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Monday, March 30, 2015

Inside an Academy: Sports Science

What is sports science?  Whilst the term itself is often mentioned in modern football there is still uncertainty of what it is all about.  Indeed, the general belief is that this is merely the modern equivalent of the role that in the past used to be carried out by the club doctor.  

Such lack of clarity is hardly surprising given that it wasn’t that long ago that the job of physio went to some former player as a way of rewarding him from his service. 

Sports science, however, is much more than that.  “Sport Science is the application of scientific principles to exercise and sport.”   So says Chris Cone who covers this role within the Bristol Rovers academy.  

“It a rapidly expanding area in football.  Part of my role is to develop and enhance the sport science support offered too all academy players with an aim to improve individual and team performance.” 

“My main objectives are to reduce injury occurrence, whilst improving physical preparation, athletic development and overall performance.”

There is a difference between the work that a sports scientist carries out within an academy and that which is done at first team level.  “At the academy we try provide an overview of total physical development,” Cone explains.  “We take into account the different growth rate and maturational status of all our players and focuses on developing certain physical qualities at different age periods in the academy too elicit different training adaptations.”

As with most others within the Bristol Rovers Academy, Cone’s path to his current job wasn’t a straightforward one and involved a lot of study.  Indeed, this interviewed took a considerable time to set up as he tried to find time from his continuing studies.

“Whilst studying a BSc in Sport & Exercise Science degree studies I also studied coach education qualifications gaining the UEFA ‘B’ Diploma and the FA Youth Award during my academic studies,” he details.  “I wanted to specialise in both coach education and strength and conditioning and bring the two together to develop a unique blend in Sport Science delivery.” 

“From there I went onto to develop a further specialism by studying a Master’s degree in Strength and Conditioning.”

“Whilst studying my degree and coach education qualifications I gained employment with Cheltenham Town Football Club as an Academy coach. After a couple of years I approached Bristol Rovers Football Club and have been employed as an Academy coach for the past three years.”

One of the principles at the Bristol Rovers academy is that of allowing their younger players to practise other sports rather than pushing them to focus exclusively on football.  Cone explains the benefits of this approach

“With our younger players we try avoid early specialisation by giving players low structured Fundamental Movement Skill practices (invasion/ evasion) that encourage play and games from different types of sports.” 

“As players progress further in the age groups players go through more structured Sport Specific Skill practices that build upon developing speed and agility.”

All of this helps the players gain skills which will, in the long run, allow them to be better equipped for the modern all action, technique based game.  

Both of those are important.  Far too many have focused on the need to create technical players – and rightly so – whilst threating the players’ physical ability as something of a dirty phrase.  In truth, you still need strong players who can keep up the pace for the whole game.

Cone agrees wholeheartedly.  “The demands of the game have rapidly increased.  The tempo of games has increased over the last 10 years, players covering more distances during match play and absolute work demands of match play vary at different ages and playing positions.” 

“With the increase in physical demands of the game, training and match selection it is important for players to further develop physical qualities in areas such as strength, speed, agility, power and mobility to avoid sport related injuries.”

“We support players through providing progressive individual movement programmes that focuses on injury prevention.” 

“Players also receive progressive group strength and conditioning sessions that focus on improving strength, power and mobility. All these physical qualities are periodised to prevent fatigue and overuse injuries.”

This individual attention to players is key. 

“Individual plans are linked with Functional Movement Screens that each player undergoes every 6 weeks,” Cone explains. “If players successfully complete the Functional Movement Screen then they move on to the next progressive individual programme.” 

“If unsuccessful then players continue to work on same individual programme and receive additional assistance to help them progress to the next programme.”

None of this, however, would be anywhere as effective without the buy-in of all the coaches within the academy.  

“We run interdepartmental Sport Science CPD (continuing professional development) events for the coaches.  These cover sport science protocols within the club that covers areas such as pre-training, match routines and recovery strategies.” 

“We believe that this shared practice among coaches and players and brings together a holistic approach to the coaching we provide at the academy.”

This is the fourth part in a series of articles looking at various roles within a football academy.  Previous installments can be found here, here and here.

Thanks to Chris Cone, who can be reached on Twitter, for his help in the writing of this article along with everyone at the Bristol Rovers Academy.

If you enjoyed this article, do you Blueprint for Football Extra, our free weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blueprint for Football Digest [Issue 14]

Every Monday evening, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 16th of March.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Inside an Academy: Bristol Rovers
There are plenty of people out there who are willing to talk about what happens within academy football without knowing what actually happens within one.  It is that gap of knowledge which this series of articles on Blueprint for Football will try to fill.  Given unprecedented access by Bristol Rovers, I have spoken to a number of people who work there, starting with this first piece where Head of Coaching Jonathan Henderson talks about their values and the process they go through in identifying their coaching staff.

The Elastic Brain
A few weeks back I wrote two articles about the brain’s ability to learn and the circumstances that needed to be in place for this to happen.  It was an interesting subject to write about and, judging from the feedback, one that people enjoyed reading.

It is also a topic on which there is still much to learn and articles like this one will undoubtedly help achieve that.  It focuses on music rather than football but the underlying principles are undoubtedly the same.

Coaching Session - Attacking Play 1v1's
Twitter might be vilified at times, and often with good reason, but it is also a great source for knowledgeable debate and coaching ideas.  Indeed a lot of coaches have taken to sharing their training sessions which can be extremely interesting and helpful.  Sometimes, however, one needs to look beyond the way to hold a session and look at the why.  Which is something that this piece does very well, explaining the ideas behind 1 v 1 sessions.

Support this site by purchasing Blueprint According To… Volume 1 and Volume 2, the e-books issues by Blueprint for Football where a host of coaches talk about their ideas and beliefs.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Inside an Academy: Psychological Support

Whilst a player’s technique is a highly visible – and highly sought after – attribute often less importance is placed on what that individual does to maximise that ability. The history of the game is littered with individuals who didn’t have the mental strength to fulfil their potential and, equally, with stories of players who exceeded expectations.

Contrary to talent, that innate determination to work hard to excel isn’t as easy to discern and often clubs find out about that side of a player only once they sign him.  Which explains why clubs are investing heavily in sports psychology in order to ensure that help their players’ mental fortitude.


“Developing professional football players is a complex process. My view is that, the coach, the parents and the players play a large role in developing and harnessing strength of character,”   David Buckwell, who delivers psychological support across Bristol Rovers’ academy (from U9s to U18s) to players, parents and coaches, explains.  “The coach has a large element of control over promoting a competitive environment, which supports a desire to win during training. This can be achieved with efficient practice design with relevant and specific challenges to create competitive practice.” 


“However, it is the desire to win, away from the training environment, which most greatly impacts how much a player really wants to win,” he continues.  “For example, how much is the player ensuring he is completing schoolwork to ensure other commitments don’t interfere with his preparation? To what extent does the player fully understand his role, embrace it, learn about it and challenge himself to execute it better?”  


“This may be from making wise nutritional choices and maximising recovery opportunities to ensure the player is injury free. This is important, but what we need to remember is that children must enjoy childhood as they don’t get another chance at it. This is why it must come from them.” 

“I think that we are entering a stage in youth development now where, the focus is more on harnessing a desire to improve over a desire to win. If players are working hard to improve, then success on the pitch in the long term will be a bi-product of that hard work.”


“A player’s strength of character underpins their beliefs and attitudes towards this desire to win.”


“I think character represents the way in which a player reacts in different situations. For me, a strong character is represented by staying true to your values and beliefs under circumstances of sustained pressure.”


“Your character is largely a representation of your personality, which links to your mental toughness. Mental toughness is a part of someone’s character and can relate specifically to different situations in a young players lifestyle and training.”


The question, then, is to what extent that mental toughness and desire to win can be coached.


“I would suggest that developing mental toughness is part of the role of the coach, the player and the parent,” Buckwell replies.  “Your character determines your behavior to approaching the development of mental toughness in that you may be curious or forthcoming or perhaps a little shy. The development of mental toughness however is instrumental in the development of players at Bristol Rovers.”


“At Bristol Rovers, we are supporting an environment which helps build character by valuing learning, hard work and commitment as key to the way our players interact with information delivered and participate in practices and matches. Above all, however, it is during difficult situations when it becomes more difficult to learn, work hard and maintain commitment that players need to have a ‘strong character’”


All of this is encouraging to hear as is, frankly, the presence of someone with Buckwell’s background working at academy level.


“I have always been intrigued by human behavior and in particular how performance within different environments is contingent on factors such as pressure and confidence,” Buckwell explains as he talks about his interest in psychology. 


“I am intrigued by the uniqueness of individuals and how people interpret and react differently to similar situations. As well as the pressured performance arena, I am also interested in the journey in which people take to elite performance in different sports and the role in which thoughts, feelings and behaviors can impact upon commitment and motivation of athletes during this journey.”


“To date, academically, I have completed a BSc Sports Coaching degree and an MSc Applied Sport Psychology degree. In line with these qualifications I also hold the UEFA B Coaching License and the FA Youth Award as well as working towards my British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES) accreditation specialising in Sport Psychology.”


Inevitably, however, the path that took him to Rovers was filled with gradual steps.  “I first started with the academy in the 2010-11 season in a voluntary capacity as a coach,” he recounts.  “Matt Bennett, who has since moved onto Brighton and Hove Albion, provided me with the opportunity to work with Dave Bruno and Tom Parrinello (now lead Youth Development Phase coach) with the U11s.” 


“At the time, Jonathan Henderson, now academy manager, ran the development centers for Bristol Rovers so I was also coaching with him as well. Prior to the summer of 2012/13 I proposed a psychological skills training program to Matt and the academy manager at the time, Ken Oram, who welcomed the introduction of psychological development into the academy.” 


“That position was part-time then the following season, under ex-academy manager Tom Curtis, I was appointed as a full-time member of staff.”  Currently, he also coaches the U15 age group (alongside Paul Britton).


The work that Buckwell does changes as the players grow older.  Indeed, initially, it is with the parents that he does most of the work.


“I think within the foundation phases (9 to 12 years old) players should go through a journey on their own and have the freedom to react and think freely.”


“As a coach you will teach them right or wrong but in that age, it is far more beneficial to spend time with the parents discussing motivation, feedback and confidence and the role in which they play over their child’s development, as opposed to directly with the players.” 

“For example, a player may be crying on the pitch and goes to his parents for comfort, the parents ignore the player and he then learns to deal with (the situation) himself.”


When the players themselves grow older they sit into workshops that are aimed for whole teams with 1 to 1 support being provided to any individuals who request it.


“The sport psychology program is an arm for the players to lean on during their performance pathway. Inevitably some sessions will be closer aligned to one player’s situation more than another but the key message is to help the players predict, understand and control performance. This comes back to the players having a desire to learn and this, from my experience, is the biggest challenge.”


That of belief is also an issue although, surprisingly, not in the form of lack of belief.  “It is important that players believe in themselves, however one of the biggest challenges in the academy environment is that the player’s belief doesn’t outweigh the reality. This can be potentially counter-productive as players lose focus on the learning and the development and they don’t progress to meet the demands of the competitive environment that is youth football.” 


“I agree, to succeed at times, you need an illogical optimism, however when the ego takes over and the hard work takes a back seat, player development suffers. I think the environment needs to lend itself to a mentality of continued progression, as coaches we need to continually challenge players and as players they should continually challenge the boundaries of performance.”


Such an inflated sense of self can also have other implications, especially for those players who do not make it as professional players and who have to deal with this failure having for so long linked their sense of self-worth with their footballing ability.


Buckwell agrees that this can be an issue.  “I guess the key message here is to be a good person first and foremost. It is inevitable that player’s will associate their feeling of worth as a footballer to their football.”  


“We should really focus on their application towards developing to becoming a footballer as opposed to their ability to execute a particular skill. Reinforce the message that they can control the way they interact with people, the respect they show towards others, the respect they show the game and the work ethic required to reach their maximum.” 


“The closer aligned the players judgment of themselves is related to these attributes, the closer they are aligned to feeling their sense of self-worth of being a good person as opposed to a good player.”


All of this highlights the importance of a programme that is both well-structured and also tailored for the different age groups.


“Typically, the messages have been around the 5C’s of football - commitment, confidence, concentration, communication and control - and psychological skill development such as self-talk, imagery, layered stimulus response training, progressive muscular relaxation and attentional control,” Buckwell says as he talks of the system that they have at the Bristol Rovers academy. 


“However, within the foundation phase the key messages are delivered to parents and centre around feedback, reflective practice and sustaining self-belief. Within the older squads such as the youth development phase (13 to 16 years) and professional development phase (16 to 18 years) we have introduced a technique called mindset monitoring which looks at the players behaviors in four categories (training to grow, pre game, during the game and after the game). It is a technique, which is used with the Golf Union of Wales, and something I learned more about from working with Dr Rich Neil and the Golf Union of Wales Sport Psychology Support Team.”


“The intention is that the players are working towards regulating their own behaviors in each four categories and the specific characteristics within each category.”


That mindset monitoring also provides a way of measuring the success of the work that Buckwell has been carrying out.


“Within the mindset monitoring of players, the player will rate their perception of how well they believe the can do the task.” 


“For example, in the training to grow section one behavior is related to motivation ‘I often think of the end goal to motivate me’ and the player rates the extent to which they can perform that mental effort on a scale of 0-5 (I’m certain I can’t do this – I’m certain I can do this). Therefore we will monitor the player’s perception of how well they believe they can complete particular tasks throughout the season.”


Throughout the conversation, it is clear that Buckwell is not only passionate about his work but also extremely fulfilled by it.


“I thoroughly enjoy my role at Bristol Rovers. I enjoy working with a variety of age groups as well as players, parents and coaches. We are a foreword-thinking department with a great group of staff and continually seek opportunities to strengthen our program.” 


This does not exclude that he has other ambitions - “in my career however, I would like to work with senior players and within a performance environment, which supports performance at the highest level under intense pressure” – but for the time being he has other objectives.


“I believe that over the next few years we can test ourselves to develop players even further to what we are asking of them now through the development of the department’s knowledge.” 


This is the third instalment in a series of articles looking at the various roles within a professional academy.  Parts one and two can be found here and here.  David Buckwell can be found on Twitter.


If you enjoyed this article then you will probably be interested in Blueprint According To… Volume 1 and Volume 2, the e-books issues by Blueprint for Football where a host of coaches talk about their ideas and beliefs.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 13]

Every Monday evening, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 9th of March.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Coaches, especially those who deal with young players, are first and foremost teachers.  That is quite a frequently heard statement and one with a lot of truth in it.  The challenge for coaches, then, is to execute training sessions that allow those in their charge to learn.  This article will prove particularly helpful in that regard as at presents six practical ways through which coaches can achieve this.

There has been a lot of criticism going Brentford’s way for the decision to part ways with Mark Warburton – the manager who got them promoted to the Championship last season and who could still guide them to the Premiership at the end of this – once June comes around.  The reason for this decision is that the club’s owner wants to adopt a more statistical approach which Warburton didn’t fully agree with.

Inevitably this has caused quite a stir but, as this article shows, there is already a club who is adopting a similar approach.  Whether this is the right way forward remains to be seen but for a club of Brentford’s resources it is sometime worth it to experiment in their approach because doing the same things that the others are doing certainly won’t result in sustained success.

Football often tends to be a closed box with clubs allowing those outside to see only what they want them to see.  At the highest level, even training sessions tend to be carried away from prying eyes so as to ensure that nothing of what they do manages to leak out.

Given this attitude, it is quite a refreshing change to see the sports science team at Liverpool FC publish a series of research papers based on work that they’ve carried out recently.  Rylands Morgan, who heads the team, said that “we believe science underpins football and we aim to generate research that develops our knowledge of the game and our players’ responses to training and match-play.” 

Whatever the reason for these publications, there should be plenty of reading material to interest any coaches out there who do not have access to such sports science teams.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Inside an Academy: Head of Coaching

There is the belief in England that the level of coaching provided at academies is, for want of better words, mediocre and antiquated especially when compared to what is happening  across the continent.  The lack of players making it at first team level is attributed to this failing and that the lower down the league structure you go, the worse it gets.

That might have once been the case, and it could very well still be the case at some clubs, yet there are many academies which are populated by coaches who are both extremely well educated (football wise) and also hungry to improve themselves.

For most of these coaches, football is a vocation that they feel compelled to follow.  They have no desire to simply follow blindly what those who came before them did but instead they want to learn as much as possible from as many different sources as possible.

Such coaches aren't to be found exclusively at the top academies but are spread out all over the country.  Indeed, the most forward looking of such clubs appreciate that, in lieu of the financial and facility riches of the big clubs, they need coaches with a clear vision and the ability to implement their ideas.

This is certainly something that those running Bristol Rovers have realised and worked on.  Despite relegation from League Two last season, the club remains very much a forward looking one something that is typified by their desire to press forward with the building of a new stadium with a 21,700 capacity. 

Their vision also includes investing in the development of their own players.  Already they have had some success in that respect with a number of youth products boosting the first team squad. 

Naturally this also includes supporting their academy to maintain its current status. “At present relegation has not had a huge impact.  We have continued to run a full Category 3 program this season and both the club and football league continue to maintain full funding support for the program.” 

“Should the club not be back in the Football League next season then we will receive less funding from the Football League but it is still our intention as a club to run as full a program as possible and to maintain Category 3 status. 

Those are the words of Jonathan Henderson who recently took over as Head of Coaching at the academy.  As is typical for many of today’s young coaches, Henderson’s route into football was a roundabout one and included a lot of education before venturing into the field.

“I completed my first coaching badges when I was 16.  These were delivered through the SFA by Atholl Henderson who was the Football in the Community Officer at St. Johnstone FC.  I loved it from the first day,” he recounts.  “I was fortunate enough to then have the opportunity to do a placement at St. Johnstone delivering on their holiday camps for a short period whilst also doing some delivery at my school with the 1st year school team through the PE department.”

“At 18 I moved to Cardiff to go to university (UWIC) to study a degree in Sports Coaching, and through contacts I made there I ended up coaching at Merthyr Town (previously Merthyr Tydfil) FC within their Academy set-up and also doing some voluntary work with the Local Authority in the Sports Development Unit.”

“When I graduated I gained a full time role with the SDU which gave me a great opportunity to develop in terms of strategic planning, partnership working and developing projects.”

“I’d been working in the SDU for a few years but football was the main thing I wanted to do.  I’d just finished my Masters’ degree and was at the stage of thinking that if I didn’t look to pursue football full time then it may not ever happen.” 

“So I took a chance. I opted not to renew my contract with the SDU when it came to an end and went looking for an opportunity. Within a few weeks I had managed to get myself a part time role as Advanced Development Centre manager for one of the centres, and within a few months I was able to secure the position full time running the entire network of centres across the South West.”

“After about a year full time in the ADCs, there became a vacancy within the Bristol Rovers Academy as lead Foundation Phase Coach responsible for managing and developing the U7-12s section, a role I held for just over a year before becoming the lead Youth Development Phase Coach (u13-16s).”

His story, then, is the antithesis of the former pro getting a job because of his contacts and past, which used to happen so often in the past.

Indeed, Henderson has worked hard to earn his way to the current role of Head of Coaching, where he is “responsible for the development of the academy playing philosophy and coaching syllabus across all age groups as well as supporting the development of the coaches with their delivery.” 

“I also currently hold the role of Academy Manager which also involves working directly with the club Board for the development of the whole program; liaising with the heads of department (coaching, recruitment, sport science, medical, education); liaising with the first team manager; and working with the Football League to meet Academy requirements in line with the EPPP.”

This last comment provides a good transition point to a discussion on EPPP that has been so criticised by smaller clubs.  Yet Henderson is quite balanced in his analysis of EPPP.

“Ultimately the EPPP is there to help improve standards and from that respect it is a good thing,” he says.  “Prior to our audit we sat down as a group of staff and came up with what was important to us. Our values, philosophy, vision. This formulated our Academy Performance Plan which now gives us a clear strategic understanding on where we wanted to be, how we wanted to operate, what our processes were and how to deliver what we wanted.”

“There are drawbacks of course. Large amounts of paperwork and reports to support and justify what we do means it is often difficult for staff and can sometimes detract from the actual practical role of trying to improve players in the real world and not just on paper.” 

“In my opinion it is not always a best use of time and I’m always conscious of the demands we put on the part time staff so we try to make this process as easy and practical as possible but it can be a deterrent for some coaches.”

All of this does not make mention of one of the biggest criticisms of the EPPP which is that it affords Premier League clubs greater leeway to poach talent from the academies of smaller sides.

This, perhaps, is because Bristol Rovers had long been accustomed to dealing with other, bigger, sides vying for local talent.  

“There is a lot of competition in the area. Ourselves, Bristol City, Southampton all have established programmes competing for players and more recently clubs such as Cardiff, Swansea and West Brom all running development/talent id programs in the area,” Henderson reveals. 

“However we do not see this as a threat as we feel the quality of our program is strong enough to be able to attract players of the desired standard. Yes some players (and parents) will be attracted by the badge of a ‘bigger’ club but that does not ensure quality of the product they are providing.” 

“I would back ourselves that players coming in on trial will enjoy what we do, find it productive and beneficial for their development and see the quality we can offer is of a high level to convince them to commit to us. If anything the competition drives us and ensures we maintain high standards because if we don’t, then we would suffer as a result.”

“We have a full time head of recruitment (Alex Hinder) within our Academy who has a vast network of contacts in the area,” Henderson says as talk switched to how Rovers identify players.  “He will liaise with local clubs, schools, coaches and the Advanced Development Centres to identify potential players. We also have a small number of scouts and spotters in surrounding areas who recommend us players that they become aware of in their region.”

“Throughout the year we will also run open trial days where clubs can nominate players to attend to be seen by our scouts and coaches with view to then bringing in any players we would like to see further for a six week trial with the Academy squads.”

“On top of this, we also run pre-academy squads for Under 7s and Under 8s. Academy players cannot sign until U9s so this gives us an opportunity to work with some talented players prior to this time.” 

“These players continue to train and play with their grassroots clubs and we simply provide an additional opportunity for them to work within our framework and with our coaches to support their development.”

What is it, however, that they look for in a player?

“The biggest thing is a positive attitude and work ethic.  Willingness to learn.”

“We work in a development environment, a learning environment. So without the ability to learn and willingness to improve then the program won’t benefit the player.  We also look for a player who is confident, brave to try new things and push themselves beyond being safe. Someone who will embrace challenge and not fear it as this will also ultimately foster a better level of development long term.”

“In terms of technical attributes, it would depend on the age and their stage of development but fundamentally players who are comfortable on the ball and relish the opportunity to try and play.”

“From a physical perspective we try to look at the mechanics and fundamental movements. Agility, balance, speed. Things like strength, power, body stature are irrelevant in the younger age groups as these will develop in time.” 

Naturally, all of these attributes fit in well with the club’s philosophy.

“We aim to produce technically proficient players who are capable of making their own decisions in the game. We want the game to be played with a possession based approach where we can build up play from the back and through the thirds, but also to produce players who can recognise opportunities to create and exploit attacking opportunities, create overloads; score goals.” 

“To do this we believe heavily in creating the right environment that supports this and ensures the right behaviours occur,” he continues. “Players must be able to express themselves without fear of failure. They must be exposed to an environment that encourages them to make decisions. Where they can try things and try to problem solve.” 

“Players must be willing to challenge themselves and show commitment and effort to their development and learning and who are willing to express themselves. We try to foster an environment where the process and effort is celebrated more than simply the outcome (performance over result).” 

“Players are also given responsibility and opportunity to reflect on their learning. Share ideas and feedback to each other or with the coaches as we believe this will generate a better understanding and buy-in than simply being told. The coaches work to develop this environment and provide support through feedback, question and answer, use of individual challenges that allow the players to develop.”

All this augurs well for the academy and, justifiably, Henderson has lofty goals.  

“My ambition would be to continue to develop the Academy to a point where it would be regarded as one of the best category 3 academy not only in the region but nationally; to develop a program that people are inspired by and would like to emulate.” 

“However, for me a successful academy is not simply developing players to play for the first team or for players moving to category 1 and 2 clubs or for players to achieve international recognition – for which we have a very good record of doing all of in recent years - but instead in terms of developing a system for players who when they leave the program at whatever stages of their career have found their time with us beneficial and supportive in becoming good people as well as good players.”

“Like every player in the game who aspires to play at the highest possible level, I see no harm in coaches also aspiring to work at the highest level they too can as this keeps your motivation to continuously strive to be the best you can be.” 

“So I suppose on a personal level one day further down the line I would like to work within a category 1 club as Head of Coaching, assuming the environment and the vision of the club was a compatible with my own.”

Jonathan Henderson can (and should) be followed on Twitter.  This is the second part in a series of articles looking at the different roles within the Bristol Rovers academy, the first part of which can be read here.  Share any views you might have with me on Twitter.

If you like this article then you should probably be subscribed to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free weekly newsletter.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Inside An Academy: Bristol Rovers

Despite their relegation to the Conference at the end of last season, Bristol Rovers have maintained a Category 3 academy in order to ensure that they can offer their youths the best possible coaching.  Indeed, theirs is an impressive set up and, in order to determine more what that involves, Jonathan Henderson – the academy’s Head of Coaching as well as Academy Manager – describes their work.

Blueprint for Football: How many coaches are there in the academy and how do you recruit them?
Jonathan Henderson: We currently have 4 full time coaches and 17 part time coaches, as well as a number of athletic development coaches, sport science and medical support staff, performance analysts and psychology staff.  Some are full time, some part time, some voluntary or on placements from universities.  All work closely together to support the development of the players.  

We try to retain as many of the staff as we can year on year to allow us to develop them but inevitably some will move on; some unable to commit due to work or family circumstances and others who move on to other clubs or full time roles elsewhere.

We advertise through the usual channels and sometimes we also ask potential candidates we are aware of from other places or clubs to apply.  From this we shortlist in the usual way based on CV, experience, and background.  

After that we go through a slightly different recruitment process than normal.  The first thing we do is have the potential candidates come to training to observe what we do so we can get a feel for their character.  This allows us to see if they as a person are a good fit for what we believe in.  We have informal conversations about their approach, personal philosophy, get to know what their motivation for the role is.  

We also ask them questions about what we do to judge their level of critical thinking as we have a strong belief in a shared community of practice among the staff so they would need to be able to contribute to that.  

We want a learning environment; a growth mindset.  That extends to the staff as well as the players.  Only once we have been through that process do we allow them to come back in for a second interview to actually demonstrate their delivery to us with a group of players.
 When they deliver we will ask the players their opinions as it is them that the coach will be working for.  What did they like, what didn’t they like, how did the session feel, were they challenged for example.  We’ll then take this into consideration along with the actual content and suitability of the candidate from our coaching perspective before making a final decision.

BfF: Similarly, how do you ensure that all coaches follow the same plan?
JH: We have the Academy Performance Plan which guides everything from the playing style and coaching syllabus to the coaching style and session structures.  But we also trust the staff to have some room for manoeuvre within this framework if necessary based on knowing the need of the players and their stage of development as opposed to just following what is written on paper.

We also encourage the coaches to engage regularly with each other to support and share ideas, reflect on their sessions, challenges and constraints.  Coaches are provided with a technical library developed by the other full time coaches and myself which provide examples of ‘best practice’ for each session in the syllabus which they are able to use or adapt if they deem necessary which can reduce the planning time needed for the coaches allowing them to concentrate on the challenges and conditions to suit their players.  

We also provide regular coach mentoring and support through both myself and our FAYCE.  This can be informal observation and conversation during sessions, or more formal filmed sessions where the coaches are miked up and feedback given through one to one meetings and clips of their delivery.  This can take place not only on training nights but also matchdays as well.  

We also have regular staff CPD events and 6 weekly meetings which will provide opportunity to discuss, reflect and improve on things as a group.  This also allows the coaches to feedback to us in terms of their though on our processes and ensures we have a mechanism for constantly looking to evolve and improve on what we do.  

For us as a collective to ask how can we do things better?  If we expect the players to be the best they can be we owe it to them to be the best that we can be.

BfF: What is done at a club level to ensure that players get an opportunity at first team level?
JH: Basically it is down to ensuring there is a constant means of communication between the first team staff and academy staff to keep them informed of the progress of any scholars we feel have the potential to step up. 

Although there is no formal Under 21 set-up at Category 3 clubs, the club do arrange a number of development games which will involve fringe first team players but will also usually have a good number of scholars involved so this gives the first team staff the opportunity to work with the players regularly throughout the season. 

Also, scholars are often given the opportunity to train with the first team should they perform well. Ultimately if a player shows a good level of development and potential, they will be given the opportunity in the first team and we try to ensure the first team staff are kept informed of how the players are progressing.

This is the first in a series of articles looking at the various aspect of the Bristol Rovers academy.  The next installment will feature a detailed interview with Jonathan Henderson about the club’s philosophy, beliefs and ideas.

If you enjoyed this then Blueprint According To...Volume 2 is probably for you.  Check it out here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Books Every Coach Should Read

The beauty of being interested in football and coaching these days is that there is so much out there to help you learn and develop.  Indeed, if you want something a bit more in depth and with more meat to it than articles that can be found on various excellent sites on the internet (including this one) then you can turn to a multitude of books that deal with various aspects.

This list features books that I feel everyone with more than a passing interest in football (let alone coaching) should be reading.

I appreciate that this is not an exhaustive list - indeed the aim is to eventually keep building on it via a permanent feature on the main site - but it is as good a starting point as any.  It will also be updated on a regular basis.

I won’t attempt to fool anyone into thinking that they’re at the same level as the other books on this list but I do think that Blueprint According to Volume 1 and Volume 2 (US readers can go here and here) – two e-books produced by Blueprint for Football and which contain a total of thirteen interviews where football coaches talk about their ideas – can provide a whole host of new ideas to anyone who reads them.

And if you want something different, might I suggest Il Re Calcio, my book with ten stories from Italian football including that of Emiliano Mondonico, how he led Torino to a UEFA Cup final and how their historical bad luck thwarted them.

Please note that by clicking through the links you will be directed to the books' Amazon page and that I will receive a small percentage from any purchase made.

Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession by Tim Lees

Whilst philosophy has become something of a ‘buzzword’ there is very little out there that concretely tells prospective coaches how to go about setting up their own philosophy.  This relative lack is what makes Tim Lees’ “Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession” such a welcome book as it provides not only the ideas behind a footballing philosophy based on dominating possession of the ball but also the coaching drills that can be adopted to help instill this philosophy into the team being coached.  A full review of this book can be found here.

Coaching the Tiki Taka Style of Play by Jed Davies
On the face of it, this is a coaching book. Yet it is much more than that. True, there are coaching sessions listed throughout it but it should not discourage those who are not into coaching because what Jed Davies has done is try to explain a style of playing – Tiki Taka – by going into the development of the style and how that philosophy is then drilled into the team. 

Legacy by James Kerr
There are few sporting entities as universally associated with excellence with the All Blacks.  Of course, having a whole nation as focused on rugby as New Zealand is will inevitably result in the development of exceptional talent in the sport.  Their success however, transcends this and is the result of a whole culture that constantly works on improving.  It is this culture that Kerr has analysed in detail, identifying the salient points and then dissecting them in order to provide an explanation of why such behaviour has this sort of impact.  And, for anyone worried that this might be a book about rugby, don’t: this book is aimed at corporate managers so it can be easily applied and adopted by people working in football.

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson
I am a big believer that if you truly want to understand a subject you have to know its history; to get a feel of what happened in the past that led to the current situation.  Obviously this applies to football as much as anything else and there is no better book to assist you in doing so than Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid.  This is exhaustively research and, more than that, insightfully threaded together by Wilson who expertly guides the reader into understanding the impact of each innovation and how this was modified later on.

Making the Ball Roll by Ray Power
“Philosophy has become a bit of a buzzword in coaching, and is sometimes either very generic or very unclear.”  That is what Ray Power[https://twitter.com/power_ray], this book’s author, told me when I interviewed him last year and that is also the feeling that I often get. People talk a lot about having a philosophy without truly understanding what it means.  Indeed, for many it simply extends to a belief that ‘their’ teams should be passing the ball rather than hoofing it.  In reality, that isn’t a philosophy but rather an idea of how your team should play.   

Power is someone who has gone about building his own philosophy in the right way; a youth coach who has devoted time  to  look at what is meant by a philosophy and how one – anyone, irrespective of level they’re coaching – can develop a philosophy.  That process and his thoughts are contained in this book and will prove invaluable to anyone looking to go through the same process.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
First of all, a confession.  Two actually.  The first is that Michael Lewis is one of my favourite authors and I will anything by him (indeed, his book on parenthood is great as are those on finance).  Few people have his ability to investigate a story, get to its roots and then present in a way that enables the reader to understand the whole process.  The second confession (ironically) is that I didn’t understand even a quarter of the baseball jargon he talks about in this book.  

It doesn’t matter because for me this is more than anything a guide on thinking in a different way; of not simply doing things because that is how they were always done.  Sadly this book has become largely associated with the use of statistics in sport but, in truth, the real lesson at the core is that of trying to look at areas that the traditional approach has neglected and try to use them to your advantage.