Creating Unstable Training Environments to Develop Creative Teams

In my last article, I discussed developing creativity in the context of individual skill development, while this piece will focus on developing creativity from both an individual and team perspective. My goal is to connect the dots in a flexible way, providing an outline that is based on theory which translates directly to practice design. I want to start the conversation by speaking about unstable environments that are fraught with constraints. We can begin with the simple example of beach soccer, when Ronaldinho was at Barcelona he would say, “people don’t understand the touches I take on the grass, because I learned them by playing on the beach.” In essence, the constraint was the beach, this would be called an environmental constraint, and the relationship between the player and the ball on the beach is part of what gave Ronaldinho such a unique set of skills. When anyone thinks of creativity in soccer, Ronaldinho is one of the first examples they will give. This unique set of skills that Ronaldinho developed was not just technical, they were also tactical, his decisions were different because his affordances were different. When Ronaldinho is playing, his perceived affordances are very large and unique. However, one important part to think about in terms of Ronaldinho and the team would be something called shared affordances. Shared affordances are simply possible options, actions, or solutions that players recognize together, they see the same thing. If it is a backheel that the defender doesn’t expect, did his teammate know it was coming? Or Is it the ability to combine for three short fast rondo-type passes to get out of pressure? In a team setting the ability to understand and have collectively shared affordances is important. The great Brazilian teams were able to bend traditional tactics in magical ways, producing moments of brilliance, both individually and collectively. This is because of the culture and environments they often shared, which led to shared collective affordances on the field.

Before we connect theory to training session design for developing creative players and teams, we should also address the outcomes and results of constraints and unstable training environments. Remember people prefer stability, they prefer to stay in the stabile movement patterns they know, they gravitate to using the same solutions when given ultimate freedom, they rarely will explore options without constraints. We should also realize that creativity is not something that pops into our head when drinking coffee, we don’t just spontaneously come up with a new way to adapt a kicking technique. Constraints or unstable training environments are the catalysts of creativity and the development of new skill sets. The high jumpers who first developed going over the bar backwards, only came up with that solution, when the landing pit was changed from a hard surface to a softer surface. In the early 1990’s when FIFA changed the rule that keepers could not pick up a back pass with their hands, it forever changed the position and the skill requirements. Think about how good keepers have to be with their feet and decision-making in the modern game, these incredible skills in today’s keepers would have never developed if it wasn’t for a constraint being add to the rules. When the rules change, perception, actions and solutions are forced to change. Over time training in constraint-based environments will lead to new and unique skill sets in players.

Players Speaking About Unstable Training Environments & Constraints

Below is a quote from Peter Cech talking about the innovative methods he uses with his Goalkeeper Coach.  This is from an article in the “Daily Uk” newspaper.  “This is the way he works.  We try to catch different shape balls, bigger balls or smaller ones because then you need to adapt your hand-eye coordination every time.  Suddenly your brain starts working again.  You can use colors.  Imagine saving the ball but at the same time, a card is held up.  You save the ball and shout the color – you are concentrating on more things.  That makes your peripheral vision better as well.  Your brain is working much more than just with a simple catch.  He is always searching for new things to bring it further, to be more efficient and try to make things happen for a goalkeeper to progress even at the highest level.  I keep using a table tennis robot that shoots ping pong balls out.  You have to catch it with one hand so it gives you a completely different hand-eye coordination.  Then, when you have both hands facing one football, everything becomes easier.” 

Later Cech would speak about how he would use movements to save a ball in a real game that he would not have done, unless he had explored those movements in unstable training environments that he described above.

Reyna commented on his own development, crediting a unique playing environment that helped mold him into one of the best players the United States has ever had; “For anyone who remembers those fields, there was dirt, rocks and even glass, it was by far the worst field I ever played on, and I played more games on it than any other field. There was constant soccer there.  Sometimes it was a dust bowl, sometimes it was frozen and the ball was bouncing every which way, as difficult as it was, you had to have your head up to play.  That and playing with older players all the time developed me at a more rapid pace.” 

Simple Ways to Change Perception in Team Training

Center Line

Constraints: The rule is simple in this game. In the attacking 1/3 players can’t pass or cross the ball forward breaking the dividing line in the middle (dotted pink line), it must be played square or backwards if the ball crosses the middle line, unless the player is shooting. Shooting forward that breaks the middle line is allowed. This one simple rule changes perception in the attacking 1/3 radically. The field and the numbers can vary in this exercise.

Soccer Intelligence: The game is great for getting players to find feet in the attacking 1/3. It forces players and their teammates to think one or two steps ahead in their positioning and decision-making.

Triangles & Angles

Constraints: No square passes are allowed. No straight forward balls are allowed. All forward passes must be played on an angle. Back passes must be 1-touch only.  2-touch limit for all other passes in the game. The game is 9v9+1 as the “+” player is on the team in possession.

Soccer Intelligence: Players must think fast, making a decision before the ball arrives to them. The perception of the game is changed by the constraints, causing the players to seek out flexible solutions to problems, these solutions are often much different than the solutions the player would normally choose. The other beneficial part is that game based trainings have all the real game couplings and cues, meaning the transfer of information to the real game is already present.

Think Quick Play Quick

Constraints: On the steal the player is allowed 2-Touches, then the next 2 – 3 passes (based on level) have to be 1-Touch, once all the 1-touch passes are completed the team is allowed free-play for the rest of that possession.

Soccer Intelligence: In order to connect two or three 1-Touch passes in a row off the steal is not easy to do. Players must adopt smart body positions before receiving the ball, as teammates need to look to find space. Speed of thought is extremely important as the luxury of time is taken way, the game can no longer be perceived in the same way. This simple constraint aids in building solutions and soccer intelligence.

Two Ways Forward

Constraints: Move the ball forward by dribbling only. Passing is allowed square or back only. Shooting forward is allowed.  The game is a 7v7+1 & Keepers in a 60 x 60 Yard Field.

Soccer Intelligence: The game forces players to advance the ball forward by dribbling or running with the ball. The perception of the game is changed but all the couplings and cues of a real game are present – transfer is present. Soccer intelligence is built by forcing players to find new solutions to deal with the constraints.

This is a really simple example of a set-up for finding fast short rhythm in passing with partners. There are tons of variations ways to use the set-up. I would do it as a simple warm-up, but there is a connection to high-tempo passing that transfers to finding solutions in tight areas. The player is forced to become comfortable with short passes at high speeds while finding a teammate. I say warm-up because it is further removed from being game representative but still links to ideas of solutions in tight areas by creating an unstable training environment that players are not used to. Try 1-touch only as quickly as you can in this maze as the group stays connected.

The next part of the puzzle is tying in these unstable environments into your current methodology – periodization plans – micro cycles – macro cycles.

I have posted before but it to help make sense of how to use constraint-based training methods in team settings that relate to a game model.

Training Session Design: I view the coach as an artist who creates game representative environments, where players develop and improve. The training session does not have to be rigid, timed, loaded with pre-determined coaching points, or follow some small to large progressions, that end with goals and keepers. I prefer a training session that is flexible, one that can flow in the direction that feels right in the moment. If my team comes to training and the energy level is low, maybe I switch up my entire warm-up, making it really competitive or super physically demanding, just to wake the team up. If the team is doing really well in one exercise, I might let them continue for twice the time I had planned, add in some conditions, and let it go. Maybe the team did well, so I skip the second part of the planned session and go a new direction. The important thing is that I have the option to go any direction, based upon the real-time feedback in that session, that is what flexibility is all about.

I intentionally left out objectives, time limits, grid sizes, and coaching points from the session planner. Instead, there is simply a place to write notes, and fill in your ideas the way you want. Each session is about an idea or bunch of ideas, but where exactly those ideas lead is up to the coach, the team, and the environment. At the end of each session, there is a place to write observations, variations, and any new ideas that might have come about during the training. Each coaching situation is different and nothing ever stays the same, so it is important to consider the following when designing a training session – workload, current fatigue levels, time until the next match, confidence levels, and any other factors that may have an impact on the session.

My own training sessions revolve around representative game design. In simple terms this means, does it look and feel like soccer, does it involve real game cues, and does it involve all phases of the game. The closer my ideas are to whole versus separated things into parts, the better. There will always be the debate just how representative is enough, ultimately that is up to the coach. One example would be a rondo exercise, I view many rondos as a “whole” exercise, with all four phases of the game included, it is game representative with real cues and coupling. I am not saying that you can’t do some technical exercises in trainings, but in general the game is about meaningful decision-making, and the best way to accomplish that in my opinion is through game-based, game representative environments.

Color-Coded Session Planning

Below is the color-coded system I developed for my own training session design. It may help provide you with some initial structure for your session designs.

Color-Coded Session Planning Summary

The blue sessions are very flexible and do not have to relate directly to the game model. They will relate to general principles of play, but these sessions are an empty slate to create the environments you wish. The blue sessions are really where we great the unstable training environments that are fraught with constraints. The red sessions are more tactical and focused on the game model for the next match. They most likely will cover things like a high-press, low-block, building out of the back versus the opponent for the weekend. The red days are more like phase of play days but can be combined with blue days. The green session is a fitness component. I would have a rough idea of how to add variability into your team’s fitness, how you will adjust over the weeks, months, and season. The yellow day is simply a match review day, confidence builder, fun, and energy day. Depending on your age level, number of trainings, and match schedule, the color-coded system can be adapted to fit your specific needs.


Enjoy the planner and be an artist. Be flexible and in the moment with your team. Don’t worry about time limits or what other people think a training session should look like. If you can create great learning environments, players will develop. In a sport where so many coaches preach about the need to develop creative players, how about the need to produce creative coaches who are encouraged to have original thoughts and opinions? I’m starting to notice a generation of robots when it comes to soccer coaching, a profession that is now leaning more towards the domain of a math class, where a linear pathway is being taught. My problem is that soccer is not like math class with one correct answer, and a limited number of ways to get the answer. Scoring a goal can be done a million different ways, and to treat soccer like an academic subject is a slippery slope. I won’t even start with potentially how to measure the success of a coach either, because the game of soccer is unpredictable and chaotic. The story of what is successful and what is not, would be too long a debate for my session planner. However, I will leave you with my interpretation of success in terms of session design – did the players make a lot of meaningful decisions in a game representative training, did they have to adapt to be successful, did they have enough success, was what they experienced easily transferable to the match, did they have fun and want to come back? And from the coaches perspective, did you get to step out of feeling like a robot in a classroom, did you step into a real-time feedback loop with your team, having the flexibility to go with them any place the session showed it needed to go, not having to force-feed some pre-planned coaching points and objectives, rather being allowed to flow with flexibility in the session. Be an Artist, have original thoughts, and act on your ideas, why should creativity and freedom only be for players? Be an artist. Below is page 1 of a 2 page sample that is in the session planner.