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Professionalism in football (or cheating as it used to be called)

 

One of the proudest moments of coaching my sons football team was after he scored a screamer, and then told the referee that he handled it in order to get it under control. Pride was bursting out of me, and my enthusiastic approval of that moment sparked a behaviour that sees my U’9s regularly offer the referee help in coming to a decision against our team. Honesty, integrity. Some might say old fashioned values, but they are values I want my own kids to grow up with and values I try to display in my own life. One opposing manager said to me ‘have you got the nicest bunch of lads in the world playing for you, or what?”. I am sure he was semi-mocking our ‘niceness’ but I was proud.

I am a Liverpool fan, and I was disgusted yesterday as my team won all three points at Crystal Palace thanks to Benteke cheating. Lets not dress it up as ‘doing the professional thing’ its cheating. I have watched and re-watched and I still can’t even see the minimal contact that apparently ‘definitely’ happened. This is not rose-tinted glasses, I am a Liverpool fan!

On the same weekend, I saw Michael Owen, a great player from Liverpool’s past interview the Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino on BT Sport. That is Michael Owen, who lets remember went over like an old lady on an icy morning when playing for England versus Argentina in the 2012 world cup. Pochettino was the player who stuck out a leg, and Michael didn’t need a second invitation. There was no contact that day either, none. Michael Owen cheated. England were awarded the penalty which David Beckham converted. Some blame Pochettino for being naive in sticking out a leg, Some say Michael Owen was being professional. Too few, in my opinion, call it cheating.

In this interview on BT Sport this weekend Pochettino called Michael Owen ‘clever’ for cheating and Owen seemed to admit that there was no contact in his laughing and mannerisms. CLEVER!? If this is what we are teaching our kids then we can’t complain when ‘the youth of today’ appear to lack a moral compass.

I saw a tweet from @whitehouseaddress today that said ‘Deceit is fundamental to football. The high “morality” of the English is holding the nation back from succeeding’ and to be honest, it made me angry and sad in equal measure. It seems to say that if they are all at it, we should do it as well. If you can’t beat them, join them. With morality and ethics the things we are willing to leave as we cross the white line in order to win at all costs.

What sort of message does that send our young about life? If you can’t win by fair means win by foul? The problem is that football has allowed the cheats to prosper for far too long, and now cheating has the new, more socially acceptable title of professionalism. It needs FIFA to stamp it out. Don’t bemoan the English and their morality – that is the easy way out.

Would you teach your kids to cheat in school? “Don’t bother working hard to earn an education son, just copy everything off the bright kid, yeah?” What about when they leave school? “Don’t work hard for a living son, just become a benefit cheat, or a thief, everyone else is at it so why not?” Cheating is cheating. When is it OK to cheat?

Stamp out the cheats, one red card and one big fine at a time, and then little by little we can get back a game that we can be proud of … and please, stop calling players who simulate a foul professional. Call them a cheat, because that is what they are.

I will no doubt be accused of being naive, and told that I don’t understand how football works. I do understand how I think life should work however, and as football has such a huge influence on our kids, we need to be careful what lessons football teaches them.

 

 

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‘Somebody could be killed’ at a youth football match

Graham Elkins, the chairman of the Surrey Youth League, caused a media storm recently when he claimed that some of the parents at youth football matches in the UK are behaving in such a violent and threatening manner that ‘Somebody could be killed’.

What a ridiculous statement. At a kids football match? Killed? Tragically, the ridiculousness is not in the statement itself, but in the fact that this has a very real chance of happening.

It has already happened in the Netherlands, when U17 footballers kicked a linesman to death. Insane.

Last year, The Standard in London reported that a man who should have been old enough to know better beat up an U9’s football coach because the coach dared to ask the man not to tell his son to hurt other players – The coach, a volunteer, who was trying to help young players improve was left with two black eyes and a broken nose. 

You hear justifying statements such as ‘its a mans game’ or ‘you have to toughen them up’ or ‘its a passionate game’ but these are flimsy excuses for parents who, in the words of Ray Winston in the FA’s respect video, “need to take a long, hard look at themselves” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezZ2ZRfSsLY

Its a sad state of affairs, but something drastic has to be done because as in so many areas of life, the minority are ruining it for the majority. Its the kids who are losing out, and that is a crying shame.

Just this weekend I heard a little 8 year old boy say, through sobbing tears, “My dad keeps shouting at me and I don’t like it”. Something has to stop, now.

Some parents seem to be living in the old days where a football manager would shout and swear and scare players into a performance, but at the top level now that manager is rare. Ferguson and his ‘hairdryer’ are a thing of the past in the main. Players have the power now and my understanding is that managers have to be more ‘carrot’ and less ‘stick’ in todays elite world.

So why do we subject our babies to this treatment, if England internationals are not expected to put up with it?

I have my own ideas on what should happen to stamp out this horrendous behavior, but I am very keen to hear from others what they would do to stop it if they were at the FA now?

Please take time to comment.

Thanks.

Here is an article in the Telegraph, that quotes Me Elkins of the Surrey FA:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/12171203/Parents-on-football-touchline-so-violent-someone-could-be-killed-youth-league-chairman-warns.html

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No coaching from parents during matches helps develop creative footballers? Discuss.

I strongly believe that in order to develop creative players of the future, something that England has been pretty dire at achieving over the past few decades, you need to give players the freedom to make their own decisions.

Of course during training sessions you teach them how to make better decisions and players can then improve their decision-making through repetition over time, but during the game, I don’t shout instructions while the ball is rolling. Occasionally I might call out with some questions or instructions while there is a break in play, but I try my best to never do so while the ball is rolling.

Some of the most creative players on the world stage today grew up playing street football. No adults making the rules. No rigid ‘if this happens then do this’ instructions. Just play. Trial and error. Improvisations. Messi, Aguero, Suarez … this list is long and compelling.

Rene Muelensteen put it simply while he was in charge of youth development and the academy at Manchester United when he said “footballers cannot learn how to make their own decisions if they are used to receiving instruction from the touchline.” In an interview with the daily Telegraph Muelensteen said that at the Manchester United academy, parents are asked to sign a contract that says they will not shout out during coaching sessions, and that the Manchester United coaches do not shout instructions while the ball is rolling.

I am glad to say that at academies this ‘no coaching from parents’ is standard practice these days, but in grass roots football in England we still have a culture in which parents and coaches shout out a stream of instructions while young players are trying to concentrate on the game, and that leads some to observe that grass roots youth football matches can appear to be like ‘Playstation for dads’ with the parents holding the controller and the kids running around according to instructions.

So many England internationals from the past 30 years have grown to become more functional than creative, and the fact that I have to hark back to players like Hoddle and Gascoigne to remember truly creative, unpredictable, England players is a concern for English football. This rigid, predicable footballer is a product of the coaching they received when they were young. Its great to see this changing in professional academies, but there are still far too many ‘touchline tigers’ pacing up and down next to youth football matches at grass roots level.

So how can grass roots coaches help? As a youth coach you are of course aiming to be a positive influence on the young players in your care, but no matter how well you do as a coach the parents will usually and understandably be the most important influence on the young player.

With that in mind I think it is so, so important that the lines of communication are constantly open between the coach and parents. I see parents as a part of our team. I think that to create the environment you want that you need to ensure it is communicated clearly to the parents. It is much easier to build a positive learning environment for the players if the parents and coach work together, but sadly many coaches don’t feel that the coaching they deliver is any of the parents business. I am of the view that the opposite is true, and I regularly write to the parents of my players to keep them updated on what we are practicing, why, and how they can help if applicable. The no coaching rule is a part of that two-way communication.

Football is an emotive game, and often as a parent or a coach you will see an opportunity that the kids playing do not see, so keeping quiet can be really difficult for some. You might feel compelled to shout out to a player to adjust their position, or tell them to pass, shoot or whatever. The urge is understandable, I appreciate that, but the result of that action is that you short-circuit the players own decision-making in the short-term and it is more difficult for the coach to gauge deeper, longer-term learning.

I have seen games where the coach is constantly screaming instructions at the kids who are trying to focus on the game, and on the other side of the pitch there are many parents shouting their own instructions. It is ridiculously confusing for the kids to receive multiple instructions from the adults, and most importantly, it can stop them from making their own decisions if they become used to receiving instructions form the coach or parents.

Before the players in my team were even selected for the squad, I wrote to all parents with a message that said if their child was selected, they would be expected to abide by the team rules which state that we do not allow parents to shout instructions from the sidelines. Once I had selected the players I wrote to the parents of the kids in question once again to say that their child had a place, but subject to the strict rule above. I believe it is that important to the long-term development of the players. I have only had to speak to one parent about shouting instructions from the side thus far right at the start, so I’d like to think that I have helped to create the right environment for the boys in my team to flourish.

I of course whole-heartedly encourage the parents to shout encouragement, and praise, as that makes for an energised atmosphere, but as long as the calls don’t offer the boys instruction on what they should do. In that environment, I am happy that the boys have the freedom to make their own decisions based on what they have been learning in training.

Would love to hear your thoughts?

 

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Part 5: From parent to coach. Match-day management

From a coaching perspective, I look at a match-day as a way of gauging how much the players have learnt in training. If football was school, I would think of training as the day-to-day work the boys engage in and think of the match as a test.

As already mentioned in Part 3: From Parent to coach. Your playing philosophy I am more interested in improving the players for the long term than winning the match today, although winning is also very nice of course. The fact is that if you do the former, the latter tends to happen anyway.

If we were working on support play in training on a Wednesday and Saturday, and I see good examples of improved support play on a Sunday in the match, then I am a happy coach. At the end of the day if the training doesn’t transfer to a match then it was ineffective and I need to look at my session and see what I can improve.

So on a match day it is all about planning, organisation and a familiar process for the players and as mentioned in previous editions of this blog series, the parents are absolutely vital to your match-day plans.

If you are at home, the first part of the match-day organisation usually takes place on the previous Monday and it entails making sure you have contacted your opponent in plenty of time, and given them crystal clear directions, timings, parking situation and any other information that they may need to travel to your ground. If they are late on the day because they couldn’t find the ground, then it throws your own preparations into turmoil, so it is always best to ‘go the extra mile’ and make sure you provide a full address (with post code), a map link and any other information that may make their arrival easier.

This communication with your opposition is also a good opportunity to outline the expectations your club has regarding the behavior of visiting players, coaches and parents. I always include a paragraph that reads ‘We support the Football Association ‘Respect’ campaign and strive to provide a safe and positive environment for all young players to enjoy football, and develop free from criticism or abuse. I would be grateful if you could ask your spectators to watch the match from behind the FA Respect barrier, which will be set up along the length of one touchline. The other touchline is kept free for players and coaches.’

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Once you are confident that you have communicated clearly with the opposition, it is of course equally important that you do the same for your own parents and players! I use a fantastic app called TeamSnap, which allows me to update the match or training information only once, and the app then emails all parents. It also has an availability checker, which allows the parents to reply yes, no or maybe and you have one central dashboard to review at any given time.

If you have a referee (my assistant referees our home games) then it essential that they are also given crystal clear directions and kick off information of course.

Before match day I think it is important to plan which players will play in which position, and at what times you will be making substitutes, and who will be replacing who, so you can ensure that every player gets equal game time. If you turn up and try to make substitutions off the cuff, you might not get the timings right and some players might get less time than you had hoped as a result. Every week I rotate the positions that the players play in so they get lots of experience of becoming players who can play what used to be called ‘total football’. They will all experience the game in defense, midfield and attack.

I have 11 players in my 7-a-side squad currently, and I split my timings as follows. Home games are 60 minutes, split either as 2 x 30-minute halves or 4 x 15-minute quarters, depending on the preference of our opponent that week.

The Goalkeeper – the only specialised position, and always plays a full game in goal.

10 outfield players – two players get a full game each week (The two players are different each week to give equal playing time to all players over the season).

That leaves four outfield players that play half a game, and swap every quarter with the four substitutes.

I have a spreadsheet that I use to record details of who plays in what position each week, and who had the full games, so I can rotate fairly to give everyone an equal chance.

Incidentally, on a Monday or Tuesday before the match I send out a note to the boys explaining what we are practicing in training that week using a coach/athlete app called Edufii. This allows me to ask questions, and get them thinking about the key coaching points before the even arrive at training on a Wednesday, thus saving the time I need to spend explaining and increasing the time the ball is rolling.

Back to match-day. I ask players and parents to arrive 45 minutes before kick-off, which gives my assistant and I ample time to talk to the players about that weeks learning focus, and give them a mini-training session focuses on ball control, passing and shooting drills and this time also doubles as a warm up for the match ahead. It’s another way of getting a little more practice-per-week into the players.

So if we were at home and had a 10am kick-off, my assistant and I would arrive at 8.45am to set up the goals, put up the respect line and FA Respect signs, and set up the training session/warm up so that when the boys arrive at 9.15am we are ready to welcome them and dedicate our full attention to preparing them for the game ahead.

A Rondo warm up is our usual starting point, where one defender goes in the middle and the other players try to pass the ball between themselves as many times as possible before the defender touches the ball. The defender is encouraged to work hard to press the ball constantly, and is replaced every minute or so with a new defender. We keep score and I think the record number of passes this season is 33. The score keeps the boys more focused on the task. They are coached to play passes with quality, and then try to make the ball move as quickly as possible but without adversely affecting the quality of pass. (We call that the two Q’s – Quality, and then Quicker).

We then have a running with the ball session, that focuses on controlling the ball with the outside of each foot, then the inside of each foot, then the bottom of each foot, then a mixture of all three and then finally free-style, which involves asking the boys to be creative and practice their own preferred skills and tricks. While this is going on either my assistant or I will warm up our goalkeeper, who incidentally is the only player in the squad with a fixed position.

We then use the Coerver coaching ball mastery skills to get the feet moving quickly. Another great app from Coerver can be found on the app store, which gives you the first 20 or 30 video demonstrations of their ball master skills free of charge.

The boys then dribble with a ball each until we call their name, at which point the drive out of the square towards goal and take a shot at the goalkeeper.

All this takes us up to about 10 minutes before kick-off, at which point we call the boys in to ask them questions about what we have learnt in the preceding weeks training, and to let them know that my assistant and I will be looking out for good examples of that learning focus in the match. I make sure that every player knows where they are playing, and that they understand the basic role required in that position. (Sometimes I do this separately during the warm up by calling defenders together, midfielders together, forwards together into small groups) as it is easy to keep the attention of smaller groups than one whole group at the younger age groups.

At some point during this period the opposition team would have arrived and I always make a point to go to their coach, shake hands and give them a warm welcome them to the club, while checking if they want to play 4 x 15’s or 2×30’s.

We then have a final 5-minute warm up in pairs, passing the ball to one another using alternate feet, so left foot, then right foot. They are asked once again to use the two Q’s to start with quality and then play quicker.

One final word with the group asks them questions such as ‘what do we do if we lose the ball? (Answer: Defend quickly). What do we do when we win the ball? (Answer: Attack quickly). What does the nearest defender do the moment we lose the ball? (Answer: Press the ball quickly). What does the 2nd defender do at that point? (Answer: Cover the first defender). Etc.

These answers are now ingrained and the boys know the answers off by heart. I then get them to huddle and ask them if they are going to try their best today? (They always shout YES in unison). I SAY I CAN’T HEAR YOU? (THEY SCREAM YES!!!). Nothing left for me to do at this point other than to wish them well and tell them to enjoy themselves, and off they go to play.

I then look at general play, but specifically at the learning focus from that week to see if there is any improvement. I make notes of anything, good or bad, that attracts my attention. Instead of shouting out and breaking concentration mid-game, I will either decide to bring it up at half-time, or maybe keep it in mind when designing future training sessions.

My assistant manager referees our home games, so I ask him to let me know when 15 minutes have passed, so I can make the planned changes. If we had a different referee I would of course time it, but I prefer to have as little to do as possible on the touchline so I can focus on the game.

At the end of the game we line up on the half way line to shake hands with the opposition, win, lose or draw, and sing ‘three cheers for x team, hip, hip, hooray!’ as well. We shake hands with the opposition coach, thank them for the game, and then have a mini-debrief with the players. That debrief asks them questions about what they think went well, and what could be improved, plus it gives my assistant and I a chance to point out any positive things we saw with regards to their development.

Some key things that we definitely DO NOT do are:

Argue with the referee, opposing coaches or players. It sets a bad example to the kids, and as this is about future development and not winning the world cup final if a few decisions go against us it is not the end of the world.

Shout instructions while the ball is in play. As I covered in a previous edition of this series of blog posts, I believe that in order for players to grow up making good decisions they have to be left to make their own decisions during a match. England has struggled to develop truly creative players for decades, with a few notable exceptions in part because the old school coaching was command style and rigid, so as  nation we developed functional players. We have a culture in England to shout and scream at kids playing football, which is strictly prohibited in our team for the reasons stated. I may shout out a few pointers when the ball is out of play, but I prefer to let them play to see what they understand and what decisions they are capable of today. When I do shout anything, I am careful to control my tone of voice so it sounds positive and non-confrontational.

Encroach onto the pitch. I have seen several coaches’ edge further and further onto the pitch shouting to their players, and while the game is in play. A few of them were so far on that I was sure they wanted to play left-back! I think you should stand back. It annoys the hell out of me when coaches stand on the pitch, and it is clearly against the rules, so please don’t be ‘that guy’.

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.

Please like my Coaching Youth Football page on Facebook –

https://www.facebook.com/coachyouthfootball/

And please also follow me on Twitter – @YouthCoachMike

All five in the series can be found here:

 

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.

Part Two: From parent to coach. Creating a great learning environment.

Part 3: From parent to coach. Your playing philosophy

Part 4: From parent to coach. Setting up effective training sessions

Part 5: From parent to coach. Match-day management

 

 

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Part 4: From parent to coach. Setting up effective training sessions

Completing my FA Level 2 certificate in coaching football last year really helped me improve my training sessions as is a technical award and focuses a lot on delivering technical information to players. I also drew a lot of information from the FA Youth Award modules and by reading many excellent books by experienced coaches.

The level 2 format for coaching sessions is split into three parts, namely Technique, Skill and Small-sided game (SSG). I wouldn’t dream of trying to teach the Level 2 syllabus here, but loosely speaking that equates to the following which I think is a helpful format:

Technique – Unopposed practice, so it could be running with the ball, but with no defenders. This is a good time to correct any technical points, and deliver the key coaching points for that technique.

Skill – These are games that give the player a chance to test the technique above, but with opposition.

SSG – a 4×4 (+2 goal-keepers) game, which is a match scenario. On your Level 2 assessment you are not allowed to add conditions to this SSG, but I do sometimes at my club.

If I am confident that the players are competent at a particular technique, but I want to work on the (when/where) to use it then I will often just deliver a Skill and SSG, although if you are planning to take your Level 2 qualification, you will be expected to follow all three phases.

So, having created your learning environment and your playing philosophy, you now need to plan a coaching session. I would strongly advise that you don’t just turn up with the balls, bibs and cones and ‘wing it’ as ideally the players should follow a syllabus of learning that you have carefully planned, and that runs in a logical order.

My advice on designing a good training session for younger kids would be as follows:

Clear, single learning focus. Ensure that you design each coaching session around one, clear learning focus and only coach that focus during the session. It is easy to get carried away, picking up on all manner of coaching opportunities not related to your session, but I think it is better to stick to one, clear learning focus throughout the session.

Identify the key coaching points. I like to try and pick out three key coaching points that I will reinforce and design my sessions to deliver, but sometimes it needs to be more than three of course. Be clear in your mind what the key coaching points are before you arrive at training, and make sure you can communicate them clearly.

Vary the practices. Create a number of shorter games, rather than one or two longer games, and plan them so they can run back to back with very little downtime, so you keep the attention of young players. If you can, plan your area so that you can move from one game to another with minimal changes to the cones, goals etc.

Avoid lines. Avoid the ‘old school’ coaching techniques that see boys and girls in long queues waiting for their turn, unless you can balance the game so that time they are waiting in line is short, and just enough time to recover.

Try to add an element of competition. Young kids, and especially boys are often very competitive, and are likely to raise the intensity of their efforts if you add an element of point scoring or winning to the games you create.

Keep it simple. The simpler the game is to set up, understand, and play the less time you will have to spend explaining and demonstrating and the more time you will have for the players to play.

Is there enough repetition for each player? Simply put, if players have enough repetition of the right technique, and give it 100% of their attention,  then they will improve so it is important that your session delivers as many opportunities for the players to practice the learning focus as possible.

Is it relevant to the game of football players will experience? It is very important to set games up that are as close to the game of football as possible. Standing in line, waiting to smash a ball at goal is not a realistic practice for what players will see in a game, so try to build a practice that allows players to see the pictures they will see during a match.

Can you increase/decrease the difficulty for each player? You will design a session to a set difficulty based on the average in your group of players, but within any group you will find that some players find it too easy and others might find it too difficult. It is important that you can adjust the difficulty for those forging ahead and those lagging behind. If you don’t, the players forging ahead will have a limited learning experience and will get bored quickly and those falling behind will get frustrated at not finding success. The example I used in a previous blog was a 4v4 game of three-touch football to encourage players to get their head up and pass. In that scenario, you could challenge a player forging a head to only use two touches, and afford a player who was struggling four touches.

Prepare questions. Do you have some good, open-ended questions to ask the players that are designed to make them think about the learning focus, and which will hopefully lead them towards finding solutions for themselves? An open-ended question is one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. So for example, if your learning focus was decision-making on the ball, you could simply say, ‘when you receive, get your head up, and decide if you should pass, shoot or travel. Play.’ That is the command style of coaching. Or, you could use the Q&A style and ask them ‘what is the first thing you should do after receiving the ball?’ If they know the answer is to get your head up, great. If they don’t you might follow up with a question such as ‘In order to make good decisions, what information do you need? What do you need to know?’ Hopefully by now the cogs will be turning and you will get answers such as ‘where my team-mates are. Where the defenders are. Where the space is. Where the goal is etc. The more the players have to think in order to get to the answer, the more they will remember and understand, so I think it is worth taking the extra time to ask questions and lead players to the answer, rather than leading with the answer yourself.

Role models. It is often helpful I find to highlight a world football star who excels at the learning focus you intend to deliver that day. Players can relate to the stars they see on TV, and I will often even send a YouTube clip around for the boys to watch a few days before training that highlights the skill being mastered. So if you were practicing dribbling, you might highlight Messi, or if it was running with the ball maybe Ronaldo would be the star you use. As you get to know your players, you will know there favorite teams and players and this can help influence which stars you highlight as role models.

When and where might you use the learning focus? Showing a seven year old how to dribble is great, but showing them how to dribble and helping them to understand when and where they might use that skill in a match is the real trick I think. Teaching a set of separate skills, and expecting the kids to work out when and where to use them is optimistic at best, so try to include scenarios that ask the players to make decisions as well as execute a skill.

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.

Please like my Coaching Youth Football page on Facebook –

https://www.facebook.com/coachyouthfootball/

And please also follow me on Twitter – @YouthCoachMike

All five in the series can be found here:

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.

Part Two: From parent to coach. Creating a great learning environment.

Part 3: From parent to coach. Your playing philosophy

Part 4: From parent to coach. Setting up effective training sessions

Part 5: From parent to coach. Match-day management

 

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Part 3: From parent to coach. Your playing philosophy

 

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:

  1. 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?🙂

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

 

Please like my Coaching Youth Football page on Facebook –

https://www.facebook.com/coachyouthfootball/

And please also follow me on Twitter – @YouthCoachMike

All five in the series can be found here:

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.
Part Two: From parent to coach. Creating a great learning environment.
Part 3: From parent to coach. Your playing philosophy
Part 4: From parent to coach. Setting up effective training sessions
Part 5: From parent to coach. Match-day management

 

 

 

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shouting at boy

Part Two: From parent to coach. Creating a great learning environment.

I would suggest that the most logical place to start when getting involved with coaching youth football is to carefully plan what you want the learning environment to look and feel like. Everything you do from day one will take place inside the framework of the learning environment you create, so it is important to spend some time getting this straight before you hold your first training session if you can. To follow are a list of the attributes that I believe make a good learning environment, with the reasons why I believe them to be important, and some examples of them in action.

Make it fun

This is the most important part of any coaching or playing environment for young kids, because if players stop enjoying it then they are far more likely to drop out sooner or later. Also, one of the key ingredients in improving skills is repetition, and if you can turn your coaching sessions from being drills based, to being filled with fun games, you are more likely to encourage the kids to repeat the desired skills more often. There will be more on coaching using fun games in a future blog post.

Always be positive

I believe that kids learn better in an environment where a coach offers positive encouragement for effort, even if that effort doesn’t yield the desires results right away than they do from having their mistakes highlighted and talked through at length. No player has ever mastered a new skill without making mistakes along the way, and so it is important to accept mistakes as a natural and inevitable part of the learning process. What gets recognized gets repeated as they say, and by offering lots of praise when the player does something right, rather than criticising mistakes, you will help to create an environment in which your players feel empowered to try new things.

This might sound like an obvious thing to say, but I have lost count of the number of coaches I have seen shouting criticisms from the sidelines, and to kids as young as six. The kids who are the target of a frustrated coach rarely improve by being publicly scolded for making a mistake, and are more likely to retreat into their shell and not try anything new in future.

As an example, I had a player that having received the ball would 99 times out of 100 run with the ball. I didn’t want to tell him that he had to pass, as I want my players to be confident to make their own decisions and become creative thinkers, and so I empower them to make their own decisions. That said, if the player is running with the ball all time, he is obviously missing good passing opportunities along the way. So, rather than tell him that he has to pass, or getting frustrated with him during games for being selfish, I waited for my opportunity during training. One day I was delivering a coaching session, and during a 5v5 match the player in question passed the ball, which set up a goal-scoring opportunity. I lavished the player with enthusiastic praise and his face lit up, and he started to look for more opportunities to pass the ball from that point onwards.

Had I shouted ‘pass’ every time he got the ball during a match, in the short-term I may have changed his behavior, but it would not have been much fun for him and most importantly, he would not be making his own decisions. I have since had the opportunity to try this out with another player, and it worked for a second time as well, so I am very confident in this method of modifying behaviour.

I strongly believe that in order to develop creative players, something that England have been pretty dire at over the past few decades, you need to give players the freedom to make their own decisions. Of course during training you teach them how to make better decisions over time, but during the game I don’t shout instructions while the ball is rolling. Occasionally I might call out with some questions to that help to lead them to the desired solution while there is a break in play, but never while the ball is rolling. Rene Muelensteen put it simply while he was in charge of youth development at Manchester United when he said “footballers cannot learn how to make their own decisions if they are used to receiving instruction from the touchline.” In an interview with the daily Telegraph , Muelensteen said that at the Manchester United academy, parents are asked to sign a contract that says they will not shout out during coaching sessions, and that the Manchester United coaches do not shout instructions while the ball is rolling. We will touch on parent rules and relations more a little later. Is it any wonder that when you compare England teams with other countries, our players are often like ‘robots’ in as much as they are functional and rarely creative. The fact that I have to hark back to players like Hoddle and Gascoigne to remember truly creative England players is a concern for English football, and it all starts with rigid coaching at the younger ages in my opinion.

Challenging

It is important when delivering a coaching session that you have the ability to keep every player challenged on an individual level, and not just set the difficulty for the session at a group level. Players improve faster when they are playing at the limit of their ability, but every player in your squad will likely be at a different level, so your sessions must be flexible enough to allow you to increase and reduce the level of challenge for players who are forging ahead or lagging behind.

If for example your session was planned to work on decision-making and you wanted the players to practice looking for passing opportunities rather than running with the ball, then you might decide to play a 5v5 match in which the players were not allowed to take more than three touches, thus forcing the player to look up and find a pass. Once you have set the three-touch condition at the group level, you still have the option in this example to increase or decrease the difficulty for each individual by increasing or reducing the number of touches each individual is allowed. So a player who was finding the session too easy could be challenged to take only two touches, and a player who was struggling might be allowed four touches for example.

While I believe that you always want your young players to experience successful repetitions of the learning focus during training, I think it is also true that if the success is too easily achieved it becomes boring and little or no learning takes place. In this instance it is important that the coach recognises this and steps in to increase the difficulty for the player who is finding the session too easy.

Inquisitive

On the FA Coaching courses you learn about the different coaching styles. The old school coach of England’s yesteryear would often rely almost exclusively on the ‘Command’ style, in which the coach talks and the player must listen. Research has show however that learning can take place on a deeper level if the player feels that they have found the solution themselves, so while the command style certainly has its place I naturally tend to opt for the questioning style, which forces the player to think about the answer for themselves. Research shows that if you can lead a player to find the answer for themselves, then the learning will be on a deeper, more permanent level for the player.

So for example, lets say you were coaching your team to provide support to the player on the ball through width and depth as soon as your team regains possession. You might have set up a small-sided game, lets say 4v4, and let the play develop until you see an opportunity to step in and coach the learning focus of the session.

I had this very situation last year, where a defender received the ball, got their head up to assess their options and realised that they had no passing option because the two players ahead of the ball were too narrow and the passing lines were blocked.

The coach using the command style may have shouted to the two players ahead of the ball “width and depth remember” and let the game continue. In my opinion, instructions to young kids that are given while the ball is in play go in one ear and out of the other more often than not. So using the questioning style I stopped the game and addressed the group as a whole, while asking specific questions to the players who had failed to provide support to the player on the ball. My first question was to the defender who received the ball “What did you see when you received the ball and got your head up?” His reply was that he had no options to pass. I repeated his answer so the whole group could hear, and I then asked the two players ahead of the ball in turn “What could you have done better in that situation to help your team mate on the ball?” They thought for a second, and then pointed to where they could have run. I praised them for finding the solution, and asked what, by making those runs wide, have they done to the pitch? Again, after a moments thought they indicted that they understood the runs they had identified during our brief Q& A would have ‘made it wider’. I reset the game and made sure that they made the runs they had suggested once play was restarted, which they did.

Parents

As a coach you are of course aiming to be a positive influence on the young players in your care, but no matter how well you do, parents will usually be the most important influence on the young player. With that in mind I think it is vital that the lines of communication are constantly open between the coach and parents. I think it is so important that the environment you want to create is communicated clearly to the parents before day one if at all possible, and at regular times throughout the season. It is much easier to build a positive learning environment if the parents and coach work together, but sadly many coaches don’t feel that the coaching they deliver is any of the parents business. I am of the view that the opposite is true, and I regularly write to the parents to keep them updated on what we are practicing, why, and how they can help if applicable.

As an example, as a part of a positive learning environment I believe that it is really important that parents don’t shout out instructions to their kids while the game is in play for the reasons explained above. Football is an emotive game, and often you will see an opportunity that the kids playing do not see, so keeping quiet can be difficult for some people. I appreciate that, but just as I will try my best to never shout instructions to my players while the ball is in play, I expect the parents to help me by following suit in that respect. I have seen games where the coach is screaming instructions at the kids who are trying to focus on the game, and on the other size of the pitch there are dozens of parents shouting their own instructions. It is ridiculously confusing for the kids to receive multiple instructions from the adults, and most importantly, it can stop them from making their own decisions if they become used to receiving instructions form the coach or parents.

Before the players in my team were even selected for the squad, I wrote to all parents with a message that said if their child was selected, they would be expected to abide by the team rules which state that we do not allow parents to shout instructions from the sidelines. Once I had selected the players I wanted to from my squad, I wrote to the parents of the kids in question once again to say that their child had a place, but subject to the strict rule above. I have only had to speak to one parent about shouting instructions from the side thus far, so I’d like to think that I have created the right environment for the boys in my team to flourish. I of course whole-heartedly encourage the parents to shout encouragement, and praise, as that makes for an energised atmosphere, but as long as the calls don’t offer the boys instruction on what they should do. In that environment, I am happy that the boys have the freedom to make their own decisions based on what they have been learning in training.

Thanks for reading, and while I enjoy writing this, 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.

Please like my Coaching Youth Football page on Facebook –

https://www.facebook.com/coachyouthfootball/

And please also follow me on Twitter – @YouthCoachMike

All five in the series can be found here:

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.

Part Two: From parent to coach. Creating a great learning environment.

Part 3: From parent to coach. Your playing philosophy

Part 4: From parent to coach. Setting up effective training sessions

Part 5: From parent to coach. Match-day management

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Picture of kids soccer training match with shallow depth of field. Focus on foreground.

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.

Enthusiastic parents coach the majority of young kids in this country, and while their dedication is absolutely vital for the future of youth football, these well-meaning parents often have little access to coaching courses when they first start out. There is also a danger that a parent will think that they can coach a group of six year olds without too much of an issue because they used to play a bit and have watched a lot of football over the years. I know this, because I was such a Dad a few years ago. Having started out on a journey of education however I realised that there was so much more to good coaching than I could have ever imagined, and over the Christmas and New Year period I have been reflecting on just how much I have learnt over the past two and a half years.

Coaching was always a part of the plan for me. I always said I would start coaching kids football when I was too old to play, but I think in hindsight that was a mistake. I should have started far earlier than that because the love I have for coaching now is such that I feel that I wasted the last 20 years merely playing the game. If you are a parent thinking of volunteering then I could not recommend it to you more. It is a passion of mine now, and will likely be so for as long as I am able.

I managed an adult football team for 10 years, but that is not the same. The only coaching I was delivering during those 10 years was during pre-season or during a match and it was more fitness and fine-tuning fully developed players rather than teaching youngsters the game for the first time. The joy I get from seeing my young lads improve is difficult to describe. As a volunteer, like every other grass-roots coach, watching my players improve, coupled with the gratitude of the players and their parents makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile with my life and giving something back to the game that has given me so much joy and pain over the years.

I have read countless books, watched thousands of videos, attending numerous coaching courses and workshops and I still find that there is not enough material out there for me as a coach to consume. I have probably spent an average of 10 hours a week trying to educate myself for the past two and a half years, and that doesn’t include the weeks I have spent on FA coaching courses. I have loved every minute.

When I started out, I would to have loved to have read a book by an experienced coach about how the coaching journey ahead might look, from day one, with actionable advice that can be implemented in chronological order. As already mentioned many new coaches are well-meaning parents at the start, and many of the coaching books on the market are too advanced for the novice parent, and not written as a guide to the first year as a coach. I have learnt a great deal from many of those books written by coaches far more experienced than I, but I am yet to find the book I described above, so I decided to write it into this blog. In a sense I am trying to condense all of the reading, viewing, learning and thinking I have crammed into my lifetime with football, and most recently the two and a half years I have spent as an U7, U8 and now U9 coach into one series of blogs for those parents that might not have the time or the inclination to invest so much time into coaching education.

It is also important to stress that I have so much more to learn, so please don’t think I am writing these blog pieces because I think I am the finished article, because nothing could be further from the truth. I just want to share what I have learned to date in the hope it might help somebody in the future.

This series of blog pieces are aimed primarily at coaches who are just starting out with a grass-roots team or coaches who maybe have a year or two’s experience in coaching a team. It is also for fellow grassroots coaches who are perhaps more experienced, and might find my ideas to be food for thought. As a coach, I believe you should always be learning and trying to improve yourself if you want to be able to improve the players in your care. Listening to other coaches and their ideas is one way of improving yourself, and this blog is a vehicle for me to share my ideas with you.

I will hopefully follow a logical sequence from day one on the job, but I am not claiming that I followed this sequence myself. There was a lot of knowledge learned on my journey that I wish I had started out with, and that I hope by sharing through this blog will help fellow parents who are thrust into youth coaching a head-start.

So I will set out what I believe you should focus on as a new coach, and in the order I believe you should do so, with the benefit of hindsight.

A brief note about me. I have spent 43 years on this planet in love with football. Playing, watching, supporting, managing, coaching, reading about it … it has totally dominated my life and I wouldn’t have it an other way. I managed an adult 11-a-side team for 10 years, and I am currently coaching a good standard of Under 9’s. I hold The FA Level 1 & 2 certificate in coaching football as well as modules 1 & 2 of the FA Youth Award, and am currently working on module 3.

Whilst 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.

Please like my Coaching Youth Football page on Facebook –

https://www.facebook.com/coachyouthfootball/

And please also follow me on Twitter – @YouthCoachMike

All five in the series can be found here:

Part One: From parent to coach. Introduction.

Part Two: From parent to coach. Creating a great learning environment.

Part 3: From parent to coach. Your playing philosophy

Part 4: From parent to coach. Setting up effective training sessions

Part 5: From parent to coach. Match-day management

 

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Development first, winning second. How some youth coaches stunt player growth

There are many ways a coach can give themselves a better chance of winning youth football matches, and in my opinion many of those are short-term wins at the expense of long-term player development. In this blog post, I have recognised some of the traits of youth coaches and tried to explain what I believe are the pros and cons of each.

Essentially, I believe we should be encouraging kids to get as many touches of the ball as possible, and supporting them when they make mistakes. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning, and how we respond to those mistakes as a coach will be a huge factor in deciding what type of players we produce. If you want cautious, predictable players than tell them their every move and criticise errors. We need to be giving the kids of today the best chance of developing the skills that they will need when they are older, when winning will become more important.

I don’t believe that winning at the younger age groups is the most important indicator of success. Playing well, developing skills, and staying in love with the game are far more important. Competitive football in this country doesn’t start until the U12 age group, but you wouldn’t know that by watching the coaches and parents of some kids much younger than that at the weekend. It’s a cultural issue, and I believe it is holding us back as a nation.

One of the key reasons for the introduction of playing the 5v5, 7v7 and 9v9 football format in the lead up to the full 11v11 game is to give each player more touches of the ball. The main reason for implementing a retreat line (Requires the opposing players to retreat into their own half when your goalkeeper has a goal-kick) is to encourage playing out from the back. Yet direct play and long goal-kicks still endure because they are ways to win in the short-term. However, if players lump it long to be safe, we are not creating players with the skills they will require in their future. We are, however unwittingly, damaging the long-term development of the players in our care.

I think we should care less about winning at the early age groups, and more about development. When we get to U12 and league tables are introduced, maybe then be in a position to compete. Get into that position based on the years of development-first work you have done with your players up until that point though. Just an opinion of course, and I respect anyone who has a differing opinion.

Here are a few of the coaching traits/ beliefs I have experienced on my travels:

1. Play it direct “don’t mess about with it at the back!

The short-term benefit of not getting tackled when you are a defender, in the defending third, is probably fairly self explanatory.

This teaching of ‘get rid of it’ harks back to the bad old days of English football, when a ‘ball-playing defender’ was an oxymoron. The game has changed, moved on, and defenders have to be comfortable in possession to succeed in todays game. How will players ever develop that comfort on the ball if they are instructed not to practice that skill by coaches screaming ‘get rid’?

2. Don’t dribble or run with the ball if you can safely pass instead. “Pass, pass, PASS!”

The obsession with asking kids to always pass is widespread. Maybe it’s because young kids are naturally greedy, and coaches feel that in order for the group to play as a team the players needs to having passing drummed into them? I can understand that.

Maybe its because if your young players pass as soon as they receive possession they have less chance of being caught in possession? Think of that and then think of the most creative, exciting players in the world today. It’s likely that at least one of Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Neymar or Aguero came to mind and what they all have in abundance is the ability to beat a player.

That ability, like all others, is developed through practice and an over-emphasis by coaches on passing robs today’s young players of the chance to express themselves and practice beating a player. I have heard that at Chelsea, they teach and encourage young players to always ‘take him on’ believing that passing and team-play can be added later, when winning actually matters, but at this young age they are developing skills.

If coach is constantly shouting for his players to pass as soon as they get it, they are robbing the young players in their care of the chance to practice decision making, that is, when should they pass and when should they travel with the ball?

3. Pick bigger, older, more developed boys in your team over younger, smaller boys.

The older boys in the younger age group are often at a massive advantage because, for example, a player being exactly 7 years old (84 months) could be playing against a boy who is nearly 8 (95 months), and so the older boy has been alive for 12% more time! He is 12% more developed, had 12% more time to practice and grow. The relative age affect as it’s called, causes many coaches to pick the older boys early, and those older boys as a result get more training, and so they get better still. The younger player doesn’t get picked, gets less training opportunities, and so the chasm between the 7 year old and the boy who is 7 years and 11 months grows. How many potential players are lost to this bias every year?

You also see teams that elect to give the biggest kid, with the hardest shot, a place up front every week and encourage him/her to shoot and take all the free-kicks within range. While this child is developing their shooting skills nicely, what happens to the other kids who don’t get that opportunity to practice and develop as a result? How are they supposed to develop those skills? Again, it’s the winning versus development mindset at work.

Also, in an age that has seen Lionel Messi dazzle a generation of football lovers, it seems abundantly obvious that spending more time developing smaller players could pay dividends. That said, maybe we’ll never learn because Pele and Maradona were short yet this ‘bigger. faster, stronger’ mentality still blights youth football because it gives teams a winning advantage.

I could go on, but the point is this. We should be developing players to have the skills, attributes and decision-making skills to compete when they are older, much older, when it matters, not now.

Mourinho said In England you teach your kids how to win. In Spain and Portugal they teach their kids how to play. What a fantastic observation on how other nations develop creative, dangerous players and how England keep churning out robots. Much has changed in this country, and the FA have broadly recognised many of the issues raised in this post. Thousands of coaches are progressive, development-minded and doing the best they can for the future of the players in their care, but there is still so much to be done.

We have to see a massive change in our culture if we want to start producing English players who can dazzle on the world stage. The last truly creative, unpredictable midfielder we produced was Gazza, and most kids today can’t use him as a role model because they won’t even know his name!

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Session planning checklist

checklist

Whenever I am designing a training session for my U8 team, I try to rate it as I go along by asking myself a series of questions about what I have produced. A coaching checklist if you  like, to make sure that I am on-topic and delivering the best sessions I am capable of.

An hour a week is nowhere near enough time to deliver the learning I’d like, but it is all I have, so I feel that I need to maximise the contact time I have with the players.

I read a lot and attend courses in order to learn and develop myself, and to see if my checklist needs updating or amending. My current ‘session success checklist’ looks a bit like this:

Is there a clear learning focus?

Is it relevant to the game of football players will experience?

Is the session easy to understand and easy to play?

Is there sufficient opportunity for repetition of the learning focus?

Is there an element of competition to motivate the players?

Is it fun for the players to play?

Is there enough scope to increase/decrease difficulty as appropriate?

Does it progress from technique, to skill, to SSG smoothly?

Have I got questions I ask the players to make them think about the learning focus?

Have I identified a star who excels at this skill so I can reference them as a role model?

Can I explain the key technical factors clearly and simply?

Can I paint a picture of when and where this skill might be used in a game?

I may have missed a few, and you may agree/disagree with these and/or have your own checklist points. I’d love to hear about that!?

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shouting at boy

How do we turn more parents into positive coaches?

A tweet by @ContactCounts today highlighted another example of negative youth coaching, and it inspired me to write something on this blog because 140 characters is never enough!😉

I think we have a huge problem in England with regards to coaching young children the beautiful game. Parents become coaches of their kids team, often with little or no training, and there is no doubt in my mind that they do so with the best of intentions. However, too often they end up creating negative environments for the very kids they set out to help.

When a parent becomes a grass roots coach for the first time, they are often drawing only on their experience of football s a player and a fan to help them. So lets take an example:

A 38-year-old dad and his 8-year-old son find themselves involved within a local grass roots club as coach and player respectively. Dad was in a kid’s football team in 1986, but most recently his footballing experience has been playing for the local pub team on a Sunday morning, and watching the Premiership on TV.

Coaching in this country has evolved considerably since 1986, and getting young kids young to run laps of the pitch should be a thing of the past when viewed through the progress the coaching world has made, but Dad hasn’t seen these changes as he has not been involved in kids football for nearly 30 years. Twenty years of Sunday league football and a lifetime of watching football on TV has been his education for the role he now steps into. He subconsciously paints pictures in his mind of what a coach should look like. I have just seen Jose screaming from the sidelines in Chelsea’s match at QPR for example. How often have you heard about Ferguson and his ‘hair-drier treatment’? Perhaps the manager of his pub side also told him week-in, week-out to ‘be stronger’ and ‘to want it more’ and to ‘put it in the mixer’ along with many other Sunday league cliché’s. Is it any wonder then that many new coaches start to act like the shouty, pointy and negative examples we have all seen?

Coaching kids is not like coaching adults, and I believe that understanding that difference should be the number once quality sought by any club looking for a youth team coach. The FA Youth Module courses are great at teaching us that creating the right environment in which children can learn is so vital, but a very small percentage of volunteers ever get the chance to attend them for many reasons including cost, time, and availability of courses.

I have read extensively on this subject, in both football and neuroscience books, and it appears that the top sports coaches all agree that a positive learning environment is key. I have myself seen many examples in my own coaching where a child has improved because of praise, and I firmly believe that praising good effort leads to more good effort from children far more than critising poor effort. Shouting and screaming to try and rectify mistakes is counter-productive with children it seems, yet too often we see that mode of communication employed on the touchlines of youth football the country over.

We wouldn’t as parent stand for it if our kids teacher screamed at them for getting a maths question wrong, so why do we think it is OK for a football coach to do that if they select the wrong pass in a game that is supposed to be fun?

Finding answers to this problem is not easy. As a grass roots club, you don’t exactly have a long list of candidates banging down your door to volunteer, so ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ is a saying that springs to mind. Those that do volunteer often have a family and a full-time job, and so spending any more time than a Saturday morning on improving their coaching is difficult.

I also think that just as the kids need coaches and parents to be positive role models, the coaches need to see positive role models from the professional game. Could the FA ask the leading managers and youth team coaches of the game to endorse the Youth Modules via video interviews, and talk about how what the Youth Modules teach is implemented at their professional clubs? If the academy managers at the top 10 clubs gave a short interview for arguments sake, about how positivity and environment are vital components of any pro-academy then maybe that would have a positive influence on new coaches who watched that? It must surely at least be food for thought?

Finally, there seems to be a disconnect between the thoughts shared by coaches on social media, and the actions seen in parks across the country. The majority of coaches on social media will agree and expand on the view I have shared here, and that is great if new coaches look to social media to educate themselves. Yet when we go out on match day, sadly we see a large number of coaches shouting a multitude of instructions to a group of kids, who are trying to concentrate on the game, while often being given conflicting advice from the other side of the pitch by parents. So where are all the coaches on social media who agree that shouting instructions constantly is good for the players? The debate seems very one-sided online, and maybe if the shouters were willing to come forward and try to prove their way is best, we could all learn something together and improve grass roots football for the next generation?

Please do comment so we can get this conversation going, and if you reply, please RT so everyone knows there is a new comment to respond to. Thanks.

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thumbs up

Two clear examples of how a ‘well done’ beats a ‘why didn’t you?’ every time.

On Sunday, I heard a coach shout out to one of his seven year old players “why didn’t you just pass it to Johnny, he was wide open!?” The coaches’ voice was steeped in disappointment and frustration. I dare say that kids motivation sank much like my heart at hearing this.

I have for a while understood academically that kids respond far better to praise than criticism, and the FA Youth Award courses I’ve attended really highlighted this. However I think that to really learn a concept like this you need to experience it, and I have experienced it twice recently.

I am assistant manager of the team that my 7-year-old lad plays in, and a few weeks ago he was playing in a match when the ball flew towards him. He brought the ball down, and dispatched a lovely strike into the bottom far corner. Parents and coaches cheered and clapped, only for my son to walk up to the ref and admit he had handled the ball before scoring. I was literally bursting with pride! Visions of Robbie Fowler going over the top of David Seaman in the area at Highbury, and then getting up to tell the referee it was no penalty flashed across my mind.

I praised my son far more enthusiastically for his honesty than I would have done had he scored a goal, probably because it is a behaviour that I respect deep within me and a quality I wish I saw more of in the professional game. His teammates looked a bit bemused at my passionate praise at the time, but sure enough they had picked up on the message that honesty was a good thing. A few minutes later, the ball went out of play and it looked to everyone a throw-in to our team. One of our little lads said otherwise though, and looked towards me as he said it. He said the ball had clipped him on the way out of play. I am not even sure it had, but he had seen a chance to be seen to be doing something good, and he jolly well took it. Later a similar situation happened again with a different player.

My second example of how the words ‘well done’ can influence how a player behaves was a deliberate coaching ploy with a different team of U8’s that I manage. I wanted to encourage players to pass, without actually telling them to pass. I tell my lads that they have three choices whenever they get the ball, which are to either shoot, run with it or pass. I don’t want to tell them what they should decide to do, because I believe that to have a chance of producing creative players you need to give them the freedom and the environment to make decisions for themselves, without fear of failure or criticism.

That said, coaxing some players that would otherwise run with it 100% of the time to at least consider the possibility of passing was important to me. One player in particular has exceptional dribbling skills, and has trained with a Premiership pre-academy program where they are always encouraging the youngsters to beat the player, rather than to pass.

So I put on a training session in the week in which a 10×10 yard area (scoring zone) was marked in front of each 5-a-side goal, and the only rule different to a normal match was you have to be in the scoring zone to shoot. I praised players who passed to a teammate more than the goal scorers though.

The following match day, I waited for my opportunity to enthusiastically praise a good pass in the final third. The boy I was particularly interested in dribbled, and dribbled and dribbled some more … until finally it happened. He broke down the right, got his head up, saw his teammate running through the middle and slid a lovely ball through to his mate. My enthusiastic, heart felt praise for his decision to pass put a smile on his little face, and two or three more times more in that game he opted to pass, rather than to run with it. I hadn’t shouted for him to pass, or even suggested that he should. As I said before, I make it very clear to all my players that the choice is theirs and that the rest of the team should always support whatever decision the player on the ball makes. What I did is I made a fuss of him, more than I would for a goal, when he displayed the desired behaviour so that he knew that he had done well. Genuine praise makes kids want repeat what they are praised for.

What I have learnt and now experienced tells me you should say nothing when they don’t get success, and praise them to the hilt if they try to execute something that you are trying to coach them on.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic?

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football

How can we design the perfect practise week for a youth footballer?

The basic rules of achieving excellence at anything is that the more time you spend on deliberate practise, the better you will become at it. That is true of virtually everything, from maths to English, football to violin. Practising, deliberately, will improve you without question.

By deliberate practise, I don’t mean kicking a ball around for fun in the park, although that of course has its place. I mean focusing in on something specific and learning from each repetition. So passing against a wall for example, and concentrating on each pass, and focusing on how you strike the ball, how it rebounds and how you can improve with each kick.

I coach an under 8’s football team, and I have them for training for just 1 hour a week, and on match day for about another 1 hour if you count the warm-up training session and the match itself. That is just 2 hours of the 168 hours in their week spent on football practise with our team. I’d imagine that there are a huge number of coaches in the same boat, and it is frustrating to know that if that practise was increased, assuming it was the correct deliberate practise, the kids would get even better than they already are. If you are in any doubt about the fact the more deliberate practise equals more skill, then I can highly recommend that you read books such as The Talent Code, Bounce, and The Sports Gene. Practise, deliberately, at anything and you will get better.

Some of the kids in my team play football elsewhere of course, and some practise at home, but if these young lads are to have any chance of being the best player they can be I can’t help but feel that they need more practise hours than they are currently getting. So what would a perfect weeks practise look like for an U8 footballer, and how can that be delivered logistically in today’s busy world?

I have given this a lot of thought, and my conclusions to date are inconclusive. I do however have an idea that I think that can help both the player get more hours of deliberate practise, their team, the coach and lastly but by no means least, their parents!

On a recent FA Youth Module 2 coaching course, we were told that the attention span of a child is approximately their age plus two in minutes. So for an average seven year old, they are likely to have a nine-minute attention span. (That is aged 7 + 2 = 9 minutes). This is of course a rough guide and not an exact science, but it is a useful idea to have when designing any activities for children. This got me thinking. Firstly, about how school lessons are structured and whether that structure could be improved?

It also got me thinking about how we could use that attention span to our advantage, and mix football and other important learning opportunities, such as schoolwork, to the best effect. I think we could use football as the spoon full of sugar that helps the homework medicine go down. We know that kids love games and competition, so can we help incorporate that into their daily homework?

For a moment, let’s think about the following truisms at the same time:

  1. Kids often display reluctance to complete homework.
  2. Kids often display a willingness to play football.
  3. What we know about average attention spans.
  4. Kids, especially boys, are very competitive and like games.

I think that maybe there is a mutually beneficial answer for parents, children and football coaches alike here in the ramification of homework, using football.

Let’s say that a parent reviews a seven year olds homework, and splits it into 5 minute chunks. So 30 minutes of homework could be split into 6 smaller, easier to digest 5 minute chunks.

Let’s then ask the child if they want to practise their passing and receiving in the garden, or do their maths homework. I am going to guess that given the choice, most football mad seven year olds will be half way to the garden by now. But, not so fast! Homework has to be done, so the parent offers a compromise. A game.

The child is told that if they concentrate and try hard on their school work for just the next 5 minutes, you will award them a bonus five minutes of practicing their football in the garden.

Bearing in mind the likely attention span young kids are likely to pay any given fixed task, we can see that the football break would serve to reset the child’s focus, so that when they return to their school work they will be ready to focus again. Also, breaking the homework down into smaller chunks, and rewarding good work with  a football treat should make it easier to get the job done. So if the child spends 30 minutes on homework a day, this football game would also deliver 30 minutes of deliberate football practise a day which is gold dust for the 5-11 age group.

I can hear the parents out there thinking aloud that I have just taken 30 minutes of home work and turned it into an hour. That may be so for the more studious kids, but having watched my kids rally against 30 minutes homework with my wife on numerous occasions I am not so sure I have. I have seen 30 minutes of homework take an hour and a half, because my little darlings spend so much distracted time complaining about having to do the homework in the first place on the grounds that it is ‘boring’ that this game could in some cases save time, and the time you do spend will be more enjoyable and productive for child and parent alike?

So what would the perfect week of practise look like? With more deliberate practise time now on the cards, I think I would like to keep the team training session for more team-oriented game practise, and the set more individual, repetitive skill as home assignments for the kids. Having been on a Coever coaching workshop, watched the 6-DVD coaching series and used their app, I think they would fit perfectly into a weekly practise session as well because they focus solely on individual skills, and they don’t run teams. This would ensue that the two coaches kids are exposed to each week wouldn’t be coaching a different style of play to the kids, and causing confusion.

I think a week like this, based on training available in my area, would be a huge improvement:

Monday – Deliberate practise mixed with school homework – 30 minutes.

Tuesday – Team practise with their team coach – 60 minutes.

Wednesday – Deliberate practise mixed with school homework – 30 minutes.

Thursday – Deliberate practise mixed with school homework – 30 minutes.

Friday – Coever coaching session – (individual, ball mastery skills) – 60 minutes.

Saturday – Match day (pre-match training & a game with their team) – 60 minutes.

Sunday – Free play with friends or relatives.

This practise schedule increases the hours of deliberate football practise from 2 hours to 4.5 hours a week, without adding too much more effort for the family as a whole. That’s the theory, which I plan to test on my own football mad son very soon! If the coach sets the right training to focus on, and the child takes to the homework game as I think they would, both football and school work skills should improve.

I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who is interested in this article, with your views, comments or suggestions. Please write back in the comments!

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shoutyparents

Dear parents, please don’t coach from the sidelines

I put this together in response to a conversation on Twitter, which asked ‘Do parents have the right to coach their kids from the sidelines’. The argument proved too difficult for me to answer in 140 characters, so I ended up here🙂

Answering the question ‘do parents have the right’ is a difficult one. What I can say though is that I 100% believe that it is best for the kids if they only have one set of instructions. The likelihood of a set of parents reinforcing a coaches ideas with a set of spontaneous, individual calls from the sidelines is slim. What is more likely to happen in my view is that the kids will become confused.

An example. My 7 year old son plays for a team, and his coach usually asks him to stay up front when we are defending. That is hard for a 7 year old to do in the first place, because if the ball is travelling back they are compelled to follow at that age. I remember several occasions where my son was in fact staying up front, as asked by his coach, when his granddad shouted for him to get back and tackle. Now his granddad meant well of course, and was just getting caught up in the excitement of watching football but it was the polar opposite of what the coach had asked. The coach responded by shouting for my son to go forward, and my son because became confused about two different instructions from two adults.

I believe that there needs to be one voice for players to follow, and not several, differing views, if they are to have a chance of following any instructions at all. So during the trials for my Saturday team, I wrote to all parents and explained that coaching from the sidelines was not permitted, and gave them the following reasons:

No coaching from the side please. Even adults struggle to absorb too many instructions before and during a game of football, so I like to try and keep the pre-match team-talk very simple, and try to link that talk to the training they had most recently and the long term development plan I am working towards. I firmly believe that if the players go onto the pitch with one idea and then hear shouts of ‘get back’ or ‘come wide’ or ‘shoot’ it confuses them, and undermines the work I am doing as a coach towards their long term development. The same rules apply to training. Sometimes it might look as if the boys are not doing exactly what I asked, but if I don’t correct them, it could be because I am giving them the licence to work the problem out for themselves. I would be grateful if you could allow them that as well.

We have only played a couple of games this season, but so far, so good. I think most people are reasonable, and if you clearly explain the reasons why you are asking this of them then they understand. We 100% want parents to encourage, cheer, clap and be to offer praise. Just not to offer instructions.

I’d be very interested in hearing any thoughts, ideas or experiences from other coaches on this topic in the comments?

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Constant neural circuits v flexible neural circuits & how that affects football coaching

I am reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle at the moment, and felt inspired to write a blog post about the difference between constant neural circuits and flexible neural circuits because I have always believed that there is far too much shouting from the sidelines in youth football, from well-meaning coaches and parents offering a slew of instruction, when silence might be the best option. This book explained why for me more eloquently than I could have!

Neuron

I have always believed that that if your goal is to develop player for the long-term, and not just a winning team for today, then young players need to have lots of opportunities to try new things and learn through the repetition of making lots and lots of decisions.

Often coaches go straight to a command style, and ‘tell’ players what to do, and I think that we run the risk of creating predicable, almost robotic players if that is how we continue to coach them. Players need to experience the game and make decisions for themselves in order for deep learning to flourish. 

So back to the book. I got to Part III called Master coaching and read stories about the study of how top coaches in all sorts of genres act while they are coaching. I then came across a comparison between a violin tutor and a Brazilian football coach, which perfectly explained it for me …

The violin teacher was offering a constant stream of verbal instruction to her pupil, as they played while the renowned Brazilian football coach set up a game of Futsal, and then sat back and said nothing. He just let them play.

This wildly different coaching style was achieving the same result. There is only one-way of playing the violin correctly, so it is necessary to fire a very precise set of constant neural pathways, very precisely and often in order to improve so the coach was constantly tweaking and refining technique on the fly. Daniel Coyle said “if you were to see the neural pathways associated with a violinist, they would ‘look like an oak tree; a solid trunk of technique growing straight upwards. When a violinist players an A Minor chord, it will always be an A Minor chord and not a smidgen off”

However, of a football player’s circuitry, Coyle said “the ideal circuitry is varied and fast … if ideal soccer circuitry was rendered as an electrician’s blueprint, it would look like a gargantuan hedge of ivy vines; a vast, inter-connected network of equally accessible possibilities (a.k.a fakes and moves). A footballer is not learning a constant skill, and needs a huge number of flexible neural circuits to fire in order to perform.

So the Brazilian football coach allowed the requisite neural circuits to fire by letting the players experience the game, and by giving them the opportunity to get repetition of touches, decision making and the game. No intervention was deemed necessary, because he had set up the practice (Futsal game) to deliver the required outcome. For kids, I believe that this idea of letting them play without interference is not only beneficial, but also more enjoyable.

So when I tried to take this learning and look at my current football coaching through that lens, I started to think about the constant, variable and random practices that are taught on the FA Youth Award modules. I can see a pattern for intervention forming in my mind now.

Constant practice is designed to just do one thing well. So for example, passing back and forth with a team-mate, to hone technique. Because there is a right way to do that, perhaps more intervention from a coach would be appropriate here?

Random practices however, such as a small-sided games, needs little or no intervention because the players are practicing the game of football, and need to be left to experience situations and to make decisions and learn from them. Flexible neural circuits are constantly firing, and although we can’t see it happening, they are learning as a result.

I would recommend The Talent Code to any coach. I have just ordered another of Daniel Coyle’s book’s, The Little Book of Talent, and can’t wait to get stuck into that next!

 Agree? Disagree? Got another take on this? As always please join the conversation in the comments!

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Attacking quickly as soon as possession is won

I have designed this game to help my u8 team practice making quick attacks from the second we win possession of the ball.

I would be grateful for any feedback, comments or suggestions please!?🙂

AttackQuickly

 

Learning focus:

Attack quickly as soon as we win the ball.

Game:

Attack versus defence.

Blues defend first and start the game on the cones furthest away from the goal.

Yellows attack first and start on the cones nearest the goal.

All players face away from the goal, and start on the coaches whistle.

Yellows try to score a goal, and blues try to recover and win the ball back.

Yellows get five chances to score a goal & get 1 point for every goal – keep score.

Blues then have five chances.

Possible progressions:

1. Move defenders closer or further away depending on success.

2. Move one defender to be between attackers and goalkeeper if yellows get lots of success.

 

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Simplify, paint pictures & repeat

keep-calm-and-simplify-8

Maurice Saatchi, co-founder of one of the most successful advertising agencies of all time said ‘simple ideas enter the brain quicker and stay there for longer’ and having spent around 20 years working in the communications industry I have had my fair share of experience and training on this from a business perspective. Saatchi also said ‘it is easier to complicate than to simplify’ but that is surely what we as youth coaches must do if we are to offer the maximum chance of learning to our young players?

I have spent 20 years trying to explain complex ideas in an easy-to-understand way, and when I started coaching youth football I realised that my training in business could be of huge value to my newfound passion. Simplicity is a form of genius in my eyes, and the 140 characters that you are allowed per tweet on Twitter is a fantastic measure of how well you have simplified. If you can’t articulate your idea in 140 characters, the chances are you need to further simplify. Young players have a limited attention span and so getting across key messages, in a very concise, easy to understand way is vital. I could waffle on for hours to my 7-year-olds about the four phases of play for example, but how much would they take in and would the key messages be lost in the noise? Less is more.

As an example, lets imagine you were trying to teach the four phases of play to a seven year old. It is likely too complex an idea (from a tactical perspective) for them to grasp with their limited attention span. So your only realistic opportunities is to scrap it all together, or to take what you consider the very essence of the four phases of play and condense it, to be a few simple pointers that might help your players understand.

Phases of play

The four phases of play:

  1. Attacking
  2. Defending
  3. Transition to attack
  4. Transition to defend

I simplified to this:

  1. When we win the ball we attack as quickly as we can
  2. When we lose the ball we defend as quickly as we can

By definition, when we win the ball we become the attacking team and when we lose the ball we are the defending team, so I thought it was OK to drop all of that detail and to focus simply on communicating two, hopefully simple, concepts. What we do as an individual when our team win the ball and what we do when our team lose the ball. As the players develop and become exposed to more complex tactical coaching, I hope that this rudimentary exposure at an early age will prove to be a platform on what to build.

I then try to design sessions that help players practice skills that they will need to operate successfully in all four phases, but only explain two of them as key points in every match, namely when we win the ball and when we lose the ball. For example, in training yesterday we played a game which was designed to help players practice attacking quickly as a team. The game itself was loosely based on the FA’s ‘Waves’ game. I set up with a 5-a-side pitch, and a goalkeeper in each goal. A team of three players start at one end, and another three at the other, and on the coaches instruction they try to work the ball forward as quickly as possible as a team, and score a goal at the opposite end.

Before they start that exercise and a couple of times throughout the game, I ask them to visualise that they are playing in a game and that when I shout ‘go’ or ‘play’ they have suddenly won back possession. That is hopefully the starting point of the game in their minds. The practice was set up with a pitch in the approximate dimensions they will experience on match days, with interference from the team playing from the other end, and the stress of the other team scoring first which spurred them on to try and play more quickly. Incidentally, this practice led into a 4v4 game in which the players were encouraged to think about the last game, and how quickly they could attack as a team when they won the ball.

Finally, repetition is how humans take short-term memories and transcode them into long-term memories. Without repetition, ideas are lost because long-term memories are not made. At every training session I ask the players what they remember about our formation (diamond), what we ask of our wing-backs (attack quickly when we win the ball, defend quickly when we lose it) and a couple of other key, simplified points around respect, teamwork and fun.

 

Do you have any thoughts, comments or suggestions about this? If so, please leave in the comments!

P.S. I set this blog up in the hope that I would get contributions from coaches, so please do send me anything you would like me to publish, or add your comments on this blog post in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coaching that split second decision

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The human instinctive reaction to any given situation is often subconscious and delivered in the blink of eye, but this rapid thought process is far more meaningful than most people immediately recognise. Some people call that reaction a ‘gut feeling’ others call it ‘intuition’ or ‘instinctive’ but what is clear is that instant reaction is far more informed than we give ourselves credit for.

Whatever you call that one-second feeling, it is not random, nor can it be dismissed simply a as knee jerk reaction. You can scientifically rest assured that your instantaneous reaction to a specific set of circumstances is in fact your brain delivering all of your previous experiences, condensed and executed without conscious thought, and in the blink of an eye. In other words, all of your past memories, experiences and thoughts are mashed together and given to you in that second. That is why, generally speaking, people who have been in a certain job for a very long time seem to know the right answer to a problem as soon as it is presented. The more times we experience a set of circumstances, the stronger that instinctive response becomes. As with so many things in life, repetition creates a stronger instinctive response.

So to football. Lets say that you would love as a coach to develop the next Messi. The question as a football coach is then surely how can you give young players enough repetition of creativity, because true creativity comes from within? Creativity in footballing terms is perhaps seeing a through ball, or beating a man, or opening up space for you and your team. I don’t believe that creativity can be taught by a ‘do this and do that’ instruction style of coaching and the human the science would appear to agree. Creativity is trial and error, repeated. So how do we coach creativity? Creativity comes from within. I am a long way from having the answers by the way, but I do believe that a player needs to feel inspired to try new things, and at the same time feel supported that whatever they try, whether it is successful or not, will be 100% supported by their coach and parents. Only then, through repetitive creativity will that player deliver that blink-of-an-eye response in a match.

There is a school of thought that hours and hours of simply playing with a football can be more beneficial than a couple of hours of professional coaching a week, and some of the greatest players we have ever seen grace the world football stage grew up doing just that. Street football. No adults, no rules, just play … for hours. Learning through playing. Messi, Suarez, Zidane … all played hours and hours of football with their mates in the street. Zidane actually said that he owes everything he achieved in the game to the time he spent playing football on the Marseilles the streets with his friends. They tried things. Nobody groaned when it didn’t work immediately. Nobody rolled their eyes. Nobody shouted instructions. Players just played and learned as they went. Played and learned, building new pictures every day, and strengthening existing pictures. This is what I think the coaching family would call #LetTheGameBeTheTeacher or simply #LetThemPlay

We have largely lost street football in England, most worryingly because of the bad people out there who can harm our children, or more accurately the fear of those who might harm our children. When I was a kid playing for hours in the park, Jimmy Saville was doing his worst as we now know, but the danger never seemed as harsh as it does today. Every day you hear of one case to strike fear into the hearts of any parent. Forget we are a nation of nearly 65m people, and the actual chance of child abduction is statistically remote. The fear is there, and fuelled by the media. As a result, letting your kids out to play from the end of school until dusk happens less and less. The result is less unstructured ‘creative’ time with a football for our youth. Add to that to the rise in technology such as XBox, Playstation, iPad etc and we see another barrier to kids in this and many other countries playing the beautiful game. Think back to Suarez. Biting aside, he is a genius with a football. He grew up poor, and his primary means of entertainment was football in the streets with his friends. Thousands of hours built up without structure, creating new pictures and strengthening existing current pictures in his mind.

I am nearly 42. I remember spending entire days as a kid playing football. Jumpers for goalposts, mates, one ball … GO! I am talking eight ours straight in the local park. When I couldn’t, I went between the houses and kicked a ball against the wall. Scoring FA Cup winners for Liverpool with half the kicks, and registering assists with the other half. I could spend hours on my own with a ball and a wall, but today kids seem to need to be entertained or else they won’t play.

How many kids have that same opportunity or motivation that I grew up with in England now? How many play street football, or play unstructured football for hours on end? If you visit most parks at this time of year, you will see grass too long for a young player to machete a ball out of and precious few kids playing as a result. As a kid, we used to get to the park early so we could get the flattest expanse of park for ‘our game’. Before another group of kids took it. That is rarely a consideration anymore … wide open expanses of long grass full of nothing. Sweet FA. The picture on this article was taken four weeks ago at the park in Sutton near where I grew up. I spent hours and hours playing in this park as a kid, and thought it would be nice to take my own son back there for a kick about. The picture above illustrates what I found. Long grass. The blurred colours behind the in the above photograph grass are my 7 year old son and his football. How is a kid supposed to play football in these conditions? I went to three other parks that day in the local area and found a similar situation. Acres of grass but nowhere to play.

So as we all celebrate the end of a wonderful World Cup in Brazil, and lament another poor England performance in another major tournament, we should remember that for a long time the base of the English football pyramid has been diminishing. At the bottom of that pyramid you need to have kids playing football. Today, the simple fact is that less kids play football than they did when I was growing up. For somebody who has taken so much pleasure from football for so long it is really sad to see.

There are a multitude of other issues that is preventing England from being a world super-power of course, but it still seems to me that with England, Roy Hodgson is trying to fix the roof of a house that has yet to be built.

Roll your eyes now at the inevitable mention of German football. Germany started from scratch a decade or so ago. They got their football association and top clubs to buy into system under the watchful eye of German legend, Jurgen Klinsmann, and they have just won a World Cup. From a young age to the international scene, players play a similar way. The German way. In England, a player under 9 will likely be at a club where the coach is either completely under-qualified or not qualified at all. Aged 9, the very best of that crop will be signed to an academy, and then that club will train those players in the Chelsea way, or the Arsenal way, however they see fit. No cohesion. No thoughts of ‘The English way’ because despite being in England, the Premiership couldn’t care less about English football. Once into a club, these young players often see lots of foreign superstars in the first team, and in some cases the reserves as well, and even if they manage a fantastic progression through the youth system that still will not guarantee them a place in the first team. They often hit a wall, and watch as the club continue buying foreign talent which is blocking their progression to the first team. Now some people will say well if they were good enough, then they would break through. I think that misses the point. They can’t become good enough if they are not given regular, competitive first team football at the highest level to help them progress. How are they supposed to be good enough to be Premiership superstars alongside Suarez, and Zola and Bergkamp if they are treated like like Ryan Bertrand, as a case in point. He is 24 years old, and went to Chelsea in 2005, aged 15. He last played for Chelsea in a year later in 2006, before going on loan to Bournemouth, Oldham, Norwich, Reading, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa. Despite being bumped from pillar to post, he has still represented his country at every level from under 16 to full international. How is a talented player like Bertrand supposed to ‘take it to the next level’ without a chance at playing top flight football on a regular basis?

In my opinion, England needs to do five things urgently. It will involve moving some of the billions at the top of the game down to the bottom, and the Premiership won’t like it, but these are my thoughts:

  1.  Starting at the fundamental base of the footballing pyramid, we need to put parks into a state on which we are able to play football. I live in a very green area, and everywhere locally has grass that is too long for 7/8 year olds to play football on. I could barely hack the ball out of the grass on some of them.
  2.  Schooling – from an early age, local non-league players could go in and address school assemblies. Or if that isn’t possible then enthusiastic FA qualified coaches.coaches. Let’s excite more kids about playing more football. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are real concerns for societies today, so lets not lose any more kids to a life of McDonalds and computer games.
  3.  Offer safe areas where kids can just come and play whenever they fancy. Perhaps chaperoned by an FA qualified coach. Allow the ‘old school’ ethos of street football to return, by providing a safe environment to just play. It would also be a great place for local scouts to come and find their future stars. If creativity comes from within, and repetition of creativity enables players to make ‘creative decisions’ then more kids have to have the opportunity to play more football.
  4.  Improve the FA qualified Coaches that are available to the grass roots game. I believe that the FA youth Award is a massive step in the right direction here, but we need more. According to the tutor I had for my FA level One course, level two is really suited for coaches who coach teams aged 12 upwards, so that means once I have completed the three modules of the Youth Award, I have few options open to me to educate myself and become a better coach for the under 8s I currently manage. If you have a UEFA A or B license, your level of education will have moved far beyond what a young player of 8 years old requires, and therefore coaches understandably move up the age groups. Why not have an entirely new coaching pathway dedicated to those coaches who feel best placed to coach 5-11 year olds then? Imagine if you could work towards the UEFA Pro License equivalent for coaching 5-11 year olds? The FA recognise this as ‘the golden age of learning’ so lets reinvest some of the billions sloshing around in the Premiership into making this golden age the best it can be for our young players.
  5.  This one is at the top of the pyramid, but we need to kill the stranglehold that the Premiership has on this country. It is the worst kind or Trojan horse, because it has rolled into England with all its glitter, money and promises, yet spilled its guts all over us. It’s guts were full of win at all costs and foreign is cheaper edicts. Full of TV money and boastful claims. It was full of foreign players who are deemed to have been coached better and thus to be better technically. On top of all that these players players are often cheaper! The Trojan horse is full of ‘England has the greatest league in the world’ yet the star players are rarely eligible to play for England.

We either go balls deep into this Trojan horse, and use it as an emotional crutch every time somebody mentions how woeful the next England performance is in a major tournament, or we take English football back to benefit England. This is in no way, shape or form anything the EDL should latch onto by the way. I am not calling for an end to foreign players. Genius that graced the beautiful game such as Zola, Bergkamp, and Suarez are an enormous privilege for any team in any country to enjoy. Surely though with a unified national approach in England, that doesn’t pander to the money and power of the Premiership, we can replace players like Kvarme, Djemba-Djemba and Boogers with English players? The latter was allegedly signed by West Ham United without Harry Redknapp ever seeing him play!

A coach mentioned to me last night that he expected the CPD courses that we will attend next year to be full of ‘German learnings’ and while on the face of it that might make sense off the back of their recent success, we have no chance while items 1-5 above are so woefully wrong.

Just my thoughts. Be really interested to here what you personally agree and disagree with?

#LetThemPlay #StreetFootball

 

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Constant practice and how the human brain learns

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I have been reading a lot about football coaching recently and it has led me to believe that there is a growing school of thought that for training drills to be truly effective they must mimic as closely as possible the game of football, with opposition and stress. I agree to a point, and can’t fault the logic, but if you study the way our brains actually learn, then repetition is the key, and maybe it’s a little too soon to discard constant practices in favour of ‘random’ and ‘variable’ drills?

Lets accept that the definition of Constant, Variable and Random drills is:

Constant – players repeat a certain drill many times in a row with no change in difficulty or interference. An example might be two players standing 10 yards apart, and simply using the inside of their feet to pass, control and pass back.

Variable – where the size or conditions of the drill ask the player to think a little more. So passing to each other in a small area, with other pairs of players also passing a ball in the same are. There is movement, decision making and bodies in the way which causes interference, but still no opposition as experienced in a match.

Random – where the drill mimics the game of football as closely as possible. So with opposition. With a defender trying to tackle or intercept. Pressure on the player to act quickly.

So back to how the human brain learns. There are basically three types of memory. Before any brain scientists pull me up here, I totally accept that I am simplifying.

Sensory memory – lasts for a fraction of a second, and consists of sight, sound, touch, smell. Millions if not billions of these memories are fleetingly made and lost as quickly every single day.

In order for a sensory memory to become anything that you are even remotely aware of consciously, you need to pay attention to that sensory memory. To test this theory, I want you to take a quick test with me. It is ideal to test this in an area that you are not completely familiar with if you can. When I say ‘go’ I’d like you to glance around the area you are in right now and see how many red items you can see in 5 seconds. Only 5 seconds, then come back to this article please. Ok, GO!

You’re back? Good. We’ll come back to this in a second …

Sensory memory is anything that crossed your ears, eyes, nose, mouth and taste and thousands and thousands of things so every second. Fractions of a second per item,
and most of it is gone without you ever knowing it was there in the first place.

This leads us onto short-term memory. This is a section of our memory that can hold between 3 and 7 items of memory for around 20 seconds at a time. If we pay no attention at this stage, when a sensory memory has made it to short-term memory, then it will also be lost. Attention is the key once again, and without repetition in our conscious memory the memory doesn’t survive.

In order for a fleeting, fraction of a second memory from your sensory memory to even be conscious to you, it is essential that you paid at least some attention. If you paid zero attention to a sensory memory, it will not make it into your short-term memory.

In that 5 second look around your area I asked of you before …you would have taken in thousands and thousands of small items that were immediate forgotten.

Now, please don’t look away from this screen. Can you recall any of the red items you saw in your area?

A few I would imagine, assuming there were any, because you were asking your mind to seek out and pay attention to items that were red. Don’t look away from this text now please … How many blue items did you see in that previous 5 second scan? Harder to recall I’d imagine? Now, if you are in your favourite comfy chair in the living room then you will be able to remember a few because the blue items would have benefited from multiple periods of your attention over a period of time, and that leads us neatly onto how long-term memories are made. Through repeated attention being paid, as many times as possible.

In order for us to remember something for longer than about 20 seconds, and start to code that memory from short-term memory to long-term memory, you have to pay some attention to it. The more attention you pay, the stronger the coding into long-term memory. The queue of short-term memories being made and quickly lost is constantly moving, especially in this digital age where there is always a ping or a bleep to distract you and become the latest piece of short-term memory made, leaving another to be lost. There is a constant conveyor belt of 20 second (max) thoughts, being destroyed by a lack of our attention to them.

You know that feeling that we have all had when you ‘forget where you left your keys’ right? You don’t actually forget where you put them at all. You fail to make a sufficiently strong memory to be recalled. If you walk into the house and dump your keys with no attention paid at the time to where you dumped them, then you don’t make a memory. Therefore there is nothing to remember later. If you have a place that your mind associates with keys, and you consciously make a point of always putting them in the same place, you will never lose your keys again. Your brain, with every placement, makes a stronger connection between the coffee table and your keys for example.

So back to football. The more you repeat something, the more you strengthen the neural pathways in your brain that leads a fleeting memory into a short-term memory, and more importantly leads a short-term memory into a long-term memory . This is especially true with 5-11 year old who are said to be in the ‘golden age of learning’. The first time they pass a football with the instep, and aim at another player they are creating a neural pathway and every time they pay attention to repeating that technique, they are strengthening that neural pathway.

So repetition and attention build what we call ‘muscle memory’ and surely only constant practice, while paying attention to that technique, and lots of repetition can help a player successfully master a technique? You could argue that during a game a player is passing, but their attention is being divided many ways at a time, and therefore mindful attention on the technique of passing is less.

So I would suggest, as an example, that asking a 7 or 8-year-old to make 100 passes with the instep every training session (with occasional intervention from the coach to correct technique if necessary) must surely be a great way to get the correct technique into the players muscle memory? So much so that when they need to make a pass in a game that correct technique is the default reaction. Then, when the correct technique appears to be second nature we can move that player on through the use of variable and random practices to start to replicate the game of football.

A fantastic book on attention and the human brain can be summarised neatly by this video – http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cKaWJ72x1rI – It is worth watching and explains better than I how long-term memories (longer than 20 seconds) are made.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions or counter-ideas on this in the comments?

 

 

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Teaching kids how to make the space to receive a pass; an idea and request for new ideas

I’d be really interested to hear ideas from coaches who have found a simple way to help kids understand why and how they should create space for a team mate in possession.

Last year while coaching an under 7s team, I came up with a concept I call ‘Invisible lines’ which has had moderate success, but I can’t help feeling there is a far simpler way to articulate the idea?

The aim of Invisible lines is to help the team in possession make space, so that their mate on the ball can pass. This is not a coaching drill as such, more something I explain and demonstrate before a keep-ball/ Rondo type drill.

I ask the kids to imagine that there is an invisible line between the ball and them at all times, and that to help your mate who has the ball, its great to try and find some space that also has a clear invisible line between you and the ball.

I demonstrate this concept by showing them this pitch layout on the iPad.

Invisible lines

 

I then develop a Q&A with the players, and ask them what pass ‘Player 2’ can make in this position?

I ask what could the other players do to help Player 2 find a pass? I encourage them to show me on the iPad where players 3,4 and 5 might move to in order to make space.

Finally, I set the players up in the positions on the diagram. I ask player 2 if he can make a pass, which of course he can’t, and then in turn ask players 3,4 and 5 what they could do to help in that situation.

As always, I’d be very grateful if you could share your thoughts, ideas and feedback in the comments.

 

 

 

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How would you have countered Mourinho’s tactics yesterday?

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Having watched the Liverpool v Chelsea match this weekend, I got to thinking about how an attacking, attractive footballing team can overcome a team who ‘park the bus’ as Chelsea did on Sunday. So I’d like to explore the subject, using Liverpool v Chelsea as an example, and I’d love coaches to get involved in this conversation by adding your ideas and thoughts via the comments?

Liverpool have blown teams many away this season, especially at Anfield, by attacking at pace with very mobile, quick-thinking forward players. That starts with Gerrard in the holding midfield role, who is able to play long, accurate balls to players like Sterling, Coutinho, Sturridge and of course the newly crowned PFA Player of the Year, Luis Suarez.

Liverpool usually create space by exhibiting great movement and by attacking at pace. By getting the ball forward quickly and to feet, with movement off the ball, it often pulls defenders out of shape and creates spaces for the forwards to exploit in between defending players. They also have a forward line who can beat a man, which of course helps.

I can recall two occasions however this season where opposition teams at Anfield have ‘parked the bus’ in as much as they packed the defensive third of the pitch in order to limit the space in which Liverpool want to attack. Against Chelsea, that defensive mentality was ironically best illustrated by Chelsea’s first goal. When Steven Gerrard’s slipped, he was just in his own half and Demba Ba was the only Chelsea player anywhere near him.

A few weeks previously, Sunderland tried a similar tactic, but they defended with a slightly higher line and it took a free kick from distance to break the deadlock and for Sunderland to then come out and play.

So it got me thinking. What can you actually do about it as a coach, when faced with a team that have 10 men behind the ball? For long periods yesterday Liverpool were camped in the Chelsea half, passing the ball in front of ten Chelsea players, and finding no space to play in the final third. In the end, Gerrard, Allen and others resorted to shots from just outside the box, without any joy.

Liv_Chel_goal_attempts

Although it didn’t work for Liverpool yesterday, I am thinking that shots from the edge of the box might be one of the tactics to employ when there are eight or nine players defending the penalty area. Trying to work the space to get as near as you can, and then aim to hit an in-off shot, sounds more like billiards than football, but it is difficult to know what else to do in such a crowded penalty area? To try and wriggle through that many players with dribbling and quick passing is extremely difficult. Maybe practicing hitting shots from the edge of the area, at pace, that are around knee high to the defenders would offer the maximum chance of a defender deflecting the ball past a partially unsighted goalkeeper? Or maybe even slightly higher than the knee to tempt the defenders into using their hands?

Yesterday, Mourinho set out to frustrate from the off by setting up with ten men behind the ball, and time wasting in order to take the pace out of the game. He closed off the space in the final third to stifle Liverpool’s attacking flair, and fortuitously nicked a goal at the expense of the slipping Steven Gerrard. His tactics ultimately worked, but it would have been interesting to see how Chelsea would have developed from there had Gerrard not slipped, because they never looked like scoring without that bit of luck.

So how would you have changed things if you were the Liverpool manager against Chelsea yesterday?

 

 

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Training session – under 7’s tactics for goal kicks

Following a discussion on Twitter with Daniel Gregory about the retreat line rule in youth soccer, and the pros and cons of that rule, I have posted a few thoughts about how we set up our team to ensure that the defender who receives the ball always has a pass they can make.

More generally, we always tell our boys about movement off the ball and to imagine that there is an invisible line between the ball and them at all times. If that invisible line has an opposing player on it, you need to move in order to find space to receive a pass. Having that invisible line in their head is a way of them constantly checking to see if they are in a good position to receive a pass.

Specifically for goal kicks, we set the boys up very narrow in a 2-2 formation (Square) with both defenders roughly in line with the goal posts. This leaves space on the wings, as the opposing players who are waiting to charge from the half-way line will generally mark our players. So if our players are very central, so will the opposing players be.

On the training pitch, we show the boys what that looks like on the 24/7 Coach app (see picture attached) and then set the boys up in that position so they can ‘feel’ what that set up looks like.

The players set up very narrowly, to leave lots of space on the wings

The players set up very narrowly, to leave lots of space on the wings

As soon as the goalkeeper kicks the ball towards the defender on the left-hand side, the opposing players have started to run towards the ball from the halfway line. It of course varies from team to team, but it is usually 2 or 3 players that bomb forward. At least 1 of those players will head for the defender who is about to receive the ball.

The defender receives the ball, as the opposing players rush into your half.

The defender receives the ball, as the opposing players rush into your half.

As the defender receives the ball, they are close to being closed down from the opposing players rushing from the halfway line, but if the pass from the goalkeeper is solid enough there should still be time to control and turn. As the defender is receiving the ball, the forward on the left-hand side makes a quick run out towards the touchline, creating sudden space, which the defender can then use to pass the ball through before the opposing defender reacts.

As the defender gets the ball under control, the forward darts wide to create space to receive the pass.

As the defender gets the ball under control, the forward darts wide to create space to receive the pass before the defender can react.

Id be very interested to hear your feedback on this, or any coaching points related to it in the comments?

 

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Retreat line in mini soccer is a good thing … do you have a different view?

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In mini-soccer, the FA introduced a rule concerning goal kicks. The rule reads “Law 16. Goal Kick. Procedure. A player of the defending team kicks the ball from any point within the penalty area. Opponents must retreat to their own half until the ball is in play. The defending team does not have to wait for the opposition to retreat and has the option to restart the game before should they choose to. The ball is in play when it is kicked directly out the penalty area.”

I think that it is a good thing for the age group I coach (under 7’s) for the reasons I will explain below. Others disagree though. It is a rule that divides opinion, and I’d love to hear what you think about it in the comments?

Pro retreat line.

The biggest benefit of the retreat line is that it encourages players to play football, with the ball on the ground. Imagine the scenario without a retreat line … a goalkeeper looks up, ready to take a goal kick, and all four of his outfield players are marked. In that scenario, the goalkeeper is likely to try and kick it long. The understandable rationale being that if the ball is going to be lost then it is done as far away from their goal as possible.

I believe that the retreat line offers the goalkeeper an easy pass, to feet, and encourages the team to pass and move from there. Not only does that encourage the passing of the ball, it offers all players more touches of the ball, which will aid their long-term development. More touches = better ball mastery. Or as your parents used to drum into you, practice makes perfect. The whole reason that mini-soccer was introduced was to offer more touches of the ball to each player.

Too often in the past, English coaches would encourage defenders not to play with the ball. Cries from the touchline of ‘get rid’ directed defenders to lump it forward the big lad up front, and that tactic robs the other defenders and the entire midfield from a touch of the ball. That is one thing if you are a Premiership manager trying to set up to play to the strengths of the players you have, but if you are trying to develop young players, then I think it is better to encourage them to receive and pass the ball more often.

As with many things in youth coaching, I think it comes back to the fundamental motivation of the coach. Are you trying to win this game, or develop the players in it for the long-term? If it is the former then your thinking will be about getting the players ready for that game, if it is the latter, you will see the game as another opportunity for the players to develop skills.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

If you wish to submit an article to be published on the blog, then please email it to me at mike_nicholson@hotmail.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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Possession. My ideas and thoughts after completing online FA Licensed Coaches Club course

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The FA Licensed Coaches Club recently released 6 new online CPD courses, to support coaches who are qualified to either level 1 or level 2. These courses take around one hour each to complete, and consist of watching coaching videos and then answering questions and they count as 1 hour towards your CPD quota.

I have just completed the possession course, aimed at 5-11’s and run by Pete Sturgess. The most interesting idea that I took out of the session on possession was the idea that players have to be completely comfortable with the ball at their feet before they can start to play with their head up. It makes a lot of sense, and I have probably been guilty in the pass of encouraging players to keep their head up before they are comfortable with their head down. I will definitely appraise my thinking on this very important topic as a result, and will probably encourage a head up approach far less for the under 7’s I coach.

The three video sessions showed Pete at St George’s Park, surrounded by coaches and with a team of boys to instruct. The games helped players practice keeping possession of the ball individually rather than passing when put under pressure. I had only just written a blog post about how England internationals seem to be far less comfortable on the ball when put under pressure than their Spanish or Brazilian counterparts, so the timing was interesting. I had long thought that coaching in England had produced a crop of players uncomfortable when pressed on the ball, so it was interesting to see how we can help players become comfortable keeping the ball at an early age.

The first game took place inside the centre circle of an 11-a-side pitch.  There were around 6 boys inside the circle with a ball, and 6 boys outside the circle without a ball. When the coach said play, the boys outside the circle went into the circle and tried to win a ball, while the boys in possession had to try and keep possession for as long as possible. It encouraged the players in possession to be creative in the ways that they can keep the ball away from an opponent without trying to carry out a specific shielding technique, and it is always great when you can give players the empowerment to improvise. To solve problems. Just keep the ball is the instruction. I think I would add coaching points when needed to show how to shield the ball, but I really liked the session and can see great value in it.

What are your thoughts about keeping possession under pressure, and how to best coach that to young players? Do you have a view on how coaching hasn’t prepared the current crop of England internationals to be more

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At what age do you move your squad from a policy of everyone plays the same time, to pick the players to win?

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At some point in a player’s life they will have to face the harsh reality that the better players will play more football. The question is when?

I coach at under 7’s level, and rotation is definitely the ethos that I believe in for this age group. The benefits of this policy are many. Firstly, it promotes harmony and reduces conflict throughout the squad and feels fair to all concerned. It shows that the team is set up for the good of all, and not for the individual. You are unlikely to get negative hassle from parents complaining that their child isn’t getting enough game time, and most importantly, you are giving every player the same opportunity to develop.  If your primary motivation as a coach is to develop players for the long term, then I believe that this is the policy that best displays motivation.

The advantages of picking players to win the game are perhaps obvious. If you have a lethal finisher, or a beast of a tackler, it is understandable that in a tight situation you would want them on the field.  However, if they spend the entire match on the field it is in the place of another player and players develop through playing & training, not sitting on the bench. The gap between the players who are better and weaker is likely to grow, if the better players play more and the weaker players play less.

So if you agree with this so far, the question is at what age do you change the priority from development to winning?

The golden opportunity for development is up until the age of 11 in boys, as 95% of their neural pathways are set by that age. So does that mean that from 12 onwards the coach should focus on building winning teams, and concentrating on the better players? Is 12 the age that players should be moved into teams that match their ability level?

Personally, I think 12 still feels too young but I would love to hear the thoughts of other coaches on this subject! Players move to 11v11 football at U14 age, so maybe that is the right time?

Please write your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

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