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.
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.
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.
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.
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All five in the series can be found here: