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.’

respect sign

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 –

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




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 –

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


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 –

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




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.


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:

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

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.

Coaching that split second decision


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


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.