Pep Guardiola leading an FC Barcelona training session in 2012

Part 3: Using Rondos as a Framework in Training

How to properly implement rondos in your training sessions

Mark Caron
15 min readApr 10, 2024


Several months ago, I wrote the first two parts of this series. The first part was on the value of rondos, and the second was about how rondos can progress into positional games.

Since then, I have attempted to write (and rework) this third installment numerous times. I struggled not for loss of words, but rather having too many. After all, the topic of creating a training environment is broad and deep and has its fair share of nuance.

So instead of regurgitating an entire coaching education course, I’m going to move rather quickly through some of the basics of creating a fun, safe, player-centric training environment—assuming you already have a solid understanding of this process.

If you’re relatively new to coaching, I recommend starting with Coach Toph’s Principles of Good Coaching series to gain additional insight into some of the ideas presented below. It would also be worthwhile to sign up for US Soccer’s free intro course, and then register for one of their grassroots coaching courses (if you haven’t already).

With that, let’s discuss how rondos can serve as a framework in your training sessions.

  1. Rondos as a framework
  2. Training session structure
  3. Designing a training session
  4. Example training sessions
  5. Exceptions

Rondos as a framework

Since rondos are a basic structure for teaching all of the fundamental concepts directly applicable to a larger system (the game), we can use them—as a framework—to design a training session.

Figure 1.1: A simple 3v1 rondo is a great building block.

By using any of the rondo variations and positional games by themselves or by combining them with other drills, a coach can create activities that build in complexity toward almost any tactical situation on the pitch while also refining foundational skills.

Figure 1.2: Positioning rondos in specific areas on the pitch gives them context.

Situational application of rondos

As I mentioned in the first and second parts of this series, rondos and positional games have situational context to games (see Figure 1.2 above). They can be positioned anywhere on the pitch to provide the necessary context around possession of the ball at the “game center” and its direct and indirect supporting spaces, as we can see in the following diagrams.

Reiterating from part 2 of this series: the game center context of a rondo on the left,
and the direct and indirect supporting spaces context of a positional game on the right.

As I mentioned in part one of this series:

Rondos are a microcosm of the game, representing every fractal or triangle created around the ball carrier. In fact, almost every situation on the pitch can be seen as a rondo.

This idea is particularly helpful when designing a training session.

For instance, we can create a positional game (PPG) that will improve our players’ abilities to build through the middle while utilizing the goalkeeper as a “plus one’’ in maintaining possession, like in the 8v5 PPG below (see Figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3: An 8v5 position play game for central build-up play using a goalkeeper as a “plus one”

In this positional game, the attacking team tries to maintain possession by utilizing the goalkeeper at the bottom and two pivot players in the middle.

Combining with other activities

When rondos and positional games are combined with other activities, they allow a coach to address some of the skills that lie just outside of the rondo’s wheelhouse, like finishing, which Cruyff had so famously quipped.

“Everything that goes on in a match, except shooting, you can do in a rondo.” — Johan Cruyff

I find combining rondos with attacking runs to be particularly useful in practicing breaking the last line of defense as well as practicing defending through balls and making recovery runs (from a high to mid-block).

Figure 1.6: A 4v2 Rondo breaking out to a 3v2 attack on goal.

For example, after a set number of passes within a rondo, the attacking team can break out toward the goal, with the defenders applying pressure from behind, like in the 4v2 Rondo to a 3v2 Breakout in Figure 1.6 above. The coach may even require the line-breaking pass to come from one of the 3 players who are facing forward—as an up-back-through.

Having the rondo as an initial limitation adds a degree of variance and unpredictability that line drills or pattern play cannot—making it slightly more “realistic.” With the attacking team attempting to connect a specified number of passes while under pressure from the opposition, the communication around and timing of their line-breaking pass becomes more difficult.

Combined, situational rondo

A perfect example of a rondo that is situational and combined with another activity, like finishing, is a Three-zone Rondo to a 4v4 Breakout (in Figure 1.7 below).

This zonal rondo is set up near half field as a 3+1v3 rondo in the middle (about 16–20 yards wide by 8–10 deep) and 2+1v1 rondos on either side (each about 8–10 yards square). The defending team lines up as a 4–1, and they are initially restricted to their zones (3 in the middle and 1 on each side), while the attacking team may only create overloads with one additional player moving into each zone at a time.

Figure 1.7: Three-zone Rondo to 4v4 Breakout.

The defenders are allowed to move freely within their assigned zones, but the coach should encourage them to hold their line since the line-breaking pass can come almost at any moment. Not to mention, offside is determined by the bottom line of the rondos (marked by cones or agility poles/sticks)—a limitation required to provide a more realistic sense of spacing during the initial build-up.

After the attacking team connects a few passes between any of the zones, they may then attempt to break the last line, attack 4v4, and try to score on goal as the defenders make recovery runs.

Once the teams get a hang of the rhythm, the coach may lift the zone restrictions, starting first with allowing the defending midfielder to move freely between the zones.

This same activity can even be used to improve the defending team’s ability to pass back to the goalkeeper after recovering possession.

Now that we can see the flexibility of rondos and positional games as a framework, let’s apply this framework to our typical training session structure.

Figure 2.1: Three basic phases of a training session

Training session structure

Applying the rondo-based framework to a typical training session includes three main phases:

  1. Rondo for warm-up, activation, and introduction to the training topic.
  2. Positional game for learning and practicing the solution to the topic.
  3. Training game for applying the learned solution.

You will recognize this structure if you’re familiar with TOVO Academy’s training methodology. I’ll be building on this, so stay with me.

Similarities to Play-Practice-Play

I’ll say the quiet part out loud:

Rondos are compatible with Play-Practice-Play.

Some may consider me a heretic for saying that, but the TOVO structure is compatible with US Soccer’s Play-Practice-Play methodology.

“Are you sure, bruv?” — Isaac McAdoo, Ted Lasso

In fact, both methodologies are rooted in the same player-centric Game Sense approach, which is a sport-specific variation of Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU).


  1. Start with the simplest form of the game as a fun warm-up/activation activity, like a small-sided game (SSG) or rondo that is tailored toward the training topic.
  2. Move to a second activity that invites the players to practice their solutions to the training topic, and where additional complexity is layered in (i.e., more context, more variables, and more pressure according to the age and skill level of the players).
  3. Finish the session with a game that is designed to be as realistic as possible while also encouraging opportunities for the players to repeatedly implement their learned solutions to the topic.

There are other ways to go about integrating a warm-up as well. For example, a coach may choose to alternate intervals of an introductory game with activation or strength, agility, and quickness (SAQ) exercises during the first phase. TOVO does this, and I’ve seen coaches do this within Play-Practice-Play and the Warm-up-Orientation-Learning-Implementation methodology as well.

Now, with that structure in mind (and the methodologies that go along with it), let’s go through the steps of designing a training session.

Designing a training session

When designing a training session, it’s best to move in the following order:

  1. Pick a single training topic (or moment of the game)
  2. Write out our guided questions
  3. Consider the limitations of our training environment
  4. Design our activities
Arrows moving clockwise around a circle with the 4 phases of a game: in possession, loss of possession, out of possession, and gaining possession.
Figure 3.1: The 4 moments of the game (or phases of play)

1) Pick a single training topic

What moment of the game or specific scenario does our team need to work on?

These could be particular topics we’d like to cover in the preseason to acclimate new players to our system, situations to build on leading up to a specific opponent in our next game, or areas for improvement following our last game.

For example:

  • Are we having trouble with build-up play from a goal kick?
  • Do we have a new center back to introduce to the basics of defending as a unit, like pressure-cover-balance or staying organized in a mid-block?
  • Are we not able to create overloads and scoring opportunities in wide areas?
  • Are we having difficulty breaking the last line, staying onside, and coordinating runs in behind the opponent’s defense?
  • Does our upcoming opponent play “Boot Ball”?
  • And so on…

More often than not more than one of these aspects will need improvement every week, especially in youth soccer. But we have to pick just one topic per training session, and avoid overcomplicating the session by coaching “both sides of the ball.”

Sometimes certain topics are related to others, whether that’s across moments of the game (i.e., phases of play) or shared principles, like how attacking an opponent with a high defensive line is inversely related to defending with a high line (and making recovery runs and passing back to the goalkeeper). We choose one to focus on while indirectly sharpening the skills required for the other.

Additional complexity will be introduced, too, if we’re managing our players’ training loads through methodologies like Tactical Periodization. But for now, we’ll keep things simple with a single, isolated session.

“That’s a confusing way to answer that question. Am I wrong?” — Ted Lasso

2) Write out our guided questions

As you may know, asking meaningful guided questions allows our players to practice problem-solving and discover solutions on their own — enabling them to take an active role in their learning.

“Questions enhance the athlete’s ability to make decisions, one of the central goals of empowerment…it is important for coaches to allow athletes to think about questions and help encourage them to answer.” — Lynn Kidman

Begin every planning session by writing out the training topic, the moment of the game, desired actions, and any principles or sub-principles related to the topic. Writing these ahead of time will help us design our training sessions with a better focus.

3) Consider the limitations of our training environment

Next, it’s important to consider the potential limitations of our training environment, like pitch size, availability of an age-appropriate goal, number of available players, field conditions, weather and temperature concerns, etc. Depending on our situation, we may have to get creative to make our training game and other activities as realistic as possible.

Perhaps we’ve been assigned only a quarter of a pitch and a goal for training, which may pose some issues. Whereas having at least half a pitch would make the whole session easier and more realistic, of course.

Figure 3.2: different potential training game orientations using only a 1/4 pitch

When designing a training game on a quarter pitch, we must choose to orient our training game vertically or horizontally (see Figure 3.2 above). Either orientation has its pros and cons.

Which direction we choose would depend on our training topic, the moment of the game we’re attempting to recreate, and the player actions we’re trying to encourage.

  • Horizontal 1/4
    This orientation allows for more width at the expense of providing depth, which is good for working on attacking in the final third or defending in our defensive third since it recreates a relatively realistic “third” in its width-to-depth ratio. It’s also perfect for improving build-up play in our defensive third. Its biggest minus for these scenarios is the lack of pitch lines for reference points. But if we’re practicing on turf, there’s a chance we may have these pitch lines oriented in both directions (though they could be for a younger age group).
  • Vertical 1/4
    This allows for more depth at the expense of providing width and works well when the intent is to build through the thirds or when we’re working on transition play.

Now that we’ve got our training topic, have written out our guided questions and coaching points, and have taken the limitations of our training environment under consideration, we can begin designing our training session.

4) Design our activities

The best way to start designing activities is in reverse order.

  1. Design a training game
    How would we recreate the training topic’s scenario as a game — incorporating all or most of our players—where the desired actions can be easily repeated and incentivized?
  2. Design a positional game
    How can we break down that scenario into a slightly smaller, less complex system with pressure? Plus, how might we decrease the difficulty to allow the players to find success and/or increase it to challenge them as they progress?
  3. Design a rondo
    How can we distill out the fundamental building blocks of that scenario into a smaller activity that is fun, and that will assist in activating the players physically, technically, and intellectually with limited pressure?

When designing each phase, it’s also important to remember:

No laps, no lines, no lectures.

We should also avoid “eLimination games” as Coach Toph mentions in his 4th principle of good coaching. Kids want to play. They want to be active. And we should want them to have a ball at their feet and get as many touches as possible.

“I want the ball! Give me the ball!” — Ted Lasso

Once we have our three activities designed, we flip them back to the proper order so that each phase is a direct progression of its predecessor—building up from the rondo framework.

Next, let’s look at an example training session.

Example training sessions

I’ve mentioned several great potential training topics already, including providing a glimpse into some activities that can improve our team’s ability to attack a high defensive line.

But for this example training session, I’d like to cover a topic that has been fresh on my mind:


Believe it or not, there are some situations where rondos may not be the best tool for the first phase of training. I know that’s an odd statement at the end of a series about implementing rondos in training, but I feel like I owe you the truth.

“Hold my beer.” — Ted Lasso

Please don’t misunderstand me, though.

I’m not changing course or giving in to the misconceptions about rondos — opinions that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I firmly believe that rondos and positional games are the best way to develop intelligent, skillful players who can possess the ball well under pressure. Rondos are incredibly valuable tools. As such, they are the foundation of the majority of my training sessions.

But it shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing type of methodology. We shouldn’t just do rondos at the exclusion of other potential tools that might be valuable. Sometimes we may want some variety, or we don’t have enough time and need to work on certain skills that are better taught with a different activity, like:

  • 1v1 attacking — taking on an opponent by dribbling
  • 1v1 defending—jockeying an opponent dribbling toward you
  • Winning 50/50s (and 2nd balls)
  • Set pieces

I may be missing one or two others, but there certainly aren’t many situations or skills that cannot be taught in a rondo or be combined with a rondo.

Whatever the exception, though, the rondo framework remains the focal point. Even if I depart from a rondo in the first phase, I always try to work my way back to a positional game for the second.

1v1 attacking and defending

On the days when our training topic is about attacking or defending in 1v1 situations, I prefer to begin our session with a simple 1v1 attacking and defending game.

Figure 4.1: A simple 1v1 attacking and defending game, called Battle Box

I find that isolating 1v1s as a game is the best way to develop a player’s dribbling ability as well as their one-on-one defensive skills. Not to mention, any type of 1v1 game that allows players to battle it out is an incredibly fun activation drill.

Then—as I mentioned earlier—I follow this 1v1 warm-up with a positional game that incentivizes skills, like dribbling and/or defending one-on-one. I pair my guided questions and coaching points with the topic covered in the positional game.

Winning 50/50s (and 2nd balls)

With a simple twist on the 1v1 attacking and defending drill above, we could easily improve our players’ abilities to win 50/50s and control any potential rebounds. In this twist, the ball is served to the middle of the grid by the coach, instead of starting at one of the player’s feet.

For headers, trapping, and aerial duals, the first players in each line would start in the middle, where they’d have to battle for the ball being tossed into the grid by the coach. Adding a second player from each side (2v2) would allow for winning both the 50/50 and any potential “2nd ball” (i.e., rebound).

Small-sided games

When our training session is focused on creativity in the attacking third or defensive organization, I often mix in a small-sided game (SSG) for our first phase, like a simple 2v2 or 3v3 small-sided game or the Three Goal Game (as shown in the diagrams below).

On the left, Figure 4.2: a simple small-sided game;
on the right, Figure 4.3: a fun Three Goal Game for attacking and defending.

Beyond adding variety to our training sessions, I find that SSGs are great warm-up games for encouraging creativity as well as teaching and improving defensive concepts like pressure-cover-balance.

Passing patterns and shadow play

If my team is struggling to recognize passing combinations and other patterns of play, I add in a short passing pattern or two between the first and second phases of training. For example, I may start with a rondo or SSG for activating the players on attacking, move into a demonstration of a passing pattern—allowing the players to rotate through these patterns a few times—and then progress into a positional game where they can practice what they learned against some opposition.

The same is true when I’m using shadow play to teach the basics of pressure-cover-balance as well. After starting with a rondo or SSG (e.g., the Three Goal Game above in Figure 4.3), we do a brief amount of shadow play to demonstrate the defensive shapes when pressing, covering, and balancing, both centrally and in the wide areas. Then, we move right into a large zonal rondo or positional game where they can practice maintaining their shape.

I’m going to be honest, though: Passing patterns and shadow play are quite boring. I can rarely maintain my team’s attention for long, and it’s even rarer if they were paying attention the first two times I explained the pattern or movements. This has been my experience with every age group below U15. While U15s and up seem to gain patience each year for these types of activities, I would still keep these moments relatively brief. Our players need opposition to refine their skills. Plus, we don’t want to suck the fun out of the game with boring line drills.

Exception to the exception

With all of that said, if you have time for 4 phases in training, absolutely do rondos every single day.

“Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is.” — Xavi

Make them an arrival activity that ties into the rest of the session or a second activity that leads into your positional game. Use them every day if you can.

Questions, comments, or feedback?

Hopefully, you found this series on using rondos and position play games in training helpful, and if you enjoyed it, let me know with a “clap” or two.

If you happened to miss either or both of the first two parts of this series, check them out:

As always, I welcome any comments or feedback concerning rondos, positional games, and Positional Play (Juego de Posición).