Once you have worked out how the learning environment that you wish to create, the next step in setting up your first season as manager is working out broadly speaking what your playing philosophy is and how that will affect the sessions you will deliver. Of course I don’t expect young players to pick up anything too complex at this age because their attention span and maturity would not allow for that, but I have found it very helpful to deliver a basic framework within which my players can operate.
I tend to focus on just two of the four phases of play, which has proven to work quite well for my boys. The four phases are of course:
> In possession
> Transition to defend
> Out of possession
> Transition to attack
It is the two transitions that I work with, and build everything on top of, because I believe that they act as a trigger for everything else to follow on from.
20 years in business have taught me the valuable lesson that you should always try to simplify everything you can, and make it as easy to understand as it can be. That lesson is true for adults, but even more crucial when trying to explain football to young children.
Lord Maurice Saatchi, the co-founder of one of the most successful advertising agencies in the world famously said ‘It is easier to complicate than to simplify … simple ideas enter the brain quicker, and stay there for longer’. It is a valuable lesson for coaches I think, because when you think about it advertising and coaching youth football have a few similarities. Saatchi and his company, Saatchi and Saatchi, had to find a way to tell a story for a brand in a few seconds, and to a distracted audience, so simplicity of message is key to be successful.
So with that in mind I describe our team philosophy in just one sentence, which reads “We attack quickly as a team as soon as we win the ball, and we defend quickly as a team as soon as we lose the ball.” Underneath that one sentence is a lot of detail of course, but it is an easy to understand reference that helps the young players understand what is expected of them. I ask the questions “What do we do when we win the ball?” and “What do we do when we lose the ball?” before every match and often during training sessions so it is remembered.
Underneath that framework, there is an attacking principle and a defensive principle.
When we are attacking, we say as soon as you receive the ball get your head up. When you get your head up you only have three choices, pass, shoot or travel. I give my players complete ownership of that decision, and insist that all players respect and encourage each other to that end.
The topline defensive principle is that we are all defenders out of possession; no matter what position you are playing on the pitch today. Our nearest player to the ball (1st defender) at the moment we lose possession must apply pressure to the ball as quickly as possible. The second nearest (2nd defender) covers the first defender, and the other defenders cover and mark.
I find that once I have a clear philosophy on how I want our team to play, and the players understand that, it gives me a great platform to build meaningful training sessions onto and of course inside of the learning environment that we have already created in part one.
I don’t talk about phases of play, zones, or anything else at this stage but the simple attack quickly and defend quickly principles have helped my boys understand how they should play the game.
With all that said, I do not believe that at the younger ages you should be coaching kids from game to game. There are some fundamental skills that every footballer needs, and a good training syllabus will aim to meet those needs before any specific needs that were highlighted in the last match. We will explore planning training sessions in part 4. As an example, I remember a game last season in which our boys totally switched off from a corner, twice, in the same game. We conceded 2 goals, and drew a game 3-3 that we were winning 3-0 at one point. It was frustrating of course, and I thought that with one training session I could have probably improved our defending from corners, so I put on a session on ‘defending corners’ that week in training.
In hindsight, I think that was a big mistake. I think I fell into the trap of coaching mistakes from the last game, rather than focusing on the key fundamental skills that boys need at this age. As youth coaches we get so little time to coach our players each week, and there is so much that we would like them to learn so in the real world we have to have a strict list of priorities that will help the boys in the long term, and not just to win the next game. Was defending corners more important than decision-making for example? Probably not in the long-term.
Personally I believe that results in the foundation phase (ages 5-11) are of secondary importance to the long-term development of the players and by developing players first, you will find that the results will take care of themselves sooner or later. With the defending corners session I fell into the trap of coaching to win a game (short-term), rather than coaching to develop skills (longer-term). I am pleased to say I have learned from that mistake, and have not done so again since, but I was annoyed with myself that I briefly shifted my focus from development to winning.
The winning v development philosophy divides most youth coaches, and I think it is important to understand your own philosophy and be comfortable that you are doing the right thing. My lads are U9 this season, and they are playing 7-a-side football. To illustrate my idea, please imagine a scale that marks where you as a coach sit on the ‘winning now’ v ‘development for the future’ spectrum. On the far left of the scale is number 1, winning now; and on the far right of the scale is number 100; development for the future. This is not to say that some coaches who want to win today as a primary motivator don’t want to develop players by the way, just as some coaches whose primary motivator is to develop for the future want to win today. There is a scale, and every coach is at a different place on that scale.
I would say that today I am around 90% on the scale, as I believe that development of key skills that will last a lifetime is more important than winning a non-competitive game of U9’s on a Sunday. That said, the boys obviously want to win and so do I, but I set up my team for development first, and winning second. In our league, competitive football does not begin until U12’s, and so I have taken that as a benchmark of when to start moving slowly away from development first and more towards winning.
When I watch my boys during a match I am looking out for examples of what we have practiced in training in recent weeks, and if I see training practice being transferred to the game then I am delighted, irrespective of the result. I would obviously prefer to win as well, but it is not the most important thing to me as a coach of eight and nine year old boys.
You can spot the win now coaches a mile away. They get more and more frustrated as the score line moves away from them, shouting louder, and desperate instructions to their kids. Their tone of voice tells the story of their desperation to win, and this often spreads to the parents of that team as well. The ‘win now’ coaches team will often be set up with the best chance to win today, so the kid with the hardest shot is up front and the biggest, strongest players are through the middle. You might also see equal playing time etiquette compromised during a tight game, with the bigger/faster/stronger/older players in the group being used more because the coach thinks they offer a better chance of success today.
When you hear England internationals interviewed, you rarely hear them boasting about the 2-1 U9’s victory they were a part of as kids. In the grand scheme of things, each result at this level is totally insignificant to that player’s life in football yet coaches and parents often treat it as if they were at the world cup final. I understand that football is an exciting, emotive game, and watching your kids play can be an exhilarating past-time, but I believe we need to find balance as coaches to help our children progress.
Lets look at the behaviours that I highlighted above, and explore the reasons why I think that this short-term view is not in the best interests of the future player we should be trying to develop:
- Shouting out constant instructions while the ball is in play, and often in a tone that is an ever-increasing frenzy of desperation.
As already covered in part two – creating a great learning environment, I believe that in order to develop creative players of the future kids must be allowed to practice making their own decisions today. Screaming pass, shoot, get back or whatever from the sides will quite possibly win the day today, but it won’t have helped the players much for the long term in my opinion. Take the shout of pass, or switch it. The player was, before that shout, concentrating and analysing his or her options, while trying to calculate what they should do. If the player makes the wrong decision, they will likely know that pretty quickly, and don’t need half a dozen frenzied adults to tell them.
In an ideal world you would have the time to ask the player what they saw, what they were trying to achieve and as them questions to lead them to think of ideas about how they might make a better decision in the future. Then, after that exploration, give the player repetition of similar situations to practice that decision-making and improve. That ideal world simply does not exist in a match-day setting, and so I think it is better to let it go during the match and work on decision-making as a part of your training syllabus.
I have seen with my team that, slowly, the decision making will improve with practice but if you shout instructions and criticisms of mistakes during a game the young player is likely to retreat into their shell and not try anything new in future because of the fear of failure. In my team I tell every player, every week, that the decision to pass, shoot or travel with the ball is theirs and theirs alone during a match and that we should all respect and support each others decisions. I tell them that nobody else in the entire world can see the game through their eyes at that moment. We work on decision making a lot in training, and I have seen some impressive improvements in this regard and with this philosophy. A funny story that many youth coaches will relate to relating to that last point. Once, in training, when I was explaining that ‘nobody in the entire world can see that game through your eyes’ one kid, without batting an eyelid, said ‘God can’. How do you follow that? 🙂
- The bigger kids with the biggest shot play up front, and take all the free-kicks and corners.
This is perhaps great practice for the player taking the free-kicks and corners perhaps, but how are the other players in your team supposed to improve this skill if they are never allowed to try? Also, I think it is important that the future player is comfortable playing in a variety of positions, and can see the game from defence just as well as they can from an attacking position. In order to develop that player, they need to have the chance to play in ever position on the pitch and ‘see the game; from a different perspective each time.
It is also worth being aware that all 8-year old-boys are not the same age. In any team up and down the country, the cut off date to qualify for an age group is 31 August. So, if a player is eight years old on the 30 August 2015, then they are eligible to play for the U9’s for the 2015/16 season. However, as an extreme example, what can happen is that while one child might turn 9 the day after 31 August and play all season as a 9 year old, another kid in the same team might have only just turned 8 on 30 August. This is known in coaching circles as ‘The relative age effect’ and you will find many of the older, and often bigger, faster, stronger and more developed players in the team of a coach who wants to win now v that of a coach who is developing for the future because of the advantage bigger/faster/stronger players offer today.
As those kids grow up, and go through a couple of growth spurts, often that advantage is eroded but what happens if as a country we ignored the development of the younger kids in favour of the older kids in each age group? How many potential stars of the future are not developed because they were small when they were younger?
- Equal playing time.
I believe that in the younger age groups, every child has the right to play equal playing time throughout the season, which in turn affords them equal chances to progress. If a coach gives more time to their bigger/faster/stronger and often-older players, then they are giving more development opportunities to them, at the expense of y smaller, less developed players, which is likely to make the chasm between older and younger more pronounced over time because of the additional practice enjoyed by the bigger boys.
It is difficult to know when to move from equal playing time to picking a team to win the game, and to be honest I am still not comfortable that I have the right idea set in stone on this front. I am thinking that it will start to happen at U12’s, when the game becomes competitive, and after they would have had five years of development football already.
Thanks for reading, and while I enjoy writing, blogging can feel a little like talking to yourself at times, so if you found anything useful or have an opinion on anything within these pages please do reply and join the conversation.
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All five in the series can be found here: