I was recently lucky enough to attend a coaching masterclass in Norwich, UK, with England under-16 hockey boys head coach Charlie Bannister on small unit play.
I am just a level-one coach so it was a privilege to see this level 4 master coach at work with some of the best young players in the Eastern region.
Small Unit Play is where training mimics game play, but in small units of players – three, four even eight players. Unlike drills and skills it puts players under pressure and helps with quick decision making and team tactics. He suggested that most of a training session should be small unit play.
We watched some incredibly talented youngsters working through unit play while Charlie explained what they were working on. One of the key learning points was about ‘leading’. This basically means getting into a good position to receive the ball and it’s one of the biggest challenges I personally face on the pitch. In the heat of match play it can be tough to work out exactly how and where to position yourself best to be available for a pass. But Charlie gave some real pointers for the basic principles that I have found helpful.
1. If the player carrying the ball is UNCONTESTED then support ahead of ball can lead behind their defenders. In other words if the player you are looking for a pass from doesn’t have any other players immediately on them then you can ‘lead’ high up the pitch – stretching the game out and looking for a pass nearer towards your goal.
2. If the ball carrier is CONTESTED then support ahead of ball must show for the ball (laterally or vertically). In other words, if the player with the ball is under threat from a tackle then you have to make yourself available with a post up in front of them and show with your stick that you want the ball. Get in front of the defenders, block them with your body and post up. Alternatively, you can lead out wide – heading out to the side of the pitch to make yourself available for a pass where there is more space and there are less defenders. Leading out wide means heading out to the side of the pitch. There was a lot of talk of ‘leading out wide’ and ‘leading on the outside’ at the masterclass – and it was the main learning point I took away from the session.
Leading should always be done on the outside of the pitch. When you are making a run to make yourself available for the ball, head out to the side of the pitch first rather than towards the middle. According to Charlie Bannister there is almost always space available when you lead outside and wide. Head to the centre of the pitch and you will more likely be blocked by a defender.
And most importantly – don’t lead too early. Head off too early and you’ll alert the defenders. Wait to the last possible moment and then lead out wide on the outside of the pitch.
After you have made your pass, lead again on the outside.
If you have the ball go at space with pace…
Interestingly, Charlie called the players who were demonstrating over for a debrief (they were all hugely talented under 16 England junior development boys and girls) and suggested that they needed to make sure they were carrying the ball at one o’clock, rather than directly ahead of them. This would increase their vision and passing options.