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March 30, 2022

Differentiation Within Sessions


It’s the problem that 99% of grassroots or recreational teams have when coaching their group. How do you cope with players that are at varying ability levels? However the problem doesn’t just exist there. In any group or team there will players that strive and players that struggle and this could be down to a whole host of reasons. For example:

  • The topic being coached maybe a strength or weakness
  • The player has only just started within the group or sport
  • Injury or illness hampering performance
  • Issues away from the sport maybe affecting performance
  • Issues with confidence or other psychological factors affecting performance

Therefore as a coach we must have strategies to cope with players who need extra support and those that are striving within the session. At Coach Maker+ we offer some support for this by designing the sessions with ways of simplifying to make the session easier or ways of progressing the session to make it harder. However in this blog we want to discuss how we can make the session harder or easier for individuals within the same session to challenge individuals.

Group or Team Planning

During the planning process you can plan for difference. Knowing your players you can split the group accordingly to stretch individuals.

If doing an opposed practice you can challenge those you know will strive by putting them in a situation where there is more opposition against them (creating an underload). This will challenge them by giving the opposition more players to solve the problem whereas the striver needs to use their ability at a higher rate. This strategy also gives those that may struggle more players to give them more support and confidence. You can start with 1 extra player and increase it until you find the balance or competitiveness.

If doing some small sided sessions (1v1/2v2) you can plan opponents that would stretch each other. Putting opponents against one another that would stretch and test their abilities. You can then increase the difficulty and adjust space as required in each group to make it easier or harder.

If your session is a technical unopposed practice then placing the strivers together and strugglers together will allow you to progress when the group is ready. This will benefit all players by allowing them to progress at their own rate. As above you can then play around with challenges or space/distances to stretch individuals.

Challenges for individuals

Here we have to think about age appropriate challenges and the style of play for the player. Putting a young player (aged 5-11) on touch restrictions takes away decision making and technical development whereas it maybe a strategy with older players. Here are a few examples of challenges you can use – it’s up to you which ones you use with your players (or even better come up with your own!):

  • A player is only allowed to take 1 touch or more than 4 – promotes scanning skills for your strivers to make decisions before ball has arrived. Forces a player to dribble if they haven’t scanned which gives opportunities for players to get closer and tackle.
  • Time limit in possession – rather than a touch limit which is restrictive, a time limit on individual possession allows players to dribble or pass.
  • Touch limit in possession – this strategy does work however tends to be with older players as it does restrict decision making by removing dribbling.
  • Weak Foot challenge – stretching a player to use their weak foot, either the whole time, to pass, to dribble, to shoot or to receive forces individual development whilst potentially balancing how much a player strives.
  • Add Neutral Players or Magic Player – These players can play for both teams, you can have the rule where they can’t be tackled but must be played through to score. This helps strugglers to be involved or injured players returning a less physical return.

In Game Strategies

We have already discussed how you can plan for games by giving strivers less players and managing what the teams are, however we have always had situations where this doesn’t work. Therefore here are some strategies you can use within games that would challenge the strivers and therefore make the players who are struggling gain more support:

  • The same player can’t score twice in a row – thus making those that dominate scoring think about sharing this around.
  • Every player must touch the ball before you score – this ensures 1 player doesn’t dominate.
  • Attacks must start from the goalkeeper – once possession is regained the team must work the ball back to the goalkeeper before attacking. This gives the opposition more chances to win the ball back and more risk for the striving team.
  • You can only ever lead by 1 goal (1-0, 2-1, 3-2 etc) – this prevents the score line from ever being too high, makes the team winning work on defending a lead by either maintaining possession or by defending well.

As with all of the above the lists are not exhaustive so come up with your own. That’s the best thing about coaching – trying something! If it doesn’t work then don’t use it again, and if it does then you have another tool to use.


Managing difference is such a complex and difficult situation. However there are several strategies you can use to continue to develop those that strive within the group or with a certain topic, whilst also allowing those that struggle with the session to develop at their own rate and feel as important. From planning for difference to then assessing and having strategies to add in within sessions, hopefully the above will help support you as a coach. Don’t forget though, try and invent your own too – we ask our players to try things so give it a go yourself.