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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Blueprint According To...Jazz Hervin

Sadly football, as in life, is rife with prejudice and people are often judged not on their abilities but rather on how they look or who they are.  It is why there was such a lack of diversity among players up to thirty years back and it explains why there is such a lack of diversity among coaches these days.

It will take time for that to change and it will take people slowly chipping away at the misconceptions and that is what Jazz Hervin, a young female coach, is doing.

Blueprint for Football: What attracted you to coaching? How did you get started?
Jazz Hervin: I played football from the age of seven and developed a real passion for the game. As I continued to play, I started to enjoy it less and less because I felt I wasn't getting any better and didn't have the right support to help me improve, but they just wanted to tell me “you’re just not good enough”.

I always wanted to play for England, but when that started to look unlikely, I looked at different roles within football. I wanted to get to the top of my game in whatever I did in football. I took an interest in coaching because I thought to myself “well, if I can’t play for England, maybe I can help others that want to do this instead.”

So I started by joining a local a local grassroots club and spent my first year coaching by picking up cones after the other coach and doing my Level 1 & Youth Award Module 1.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
JH: I’ve never had anyone that I call ‘my mentor’,  but many people of all different levels of the game that support me in a mentor type way.

Their support is invaluable ; from advice on the phone to opportunities I will never forget and that are beyond what I believed I’d be doing at 20 years old!

BfF: What is the most important attribute that you look for in players?
JH: Someone that values being a good person before a good player!

BfF: And, what do you consider to be the most important attribute in a coach?
JH: The ability to build long lasting relationships with all types of people.

BfF: You've got a number of roles at the moment; could you describe what you do in each one?
JH: At the FA I am the National Game Youth Council Head of Admin where I support the Chairperson with minutes of meetings and project delivery as part of the Senior Management Team.

Within the ISFA England Women U18 Squad we hold 3 Training camps per 6 months and have international friendlies against Wales, Scotland and Australia.

At Yeovil Town Ladies I am Development Team Coach and I hold training twice a week with games played on a Sunday afternoon.  The club competes in the FA Women Super League Development League.

BfF: Two years ago you won the Young Volunteer of the Year by the Devon FA.  What did that award mean for you?
JH: I won the Devon County FA and the South West Regional Young Volunteer Award two years running (2012 and 2013). Receiving these 4 awards in the space of 2 years was, and still is a huge shock! I was in my 2nd and 3rd year of coaching when I received them and to me all I was doing was the best I can for my own development as well as others.  I didn't expect anything else or see the awards coming!

BfF: What have been, so far, the biggest achievements in your career?  And what makes them so special?
JH: When I was selected as the one female young volunteer in Devon to attend The FA National Leadership Camp in Hereford for 5 days in 2012 was a big moment.  This has been one of the best weeks I’ve ever had as I learnt so much from great leaders and tutors, but also I've made so many life-long friends from just that one week!

To be appointed as Head Coach of the ISFA England Women U18 Squad was also huge.  This meant that I was the coach of a national team at the age of 18 and there were only 9 months difference between myself and some of my players.

My most recent big achievement has to be my appointment as coach of Yeovil Town Ladies Development Team.  I believe this makes me the youngest coach in FA WSL history. I never thought I’d be coaching within this league, with players of such a high level, when I have only just turned 20 years old.

BfF: Have you ever come across people who underestimate or undervalue you abilities as a coach because you are a woman?  Do you feel that you have to work harder to win people's respect?
JH: Yes I have come across people like this. I don't feel like I have to work harder to win their respect, because with them judging me as a woman, they're not looking at my ability. All I think is that they aren't the right sort of people I want to work or be associated with!

BfF: Is there anything different that a woman brings to the job of coaching than a man?
JH: For me, this question is very difficult to answer as it really does depend on the age of players, ability level, coaching environment/set up, gender of players.

But there are so many different personality types, that depending on the individual, they could do the same jobs as men.

BfF: From the outside looking in there seems to be a lack of women in coaching, especially the higher you go even in the women's game.  First of all, do you think that is a correct statement and, if so, why do you think that is the case?  And what do you think should be done to improve matters?
JH: I do agree with the statement. I believe there are many reasons for a lack of women at the top levels of coaching, such as the limited number of jobs at the top level of the game for women in coaching, the fact that time becomes a struggle due to top level jobs for women don't pay well and therefore they need to have a full-time job, as well as the coaching role and managing parenting and starting a family is tricky whilst having a full-time, top level coaching career.

I believe the FA have taken positive steps forward to support women at the top of the game as well as women aspiring to get there; through mentoring programmes, support programmes and more job opportunities at the top for women, now that the women’s game is rapidly growing.

BfF: What do you want to achieve in the future to feel fulfilled with your career?
JH: My ultimate goal is to become an England coach, to have the opportunity to represent my country and support the best players in our country.

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.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Blueprint for Football Digest [Issue 16]

This is just a snippet of the digest that subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive every Monday evening.  If you too want to receive the all links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

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. 

In the latest in Blueprint for Football’s exclusive series looking into the work carried out at Bristol Rovers, we talk to David Buckwell who delivers psychological support across Bristol Rovers’ academy

Promotion, Relegation, and…Youth Development?
It is often argued that manager at both ends find it difficult to give opportunities to young players.  Those pushing to win honours cannot rely on such inexperience whilst those at the other end ill-afford the possibility of having some young players make a mistake that costs them valuable points.

All this seems, to a certain extent, common sense.  In that case, it would follow that the removal of relegation would incentivise at least half the coaches to give youth more of a chance.  Yet that isn’t the case, at least according to the arguments put forward by Paul Cammarata in this piece.

Zonal Marking and Zonal Coverage
For all the talk that there is about zonal marking – and the bias that some commentators seem to have against it – not a lot is understood about what this means in practice.  What are the defenders expected to do?  What advantages does it have?  And what are its failings?

It is those questions – and more – that Rene Maric answers in the exhaustive article.

Want to know about my week in writing, including the impact of anxiety attacks? Follow my page on Facebook and you’ll see my weekly musings. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Inside an Academy: Performance Analyst

There are few coaches around who won’t confess to falling in love with the game of football from an early age.  Yet for most this love primarily centred around playing with their friends before eventually transitioning to coaching.  Not so Matthew Lewis.  Or at least not exactly so.

“I began my journey at 15 years. I was supporting coaches at Merthyr Tydfil FC (now known as Merthyr Town FC), and I would often collect balls and cones,” he explains.  “Ultimately I would end up watching highly qualified academy coaches deliver sessions at a very high standard, one being my current Academy Manager Jonathan Henderson, when at Merthyr. I could see how coaches were influencing players and I just wanted to do that!”

This ignited in him the desire to follow a similar path.  “I completed the first of my coaching badges and was hungry to learn more and more about the game and coaching ‘as a profession’.” 

“I went to University in Worcester where I was given a numerous opportunities to develop as a coach and, more so, to begin my journey as an analyst. I completed internship posts with both Birmingham City Football Club and Warwickshire County Cricket Club.  More recently I have accepted a role with Opta Sports, to collect statistical data across the summer cricket season.”

“I have always had admiration for top level performers in any sport, and these internships exposed me a bit more to what was required to be working at the top level.”

Eventually, they led to a job with his old mentor at Bristol Rovers.  

“I first joined Bristol Rovers in summer of 2013.  At that point I was just required to cover all U18 fixtures, which was great working with one squad and focusing on relaying information through coaches which was fine.”

“As I settled into my role, I wanted to propose that we covered schoolboy games and offer them some guidance in the analysis to their performances.” 

“With the help of academy staff, we put plans in place to offer internships to students looking to gain experience in a professional setting – something that benefited me in developing as an analyst. As a group, we met with University West of England in the proposal to offer internships to their students. Having advertised the roles and received great number of responses, we then found we had a department of a number of analysts covering both Bristol Rovers games as well as UWE University fixtures.”

“We have a number of interns that come in, spend time with us, then move on which is great, because the experiences they are gaining with us allow them to progress to other clubs.  Some moving onto Bournemouth, Swansea and even working with our first team itself.”

“We have been running the performance analysis programme within the academy since March 2014, so just over a year now, and yes there is room to develop the programme further, it is good to offer something on a regular basis now that 18 months ago was non-existent.”

At this point, it bears talking a bit about the actual job that Lewis carries out, which is that of a performance analyst. 

“Performance analysis can be defined as many things and be used in many different contexts but ultimately it is the in depth critical analysis of a set performance, and being able to dissect various elements of the game to the clubs’ and coaches’ needs,” he explains. “This may include movements analysis, statistical, and even analysis of coaching behaviour. This is beneficial for the coach be able to watch themselves back, but for mentoring purposes with other staff and educators.”

Despite having predominantly worked in an academy environment, Lewis has supported the first team analysts on a number of occasions and, as such, can talk about how the two roles differ in their objective.

“I can openly say that from an academy point of view, our main focus would be on the development of the player and focus on the players’ needs, whereas in a first team environment, it is very much a results based business.  Having experienced working with first team analyst - mainly last season - it would be how we could improve as a team on certain elements and how the opposition may affect our style and approach to games.”

 As with many of the ‘new’ roles that are evolving in football, there is always the suspicion that this is merely a mutation of something that coaches used to do instinctively.  Does performance analysis really add any value?

“Absolutely! I think so.”

“A study conducted by Franks & Miller in 1991 showed that soccer coaches are less than 45% correct in their post-game assessment of a 45 minute half. In this case a performance analyst’s role is pivotal to the coaching process in developing the players, relaying information back to the coach to ensure information given is correct. “

“In my opinion joys of Performance analysis is that information and footage can be condensed to what is specifically required.”

“The coaching of a skill depends heavily on analysis in order to effect an improvement in athletic performance” he says quoting a paper by Hughes & Franks (2004).

“Performance analysis is commonly accepted as an integral component of the coaching process” Lewis continues quoting a paper by Lyle published in 2002.   “Accordingly Hughes (2008) determined five functions that carry vital importance towards the coaching process. These include the ability to provide immediate feedback, to accumulate material for development, to identify areas for immediate improvement, to evaluate specific aspects of performance and to operate as a selection instrument in assisting both coaches and athletes.”

“To begin with a coach can use the analysis and footage before relaying information back to players, the information is more accurate and reliable. What I find, as analysts, we are fortunate to have a vantage points, where as a coach would spend their time at ground level, when footage is relayed, often the game is watch at a better angle and information provided should then be better. A library of footage information is used within our programme, so footage is easily accessible at any point when required by the coaches and academy staff.”

“I believe the players are also responsible for their learning. We produce clips which is available at a players’ request, so they can go back through footage and identify areas for them to improve, not forgetting highlighting areas they did well.”

“Ultimately, being able to recall information is key and I believe performance analysis aids being able to do so.”

For a lot of people, this analysis involves looking at statistical outputs.  After all, that is how they have been primed by all the talk of moneyball and its use in football.  Yet Lewis does not feel that way.  “I think people get caught up on the use of statistics in my opinion. For example, people think having a greater deal of possession, you should win the game on that basis. But it is how you dissect those possession stats, in terms of what did you actually do in possession. That is just an example that I have come across a couple of times of peoples concepts of statistics.”

“At this moment in time, we do not use a great deal of statistical analysis, but something we are looking at and how we can make it relevant to the players and meet the needs of the individual. For example, we intend to identify key areas in which will aid the players’ development, and will focus on these areas on the individuals’ analysis.”

Equally, an analyst does not have to be a coach (although it does help).  

“No, not necessarily, a performance analyst doesn’t have to be a coach, but I believe being a coach improves your knowledge and game understanding by a considerable amount.” 

“As a coach myself, I believe it helps as you will be able to provide greater in depth analysis. You tend to find a lot of analysts having coaching qualifications for that reason.”

The role itself is, however, quite regimented where timeliness is essential.  “Our work is completed pretty much straight after games, and as soon as findings are produced we present them to the Academy Manager and Lead Phase Coaches, so they can look through clips that they believe will be relevant to use.” 

“Once findings are discussed with staff, we hold a classroom sessions to deliver information as a group, then coaches can review with individuals when required.”

“Our findings are produced as a video which is then relayed to the players during a classroom session. The classroom session takes place following the next training session – so it is a pretty quick turn-around really.”

“We tend to speak a bit more time on our analysis with Under 18s and Under 16s squads and as previously mentioned, players can then request their individual clips from the previous game.”

Whilst, naturally, the older age groups are being seen as the prime groups with whom to share this information, there is still some discussion on that part.

“This is something that has been in real discussion amongst us at the club,” Lewis agrees.  “With the older age groups it is quite in depth towards the selected topic or theme of analysis. The level of detail fades off as the players get younger, and tend to be broader with topics.”

In all cases, the way the information is relayed is of fundamental importance.  “We have to remember people learn in different ways and not forget we are working with children, so they need to experience learning in different ways.” 

“Some players may not get much out of the coach explaining something, or discussions within the group, but some may enjoy seeing themselves complete a particularly task.”

“Having held discussions with different age groups, the feedback has been good, in terms of the boys seeing themselves and instantly picking things they could improve on if they were in that situation again. For me, that is perfect, because the players are identifying areas in their development to improve.”

The final question centres round the analyst himself and how he sees his future.

“I don’t think many people are the finished article – and I certainly not that!  I think it really important to set goals and targets in any role you are in.”

“I have recently enquired about further academic study, more specifically in performance analysis, so hopefully I will be studying on a Masters course in the very near future. In terms of in the field, I hope to continue to learn 'on the grass’ as a coach, which will then aid me as an analyst.”

“As an analyst, I am really enjoying working in an academy environment and am constantly learning about my practice and improving the performance analysis programme we currently have in place. Long term, I would love to work in a first team environment domestically and within the national scene, being able to influence decisions and work with some of the best coaches in the world.”

Thanks to Matthew Lewis for his time in answering these questions.

This is the final part of a series looking at how an academy works and the various roles within it.  To read the other articles, go here.

If you like this piece then you will probably enjoy Blueprint According To.., Volume 1 and Volume 2, the e-books where we talk to football coaches about their ideas and beliefs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Blueprint for Football Digest [Issue 15]

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 23rd 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: Head of Coaching
For a long time I never thought about the process that led an individual to gain a role coaching youth football particularly on a professional basis.  I just assumed that it was the realm of former players – either those who had made it at a senior level or else those who had seen their career terminated at a young age – whose contacts allowed them to gain a foothold.

And certainly, that is the case for many coaches.  Yet it is not the only route and, in any case, it takes more than contacts to really make your mark.  That point was driven home by Jonathan Henderson, the Head of Coaching at the Bristol Rovers Academy, whose own path involved a lot of incremental steps with a lot of study and knowledge gained along the way.

That is just a small part of the insights that Henderson provided in this second part of the Inside an Academy series.

Assessing the A-Player
How do you judge a player?  What might seem like a question with a straightforward answer is in fact a very complex one and anyone who insists otherwise is, frankly, a fool.  

Traditionally, this analysis involved looking at four elements: technical, tactical, mental and physical but these days there are other elements that come into play.  In this piece, Mark Wotte (who has done some excellent work with youths at Southampton and Scotland) talks about what he looks for when evaluating players.

How to Create High Intensity Sessions
One of the most important aspects of a modern coach is their ability to manage a player’s fitness throughout a whole season.  Clearly the level and quality of training that a player has to put in during pre-season varies greatly from other points of the campaign like the Christmas period or else the final two months of the season.

A coach needs to vary the sessions to fit in with the games that have to be played.  Yet, at the same time, they cannot simply kill off any intensity from these sessions.  This article looks at what top level coaches do in order to ensure that there is high intensity in their sessions which, in turn, will fuel their players’ ability to work  hard during the competitive games they have.

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 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.