As the Asian Cup approaches, Australia has plummeted to its lowest ever FIFA world ranking. So much for being the best in Asia – Australia aren’t even in the top ten nations in the confederation. 94th in the world, 11th in Asia. It doesn’t make for pretty reading. That the Young Socceroos have failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup adds to the sense of doom and gloom. It’s the perfect time to have a debate on the direction of Australian football.

But any debate about the direction of Australian football must be first based on a clearly defined and objective frame of reference, or else it’s just noise. Once everyone is on the same page, then the debate can move onto the nuances and contexts involved.

Let’s take, for example, the debate about which is the best approach to developing players: the ‘Holistic’ approach or the ‘Isolated’ approach. This is a debate of application more than it is a verbal debate. Visit your local field during the football season and you will see a variety of training approaches.

Before we have a debate about the Holistic approach versus the Isolated approach, we need to define what ‘training’ is. In Football Federation Australia’s advanced coaching resource, The Football Coaching Process, training is defined as “to prepare the players for the match.”

On page 12, the documents explains: “‘Training’ only exists because there is a ‘Match’; we train to become better when we play matches, and we measure the effectiveness of Training by evaluating performance in matches.”

Preparation for “the match” can either have a short-term or a long-term focus. For example, Western Sydney Wanderers’ training will have the purpose of preparing to win their upcoming match against Al Hilal. But for the U-6 Emus, or even an elite U-14s side, the purpose of training is to prepare the players for the matches in the future – to ensure they have the right tools to be successful senior players. Understanding the purpose of training in its context allows a better conversation about which approach to training is more effective.

The Isolated approach to training is based on the view that technique underpins every action in football. That without sound technique, the player cannot be successful. In order to improve, technique is broken down into smaller components and mastered through repetition before being applied in a game situation. The Isolated approach is also characterised by ‘direct instruction’ from the coach, i.e. “coach saying” and “player doing”’.

The Holistic approach to training differs because it says the concept of ‘technique’ cannot be isolated from its football context. Football involves technical, tactical, mental and physical components and, instead of improving technique through isolated drills without resistance, it should be improved by playing a series of modified games. And instead of telling the player what to do, the coach uses questioning in order to guide the player towards discovering the solution to the football problem themselves.

So if the purpose of training is to improve the match, doesn’t it make sense to keep a match-like environment intact?

In his book Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching, Eric Jensen states that 99% of all learning in non-conscious. Children and players learn by being exposed to a particular environment and that “simply absorbing an experience is invaluable to the learning process as the brain expands its perceptual maps.”

A study by Marco Aguiar, Goreti Botelho, Carlos Lago, Victor Maças and Jaime Sampaio found that training is more effective when it is Holistic. That is, Holistic training achieves better learning outcomes when it matters – the match. Research by David Kirk and Ann McPhail from Loughborough University has shown that players who trained using the Holistic approach score better in tests of tactical knowledge when compared to players who trained in an Isolated approach. Perhaps most importantly, Stephen Harvey from Leeds Metropolitan University, discovered that children find games-based training to be more enjoyable than isolated skill drills.

Tom Byer, a respected youth technical coach, explained to Leopold Method: “It’s like sending your kid to an advanced course in mathematics when you haven’t given them the class for adding and subtracting.

“Here in Australia, again, very typical of most other federations, they have what they call the ‘Discovery Phase’ where they believe that between [ages] six and nine – and they characterise players at that age as having a lack of motor skills, lack of concentration, being clumsy, lack of focus – they believe that basically [to] kind of cede and give up on that age group and believe that it should be much more geared towards fun games related to football.”

But despite this common misconception, when applied properly, particularly during the ‘Discovery Phase’ (ages six to nine), the Holistic approach does not neglect technique. It merely says that technique should be learned with the football context intact.

“One of the mistakes is, that people think that the Holistic approach is against skills, or that it neglects skills for tactics,” Professor Richard Light of Federation University Australia told Leopold Method. “But it doesn’t. It’s a ‘whole’ approach.”

In FFA’s National Curriculum, an example of Isolated training is given, with the objective of improving dribbling. Using the Isolated approach, the example given is of a player improving their dribbling technique by slaloming in and out of cones.

Using the Holistic approach, dribbling technique can also be improved, but with the football context intact. Take the fun game of ‘Shark’ as an example.

“When I take a lesson, normally with a low [ability] level of students, I will ask ‘what did you do to learn dribbling?’ almost 100 per cent of the answer is to dribble around the cones,” said Professor Light. “The question then is ‘what relevance does that have to the game?’ What I would do is pick an appropriately sized grid, with a small number of players, one ball each and ask them to dribble around the space.

“If they’re not moving and exploring, maybe put a stipulation on: like you’ve got to touch each boundary once. They’re still [learning] that basic dribbling skill, and you can still stop them and ask them or tell what they should do, but they’re moving around in a context where there are other people in it. So they’re looking for space, they’ve developed game awareness of their environment and they’re making decisions. Pretty low level decisions, but they’re still decisions.”

This player in the ‘Discovery Phase’ has to execute the technique of dribbling while having to make decisions. If the defender/‘shark’ is here, where should I move the ball and position my body? If there is a crowd of people, I need to keep the ball close to me. If I go too fast, I’ll lose control of the ball. If I go too slow, I’ll get caught.

As they become better, different resistances are added or adapted. These include reducing the size of the grid, adding a second ‘shark’, setting a rule that you can only dribble with your left or right foot, and so on. If it is too difficult, a coach can similarly reduce or remove resistances. The coach’s role, particularly at a younger/developmental age group, is therefore about creating an environment that allows a player to learn through experience.

“This whole foundation, the Discovery Phase, is crucial [for a player’s development],” outgoing Assistant National Technical Director Kelly Cross told Leopold Method. “What Han Berger and I believed, and the approach we took to the Discovery Phase in terms of the exercises we developed, was for the message to the parents to be ‘don’t coach’.

“Not only are you not qualified to coach, you actually shouldn’t be coaching – let them play. So that ‘Discovery Phase’ approach, where the kids just have fun exercises and encouraging them to not intervene, actually suits that [grassroots] market. But for whatever reason, people think they’re Alex Ferguson because they’re standing on the sideline…”

However, this does not necessarily mean the Isolated approach is incorrect. It means the Isolated approach does not best fit into the framework and definition set about what ‘training’ is. It still plays a vital role in player development, just in a different setting to ‘training’.

This is where the role of practice comes in. Separate to training, a player can practice, either with their mum or dad, brother or sister, with friends or by themselves. Byer is a big advocate of nurturing technique in isolation from ages as young as two and three.

“I got married quite late in life when I was 42, we had our first child when I was 46, and I wanted to see what I could actually do with my own kids,” Byer said. “I was doing a big event for one of my sponsors and because of my media presence in Japan, I was signing autographs for these very tiny little balls, and my first son Kaito had just started walking and a light-bulb went off in my head: small ball, small foot.

“I ordered 16 of these little balls to my house from my sponsors, and I put three or four balls in every room in the house. From day one, what I did was, when my boy would go up to address the ball, I would discourage him from kicking it and I would encourage him to do what we call ‘ball manipulation’.

“And from that experiment so to speak, is where I developed for these last several years, this whole concept and really figured out there’s a bit of a black hole in football development, and what happens is that two, three, four, five and six year old age group is completely ignored by the professionals and by the federations.”

The role of a football federation is to oversee and regulate organised football competitions, and in truth, these younger age groups are ignored not because they are not important, but because they don’t fall under the scope of their operations. But practice for these age groups and above, is still beneficial to their individual technical development.

After all, David Beckham became one of the best free-kick takers in the world by practicing, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s quest to become one of the greatest attackers ever wasn’t hindered by staying back after training to do extra shooting practice.

These different perspectives of the debate, and the value of both Isolated and Holistic approaches, fit clearly into place only after a clearly defined and objective frame of reference is set. Terms have to be defined first before engaging in discussions over whether they are valid. Only then will discussion and debate on the direction of Australian football prove to be productive.