The importance of a coaching vocabulary

From the Archive - Issue 17, May 2015 by Gérard Jones, MSc

Choice of words

Coaching is as much about the words you use and how you use them, as it is the practices you create and how the session activities link the learning to what the players will be assessed on come match-day. It’s my opinion that we need to understand as coaches and players the importance of communication, and how clarity in the words we use, link to the playing philosophy (game-style) of how we want our teams to play. Often in coaching, coaches will use ‘phrases’ or ‘buzz-words’ that have no relevance to the decisions they want the team to make when in possession, out of possession or in transition. Equally, players’ themselves can often be found to use words that are similar to words used by the coach, yet different which can cause confusion in the team when defending if one player says “Hold” and another says “Stand”….what does this mean?

The whole point of our communication is to bring clarity to the message being transferred. It’s for these reasons why it is vital coaches invest time in planning and detailing what type of words they will use in each coaching session, specific to the learning focus of the session (whether you are working on team defending, or counter-attack etc) and how this relates to each individuals needs and challenges.

Coaching Vocabulary is vital

If your playing philosophy is possession based, then the words you use must encapsulate the decisions the players will be faced with by playing this way, otherwise how will you be able to feedback to them when they’re doing it correctly? You can’t. I often used words such as “Start-again”, “Play-round”, “Balance”, “Break-lines”, “Holding-Space” and many others when we are in possession, and equally when we are out of possession, I will use game-calls such as “Press”, “No Turn”, “Hold”, “Recover” and so on. What’s so important is that the players themselves understand what each game-call means when used, and how it applies in that specific situation as these are the words they will use to communicate to each other on the pitch.

This can only come from creating game-based practices that are directional, purpose driven, involve competition and are ideally area-specific to the area you are working on. Often in coaching, players will be involved in drills and activities that don’t actually happen in a game. Instead, if coaches are to encourage accurate and intelligent decision making, then the players need to be exposed to ‘chunks’ of situations that actually happen in the game, on the area in which it occurs. So if you want your centre-half to recognize when to start-again with the goalkeeper, the practice may be designed with striker pressure around a relevant area of the pitch within your philosophy. If you want your midfielders to have “Balance” then you may create a 3v3 in the centre-pitch where the possession game allows for realism in terms of balance, so that your midfielder know where they need to be.

Independent thinking footballers

Once you’ve created a coaching vocabulary, and are encouraging players to use these terms in the game-activities you create in sessions, then you will start to develop independent decision makers. We need more of them in football. The idea of players doing as the coach says, by responding to his shouting on the sidelines is not only ‘old-hat’ but very detrimental to youth and senior player development. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for the odd instruction, because there still is. But if coaches are constantly instructing players when to “Start-again”, when to “Press” and so on, we are taking away the decision for them. How can they then understand the reason’s ‘WHY’ to press in this situation and so on.

It’s important that coaches develop ‘higher-level thinking skills’ and not low-level thinking skills. This is linked to how we ask questions, and how we provide feedback. The real detail is by empowering the players themselves to use game-calls in game-situations. For example, players shouting “Tom Start-again” or “Joe Press” and so on, will not only develop team ownership and unity, it will also allow the players to take charge of there decision making. Here they may say “Start-again” when it’s on to “Play-forward” and that’s fine, they will learn through trial and error and trial and success, when it’s right and why!

The whole concept of using game-calls is to encourage players to demand, retain and regain possession of the ball more, understand what we mean when we say “Balance” and so on, and for them to identify and communicate solutions to each other that paint ‘pictures’ in the minds of the players, on when to play forward, when to delay and so on. By encouraging game-calls and linking everything we do with players back to our vocabulary, we are naturally allowing the players to not only becoming ‘thinking footballers’ but also ‘play in the future’ meaning, ahead of themselves. They will become clever at knowing how to “Play-round” and when to “Rotate” and what these words actually mean to them!

“With decision making you need to let it evolve and grow” (Rene Meulensteen)


The next level of coaching is the development of ‘individualism’ and how players can become develop through ‘individual specialized coaching’. Often we group the team together in the learning process, and forget the needs of the individual. How can we develop practices that hone in on each individual’s strengths. The key is to focus on one or two individuals within the session and really develop their experiences further, whilst also covering the team aspect of performance. This way, all players are developed and one or two certain players who need specific detail can receive their coaching.

Each session or every week or so you may work with a different pair, and consider how you can facilitate the learning of different game-calls (decisions) for each player. Some players will be able to take on board more information as they’ve already consolidated the learning and moved onto the next focus. Others will still be with the initially learning outcome. Below is a learning model taken from the FA Advanced Youth Award that coaches can introduce in their coaching.

1st Stage of Introducing a Game-call

“Connect” – you introduce the game-call by showing what the game-calls means through a visual demonstration that uses players in the situation the call applies to.

2nd Stage of Introducing a Game-call

“Activate” – this is where the players will start to develop their understanding of the game-call through discussion with peers and the coach, which could be through Question and Answer techniques. For example, the coach may say, “Why would you start-again here?” or “If I were to play backwards here, what’s the problem? In this situation, is this the right time to Start-again?”. Here the coach can discuss with the players when to use a call and why.

3rd Stage of Introducing a Game-call

“Demonstrate” – this is where the players have a go! It’s vital that the coach observes and allows the players time to make up their own decisions and experiment with the game-call (when to do it and why). In doing so, they can understand the call and its importance and relevance to the game.

4th Stage of Introducing a Game-call

“Consolidate” – this is one of the most important areas of learning, where the players still have to make sense of what they’ve learnt, apply it in games, and experiment with it more.

Notice how each component within the Learning Model has two arrows going forwards and backwards. This is to signify that at some stage of coaching game-calls with your players, you may need to go back to “Activate” in order for them to have another go or return to the “Demonstrate” stage, because they may still not quite get it. This is the case for all skills and detail in coaching, not just communication.

The ability to use your coaching vocabulary with a challenge is key. For example, if I want my players to react to rebound opportunities I must first clarify what a rebound means to me in the context I see it. By allowing the players to practice what a rebound means, for example attacking a ball to shoot at goal which has been deflected off a defender or attacker or saved and parried by the opposition goalkeeper. In training I have shown this in a picture similar to the examples above when driving and sliding and so on, and set a clear challenge “Try to score from rebound opportunities when presented” with me stating that if they score from normal play, they score one goal, however if they score from rebound opportunities they score two goals. Immediately this encourages more driven and powerful shots that increase the chances of your team scoring and when they don’t score on the initial shot, it improves your team’s reactions to attacking the rebound opportunity and scoring. As a reward of two goals, psychologically players will look to try and score this type of goal.

This is just one example of how using a key game-call in a training session can be coupled with a challenge and a reward to improve the team’s match performance and help them to understand what you mean when you say “Rebound”.

As a coach try to think of challenges using this example of how you may support the use of “Press” or “Two’s” and so on.

Let’s Talk Soccer

Each of these topics and more are discussed in my book

“Let’s Talk Soccer: Using game-calls to develop communication and decision making in football”

Here, I review how coaches can create a performance profile and link this to their vocabulary, by providing a framework I’ve used over the years as an Academy Coach at Rochdale AFC, former Director of Coaching with Arsenal Soccer Schools and many other roles. Inside Let’s Talk Soccer I also discuss the importance of ‘Programming your work’ across the relevant age-phases (5-11, 12-16 & 17-21+) including how this looking in coaching sessions and games. Finally the book reviews the importance of ‘silence’ in coaching and in playing, as well as how to individualise your coaching and develop players for the future game, which appears to be ‘positionless’.

Available via Amazon in the UK & US and on the iBooks store.

Formats include paper-back and kindle.

  • Instagram
  • Twitter

© 2020 by SOTG Resources

contact us

CAN +1 (226) 377-9705