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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Blueprint for Football Digest [Issue 19]

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.

How They Do It: The Feyenoord Academy
Just a few years ago, Feyenoord were on the brink of bankruptcy and suffering heavy losses at the hands of their fiercest rivals.  This has changed and whilst they are not yet challenging for the title they are back among Holland's elite.

This has been achieved thanks to a youth system that has been constantly producing bright young talent.  This is down to a change in how the system works and this article, which was originally published on The Football Pink, explain how they have achieved their success.

Using Game-Calls to Develop Game-Understanding & Skill
In the world of football coaching there is a lot of attention on the drills and techniques used by different coaches, which is great, yet very little attention is given to what probably is the key factor for anyone who wants to put across any message: the way that it is delivered.

Gerard Jones isn’t like that.  Indeed, he is a coach who places a lot of words on the words that are used when delivering a session and in this piece starts to explain how one can ensure that the message does indeed get across.

How Habits Shape Football (And Why They Matter To You)
Watching Bayern Munich take on Porto last week was fascinating not least for the way in which they pressed so high up the pitch, ensuring that they won the ball in dangerous areas.  It was this particular aspect of their tactic that allow them to overturn a somewhat significant deficit with apparent ease.

That they did so using such a system shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Pep Guardiola had already mastered the use of pressing teams high up the pitch with Barcelona.  Indeed, the organised – almost mechanical – way in which they execute this pressing and the knowledge that players have of what to do in each instance reminded me of an article that I had written on habit forming and which, essentially, argued that players looked for particular cues in their opposition before deciding what they were going to do.

It was a theory based off Charles Duhigg’s excellent book the Power of Habit and one that I strongly feel every coach should be looking into.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Coaching His Way Around The World

Article by Sam Crocker

“I’m not adverse to a challenge and new experiences. I’ve already coached on three continents, and a part of me thinks it would be nice to have been employed on all five continents.” 

When you consider what a large percentage of the globe he has covered in the name of football, Johnny McKinstry is probably not the age you would think he would be. The experience of a man who’s been coaching for 30 years, combined with the ambition of a man just a couple of rungs up the career ladder, he isn’t even old enough to have reached a significant age milestone in his adult life. 

At just 29-years-old, the man from Lisburn, Northern Ireland is one of the younger names on the growing list of British managers to consistently try their hand at coaching abroad, driven by a desire to broaden his knowledge of the game and be the best coach he can be.

Now a household name amongst followers of African football, McKinstry’s made his name after being name manager of the Sierra Leone national team in April 2013, as he became the youngest manager to be managing in international football at the time. A surprise appointment by many, it was not for those who knew him before, following his role with the Craig Bellamy Foundation (CBF) near Freetown.

Spending time at the Right To Dream academy in Ghana whilst still at university – run by former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon –he was put in touch by Vernon when Right To Dream were hired as consultants to set up CBF. Liking what he saw, it was a challenge he could not turn down, as he became their first academy director.

“It was a blank canvas – an opportunity to make your mark on and influence the development. It was the first academy in Sierra Leone, so people said you could put ping-pong tables up and people would follow! Of course, it was a few years before we actually put up ping-pong tables…”

Having left his job with New York Red Bulls to join CBF, it was a tough decision to leave New York, and make such a drastic lifestyle change. But CBF has gained an excellent reputation for the philosophy and the ethical vision through which it is run, prioritizing the overall development of the child, rather than an all-or-nothing attitude to the often unrealizable dream of footballing greatness, giving them a great shot at life no matter what path they end up on. 

Taking on boys between the ages of 11 and 16 initially, the academy is a registered international school in which they study for their international GCSEs, with scholarships in the UK and USA available based on academic performances.

“A lot of academies in Africa are focused on football, and only do the education side because they have to. Its so amazingly difficult to become a footballer. For a normal job, you have to be talented, and you have to be hard-working. That will be enough to get you through university and have a good career. To be a footballer, you also have to be lucky. Luck is a massive part of becoming a great footballer. If you have a bad day when the scout comes, get an injury at the wrong time – that’s the luck factor. Why would you bank on the thing that requires luck?”

On the face of it this might appear slightly defeatist, but this provides a much more well-rounded experience for the kids at the academy, providing them with a vital back-up option should they not become professional footballer they always dreamed of. After all, Africa’s relationship with football makes it a different ball game when it comes to pinning your hopes on something. 

In a context where the trafficking of young players from West Africa to Europe by fake agents is rife, driven by the dream of appearing on a Puma billboard like Didier Drogba in their home country, it is easy for an academy to see the kids as a tradable commodity. CBF’s role in ensuring some sort of future through a balance of education and football is highly commendable, as they aim not just to produce footballers, but regular people too.

“Boys at the academy do 10-15 hours of football a week, and 25-30 hours of school a week. They’re very busy and have a phenomenal work ethic. If you don’t have a fallback option, you’re in big difficulties. No reason you can’t work hard at both”

“Most academies only guarantee two or three years, whereas we guarantee five. At the end of five years and they’re not the footballer we thought they were going to be, then that’s not their fault, that’s our fault. We sell the dream, because we believe they can become professional, but sometimes we advise them that – when they get the end of their time with CBF – that maybe a fully-paid scholarship in the UK or the US might be the best option. And if that’s the worst case scenario from being at the academy, then I’d say that’s pretty good”.

Links with the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Cardiff City has meant that young Sierra Leoneans are now “in the system” of clubs all over Europe, and should be ready to break out over the coming years as they develop. And having been a key part of the reputation of the academy being enhanced so much, it is no wonder the SLFA pricked up their ears.

“When the job came about I’d been living there for three years, and with three games to go in World Cup qualifying, word on the street was that they were looking for a local coach [following Lars-Olof Mattsson’s resignation]. I thought – “get me in that room, let me talk to them, and it won’t be a decision”. I was that confident. I felt that I was the best coach in the country, so I got the meeting [with the SLFA] set up, got a hold of some DVDs of their last games and put together a portfolio analyzing them. I showed them how I could make Sierra Leone better, and most importantly, how we could beat Tunisia in the next game. And it must have worked, because two days later I was offered the job”.

A team already on the rise, the Leone Stars had been flying up the rankings, and still had a slim chance of qualifying for the World Cup playoff. And in McKinstry’s first game managing a professional team, his side were 2-1 up when the clock hit 88 minutes. Having started 16-year-old left-winger George Davis – to make not only his international debut but his full, professional debut – Tunisia were ravaged, having subbed off their right-back at half-time, such was the skinning he was receiving at the hands of this young boy. But alas, it was not meant to be.

“That goal was burned into my mind. I was on the edge of my technical area, with a completely unobstructed view of the goal, and as soon as it happened, I was down on my knees. I couldn’t believe it. Look it up – it’s on YouTube”.

And I did look it up. In the 89th minute, Fakhreddine Ben Youssef poked home a goalmouth scramble to make it 2-2 and essentially end their hopes of qualifying, as you see McKinstry concertina down to be practically fetal. But Sierra Leone had put down a marker with this performance; as they ended up 1 point behind Cape Verde in third place, as Tunisia went on to lose to Cameroon in the playoff match.

In a reign that ended up lasting just eight matches in total, the SLFA made the surprising decision to dismiss him in September of 2014, despite the almost-impossible circumstances he was forced to work under. With restrictions to contain Ebola meaning Sierra Leone were banned from playing their games in Freetown, a failure to find a neutral home meant that they were forced to play all their home games in the backyard of their opponent. In other words, they would have to play six away games, made up of a squad entirely based outside of the country.

“I pushed for the SLFA and the government to use Morocco, but they didn’t do it – for whatever reason – and Guinea got Morocco. They supposedly made contact with Ghana, and there was a last minute thing with Egypt, but we ended up having to play all our games away. We finished bottom of the group with one point, but what else was going to happen?”

As well as the logistical challenges associated with the location of the game – with the home advantage historically far more relevant in Africa than the rest of the world, with a continental home win rate of around 70% – the effect on the players because of Ebola in a psychological sense was even more damaging.

“There was a lot negative attention the players were getting, and all the procedures they had to do – which were completely understandable from the host’s point of view. Having your temperature taken 2-3 times a day, being detained at the airport – they feel like outcasts. It’s a ridiculous concept that these players – who haven’t been back home in 4-5 months – are being stigmatized for having a Sierra Leonean passport.”

Losing 2-1 and 2-0 to Ivory Coast and DR Congo in the first two games of AFCON 2015 qualifying, things carried on as normal. The FA – seemingly understanding the plight of what the team had to put up with – continued to have meeting with McKinstry and planning for the upcoming Cameroon game.

“I was in the car heading home from their office, when I got an email from the SLFA, telling me I was dismissed – sent by a guy I was in a meeting with two hours ago. They couldn’t sit me down and have a face-to-face chat. So I spun around, went back and told the FA that – whilst I don’t agree with the way you’d dismissed me – lets shake hands and best of luck for the future." 

"It was an extremely disappointing decision, one not entirely based on football I don’t think – especially when you consider that, on the day that I was dismissed, we still stood at our record high of 50th in the FIFA rankings”.

Whilst disappointed, McKinstry admits his dismissal has seen a very positive effect in terms of the attention that has come his way, and is using it as a positive to continue to forge his very promising career.

“I want to work in the top leagues eventually, but I know that’s not going to happen tomorrow. Getting to know different cultures is important in the big leagues. In the Bundesliga, you’re not just dealing with German players – every club is so multicultural, and it’s the same in Serie A, the Premier League, wherever. So having the experience of different backgrounds means you know how to interact with people; might explain why one player does something in a certain way." 

"I’m not interested in a job where I just keep things ticking over though. I want a project where I can have an influence, where I can put my ideology and have an impact.”

The sky would seem to be the only limit for this man. An incredible array of an experience at an early age, the philosophy, determination and confidence in abilities to know he can succeed, it might not be too long before you see him rock up as the fresh-faced boss of a top club near you. In the meantime however, he’ll be fulfilling his dream of managing on every continent.

“Antarctica may prove to be a bit difficult! But they do have a rugby team…”

This article originally appeared on Sandals For Goalposts, the best site for coverage of African and Asian football.  Thanks to them and Sam Crocker for permission to replicate this article.  Both SFG and Sam can be followed on Twitter.  Johnny McKinstry is currently the Head Coach of Rwanda.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer by Horst Wein

Today most players have good technique and physical preparation so what separates the very best players is their level on game intelligence. It has to be considered the most important ability on the football field.”

When, back in 2013, I had the honour to interview Horst Wein that was the reply that particularly made an impression.  Many coaches, when asked about the most important attribute of a player will turn to the usual; skill, ability, talent.  Wein’s reply was different.  For him, it was how they thought which was of particular interest and, I have to admit, that from that point on I started judging players based on that particular ability.

There are innumerable talented players who fail to hit the heights that they should for the simple reason that during games they consistently make stupid decisions.  Runs which will lead to nothing or else, staying static when movement is required.  Inversely, there are players who can read the game better than most and these tend to be managers’ favourites even if fans do not always appreciate what makes them special.

Little wonder then, that the man who could change my whole way of viewing the game is considered to be one of the greatest instructors of our time.  Indeed, Wein has blessed coaches with innumerable conferences and texts.  Yet, given the impact of that opening comment, the one that is of particular interest to me is Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer.

This is essentially, the complete text as far as intelligence in football is concerned.  It starts with a  thesis defending the importance of game intelligence before delivering another important aspect of his philosophy: no player is born with game intelligence.

This is extremely important because if intelligence isn’t a natural phenomenon then it is something that can be coached.  Which is precisely what Wein tries to show in this book where, through a series of exercises he aims to let the player reach a conclusion for a particular desired course of action which, in turn, will increase his ability to instinctively read the game when he is playing.

As with any book, this is only a starting point for any coach (not least because Wein has written a number of books that deal with similar themes and which are all brilliant reads) since ultimately it is has application and ingenuity in making necessary changes which will allow him to teach the basic principles to his players.

Yet, as starts go, there are few better than this

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Monday, April 20, 2015

How They Do It: The Feyenoord Academy

In the beginning, there was a financial crisis.  Then again, there always seems to be a financial crisis at the beginning of stories like this one.  

This, however, was an important financial crisis rendered such by the stature of the club entrapped by it: Feyenoord.  Winners of fourteen Eredivisie titles, eleven KNVB Cups, 1 European Cup, two UEFA Cups and one Intercontinental Cup; this wasn’t just one of the biggest clubs in Holland, it was one with genuine European pedigree. 

The trouble had started back in 2006.  That year, echoing mistakes that others had done before them and others will do in the future, they brought back to Holland three of the country's international stars; Roy Makaay, Giovanni Van Bronkhorst and Kevin Hofland.  The belief was that these players could lift the team to success and, crucially, Champions League football.

That never happened and, slowly, the huge wages they paid for these players along with other costly transfer mistakes until the club was on the brink of administration.  Loans had to be taken just to pay players’ wages.  

To fill the hole, any player who could command a decent transfer fee was sold with those tasked with running the club keeping the wolves at bay whilst some clever financial restructuring whilst a significant chunk of investment from a group of fans breathed new life into the club.

Those measures had ensured that there was going to be a future for Feyenoord but the present was dire.  Shorn of all quality the team struggled with their problems culminating in the most humiliating afternoon of the club's history, a 10-0 defeat at the hands of PSV Eindhoven. 

Fortunately for Feyenoord, it wasn't just financially that they had started making right moves.  Their bitter experience had taught them that success couldn't be bought and, even if they wanted, they couldn’t do that anymore.  Either they got players who could come for very little or else they looked within. 

The latter proved to be the more attractive option thanks also to the fortuitous appointment of Wim Jansen.  As a player he had been legend at the club, playing more than 400 games in a career that spanned from 1965 to 1980 in what was the most successful era for the club.  After he brought his playing career to an end (somewhat controversially, at keen rivals Ajax), Jansen became a manager of some success, leading Feyenoord themselves to a league and cup double in 1993 as well as helping Celtic break Ranger’s dominance over the Scottish league when he guided them to their first title in ten year.

In 2005, he returned to Feyenoord as a technical advisor but whilst most of the club was focused on immediate success, Jansen had an eye on the future.  It was something he strongly believed in and remains involved in up to this day.  “Wim Jansen is the silent force behind the youth system,” former Feyenoord defender John De Wolf said recently.  “He advises coaches and teaches training courses.”

Back in his early days at the club, in 2006, he made what would turn out to be his most notable contribution when he brought in Stanley Brard, a former Feyenoord player – as well as Jansen’s son-in-law – to help restructure the club’s youth system.

It wasn’t a minor challenge.  Feyenoord had produced good players in the past but they
weren’t anywhere close to matching Ajax’s continuous stream of home grown talent, whose history gave them the edge when identifying and recruiting talent.   Nor was Brard helped by the club’s fluctuating financial position which changed in a very short space of time from looking largely for readymade stars to one where huge financial problems resulted in cuts everywhere..

Yet he had a vision that he wanted to impose; one that perhaps was best captured in the saying “geen woorden, maar daden” (actions speak louder than words) that eventually became the club’s mantra.  So much that when he left in 2013 to try and do a similar job with Azerbadjian side FC Gabala little changed with the exception of  DamiĆ«n Hertog taking over as head of the academy at Varkenoord, as Feyenoord’s academy is widely known.

Deep down, Feyenoord’s system is fairly simple, as most success stories tend to be.  Players are scouted from all over the country, although there is a particular focus on the Rotterdam area which is where they exclusively look for players who are younger than 12.  

Significantly, Feyenoord have placed a lot of importance on building good relationships with the various youth and amateur clubs.  That they treat them with respect helps and indeed no player who interests them is approached before Feyenoord have informed his current club
of their intention to do so.

In the past they also looked abroad when searching for talent but with budgets reduced, this had to stop as it was simply too costly to find allocation and maintain these players.  Now, the focus is entirely on Dutch players.  

Nor do they look at players who are older than fifteen, with the belief being that once past that age it is difficult for them to join and learn to fit into Feyenoord’s way of playing.  

Indeed, whoever joins must also learn to live by Feyenoord's rules.  At Varkenoord the focus isn't exclusively on the player’s footballing ability but also on their overall development.  Everyone gets individual attention and parents are also kept informed.  Feyenoord ensure that there is help on hand for their educational needs, working with a local school - the Thorbecke Lyceum - so that lessons are fitted around training schedule.

The scholastic element is important because through the school, Feyenoord get additional information about their players and how they are behaving.  Indeed, bad behaviour there can lead to suspension both from playing with the club and even the national team.

The key element of any youth system, however, is the level of coaching that the players get and Feyenoord isn't any different.  Attention is given so that there are coaches with different management styles, even though all have to adhere to the general philosophy, to ensure that players get maximum benefit.

More significantly, there is the belief of exposing the players to coaches who know what it is to become a professional.  It is why so many of the youth teams' coaches are former players although even they have to prove their worth at different age groups.  Roy Makaay, who played not only for Feyenoord but also for the national team and at the highest level abroad (Deportivo La Coruna and Bayern Munich), started coaching the club's U13 before graduating to the U15s and now the U19s.  

Examples like that show that “geen woorden, maar daden” is indeed at operation at every level and in every facet of the academy.  And it is why the Feyenoord academy has won the last five editions of the prestigious Rinus Michels award that identifies the best youth system in Holland.

For all the work that Brard did and that Hertog continues to do, the biggest impact came from the change in the club’s attitude.  “The focus of the club has changed in recent years,”  Brard admitted.  “If the club need players for the first team Koeman and Van Geel (Koeman’s assistant) will first look to see if players from the youth department are ready to make the step before they look outside the club.”

Whilst the sale of established players might not be agreeable, it is certainly understandable.  In order to avoid a repeat of past problems, Feyenoord have set strict limits on the amounts they spend on players’ wages where no one is £635,000 annually meaning that the total wage bill of £9.5m of 2012-13 was half of what PSV and Ajax pay.  Indeed, it was the fifth-biggest in the Netherlands.

This structure protects the club but, ultimately, once players hit a certain level they will inevitably look elsewhere to make more money.  It is something that the club accepts as do the fans (at least, for the moment) which makes it crucial that there are always new players ready to be promoted and integrated in the first team.

If Feyenoord’s set-up keeps working as it has, that should be the case but there exists a real threat to this.  Sadly, however, the reality is that Feyenoord’s success attracts those – and it usually is rich English sides – looking to raid their youth sides, robbing them of talent before it has the chance to mature.  Ironically, UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, ostensibly set in place to allow clubs who work within their limits like Feyenoord a chance to compete, could end up making matters worse with the richer clubs looking at accumulation of as much young talent as possible – in the hope that a few will turn out to be good enough for their first team – as a way to live within these rules.

Already, Feyenoord have suffered considerably.  Jeffrey Bruma and Nathan Ake (Chelsea), Karim Rekik (Manchester City) and Kyle Ebecilio (Arsenal) all left Feyenoord after spending their formative years with them with the Dutch club getting only risible fees, if any at all.

It is a subject that causes anger and frustration, yet most of those players were forced to return to Holland in order to find regular football; they, like many others, have discovered that regardless of how good they are in youth football they’re unlikely to get an opportunity at senior level in England.

Their stories should act as a warning to any young player thinking of leaving Feyenoord established tradition of giving youth an opportunity to go into a system where very few youth make it.

For all the fear and uncertainty this creates, when that question was put to Jansen his reply was a rather pragmatic one.  “In that sense, nothing has changed. Twenty years ago, PSV took Giovanni van Bronckhorst, while he was still playing in our youth.”

“What Feyenoord have to do is increase the supply of talent.  If there six talents and three of them opt for overseas, then there are still three who can eventually make it to the De Kuip.”

The unavoidable reality, however, is that Feyenoord must find a way of breaking the cycle which they can only achieve if they manage the transform themselves into a destination, rather than a stepping stone.  For that, they will need success of the more tangible kind.

Feyenoord last won a trophy in 2007-08 when they won the Dutch cup.  Their last league success came fifteen years ago and they have not played in the Champions League proper since 2002-03.  Over the past three seasons they’ve finished second twice and third on the other occasion but they need to make that final step forward.

That could come once the De Kuip is enlarged to fit in 70,000 fans rather than the current limit of 45,000, something that is scheduled for completion in 2018 and which would make it the largest stadium in Holland.  Perhaps then, the stars coming out of the Varkenoord can have their dreams of success fulfilled at the De Kuip rather than having to move elsewhere.

This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of The Football Pink.  For similar writing, join Blueprint for Football Extra, our free weekly newsletter.

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.