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Games within games at Watford FC

Updated: May 30

Watford FC Academy has a rich history in developing players with an academy programme that values the game, supports players to make in-game decisions and develops not only the footballer but the person as well. Foundation Phase Coach, Paul Barry takes us inside his session with MatchPlay Cards...


How long into a session until players are making decisions is a big question for us, players wouldn't wait 30 minutes into a game to make a decision, would they? Challenging boys within minutes of arriving at the session, they are tasked to line up beside each other from tallest to smallest within 30 seconds against the in alternating bibs, forming the two teams for the session ahead.


Setting up three pitches, each with a different dynamic to them in the form of 1) Normal-sized goals - match with GKs 2) Small pitch - mini goal at each end 3) Wide pitch - 2 mini-goals at each end, as players arrived at their pitches they discover the MatchPlay Card challenge that would be in play for both teams.


MatchPlay Cards present problems to players asking them to gather the information that will influence their in-game decision making, challenging them to plan ahead of time to outthink their opposition. How does your environment challenge players?


"They really made us think... We had to communicate a lot with each other to solve the problems" Watford FC Academy Foundation Phase Player


Within the big game that we would all know as "football", players are playing their own game, finding a way to score more bonus points, adapting on the run, problem-solving and thinking like an opposition player to be one step ahead of the game. What is the game asking your players?


Shaping how players think, adapt and interact with the game MatchPlay Cards are built on 4 principles to create environments that look and feel like the game; 1) Transfer responsibility 2) Ever-changing environment 3) Train above the game 4) Be reflective.


Pressing pause halfway through to level up the games, a players name would be randomly called where they would have run to run across and select 1 of 3 MatchPlay Cards that would represent their team challenge for the remainder of the game. Asking players to share information on the run and detect changes in the opposition to influence their own decision making and game plan.



The focus of psychological skills alongside the technical and tactical are not only for the now but developing players performance capacity for future competition. A connected approach that would look at hourly, daily, weekly and monthly into sessions (microstructure) together with longer-term plans (macro-structure), do you plan your sessions with a behavioural focus? What are the essential skills for future performance?


"MatchPlay Cards are a fantastic tool to encourage divergent thinking in our young players helping them to consider creative ways to solve real 'in game' problems". Watford FC Academy Coach, Paul Barry

Not forgetting the goalkeepers, they were challenged to pick up points alongside in the in-game MatchPlay Card challenges with 1 point = if on winning team, 2 points = clean sheet and 3 points = amazing saves.


Players learn to adapt and find innovative solutions to problems in environments that ask them to make decisions. MatchPlay Cards are underpinned by the Constraints Led Approach (CLA), connecting individuals, the environment and task together to shape and develop the learning experience had by players. Constraints shape the direction and rate of development by delivering the boundaries that players can play within to influence their learning.


"Reflection MatchPlay Cards use age appropriate language and open ended questions to enhance player's curiosity and develop the vital characteristic of being inquisitive". Watford FC Academy Coach, Paul Barry

To finish the session each player at Watford FC U9/10s sits down next to their water bottle (in-line with COVID social distancing), turning over their Reflection MatchPlay Card, allowing a moment of self-reflection before sharing with the wider playing group to generate dialogue and thinking.


Planning moments of reflection into sessions rather than having them as a "nice extra" if you have time creates a learning space for players to capture their thoughts and capture their experiences to make future decisions. How are you checking and challenging learning in your environment? Thinking about thinking!