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Dealing with mixed abilities

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

Hi Gary, I coach a team of mixed abilities and my sessions are not on that wave length. Because of the ability of the team I have some really good players, some average, and some not as good. What would you do in this situation and would you separate them?

I’ve been asked this type of question quite a few times in recent weeks and I definitely see the challenge from the perspective of a youth coach, especially when development is such a focal point. It can be an impossible task to give everyone the right amount of time and support, so coaches are faced with somewhat of a conundrum. Do you choose the top players to challenge in the group or do you spend your time focusing on the players that need extra help? Or can you do both? I believe that doing both is certainly attainable but it is definitely more complex and prior planning is required, both in terms of session design and style of coaching. Here’s how I would recommend doing that.

I would resist the urge to put a traditional ‘team training session’ together. By this I mean a pretty generic practice plan where you chose a theme and then go with the same tried and tested exercises to coach it. Depending on how the session is going typically depends on who gets what in terms of instruction. Quite often, good players excel and get praise, while those with lower skill levels struggle to execute technical or tactical functions and get singled out for criticism. For me, this slows the development for both sides, as well as that of the team.

Instead, I would recommend spending time planning the session in a different way. Pick the top three players in your team and look closely at what they need to work on. Design the training session with that in mind, where the exercises will specifically challenge those players to perform at a high level, without the constant attention of a coach. Manipulating space or time is the easiest way to do this. Then, look closely at the session and see where you see problems for the other players. You should get a sense of what specific problems they will face and when they will be under the most pressure. Can you then plan to help those players at that moment? You don’t have to continually stop the session to do this. I’ve seen top level coaches do this without stopping a training session, with one professional coach in particular sprinting 50 yards to catch up with his young right back to give one coaching point as the game was going on.

You can never forget about the top players. You need these players engaged and focused, not just for their own development but for that of your team. When the best players are working hard and competing, they raise the intensity of the practice and the energy levels of everyone around them, including the staff. Below is a short clip from Michael Jordan’s early experience with the Chicago Bulls. The coaching staff obviously had a challenge there with potentially the best player in the world on the roster of a team who couldn’t make the playoffs. Simply by manipulating the teams in practice games, they challenged and helped facilitate Jordan’s competitive drive, which propelled both player and team to a phenomenal level of success.

I’ll also leave you with one experience that I feel is a relevant one. When I met Paul McVeigh a couple of years ago, I posed a similar question to him and asked him how we could get a little more out of certain individuals as it would help the team so much. “We’re out of ideas. We’ve tried everything” I conceded, hoping that Paul would grab that cue and we could engage in a good, old fashioned moaning session about players, attitudes, and how tough it was to get them to do the required work. Instead, Paul moved the conversation in a different direction. “Have you tried this...?” and “What about this....?” he asked, looking to gather as much information as he could before he responded with advice. It wasn’t long before he concluded in a very respectful way. “Well you haven’t tried everything yet have you Gary?” Those simple questions Paul had asked were related to extra work initiated by the coaching staff before or after sessions, reaching out during days off and offering help, and sitting down with the players to see their perspective. That conversation made me think about my approach and challenged me to ask myself some tough questions. Players today do not seem to go out and practice in the way a previous generation did naturally, and sometimes they need a little guidance in how to do it… as well as encouragement when they do commit to it. Taking an extra 10-15 minutes before or after a session is a great way to give time to those players who need it and would be much more powerful than splitting up the group. Hope this helps and best of luck!

Coaches: If you have any questions or issues that you would like me to address in a post, please email me at

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