Defining tactics: the plan behind the game (Part B)

Defining Tactics (click here for Part A, Part C)

Tactics, in soccer, are defined as "systematic action by individual players, groups and teams, on both attack and defense, aimed at successfully resolving game situations. Tactics make use of technique and condition and take into account the strengths and weaknesses of both teams, as well as the unique conditions of each match." However, the term "tactics" is often used in a variety of contexts. For example, we talk about the "tactics" that the coach assigns before the game, but we also use the word to describe the actions of players and teams. In the first case we are talking about a product of the coach's mind, talking about a product of the coach's mind, informed by knowledge and experience (the tactical plan), while in the second, we are talking about plays executed by players and influenced by their knowledge, technique, and mental and physical abilities. 

In the interest of easily distinguishing the various concepts, we should define our terms clearly, so that we can understand the basic theory of tactics and tactics training. Not only does this make theoretical discussion easier, it also makes clear what functions players and coaches have to fulfill in practice and match play (see Table 1, coming on Monday, 13th).

Using Tactics: Prerequisites

The tactical knowledge that is passed down from coach to coach and passed on to players is significantly and qualitatively different from the tactically informed actions of players. Knowledge is gained from seminars, teaching media and years of soccer experience. A certain amount of expertise and the ability to retain soccer-related information are all it takes to develop and maintain this knowledge. Turning knowledge into successful tactical action, on the other hand, requires lots of other skills and abilities. The deciding factors here are players' motivation and their attitudes toward practice and match play. Coaches who can not understand why their players seem to have so much trouble executing the tactics that have been explained to them so clearly (perhaps even with the help of a blackboard) are ignoring the complex array of problems that are involved in putting a tactical plan into action. These are often not just technical or conditional shortcomings, but much more deeply rooted deficiencies. 

The model shown in Table 3 (coming on Monday, 13th) shows how a tactical action proceeds in phases (often in the space of a few seconds), and what abilities a player must possess in order to handle each phase, and ultimately the entire sequence, successfully.

It is important for coaches to be familiar with the tactical sequence, as well as the various skills and abilities it requires. Tactics training is more than just training each of these skills (e.g. technical or tactical knowledge) in isolation, it is about training all the factors involved in a successful play. Neither theoretical instruction nor practical training is enough, by itself, to accomplish this. Above all, mental qualities and character traits have to be developed, for example, by means of one-on-one discussions and other methods of player guidance.

Using Tactics to Handle Basic Situations

Both coaches and players should be familiar with frequently encountered game situations and the tactical actions that have proved successful in these situations. The only way to win games is to think about these situations and reproduce them in practice sessions, letting them play out again and again. 

As they practice solving typical problems, top players and teams develop tactical plans., but also a high degree of spontaneity and intuition. The basis of this tactical creativity is primarily solid tactics training. An effective combination of "playful freedom" and "tactical discipline" is a worthy goal!

Tactics Training: Methods

There are various methods of tactics training available to coaches. Based on the players you are working with and the goals you want to achieve, you can choose yours:

  • teaching complex tactical actions (play sequences)
  • passing on tactical knowledge and experience 
  • improving mental abilities (e.g. self-confidence)
  • motivating players to use tactics

Teaching Complex Tactical Actions

In practice, players work on both technical elements and tactical actions at the same time, in most cases. Most well-known exercises are appropriate here, e.g. combination exercises, complex exercises, small group games and practice games on two (or four or six) goals.

  • When using exercises, the coach assigns a specific tactical behavior (e.g. players should use long passes to switch the area of play from wing to wing whenever possible) and interrupts the action for corrections whenever players make significant mistakes. 
  • However, you can also use so-called "provoking rules" to bring about the desired behavior indirectly (e.g. players are limited to two touches). Whenever a player break the ruled, the ball switches to the other team. 
  • By marking out "forbidden" zones or changing the size of the field (or numbers of players), you can pinpoint very specific tactical actions:
    • Small fields improve 1 v. 1 abilities.
    • Large fields improve peripheral vision and attack-building tactics.
    • Creating a shooting zone forces players to take long-distance shots.
    • Creating a 30 x 30-yard "forbidden" zone in the center of the field (players are forbidden to pass or dribble through) forces players to play on the wings.
    • When working on combination plays or complex exercises, you should work in clear, systematic steps (from easy to hard, from simple to complex), especially with youth players.

Teaching Tactical Knowledge

  • Use one-on-one conversations or team meetings to teach tactical knowledge. Using a blackboard or videotape, you can show typical game situations and discuss the appropriate tactical approach to each one. The players themselves can study the actions of teams and individual players by watching games live or on TV (observational training).
  • In mental training (imaginative training), players call to mind specific situations and intensively visualize how they would act in order to succeed in each one. Lots of famous players even use this method directly before a match in order to prepare for the game and the opponent in question. 

Improving Mental and Personal Abilities

The mental and personal abilities important to planning, making decisions and executing tactical actions can be promoted by your style of team leadership and player guidance.

Develop self-confidence and composure by:

  • placing your trust in players, 
  • setting tasks and challenges that become systematically harder,
  • acknowledging good performance,
  • objectively criticizing poor performance (avoiding emotional criticism),
  • being composed and self-confident yourself.

Develop courage and willingness to take risks by:

  • assigning risks (encouraging a risk-filled game),
  • safeguarding risks ("insuring" against negative consequences, including flak from teammates),
  • acknowledging risks (praising players for risks that pay off).

Develop a sense of responsibility by:

  • transferring roles and duties to players,
  • positively reinforcing responsible behavior with praise and recognition.

Summary: Each player brings a unique array of character traits to the complex activity known as tactics. So tactics training methods have to be just as complex, versatile and varied!