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?

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!

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.

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!

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coaching that split second decision

image

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

 

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?

 

 

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.