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The Boot Room


Issue 09 April 2014


In 2010, former FA Elite Coaching Manager, Dick Bate, created an opportunity for me to visit former England Rugby Union Head Coach, Brian Ashton, to gain a deeper understanding of the Hostile Practice Environment. The visits triggered a real interest in the under-loading coaching approach and a desire to explore its relevance for youth and coach development.


When Ashton joined the England set-up as Head Coach in 2006 he made numerous visits to the Royal Marines to research military tactics and strategies. Ashton wanted to know more about how to empower individuals and teams to make decisions in highly stressful situations.


At the Marines, the former Bath Rugby Head Coach was introduced to the idea that “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy”. It was a Marine mantra based on the belief that dynamic game plans are needed to respond to chaos. Adaptability rather than rigidity is a necessity in the highly pressured situations in which the marines operate in.


Ashton believed that players should operate within a flexible framework - a less rigid structure that provides guidance for the players - rather than a system that the opposition can analyse and neutralise.


The work of Sacchi and Ashton prompted me to begin a two year study into the principles of underloading and the idea of the Hostile Practice environment, changing and tweaking the approach with the players and coaches I have been working with along the way.


Football application


Having considered the research on under-loading and the hostile environment -all of which was sourced from pro- fessionals outside of the football industry - I looked at its application in the game of football, with a particular focus on the types of situation that occur regularly in games at the elite level.


By collecting numerous still photographs taken during different phases of the game a wealth of evidence was gathered to show how underload situations were frequent occurrences.


One observation was that as teams enter the attacking half, they quite often find themselves in an under-load situation – i.e there are more defensive players than attackers. Here, players are under greater levels of pressure to find ways to penetrate and break down the opposition.


Traditionally, I would have delivered an overload practice, for example an 8v4 or 10v6 in favour of the team in possession, when the reality, more often than not, is the players need to experience the reverse situation, for example four attackers v eight defenders – possibly with ‘free’ or ‘floating’ players on the outside to relieve pressure when the ‘stress’ is extremely high.


Similarly, putting players in situations where they are significantly under-loaded when trying to regain possession, for example nine defenders versus 11 attackers, can be a fascinating observation exercise. Watching a group of young players try and quickly problem solve with the aim of finding order from chaos requires awareness, communication connection with teammates, leadership and organisation.


Can we really get frustrated at our players in matches if we do not place them regularly in these realistic situations in practice, trusting and helping them to figure out solutions to the problems the game poses?


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