Gary Curneen in the head women’s coach at D1 California State University Bakersfield. Previously he was the assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati and Wingate University. Gary holds a UEFA ‘A’ License from the Irish FA and the NSCAA Premier Diploma. He is the author of two books, including The Modern Soccer Coach: Position Specific Training.
Why do you see position-specific training as being so important to player development?
I think player development is split into two areas: at the younger age group it is mostly skill work getting the basic foundations of the game; then as they get older I think we assume that players should all train the same way in order to develop. What I see though, is that although players are making advances physically, and access to technology and other resources increases, we are not seeing an associated improvement in the quality of the players. In terms of players doing what they are supposed to be doing – forwards are scoring fewer goals and defenders are less sure of how to defend. In many cases this is a result of players not developing a picture of the game when they are on the practice field.
So if we include position-specific training in our team practices, when would we do it?
This would only be part of the existing training plan. Soccer will always be a game of relationships – back fours need to combine with midfielders and other units on the field need to understand how to play with each other within the team. But I do think the structure of the session as a whole should be reevaluated. If a session is focusing on possession, is your center forward really getting the repetition they need in front of goal? The game demands on players are getting higher and higher, but we are giving them less and less opportunity to learn from the situations they need. Position-specific training can take place before or after the regular session, but I do think it needs to be added and regularly be there.
In my college program, the players take care of their dynamic warm-up then either in the first 15 or the last 15 minutes we will do some position specific training. Everyone always does technical training at the start of practice, but fatigue is a big factor in the quality of technique so maybe the technical part of the training should be done at the end when they are more tired?
Position-specific training isn’t just an exercise or drill that takes up a few minutes of a training session though – it is a program that creates an environment and a culture.
At what age should it become part of a player’s training?
At the younger age group practices are more skill-based, but once you get into 11v11 (aged 14+) position-specific training needs to be a big part of the program. If you look at other sports like basketball and American football, they specialize heavily in their teenage years and have position-specific coaches, who help them to perform their functions better. Technique isn’t just have they got a good first touch – it is having a good first touch in relationship to what they need on the field. Having a good first touch in tight spaces is probably more important to a forward than it is to a right defender.
Many professional players now are moved to different positions from game to game, or grew up playing somewhere other than where they are on the field now. Should players be specializing in just one position from an early age then, or be trained to be flexible?
Position-specific training is not about getting a player into a position as soon as possible and making them one dimensional, it is designed to help players to be better in the situation they will face in the game. It also creates an understanding of the game though. If you are a left winger you should be in a program that the outside defender is going to look at as well, which creates flexibility. If it is done the right way the program should create game intelligence. Soccer at the highest levels demands a great deal of intelligence on the field, and having that level of understanding is becoming a prerequisite to get to the top. The more you can expose a player to what it takes to play in different positions, the better they will become, which might actually create more versatile players.
Technical training seems to take priority in the U.S., even through high school and beyond. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s what has been done in the past. Technical Training is a big buzz word, but it is never varied from what the eight year old does to what the twelve year old does, and it just keeps going from there. This has two problems: – it is not specific to their positions; and it becomes easy. If a basketball player is working on dribbling at eight years old, they are creating a shot off the dribble at twelve years old, creating a shot off the dribble with a hand in their face at fifteen, then at eighteen they are doing it with two hands in their face. In soccer we keep going back to passing unopposed, in straight lines, and that is what we regard as technical training. If we want to develop players who can make quicker decisions on the game field then we have got to develop situations in practice where they are going to see the same pictures so they can learn to process the information a lot quicker.
Could it be that coaches out there are more comfortable teaching technique than tactics?
Maybe, I can’t really comment on whether it is easier or not, but I would say that position-specific training challenges a coach’s imagination and gives you a varied program to create. At the moment we train everyone the same way and we’re developing a specific type of player who can possess, but who struggles under pressure or with the tasks required at the two ends of the field. Why do we not have a goal scoring machine in the United States? Why do we not having an attacking flair midfielder? I don’t think we are developing them.
Often there is a misguided fear that coaching tactics means you are a coach who is focused on winning above player development. How do we change that belief?
If you want to change something, you have to change your attitude and approach towards it. Tactics doesn’t have to mean park the bus or any of the other clichés around winning at all costs. Conversely, winning is important once a player gets to 14 years of age – they need to learn how to win soccer games. But that’s not shouting and screaming at them, it is making sure they have a game intelligence, which might involve keeping possession when you are a goal up or having an extra man in the midfield when you need a goal. If we get away from winning and focus on development then our players are not going to win, because when pressure situations arise they will not know how to handle them. Having people like Jurgen Klinsman involved really helps us because he isn’t here to just play attractive soccer – he has to get results. All top coaches (Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Brendan Rogers) are winners. There are very few who are only in it to entertain.
Can you give us an example of what a training session would look like for holding midfielders?
The first part is deciding what kind of holding player you want and what kind of player you have, and those are connected. There are three types of player for that position: – the deep lying playmaker (Andrea Pirlo), your destroyer (Claude Makélélé), and your all-rounder (Yaya Touré). Once you know what you have and what you are trying to create, you can build a program around it. If you have a Pirlo player there is no point trying to get them to run box to box or get stuck into every tackle. So you design exercises around them which will challenge the player and find a way to give specific feedback to them which is related to the game. You need to find measurable within the game (e.g. passing percentages, retention, or winning tackles) that you can track and challenge the player with. Video analysis becomes important, as does the relationship you build with the player. Over time the exercises can become more specific and the player should understand why they are doing it.
Which position(s) do you think are least understood in the game here?
Center forwards are the first one. I don’t think we’ve created enough goal scorers, despite having more and more players who can combine and who can build up play. Fifteen years ago build up play was about whether the player could hold the ball up (in a target role). Now all of them can combine with midfielders, but they can’t all produce an outcome in front of goal. Goals win games, but we don’t seem to work on them very much in training. Center forwards should be scoring 30-40 goals per week in training, but in reality they are often only scoring three or four.
Central defenders are another one we struggle with. People call defending the ‘lost art’ but really it is the practice of defending that has become the lost art. Coaches spend less time working with center backs, despite the demands on the position increasing. Twenty years ago Steve Bruce at Manchester United wasn’t expected to bring the ball to the midfield and get involved in the attack. Fifteen years later for Rio Ferdinand it was the biggest part of his game. There needs to be a question mark over why the players in the position haven’t improved at the youth level.
So if positions are becoming more dynamic, is it becoming more difficult for a coach to even define what the requirements should be?
Yes, that’s exactly it. There’s a school of argument that players in different positions are becoming more connected. Defenders are asked to attack and forwards are required to press now. Mario Balotelli can’t get a game because he is being asked to press opponents when they are in possession and it isn’t his style. Fifteen years ago he would have been starting every match. The most important issue though is the outcome of every position, and there you have to be specific. Identify what the three or four things are that you need a center forward to do, and one has to be scoring goals. For a center back it has to be the ability to defend in 1v1 situations or to be good in the air. Thiago Silva at Paris St Germain is an athlete, but there are also not that many players who are better in the air than he is. John Terry is the same way, which makes them top players.
In your most recent book you talk about how player learning styles have changed. Can you explain how and why that is?
It’s a result of our society. We’ve moved away from playing outside and playing in the streets, towards technology and being inside. Players’ attention span is different and they want the more personal approach to learning rather than the team approach of the past. Equally players now have more opinions and we shouldn’t look upon that as a bad thing. They will question why we do what we do, and that was seen as a mark of disrespect twenty years ago. As coaches, we have to adapt to meet the learning demands of the players, which means we have to be more imaginative, we have to bring in technology, and we have to cut down our lectures while creating better relationships with the players. It creates more challenges for coaches, but basically means they have to work harder and smarter to have success.
How will position-specific coaching affect player motivation?
I think it would improve it greatly. You can’t really motivate people you don’t know, but if you can build a relationship with a player you can help them in a number of ways. Why did Alex Ferguson with Roy Keane, or Arsene Wenger with Denis Bergkamp get so much out of their players? Their relationship was so good, but building it took time and work on the practice field. Position-specific training requires you to get closer to your players, to give them more specifics about their position and what you want, and then have a way to give them feedback that isn’t just your opinion. Sports science – through heart rate monitors and GPS can give you objective data that can help players to see the progress they are making. If you can show a player what you need from them, and what you can help them with, they will be really open to it. Every player wants to get better at the elite level, but every player isn’t getting the individual program that it will take to get there.