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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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?

Grassroots coaching horror show …

Last Sunday, my sons team (I am one of the coaches) were playing an u8 football match in the the late summer sunshine. We arrived early, had a fun and enjoyable warm up and got ready for the first game of the season away from home. I was stood on the side of a beautifully kept football pitch, in a lovely London park. Life was good. I was treated to a fantastic team performance from our lads, but I was more than a little disturbed to hear the bedside manner of the opposition manager throughout. Remember, this was a match played by seven year old boys and girls.

The game started close enough, but by the end we had run out comfortable winners, and with every goal the opposition conceded their manager would become more and more negative. He shouted things like “this is just awful” and “that’s so naive” to his seven year old players, and I actually felt sorry for them. Random, hard to follow vagaries such as “we’ve got to find space” jumped from his mouth and fell on confused, little ears.

There must have been around 50 family members watching from the other side of the pitch, and from what I could hear they were behaving well, and trying to enjoy the game. The opposition manager seemed to be hating every minute of it though, and his negativity from the other side of the pitch hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“You’re making them look good!” he shouted to his young players in an accusing tone, and more than once. I commented to a few parents afterwards that the man in question, for me, represented so much of what is wrong with youth football coaching.

I am wrestling with so many questions after witnessing this grass roots coaching horror show. How does a man like this get to manage a group of seven year old children? Do the children’s parents not realise that it is totally inappropriate behaviour, or has a diet of Premiership football and Sky Sports made them think that if people like Tim Sherwood act that way, then maybe it’s Ok? What can we do to stop people like that running kids teams?

As we walked off the pitch, he had his players sat in a tight circle and was giving them a thorough debriefing. I couldn’t help but wonder if every one of them would rather have been anywhere else.

Poor kids.