Within every drill is a game trying to shine through, writes Dr Ed Coughlan

Drills are games in captivity. When coaches meet, invariably at some point in time during their conversation, one will ask the other the age-old question: “Do you have any good drills?”

‘Do you have any good drills?’ is the same type of roll-off-the-tongue question that we do as we pass an acquaintance on the street and flippantly inquire, “How are you?” Often we don’t expect anything in response beyond an equally flippant “I’m grand. Yourself?” However, sometimes you’ll be stopped in your tracks with something more, something enthralling.

Where coaches are concerned, this could result in standing on the side of the street for the next 50 minutes, where passers-by will look on in bemusement as two adults, oblivious to outside attention, act out the moves of multiple people with elaborate hand signals and gestures that not even the Enigma code-breakers could figure out.

The intensity and interest with which coaches share information is what makes the coaching community a wonderful space to be in. The support you get from coaches whether you win, lose, or draw is different and special because they know, unlike anyone else, what you’re going through on each occasion.

Most coaches have an inherent thirst to learn and appreciate that the best way to learn is often to offer up something to someone else and see how it’s received. There is also an unspoken trust among coaches who are prepared to try, and fail, and try again that when one puts something out there for discussion and debate that it will be given appropriate attention and not discarded easily.

The fact is that though we might hope to learn within the safe confines of our own head, until you put it out there for others to challenge and contribute, the full potential of a concept will never be fully discovered. A lot like the pain of suffering a heavy defeat, it will stand to you in the long run if you can learn from it; so long as you learn from it.

I have been guilty in the past of some quite disparaging comments of the mere mention of the word drills in skill-based sports. But recent conversations of my own with coaches whom I truly respect for the manner in which they go about their business have softened my vitriol somewhat.

It appears that though many of us share a philosophy on how to coach, the terminology used is different and may in fact at times be saying the same thing. A lot like the use of the term press-up instead of push-up, or chin-up instead of pull-up.

In recent times, I am reminded of how I learned from a legendary coach that within every drill is a game trying to shine through.

Nowadays I stand firm on my philosophy that how we train should look and feel like a game at all times and that the rules and constraints that underpin these games should be tailored to the level of the players in front of you.

But I forget how long it took me to get to this place when I chat with coaches who continue to press for a more prescribed approach to what they do. Not to mention the challenge it must be for players who may have been coached for a significant part of their playing career in one way to have to change and adapt to the way of another. How long does this transition take? How long is a piece of string? Is it harder for the coach to adapt their methods or the players to adapt to a new method coaching? Who knows? I certainly don’t. One thing is for sure: It takes time. I have no doubt that time will be reduced if the engagement and inherent interest by all involved is high. But also if the transition is made more palatable.

Getting technical: A game hiding in a drill

The following is an example of a game hiding in a drill. It played a significant part in my own transition from coaching through showing and telling to coaching through constraints and affordances.

The classic A-B-C passing drill is set up traditionally with three lines of players standing 20m apart. For this example, let’s assume that there are 10 players in each line. Each player in line A has a partner in line B and their triplet is completed by a third player in line C. Before the drill begins every player in line A has a ball at the ready and as soon as everyone knows who their team of three are, the ball moves from the player in line A, to their teammate in line B, and on from there to their teammate in line C. It either goes back through the lines from C to B to A or over the top from C to A before commencing again.

In my opinion this is a perfect example of a drill. Players are told what to do, when to do it, and to whom to do it. For the most part people may argue that it’s pretty harmless. But in the spirit of what we know — scenarios in training that best reflect the match situation are more likely to transfer at game time — it is critical to release the game trapped within this drill.

Especially when most competitive situations are often described as chaotic, because the very basis of competition is to win, so the job at hand is to do something that your opponent is not expecting.

The fascinating thing about gamifying drills is that once you start the process you quickly realise it is endless for how it can be manipulated, changed, added to, and made more challenging for the players to experience the unpredictability of a match in training.

So to begin deconstructing the A-B-C drill consider the following constraints.

  • Once a player on any line passes the ball, for example A to B, player A must immediately move to another spot along their line so that when the ball comes back through player B, they have to scan line A to find their teammate.
  • Next, consider the effect of allowing the players to skip a line to induce a state of readiness; A to B and back to A again. A to C and so on.
  • Next, have the players choose when they swap lines, when the players in line A become the players in line B, and so on. Mind you, this doesn’t have to happen in unison — maybe some teams of three will swap lines, others will not.
  • Next, consider the impact of having to face the other way before turning only when your name is called. Imagine the cacophony of sound to overcome to maintain focus and concentration on the task at hand.
  • Next, consider bunching each line into a confined space out of which they must run to receive a pass from their teammate — chaos personified.
  • Next, consider the chaos of allowing players turn over an incoming pass from another group or merely disrupt the play, though never at the expense of been available for your own pass.
  • Next, consider applying a scoring system for successful plays completed to induce speed of movement and thought.
  • Next, consider translating the concept to an actual match situation and hopefully, the realisation that the constraints and rules in the drill setting can still be applied in the game situation, never to return again.
  • Finally, consider letting it fail spectacularly as the players figure it out. Resisting the temptation to wade in, instead choosing to put the stopwatch in the pocket and appreciate that through the tough times of learning and transition, some things are best left evolve at their own pace.

Your patience and courage to try something new will be rewarded.


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