The Difference that Makes the Difference

By Tony Earp

Over the years of training players of many different age groups and a range of abilities, one of my goals is to always make the training session challenging and enjoyable for the players. It has been my experience that when players find the activities challenging and are having fun, the players show the most amount of effort and focus. The difficult part of building a training session is combining both of those elements in a balanced and effective way. Challenging can mean a lot of things, and it is not hard to make any activity challenging. The hard part is making an activity APPROPRIATELY challenging for the player. The same is true for the enjoyment. It is easy to make a session enjoyable. Play “World Cup” with the players and they will be smiling ear to ear. Fun is necessary for development, but fun does not always mean that development is taking place. The difference that makes all the difference in an outstanding training session and development opportunity is challenging the player appropriately and making it enjoyable for the players without a loss of purpose.

Optimal learning occurs when an activity is just outside of a player’s current ability level. Meaning, the player is going to have to stretch his limits slightly to accomplish what is being asked. If the task is out of reach and completely not feasible due to current level or age (cognitive ability), then frustration will firmly take hold and the players will shut down. If it is too easy, there will be a lack of focus and players can develop poor training habits and technique.

Think of it this way… if your friend was an expert mountain climber and he asked you to go climb with him, what do you think a reasonable approach to teaching you would be? If he wants you to immediately take on an inverted cliff that is only for experts, it will probably be something you decline to try and you will not enjoy yourself. If he underestimates your ability and you spend the day walking up a slight incline on the side of a hill, you may find yourself bored and a little insulted by your friends opinion of your capabilities.

If he brought you to a climbing area that is appropriate for your level, and a little challenging, you will not only be willing to climb, but you will also learn more and enjoy yourself.

If a training activity is not going well and the kids are struggling with it to the point they begin to shut down or stop trying, there is a chance that I asked them to do something that is either too far out of their reach or possibly too easy. Coaches often mistakenly just take it as the kids being lazy or there is a lack of focus, and the coach may attempted to be corrected it through running or yelling. The kids could be having a bad day and not really focusing, but more often than not, the reason for a lack of effort is due to the appropriateness of the activity.

All activities can be tweaked to be more difficult or more simple to make it more appropriate for the players. When the challenge is appropriate, the players’ work ethic will improve. A challenge being appropriate keeps success in reach which keeps kids motivated to achieve the goal of the activity. When it is too easy, the goal has already been achieved. When it is too hard, the goal looks miles away with no clear path to get there. Keeping the activity appropriately challenging shows the path keeps the goal in sight and a guided path on how to get there.

The benefit of the activity being appropriate challenging makes it enjoyable for the kids. They have more fun trying to learn the skills, even if they fail at first, because they can see they are not that far off. I have used the example of video games before. If a level was impossible to beat, it would not be very fun to play. When a level is difficult but the kids make progress and keep getting closer and closer to beating it, they cannot wait to try again after they fail. Not to mention, they are probably having a blast. On the flip side, if the level was really easy and they beat it on the first try, I am sure the kids would think that level was boring. If the entire game was like that, they would probably stop playing.

Since enjoying training is part of making it optimal for learning to make that key difference in development for the players, the coach has to make an effort to make the sessions fun. Part of that, as already has been explained, is the activities being appropriately challenging. The other part of it is making sure the environment, while being competitive, is a place where the kids can feel safe to compete.

Fun is a slippery slope at training, as it can be in any situation. All coaches want their players to enjoy training, but it needs to be done in the context of the learning goals for the session. For example, a coach can have their team just “scrimmage” all session. Although there are some things developmentally good about that, and the players will have fun (at first), does that help the players reach their individual and team goals? Players would have fun at first but if the coach continuously just had the kids play at practice, and did little else, even that will eventually become boring for the players.

More importantly, although the activity is a lot of fun, how is it helping the players move closer towards their developmental goals? When kids play, they want to get better. When they come to training, they want to be challenged to move beyond what they currently do. Fun can quickly cause players to lose focus due to being too distracted from the task at hand or become bored as the “fun” has no direction.

Fun is important, but it has to add focus to the session. Not take it away. When the coach can make activities competitive and fun for the kids, while being appropriate challenging, the coach has created the best possible learning environment for the kids. The most enjoyable training sessions kids participate in are ones that fit this criteria. The coach challenged them, encouraged them, had fun with them, and provided an environment that would help them get better.

When designing your training sessions, do not create a session that is too complicated and far beyond your players’ ability levels. Also, avoid creating a session that is just nothing more than a series of Knock Out and World Cup type of activities. Although they are fun at times, they should be used as part of a means to the end, or in other words, a way to help players get to their next development level. It is easy to make a practice too hard or too easy. The difficult part of coaching, where the skill of craft resides, is being able to develop training sessions that make players train just slightly beyond their current level and they do it with a smile. That is the difference that will make all the difference for your players.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at

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