United Futsal’s annual Top 12 tour unites aspiring international players with coaches from FC Barcelona’s youth program each Spring in Catalonia. Led by Xavi Closas, head coach of Barça Lassa B, the camp also allows visiting coaches to directly access the philosophy and ideas of the famous academy. Most of these ideas are taught through exercises involving high levels of decision making.
During each of my three visits, Xavi starts with the most disarming of introductions, “I apologize if many of our exercises look unorganized, but the chaos leads to a deeper level of learning.” And this is Xavi in all his coaching genius: direct, humble, and off-the-charts knowledgable. Like every master teacher, he takes enormous pride in teaching the game. He’s highly competitive and wants to win as much as anyone else, but not at the expense of his players’ sporting education. It’s his job to provide the pro team with well rounded players that can process the game quickly under time and space constraints. Decision making is at a premium.
So what does organized chaos look like? It largely falls into three categories: PE like tag games, rondos, and numbers-up exercises. It’s been said every coach should have at least 10 versions of rondo in their coaching toolbox. I would add 10 tag and 10 numbers-up drills into this kit.
Freeze tag, Zombie tag, Pac-Man tag and even Sharks & Minnows are all versions of the age old game of tag. From PE classes to youth soccer recreation programs, tag is a staple. These games tend to disappear the older players get. My sons, ages 11 and 13, haven’t played them in years on the soccer side. And yet, every time I’ve visited Spain, they are embedded in the curriculum even at the pro level. But what exactly makes these “children’s” games so important in developing top notch decision makers? For one, the cognitive abilities needed to process multiple players moving in various directions and determine whether they are friend or foe is substantial. Layer in the fun factor, and you’ve got a near ideal exercise for developing thinking skills. Improved technique then factors in almost as a byproduct of this fun and learning.
The benefits of rondos are well documented. That said, not all rondos are created equal. The ones favored by top coaches often include lots of off-the-ball movement. The traditional stand-in-a-circle and ping the ball around rondo is rarely seen in actual trainings. It usually occurs when players informally gather before a game or practice. Coach guided rondos usually emphasize the prized pass-and-move aspect. Pass-and-move is really just another way of saying pass-and-think of where you’re going next. Adding to this movement theme, the FCB staff presented a rondo that replicated the rotation found in the 3-1 formation. Technique, tactics, and decision making all married into one drill. Coaching nirvana achieved!
2v1, 3v2, and 4v2, etc. are nothing new to US coaches. These numerical advantages are found in basketball, hockey, and any invasion based game. That said, I’m continually impressed with the variety and urgency of these exercises found in Spain. Players are urged to attack at breakneck speed in an attempt to replicate the pace of a counter attack in an actual game. Simple enough, right? And yet, over the years I’ve witnessed at numerous camps at home and abroad, players from top academies in the States struggle with the basics of numbers-up situations. Here at home, players are often allowed infinite amounts of time to complete 2v1 situations. Unfortunately, in a real soccer or futsal game, the defense will recover within a second or two. For this reason, emphasizing urgency is critical in helping our players effectively solve these moving puzzles. If players make mistakes due to the fast pace, that’s okay. At the end of the day, it’s all about the learning.