country on the same level with federation down coaching education.

Also important in understanding what PPP is, is acknowledging it is directed for grassroots level soccer. For the USSF this is defined as a team with vastly different ability where most players are new to the sport. It should not be taken as the methodology that USSF wants every team in the country playing.

So below I want to briefly describe what PPP and what areas of the methodology are particularly interesting and could benefit coaching a team in a competitive result-based environment.

What is Play-Practice-Play?

As mentioned above, PPP is a methodology aimed at creating a foundation for grassroots coaches across the United States. The methodology has coaches break down the game into four phases, attacking, attacking to defending, defending, and defending to attacking; but at the grassroots level the focus will be on the attacking and the defending phases.

Each practice is centered around one phase of the game and 2-3 age appropriate player actions (example at U10s: create passing options, create 2v1 during the attacking phase). PPP is not a curriculum, therefore the methodology does not have an overarching structure of practices and topics for a season. Rather grassroots coaches are encouraged to assess what player actions need to be practiced based off how much players are learning in the previous practice or match.

PPP’s most unique feature is how the practices are structured. Under PPP, each practice is divided into three 30-minute phases. The first play phase, the practice phase, and the second play phase. Lets break down each phase and what the expectations and characteristics are.

First Phase

The first play phase is how each practice should begin, by immediately placing arriving players into small sided matches. This could either be 2-3 fields of either 2v2 or 3v3. The purpose of this is to, first maximize the time on the ball for each player, and second to begin introducing the topic and key questions for the session. These first questions should not require an answer from players, instead the goal is for them to begin implementing them in their small sided games through self-discovery and exploration.

Next, based off observations, takes players aside individually or as a group and give brief feedback. This is an opportunity to relate observed actions and behaviors and connect them to the key questions for the session. This is the first opportunity to engage players and listen to their answers or thoughts on the desired actions and behavior.

Second Phase

The second phase of a PPP practice is the practice phase. This phase is a training drill that replicates a game but is modified to emphasis where on the field the desired action should occur. If the topic is attackers 2v1 and creating passing options during the attacking phase then the drill should be placed in one of the attacking third of the field with the defending side having a goalkeeper in the appropriately sized goal.

This phase looks typically like a traditional practice. The coach is expected to make adaptions based off the players behaviors, possibly making it easier or more difficult to achieve the desired behavior. The coach is also encouraged to stop play and make adjustments on player’s actions. The key area in this phase is making sure the coach sticks to the same key questions and topic that has already been introduced. Its fine to briefly address a reoccurring defensive error but coaches should be aware to not change the entire focus of the practice.

Third Phase

The third and final phase of the methodology is another ‘play’ phase, like the first phase, and is the phase that could potentially be replicated for a competitive result-based team. The core of this phase is essentially an end of the practice scrimmage. The team is split into two even teams with goalkeepers on an appropriate size field and there are no additionally rules, players play according to the laws of the game. The players just play a game, 11v11, 9v9, 7v7, which ever works best for the players at your session and age group.

However, there are a few key focuses for the coach in this phase. The first, unlike a traditional approach, the coach in this phase should not seek to stop play and correct a players decision. Instead, the coach should be replicating a game-like atmosphere and conditions in which the coach is simply observing their players’ decision-making and actions. The thinking behind this approach is that it allows the players to implement the session’s objectives and desired action in a game-like scenario, without a coach holding their hands and pointing out mistakes. If a coach is stopping play each time a player makes a mistake and the coach is now making the decision for the player and does not allow for the a player to development through self-exploration. Further, since this hands-off approach promotes self-exploration, players will be forced to improve this decision-making and problem-solving skills.

This approach also gives the coach a chance to assess themselves and ask important questions such as how well is the coach communicating the desired actions. There is a gap between teaching an action to your players and them learning. Sometimes this gap is overlooked but by allowing time to let your team play in a match like atmosphere without the coach interjecting, you can assess the learning that has been done by your players.

Implementation

This can be implemented either at the end of a single session or purposely placed throughout your season depending your game model, goals of your players, and the cycle of actions you are teaching. For an example, if a coach haas a team that are looking to build out of the back through your defensive midfielder, the coach can organize 2-3 small sided fixed games throughout the week where the coach can stop, give players immediate feedback, utilize leading questions, and communicate desired actions. At the point in which you are ready to move into the next cycle, let’s say attacking the final third through your wingers, you want to check how well your previous concept has translated to your players.

This is where making a planned session and effort to create a game-like atmosphere without the immediate feedback from a coach can allow a coach to see how much the players have learned from the coach’s teaching.

An alternative to the above example could be, if a coach and team are in a result-based environment, implementing this hands off session can allow a coach to see if players have understood the tactical adjustments made in relation to an upcoming opponent.

To conclude, although Play-Practice-Play model is intended for grassroots teams, the third phase of the methodology can be translated to teams in various environments. The ability of a coach to differentiate the gap between their teaching and the learning of players is crucial in successful player development. Further, for a coach to create a hands-off approach and allow their players to play in a game-like atmosphere to evaluate the players understanding of desired actions creates a productive environment for an entire team.

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