Importance of using differentiation in Coaching 5 – 11.

Importance of using differentiation in Coaching 5 – 11.

  January 21, 2021

I have found from experience over the years, one of the standout challenges for coaches is the ability to apply differentiation with coaching. The same would apply to the delivery of PE when working closely with education, but there are several added factors which make this extremely hard for class teachers to manage effectively.


For the moment I thought it would be insightful to acknowledge how important differentiation is when we strive to help young children be the best they can be and offer some suggestions to how this can be managed as ‘coaches.


What is differentiation?

For any younger coaches that may stumble upon this article, on ‘Google’ differentiation is an “action or process of differentiating or distinguishing between two or more things or people”. When applying this to the context of team sport or group coaching, the term relates to the management of mixed ability learners and the understanding to plan, adjust the session to meet the needs of the group and the stages they are at.


Why is differentiation so integral?

Commonly learners / children / players are now grouped by skill level, so the need to differentiate is lessened due to minimal diversity within the group or team. However, within education the broad diversity with skill level is evident as there are several learners who are not motivated by sport, and there will be some that are very much engaged & inspired by sport. Some will play sport outside of school, many will not.

Additionally, within the context of children’s team sport there are still many grassroots football and rugby clubs that have not yet considered ‘streaming’ or applying ‘player assignment’ policies or processes. Volunteer led clubs have historically depended on parents to work it out themselves at times which means on occasions children find themselves in teams or groups dependent on physicality, or social friendship groups.

Even with the more well-run institutions or clubs, that may have even professionalised to some degree; integrating ‘streaming’ processes and systems does not eliminate the ongoing requirement to differentiate sessions and planning. This is due to the ever-adjusting learning needs of children and the varied rates of progression. There is always some level of differentiation needed, even when working with Professional Academy cohorts or teams!

Differentiation allows learners to grasp the fundamentals of the game more swiftly, and to aid the ongoing development of each child.



The simplest form of appreciation and integration is ‘how’ can I make the lesson / session / activity more difficult? Or ‘what’ can I do to make the lesson / session / activity easier?


Using football as the platform to illustrate key examples of how we can apply this I have offered some suggestions below. The examples outline some ‘conditions’ for increasing or reducing the challenge when coaching higher or lower ability learners within the same group.


  1. Introduce ‘passive’ activities and ‘non opposed’ practices to allow children to grasp key techniques in realistic scenarios.
  2. Allow players additional time before they can be challenged i.e., 3 – 5 seconds in possession.
  3. Introduce ‘safe zones’ so players can enter to gather their thoughts, settle, look up – and assess. The zones can be restrictive so opposition players cannot enter allowing young players to make decisions.
  4. Make areas smaller or larger dependant on the group, skill of the players. Less space will result in more pressured situations allowing less time to problem solve.
  5. Give certain individual conditions or restrictions to players. Limit the number of touches of the ball to ensure the individuals ‘see the picture’ sooner and decision making is more purposeful.
  6. Introduce variation in size of targets or goals to make it easier or harder to succeed.
  7. Change the balance of the group sizes so teams have more players to determine the outcome of the activity, or to simply challenge children. Adding more players or ‘overloads’ can sometimes be effective within activities to encourage positivity and creativity.
  8. Introduce ‘scenarios’ within team games or activities. This helps the learning focus towards strategy or tactics. E, g Your team has a 1-0 lead with 5 minutes to go. How can we protect our lead?
  9. Encourage ‘partial’ realism in that teams / children can intercept – but not tackle.
  10. Introduce ‘magic’ players that can float between both teams. This strategy works well as it helps develop confidence in the ‘magic’ player.
  11. ‘Block’ or ‘lock’ children into certain areas to allow activities to flow, and for less able learners to enjoy and thrive.
  12. Introduce ‘chaos’ and ‘interference’ into games and activities. This can be achieved by having multiple games playing at the same time within the same area. The environment allows children to problem solve, and not be conditioned by traditional rules.
  13. Introduce carousel activities and skill stations; This allow players to enjoy several activities which can be designed with different abilities in mind.
  14. Create different groupings and tiers within sessions (ABC/123), and players can be moved across different groups during the lesson or activity dependant on outcomes, performance & attainment.


Keep safe…



Scott Rimmer (UEFA B)



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