What’s the plan?

“When Johan started as Ajax coach he had a vision in which he continued to believe, even when things didn’t go so well.”
Frank Rijkaard

In order for a coach to coach he needs to recognize when things are going wrong. To do that he needs some idea of when things are going right. He needs to have in mind a picture, a plan of the team playing well. Any deviation from the plan is what will concern him.

The plan is the collective understanding and agreement as to how the team will approach the game. It involves the distribution of tasks and responsibilities so that the team stands the best chance of winning.

It involves key moments when certain players will have to work together to achieve their tasks. This, in turn, involves the analysis of the expected demands and resources available to meet them. It is what we must do, how we will do it, who is responsible, and when it will be done.

The why is to provide a degree of predictability, a standard, to the game. It is the image of the team playing well in the two main moments. Without this the players and coach can have no clear idea by which to evaluate their efforts.

The plan has limits and is affected by a number of factors. The abilities and limitations of the players and the opponents. The meaning of the game, is it a cup final or a casual kick around with a football. The score and time remaining. Being 1-0 up at the start is different then being 1-0 up with two minutes left. Substitutions can wreck a plan; the new player may not be able to fill the task as well as the one he replaced. Weather and field conditions can play a part in making a plan. Parents, spectators and the referee can have an influence on the match. The coach and players must keep in mind which of these factors they can influence, and which ones they can’t. Control the controllable.

While there are a number of factors that both soccer coaches and soccer players must consider, the steps in how they do it are the same.

1) They make assumptions. Everyone does it, it’s what you start from. Coaches guess which opponent will be dangerous. Player’s size up their immediate opponent and build expectations. If the assumptions are accurate, good, if not they need to be changed quickly.

2) The predictions. Assumptions just sit there. They need to be analyzed as to what they mean. Simply assuming that your immediate opponent is faster then you, what does that mean about the game? This step involves taking the assumptions and calculating the probabilities. What is likely to happen?

3) The decisions. When the coach and players have arrived at their predictions about the game they can decide what they want to do about it. Which ones deserve consideration and which don’t? The decisions will be coloured by the coaches soccer experience and insight.

Plans precede the game. Some coaches mistake a line up, a system of play as a plan. It is not. Nor is the plan something like “a flat back four.” This deals with one line in one moment. It is not general comments like “pass the ball wide” or “apply pressure in their half.” These are elements of the plan, they are contained within it but fall short of being it.

Plans primarily go wrong when any one or more of the above factors are incorrect. When the assumptions are wrong a correct prediction won’t follow. If the assumptions are correct but the predictions are wrong then the decisions will have to be changed. If both the assumptions and predictions are correct a coach can still make a poor selection for solving the problem. When a coach is correct in what he assumes about the game, and he correctly predicts events, and has enough insight and understanding about the game, it’s problems and solutions he is in the best position to make a good plan. Things may still go wrong, but it will be something either unforeseen or uncontrollable.