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MatchPlay Cards at Watford Football Club

Updated: Jan 15

Ranked inside the top 50 of the Academy Productivity for 2021, Watford FC Academy has had a long and 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.


Using MatchPlay Cards© in the Foundation Phase curriculum and the Category 1 Premier League Games Programme, Academy Coach, Paul Barry shares the impact of using MatchPlay Cards© to challenge players in games and support players to be more adaptive...


"I'm a big advocate of MatchPlay Cards© they a really effective and visual aid to support players to interact, it gives them variety" adding that when it comes to game days, MatchPlay Cards© are added to connect players with their position; "I use a tactics table and then assign a MatchPlay Card to each individual player, choosing cards that link to their individual development plans and where they'll play on the field."


Delivering a heavily games based programme that is representative of the demands of the game,

Paul explains how he uses adds MatchPlay Cards© in sessions to connect players with Watford FC curriculum themes; "I set 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."


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?



MatchPlay Cards© presents 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. Paul adds that when it comes to preparing players for the future game; "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".


Challenging players to share information on the run and detect changes in the opposition to influence their own decision making and game plan, Paul used extra MatchPlay Cards© in the game; "At random moments through the mini-games, a players name would be called where they would have run to run across and select 1 of 3 MatchPlay Cards that would then represent their team challenge for the remainder of the game"


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

"There's a lot of ownership and strategy on players when we add in secret missions and challenges for them to identify in the game"


Reflecting on the role of the coach in selecting MatchPlay Cards©, Paul explains his thinking

"Sometimes, less is more when it comes to selecting cards, you can provide too much challenge and it is about pitching it at the right level and selecting the right amount of cards."


Using MatchPlay Cards© regularly, players learn to adapt and find innovative solutions to problems during the game, develop self-aware and self-reflective players as Paul explains


"It's not always coming from us as coaches to present the challenge, we give players the responsibility to swap cards and provide peer to peer feedback. It may be the centre forward and the centre back or the right midfielder and right defender. It is a smart way of getting them to reflect upon their performance in the game"


"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

Using Reflection MatchPlay Cards© to plan 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 as Paul explains with the Watford FC U9/10s...


"At the end of sessions, there are Reflection MatchPlay Cards© faced down next to their water bottles, turning them over to relieve the answer and allowing a moment of self-reflection before sharing with the wider playing group to generate dialogue and thinking."


Watford FC Academy delivers a mixed age group approach whereby each phase (Foundation, Youth Development and Professional Development) are considered as one squad rather than separate. The mixed-age groups allow for more coaching interactions and the added challenge of players playing with different ages as they develop.


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MatchPlay Cards are underpinned by the Constraints Led Approach (CLA), connecting individuals, the environment and tasks 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.






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