Ask…don’t tell!

“Football is a game you play with your brain” – Johan Cruyff

Thirty years ago, in the “good old days”, a youth football coaching session usually took one of two forms:

1. A few laps of the field, some stretches, then a long time standing in lines waiting to be told the “best” way to pass a ball to each other.

2. A mass scrimmage while the coach watched and occasionally tossed in a few “you don’t do it that way”‘ comments.

Despite this, coaches didn’t have to worry about getting their players to turn up for training on time and they certainly didn’t worry if their players weren’t smiling much.

That’s because the world was a simpler place back then. There were less distractions, no Xbox, no PlayStation and hardly any televised football. Boys were grateful to be given the chance to kick a ball around the park and girls… well, girls didn’t play football anyway.

Sadly, you can still see this style of coaching. But it’s as old fashioned as typewriters and 35mm cameras.

Youth football coaches today need more than a bag of balls, some cones and a loud voice. They have to plan stimulating coaching sessions and make football as attractive as the myriad of other sports and extra-curricular interests that are available for children today.

That means taking an interest in their players as people, being patient and allowing them to have fun.

It also means creating an environment where children can discover their own answers to football problems, not make them stand in lines waiting to be told what to do.

But “let the game be the teacher” has become something of a cliche in youth football today and unfortunately it’s given lazy coaches an excuse to do nothing except mark out a pitch, toss their players a ball and hope that they will learn the skills they need all by themselves.

But letting the game be the teacher can work… if the coach creates problems in the game for his players and then helps them to find the answers.

Guided discovery

Guided discovery is an “active learning” technique in which students are asked open questions that encourage them to work out answers for themselves.

It makes children think, consider alternatives and allows them to test the solutions they come up with.

From a youth football perspective, guided discovery will develop the minds of your players and enable them to anticipate and react to situations they encounter in a game without waiting to be told what to do.

But it’s not an easy option for any coach.

Coaches who use guided discovery have to:

A) Decide what they want their players to discover in the session – the objective.

B) Set up games that might lead to the required discovery.

C) Ask “good” questions at the right moment.

As you can see, it involves more than just “letting the game be the teacher”!

The objective

The objective of a guided discovery session should not be a single fact or a yes/no answer. It should be a tactical strategy or relate to the principles of play.

Attacking principles

Defending principles

The game

Any small-sided game might lead to a situation where the coach might be able to ask the question(s) that might lead to the solution he is hoping his players will discover. But that’s a lot of “mights”. It is better to give some thought to the game and ensure the desired situation arises by placing conditions or restrictions on the players.

The questions

These are examples of “good” questions:

  • Why didn’t that pass work? OK, how should we do it this time?
  • How can we get the ball to our attackers quickly?
  • How can we get the ball to the other side of the field?
  • Why is it important for you to lift your head up when you have the ball?
  • And these are the type of positive responses that will encourage your players:
  • Great! so how could we do it faster?
  • I like that answer! what other skill can we use to get the ball to our team mates?
  • Now you’re getting the idea!
  • Where could you position yourself so that you could see both the player you are defending as well as the ball?


Your players must feel comfortable making suggestions so make it clear that there are no wrong answers and there is no risk of being put down or laughed at by their team mates.

Encourage them to make suggestions by listening carefully and always responding positively, thanking them for their contribution and saying things like: “That’s good! What else could you do?”

Common errors

The most common mistakes a coach can make are:

Not giving players enough time to think about the question before jumping in with the answer.

Getting carried away and asking too many “good” questions in a short space of time.


Guided discovery is a suitable coaching method for all ages of players.

Even four and five-year-olds can be asked questions that will lead them to discover how to pass the ball, for example, providing appropriate language is used.

But coaches should remember that guided discovery works best with individual players rather than large groups. In groups, only some of the players “discover” the answer. The rest hear the answer and accept it as fact rather than discovering it for themselves.

That said, helping children learn by asking them questions and letting them play the game is always preferable to telling them what to do.

“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.“ Albert Einstein