• Luke Harris

Knowing your players and how they learn

In episode one of the Functional Football Podcast, we spoke to Isaac Guerrero (Technical Director FC Barcelona Football School) and Jordi Fernandez (Barca Academy Director, Sydney). In that episode, Jordi stated that:

Jordi Fernandez, Technical Director, Barca Academy Sydney

“Our curriculum, or our guide, is the player. What Isaac is introducing at FCBEscola (Barca Academy) is a white paper, a blank paper and we have to fill it with what we see every day. What your duty is, is to learn what that player needs and what is that players motivation and how can you make them fit in your context which is the team.” – Jordi Fernandez

What Jordi is saying is that one of the main roles of the coach is to firstly, know the players you are coaching, and using that information, create an environment that helps your players develop because of the learning they do in the environment you as coach, has created. As a teacher, I see this as the most important part of the coach’s role, but also the most challenging. Just when you think you know a player, they surprise you. In this sense, knowing a player, is almost like a game of football. Dynamic, variable and hard to predict.

From a teaching perspective, in Australia, we have what is known as the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. The Standards are a public statement of what constitutes teacher quality. They reflect and build on evidence that a teacher’s effectiveness not only impacts students (Hattie, 2003), but recognises teacher quality is the most important factor that influences student achievement (OECD, 2005). ‘Know students and how they learn’ is the first of the seven standards which outline what teachers should know and be able to do, highlighting its important role and teaching and learning.

The question then is clear, how do I get to know my players? I think Isaac summed it up perfectly when he said:

“You need to give space to the player to show you that in relation to the prioritised behaviours you want to teach to the player. First you have to observe, what is the natural way of this player to solve this tactical problem. With this, you will learn a lot of things.”

In teaching, that is called a diagnostic test or pre-assessment, but it also relates to football. By providing your players with certain football situations in the area you wish to work on and observing their natural attempts at solving the situation, the coach will be able to get an understanding of where they are currently at, in a football sense.

“… and also maybe you can eliminate training sessions that you are using to teach something this player knows very well.”

Isaac also highlighted that observation can show a coach what players do not understand but help to identify what players do already understand and/or are capable of doing in that situation. Armed with this knowledge, a coach can then tailor their session/s to what is most pertinent to a player/s needs. This is where the real tricky bit comes in. Armed with the knowledge of the player’s areas of strength and weakness from our observations, it is clear that there is a multitude of levels of understanding amongst the 12+ players in your team. How do I then cater for each of them?

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a psychologist, developed the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to account for the learning potential of children. Due to the nature of football as a team game, it is an example of how teammates and coaches can help a player improve. Vygotsky’s defined ZPD as:

“the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solvig under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peer” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

Essentially, it was the idea is that individuals (players) learn best when working together with others during collaboration (a team), and it is through such collaborative endeavours (teamwork), with more skilled persons, that learners learn.

With this in mind, knowing the strengths of players through observation, and that players will learn through collaboration with more skilled players, a coach can then differentiate the smaller details within a session. Within a situation in training, the position, the opponent and the team of each player can be differentiated to help each player improve where they need to improve.

For example, a simple 4v4 situation can be manipulated through player position, opponent and team. The two technically weakest players play against each other on opposite teams, one as red team left back, the other as blue right back. They are supported by two stronger players, who play as red centre back and blue centre back. The two centre backs are challenged by being matched with quick or intelligent strikers, depending on what the intention of the 4v4 is for each player.

This is not always a perfect scenario. Your strongest player might also be your quickest, so the coach then has to decide who to challenge in the situation and who to support. Do I support the red right back but putting the quickest player at centre back to provide cover out of possession or diagonal passing support in possession? Alternatively, do I challenge the blue centre back by putting the quickest player as a striking, forcing the centre back to make good decisions and read the play out of possession? These questions bring me back to Jordi’s other point in the podcast.

“When you start coaching, you only want to control everything... when you keep going, you realise you can’t control everything.”

Vygotsky’s ZPD tells us that if the context of the football situation is too challenging, then the learning will be too challenging, and won’t occur. If the context too easy, no adaptation will take place, and boredom can prevent learning. This might be a simplistic way of describing football given the coach cannot control the variability and randomness completely within a training session. However, a coach can manage the constraints for a desired outcome, even though that outcome cannot always be controlled. The point being, if a coach knows their players, the constraints the coach puts on an exercise or situation in a training session, such as position, opponent and team, can be manipulated to help improve the current level of the players.

Luke Harris is the host of the Functional Football Podcast. He is a primary/elementary school PE teacher, who coaches at the Barca Academy Sydney.


Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne. Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: the Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), (2005). Teachers matter: Attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers. 6th Paris, OECD Publishing.


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