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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest: Issue 26

Have you got your free copy of Blueprint According To...Volume 3 yet?  No?  Here are the details to fix that.

Why Dictatorial Coaches Are Extinct (Or Should Be)
Football, specifically youth football, was once the domain of coaches who felt the urge to act as disciplinarians first and foremost with no on being able to questions their dictates.  They might have done it for the right reasons but they were wrong.  This piece explains why.

Developing Self-Learners through Game-calls and Game-Based Coaching
"By underpinning our coaching methods with innovative methods of communication (Future Game, 2010) such as Game-calls, we will see an increased level of team cohesion, understanding, skill and unity towards the ‘transcendence’ stage of knowledge whereby the decisions players make become more autonomous (instinctive) with each other."

Five key attributes of the mentally tough athlete
I have been reading a lot about mentality and mental strengths of top performers so am now of the view that it is very difficult to distil what is needed into a list.  That said, the advice in this piece is a good primer that any coach and player should be aware of and trying to adopt to their circumstance.

Development first, winning second. How some youth coaches stunt player growth
It might be common attitude now not to push children - especially younger ones - to win at the cost of everything else.  That said, it is important to note that winning is second, not nowhere.

Quote of the Week
"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it" Winston Churchill displaying aspects of mentality - self belief and determination - that are needed to succeed.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Using Football To Go Beyond Charity in Africa

When Pele said that an African country would win the World Cup by the year 2000, it was a bold prediction yet one that wasn’t met with the ridicule that it would have elicited just a few years earlier.  More and more African players were arriving into European football and establishing themselves among the best.  Given the continent’s size, its love for the game and the seemingly endless talent supply it seemed only a matter of time before African nations were challenging the world’s elite.

Six World Cups have later, however, African teams have yet to threaten the status quo.  Indeed, no African country has ever progressed past the quarter finals (although fate hasn’t always been kind on them).  Although they’re no longer the whipping boys they once were and there is an abundance of talent no country has really made its mark.


There are a lot of theories as to why progress has stalled but perhaps one of the most solid is that put forward by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their book Soccernomics.    One of the four factors that they identified as vital for international success is the financial situation of a country, specifically their GDP per capita (the other factors are home advantage, historical soccer experience and population).

In a chapter titled “The Curse of Poverty: Why Poor Countries Are Poor at Sports” they explain that in countries facing a difficult economic situation there are knock-on effects on population such as malnutrition and inadequate administration.

Given the chaos that surrounded Ghana’s participation in that last World Cup – where $3M had to be flown in to pay players’ bonuses and avert a threatened strike – it is hard to refute this latter fact.  Indeed, there are numerous examples of deficient administrations across the whole continent.  And if the national associations – who benefit from FIFA’s financing – struggle so much it is difficult to imagine that matters can be much better at grassroots level.

Developing countries have been all but shut out of the lucrative business of football, despite a passionate culture of the game, peaceful and emerging economies and a growing population of determined youth.”   That is blunt and hard-hitting opinion of Adrian Bunbury who has been working in Uganda for the past ten years. 

Some of the best youth are making it to Europe and the Middle East, but are forced to
leave home to pursue these opportunities due to a lack of quality local training, competition and club sophistication. Foreign, well-funded, academies are poaching youth players, reaping the economic benefits and not reinvesting locally.

This is a brawn, brain and economic drain that must change. The current structure, at most, educates and enriches only a few individuals.

It is a problem that can only be solved with local partnerships, investment, training and education.

This is where the organisation that Adrian works for – Football for Good – steps in.

The goal is to step beyond charity. Charity is finite. We're aiming to build something that's sustainable. The question we continue to ask is that if the power and value of football comes from the grassroots, why does so little value return there?

What we want to do is lead and seed football academies that unlock the competitive advantages of war-recovering and developing regions. We want to develop talent to build sustainable local clubs and academies through participation in the multi-billion dollar global business of player transfers.

This is “Fair Trade Football” that educates, trains and mentors disadvantaged youth, leads social change and provides financial returns to the communities it serves.

Gulu United Football Club, based in war-recovering northern Uganda, is the first partner academy for Football for Good and the only full-time youth football academy and scholarship program in the entire country.

We are starting in northern Uganda, already have a partner in Zimbabwe and aim to grow across sub-Saharan Africa building academies and communities the right way.

That the choice to kick off this project in Uganda, where there has been so much war and strife in the past, isn’t coincidental.


Founded in 1990, the club folded after suffering through over two decades of civil war and unspeakable violence. However, northern Uganda is no longer a dark and dangerous place. There is an entrenched football culture and the youth of this isolated region of over six million compete with a disciplined desperation that clearly communicates this opportunity.

This is a generation who know nothing but war. They are starting over here in the north, but there is incredible progress, energy and 'community'.  It is not a question of if we will be successful, but when.

Football can play an important role in that process.

There are numerous organizations here focused on a myriad of health and social issues. At the same time, there is incredible ingenuity in the areas of health, mobile, etc. and we see football in this region in the same way. This is not charity in the traditional sense. There is a community building and entrepreneurial opportunity here through football.

And Adrian has staked more than his personal effort in making this a successful project.

In January of 2015, I moved my family to Uganda to launch the Gulu United youth academy.

Most people see this region and the current landscape, as an ongoing and unending catastrophe. Football for Good however, sees an opportunity, a clear competitive advantage and a grassroots social business innovation.

Whilst most people might balk at the ‘business’ element of the venture, the focus is very
much on the social.  “All of our  youth players are full-time students on academic scholarship,” Adrian explains. “Sure, every youth player will be training (and aiming) to become a world- class professional, but only our very best will make it.  However, all youth who participate, or even come in contact with the program, will benefit.” 

Football for Good will deliver local scholarships and international education opportunities, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, leadership and community building skills that go well beyond the game of football.  Our success will mean a sustainable football club and academy, in turn creating an ongoing investment in youth, local entrepreneurs, ingenuity and community development.

Inevitably, given the lofty ambitions, selection of players was a thorough process.

The program opened with 50 full-time youth (who are also on academic scholarships). This group was selected after a 6-month identification phase where close to 1,000 of the region’s top young footballers were evaluated.” 

And that is just the start.  “Going forward, we will travelling throughout northern Uganda to identify the best U14 and younger players to join us and grow our group in 2016.

Apart from the educational opportunities that getting selected offers to the children of the Gulu United academy, there is the additional benefit of top level football coaching that they receive.

We have eight full-time local coaches, who are led by our UEFA A licensed technical director Victor Satei.” 

We have our own philosophy of 'positive possession & brain-based' football with a real focus on free flowing attacking football.  There is an evolving training program that continues to improve (but not without it's bumps along the way). I'm here full-time and also coach, while Victor has been here for two 6-week stints in 2015 to work with the players and continue to train and develop our staff.


Our focus, however, is on the player.  We are aiming to develop fast – physically strong and quick – slow –smart and opportunistic – head turning footballers.

All of this sounds very European in its philosophy and execution.  The main difference, however, lies in the facilities which for most European academies might seem quite Spartan.

We have two full-sized "grass" pitches – in truth they are very much dirt pitches- and all of the balls, cones and bibs we need.” 

Boots continue to be a problem, with the fields here doing plenty of damage to our footwear. I'm also a big believer in hanging 'just enough' when it comes to facilities. We are not here to pamper our kids, we here to help them grow in a demanding environment with an opportunity go abroad.

Whilst few have attempted academies of this kind, Europeans coming to Africa to set up academies with the aim of selling as many young players to European clubs as possible is not exactly unheard of.  It is for this reason that it is important to reinforce the care that Gulu United take of their players.

For one thing, they will not be sold to any club that comes along.  “This is a work in progress but we will be providing the initial links and guidance for the players.  We need the right environment for our boys and be certain that the support is there for them to have success.

This ideology doesn’t apply to those players who do get to move abroad.  “Once a Football For Good or Gulu United player, always one of our players,” he emphasizes.  “We won’t just follow them, we’ll be with them every step of the way.  This is our family and these are our kids.

Inevitably, there has been interest from European clubs in this project.  But whilst Adrian says that at the moment they’re thinking over the process, he has words of praise for Brentford.  “They have been a great friend of Gulu United and Football For Good.

The club has hosted us, sent coaches to Uganda and helped guide our academy development program.   We hope to deepen that relationship in the months and years to come.  This is a club that may seem like a minnow to outsiders, who has real ambitions and understands ‘value’ and youth development.

Ambition is certainly an adjective that applies to Football For Good, and Adrian himself.  “Along with an established academy program here in Gulu, we also aim to have Football For Good be a global leader in sub-Saharan Africa in providing academy development, targeted consultancy, player identification and the nurturing of world-class youth soccer talent that leads to new market and transfer opportunities, economic sustainability and community building,” he says.

Nor does he lack confidence.  “In five years I will hit 50 in the month of April. My birthday is going to be spent sitting in the stands somewhere in Europe watching a Gulu United youth academy product play first team football.

And from there, anything is possible.

Special thanks to Victor Satei for bringing this excellent project to Blueprint for Football.

To learn more, people can visit:
Football for Good: www.football-for-good.org
Gulu United FC: guluunited.com

Four Four Gulu: fourfourgulu.wordpress.com

Monday, July 20, 2015

Free Coaching Book

It is fair to say that when I published “Blueprint According To…Volume II” in July of 2014, I genuinely thought that this would be the last in the series.  Whilst it had been both a great learning experience and a thrill to actually publish a book bearing my name – even a self-published one – when I came to assess whether the books themselves had met expectations – financial ones - the story was completely different.

I had never expected to make huge profits from the books but it had been my expectation to at least cover cost and perhaps earn a little bit extra to help fund the cost of Blueprint for Football.  Ultimately, that didn’t happen.  In fact, I didn’t even come close.

All of which led me to question whether there was a need for such books or even the ‘Blueprint According To…’ series itself.  To be honest, I expected some tepid feedback from hard core readers so it was surprising to receive a large number of views by people who had found the whole series both educational and insightful.

Naturally, this encouraged me to continue with the series.  And, once the interviews themselves are already written, I felt that I might as well publish the next volume in the series.

And so ‘Blueprint According To…Volume III’ came into being.  The book is, once again, available for sale on Amazon but, having rid myself of financial targets, I’ve decided to try and make it as easy as possible for any aspiring coach looking for new material to read to get their hands on this book.

So, if you are one such coach and would like to get a free e-book edition of ‘Blueprint According To…Volume III’, all you have to do is join Blueprint for Football’s mailing list (it is completely free and I will not ask for any payment down the line) and you will receive information on how to get this book within a few days.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest: Issue 25

Blueprint According To...Ally Bain
Whereas as a rule British footballers seem to shy away from playing overseas - indeed many prefer going to the lower leagues and even into semi-professional football rather than going abroad - a completely different mentality seems to govern coaches.  Ally Bain [https://twitter.com/allybain] is one such coach and in this interviews he explains his motivations, what he has found out and how he is building his football philosophy.

The importance of motivation when coaching young players
People seem to assume that motivation is a given among young players but in truth coaches have to work hard in order to ensure not only that it is there but that it is the right kind of motivation.

Incorporating the Four Pillars into Practice - A Coaches View
Football is largely made up of technical, tactical, physical and psychological aspects.  How is a coach to implement them in practice?

How coaching makes a difference
http://www.sportscoachuk.org/blog/how-coaching-makes-difference
Does coaching make a difference? Figures seem to suggest so.

Quote of the Week
To achieve a high standard of excellence in performance you cannot afford to be in the comfort zone.” Vern Gambetta

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.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Developing Self-Learners through Game-calls and Game-Based Coaching

by Gérard Jones, MSc

The importance of practice-design
Prior to discussing communication, the foundations of practice-design must be established. The question is do coaches know what a great player looks like? Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta, Scholes  are a few obvious names but it is essential as a coach to identify what it is about these players that makes them great. If you cannot explain this then you don’t know what you’re working towards. Without this knowledge, a coach will be unable to provide the essential skills that aid players to attain greatness. Having this vision of what a coach is working towards will help produce the next generation of players that excite and entertain, across all playing positions. 

We live in an era now where football has seen so many changes in the game, with goalkeepers like Neuer demonstrating high levels of technical excellence, bravery and skill that perhaps not many keepers before him have demonstrated on the world stage. So how do we develop these players? Well what we don’t do is train them using lines and drills where they only make decisions in an unchanging environment.  

Unfortunately football for many years in England and in most countries around the world has been shadowed by a belief that techniques must be mastered first before progressing into game-play situations (Cassidy, Jones, & Potrac, 2009; Williams, Yates, & Ford, 2007) which only produces players that make decisions (action) with no perception skills due to the environment not changing, thus creating ineffective game players. 

Expert Footballers use their knowledge of situational probabilities to predict where the player and ball is likely to go next (Ford, Yates, & Williams, 2010) by using their superior knowledge to control their eye movement to seek and pick up specific pieces of information needed to respond quickly to the situation (Williams & Ford, 2008) based on postural orientation. 

This process requires players to audit a rapidly changing and random environment in order to know what appropriate response can be made (Williams, 2000; Future Game, 2010), therefore the more the players are exposed to environments that require them to think about what is happening and could happen in a changing environment, the better the learning experience will be for the player (Cartwright, 2008).

Put simply, players make decisions on time and space limitations through full or part opponent pressure, therefore in order to develop better decision makers with skill we need to place players in environments that allow them to make decisions under these conditions throughout the whole of their development years (Cartwright, 2008; Jones, 2015; Williams & Hodges, 2005).

“A coach who teaches his players the correct technique using special, frequently repeated drills is neglecting to teach them why, when and where they need to use technique to deal with a given game situation” (Wein, 2004, p.5).

The solution is for coaches to create training practices that offer direction, choice, challenge, competition, and opponent pressure with a purpose (Jones, 2015) where the practice constraints such as the area-size, the gradual increase of opposition players and the focus of the activity can be manipulated to bring about different decisions and player solutions. Players will also find the practices more enjoyable than they would lines-drills (Renshaw, Oldham, & Bawden, 2012; Vallerand, 2004) as they practices demonstrate ‘play’ in them for game-realism.  

What is play?
Play is self-chosen and self-directed. It is something the players want to do as it is not something they have been ‘made’ to do, therefore it is fun. Play allows for freedom to make decisions and is an activity in which the means are more valued than the end (Cote, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007). 

In order for players to have the opportunity to practice how the coach wants them to play, by making decisions on time and space, the coach needs to let them have enough time ‘playing’ the game. Often coaching involves long lectures, the coach stopping the practice every minute and only coaching mistakes. This isn’t enjoyable for players and fails to give them enough practice time to ‘practice playing the game’.

Play and Practice are two vital components to coaching future great players, because you
can’t achieve anything without the other. There has to be a balance of the two, which is why Play-Practice methods of teaching have been found to be useful in developing decision makers as they are often delivered in games or game-like activities where players learn in a fun environment (Launder, 2001). 

What traits are needed to empower decision makers with skill? Creativity! 

Coaches who place pressure on players to perform well on tasks that are mentally habitual meaning non-changing and repetitive like a line-drill type practice, induce a non-playful state that may improve performance on the task but worsen performance on tasks that require creativity, conscious decision making and learning of new skills in a changing environment (Gray, 2008). Clearly football is the latter.

“With decision making you need to let it evolve and grow” (Rene Meulensteen)

Communication is Vital
Within the practice design and environment, players will receive feedback on performance. This is the most critical aspect of coaching as mentioned in the highly regarded Soccer-Communication Book “Let’s Talk Soccer: Using game-calls to develop communication and decision making in football” is the ability of the coach enthuse players to communicate to each other in a way that paint’s pictures in the minds of the players on what to do, when and why. What this helps achieve is players who can play ahead of themselves (Play in the future) with increased anticipation and response skills. 

Communication is as Sullivan (1993) suggests "the most critical element in the success of sporting teams’ due to there being “a positive correlation between enhanced interpersonal communication skills and higher levels of team performance” (p.90). 

The problem however is that players now rely more on the voice of the coach than their own brain! With coaches doing most of the talking in training and in games, shouting instructions on what to do, where to go and when. Instead we should be developing the players ‘inner voice’ so that they understand what to do, when and why. The game is the assessment of the learning that’s taken place during the week, therefore as coaches we should be more observers during the game to see what has been performed well and what needs to be improved further. 

How often do coaches use jargon or fancy buzz words which confuse the players, and have no relevance to the game-style of how they want the team to play? I would argue very often! What we need to do is create a football language specific to our club identity, game-style and vision for how we want to develop the future player!

Solutions
Football language
Coaches must use words that directly link to the team’s game-style so that when used with players, they instantly understand what you mean, when and why. These words (game-calls) are not only words you use, but the concept is for the coach to ‘say less but achieve more’ with players speaking more than the coach by communicating to each other. 

For example, if the player can’t play forward, he may shout “Start-again” to his teammate which instantly tells his teammate on the ball that there may be a risk going forward but the opportunity to play backwards and retain possession is available in order to go forwards. 

This method helps create independent thinking footballers that can make decisions with skill
in response to the changing environment through unity not separation. What is the relevance to ‘practice-design’? Game-calls are game-specific words that make reference to decisions that can be made only in game-situations therefore the best way to teach game-calls and consequently game-understanding is to involve players in game-like activities (Jones, 2015).

The words that can be used can relate to all aspects of football performance, from “Press”, “No-turn” through to “Play-round”, “Balance” and “Two’s” with many more! These are examples of one or two words which the players say to each other in order to retain or regain possession of the football. What does ‘Balance’ or ‘Drive & slide’ mean? Unless the coach shows the players when to use these terms and how they relate to the game-style they won’t know.

Self-learners 
Players, who are empowered to make decisions and learn by doing, will become better thinkers and reflectors, and therefore better at finding solutions to problems on the pitch without having to look at the coach for the answers all the time. 

The future player will be a great ‘self-learner’ meaning they direct their learning by themselves, becoming highly skilled at self-talk, reflection, communication and action, all skills that are paramount to playing football successfully (Jones, 2015). 

This will see the role of the coach, like Mourinho, Guardiola, and Wenger et al. becoming more ‘facilitators’ of knowledge rather than directors, with their role as the coach in the modern and future game as we are seeing now become more of a ‘significant other’ (Vygotsky, 1978).

Mental models
It’s all about pictures! The mental pictures (models) of knowledge which players can draw upon during games in order to respond appropriately to visual cues are vital ingredients to the success of sporting teams. The best way to develop these mental models are by encouraging players to talk to each other through use of game-calls as these ‘trigger-words’ help the player develop these mental images related to game-scenarios. The only way this can be achieved properly is by coaches programming their work over a period of time, specific to each individual player’s needs. 

Coaches need to know their players (learners) in terms of their strengths and areas for development, and design individual-specific programmes for each player to maximize their strengths. Coaches should see every player as an individual-project.

We can’t develop highly skillful, self-learners who drive their learning onto advanced levels without acknowledging the importance of ‘individualism’. This is where my belief about football and how it should be played links to what I see when I describe what a great player is! As famous Youth Coach John Cartwright explained “Football isn’t simply a team game, it’s about individual’s combining where necessary” (Cartwright, 2008) therefore the fundamental importance for all coaches is to develop ‘Individualism’ in every players by encouraging dribbling, skill, ball mastery and passing variations. 

Players like Messi and Ronaldo are excellent self-learners; they drive their learning by a hunger to want to be the best they can be, committing hours and hours of practice to maximizing their strengths. 

By underpinning our coaching methods with innovative methods of communication (Future Game, 2010) such as Game-calls, we will see an increased level of team cohesion, understanding, skill and unity towards the ‘transcendence’ stage of knowledge whereby the decisions players make become more autonomous (instinctive) with each other. Each of these topics are discussed in more detail in my book “Let’s Talk Soccer” where there are practical resources and session ideas on how to develop communication in order to create the next generation of ‘independent-thinking footballers’ who are great self-learners.

About the Author
Gérard Jones, MSc is the author of Let's Talk Soccer, a coaching manual about communication in football.  He is currently completing the FA UEFA A Licence and FA Advanced Youth Award, holds a Master’s degree in Performance Coaching and is a Qualified Teacher with over 10 years coaching experience working with players from around the world. 

Gérard is a former Director of Coaching at Arsenal Soccer Schools, having also worked as an Academy Coach from U7s-U16s at Rochdale AFC. Gérard currently works as a full-time Academy Coach at RIASA with Bradford City FC as an U21s Reserve Coach.

References
Cartwright, J. (2008). Football for the Brave. M Press (Media) Ltd.

Cassidy, T., Jones, R.L. and Potrac, P. (2009). Understanding sports coaching: The social, cultural and pedagogical foundations of sports practice. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. 
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Cote, J., Baker, J., & Abernethy, B. (2007). Practice and play in the development of sport expertise. In R.Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology, pp.184-202.

Ford, P.R., Yates, I. and Williams, A.M. (2010). An analysis of practice activities and instructional behaviours used by youth soccer coaches during practice: Exploring the link between science and application. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28, pp. 483–495.

Gray, P. (2008). Freedom to learn. The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning. Psychology Today.

Jones, G.E. (2015). Let’s Talk Soccer: Using Game-calls to Develop Communication & Decision Making in Football. Bennion Kearney.

Launder, A.G. (2001). Play practice: The games approach to teaching and coaching sports.

Renshaw, I., Oldham, A. R., & Bawden, M. (2012). Nonlinear pedagogy underpins intrinsic motivation in sports coaching. The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 5, pp. 88-99.

Sullivan, P. A. (1993). Communication skills training for interactive sports. The Sport Psychologist, 7, pp. 79-91.

The Future Game. (2010). The Football Association’s Technical Guide to Young Player Development. The Football Association: London. 

Vallerand, R. J. (2004). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in sport. Encyclopedia of applied psychology, 2, pp. 427-435.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). "Chapter 6: Interaction between learning and development". Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 79–91.

Wein, H. (2004). Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer. Chapter 1: Introduction: How does a soccer player’s intelligence manifest itself on the field, pp. 5-12. Reedswain.

Williams, A. M. and Ford, P. R. (2008). Expertise and expert performance in sport. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1, pp.4–18. 

Williams, A. M. and Hodges, N. J. (2005). Practice, instruction and skill acquisition: Challenging tradition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23, pp. 637–650. 

Williams, A.M. (2000). Perceptual skill in soccer: Implications for talent identification and development. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18, pp. 737-740. 

Williams, A.M., Yates, I., & Ford, P.R. (2007). Structuring practice for effective learning: Are we failing our current generation of aspiring young players? In-sight: The Football Association Coaches Association Coaches Magazine, Spring, pp. 50–56.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Why Dictatorial Coaches Are Extinct (Or Should Be)

Whilst a coach has to be curious if he really wants to develop, there is another side of the equation which is a coach’s ability to fuel curiosity in others.  

As any parent will confirm, children are full of questions (it has been estimated that between the ages of two and five, children ask around 40,000 questions) which seem to multiply the moment that you answer any one of them.  This is a natural element of their growth process and it is through this process that they learn about the world around them.  


Children should be asking questions not least because it is a sign that they are actually learning to the extent that they will remember it later on.  As Ian Leslie writes in his book Curious, “when people learn something rapidly they often learn it superficially; that is, they are more liable to forget in the long term.”  

How the adults around those children respond to their questioning has a direct impact.  

Someone whose questions are answered will learn and think up of additional questions that will eventually lead to them making mental links with other subjects.  By answering such questions, one is essentially fueling their cognitive abilities.  On the other hand, if those questions go unanswered, then the child quickly learns that it is useless asking questions and stops doing so.  Sadly, that will be the only lesson that they learn.

It is easy, then, to see why it is important for coaches to absorb this information.  Sadly some coaches regard questions as a threat to their authority when in truth they should be encouraging them.  

In today’s game, one of the most important attributes of a player is their intelligence; how they react to different situations and their ability to read how the game is flowing.  For some, this ability comes naturally – just as some have a natural aptitude for certain academic topics like maths or languages – but that does not mean that the rest cannot learn.

Indeed, that is where a good coach becomes vitally important because they are the ones
who realise that their responsibility lies beyond teaching players how to carry out specific skills but in fueling in them the desire to learn more about the game.  These are the coaches who will challenge their players on why they made certain decisions during a game and who will be ready to answer any resulting questions.  It will make them better players and, by being willing to answer questions, help to motivate them which is a handy by-product of the players knowing why they are doing things.

It is through this process of probing the players into thinking and asking questions about the game that coaches can help their players gain a level of insight that would have otherwise been impossible for them to achieve.

This is not exactly a novel idea.  One of the maxims that underpins Ajax’s (as well as most of Dutch football) development program is that of getting players to fill in at various roles rather than pigeonholing them into a fixed one.  

The logic behind this is that such a move allows the players to gain a different perspective.  A midfielder might get to understand why a striker might want a ball to be delivered early or why they can’t make certain runs.  In other words, it places in front of them a completely new way of viewing the game and urges them to start asking what they need to do differently to solve whatever new problems they’re faced with.

It is, essentially, a way of feeding players’ curiosity and making it an inherent trait of their academy.  It challenges them to look beyond the boundaries of ‘their’ role and gets them to think how each action fits into the overall tactics; and how differing tactics require different things from them.


There is proof of this.  In 1946, a Dutch psychologist by the name of Adrian de Groot studied chess grandmasters and amateur players.  What he found is that masters have stored in memory more positions than amateurs meaning that they can instinctively recognise the patterns emerging from their opponents play.  This gives them a huge advantage because they have more time to think about what their own next step should be.

Unlikely as this might initially seem, there is a direct link with football.  The talent that we most admire in the greatest midfielders – Xavi or Pirlo, for instance – is their ability to ‘read’ what is happening around them.  Despite the incessant pace at which modern football is played, they somehow always seem to find the time to pick the right pass.

In an interview that Blueprint for Football had done with Geir Jordet, professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, he spoke of players’ perception and their ability to visually examine what is happening around them.  Through his research Jordet shows that a player’s ability to ‘know’ where others are on the pitch is neither accidental nor solely the function of his skill.  Instead, it is all down to how much he looks at what is happening around him before he gets the ball. 

What I've done,” he said, “which I don't think many people have done, is to actually go in and analyse exactly what happens with some of the best players in the world in the seconds before they get the ball.  And there is so much activity going on.”  

There is so much looking, there is so much searching and there is so much exploration.  That is why I find the players who explore the most actively in that period before they get the ball they also perform better when they get the ball.  I think that there is a need to focus a bit more on that side of the game then what people usually do.

Therefore, whilst master chess players can look at a chess board and immediately recognise what play each player is trying to execute, the best midfield players can take a look around them to realise what is going to happen.

Neither level of expertise comes about through incident or, much less, is through an innate ability.  Instead it comes about through specific training and their desire to question what happens after each play.  Indeed, Jordet recommended specific exercises to help players achieve such perception most of which include placing the players in situations where they have to ask themselves what those around them are doing.  

In other works, it involves getting them curious about what others are doing and how their roles fit into what is happening.  

This article was largely inspired by Ian Leslie’s book ‘Curious’ and by discussions with the author himself who kindly agreed to be a beta-reader.  A first part of this article will focus on the need for coaches to foster their own curiosity.  

For full disclosure purposes it is noted that a copy of Curious was provided by the books’ publisher. Also, a small fraction of any book purchased by following the links in this piece make their way back to Blueprint for Football.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Blueprint According To...Ally Bain

Whereas as a rule British footballers seem to shy away from playing overseas - indeed many prefer going to the lower leagues and even into semi-professional football rather than going abroad - a completely different mentality seems to govern coaches.   Indeed it is the opposite where many actively look for what opportunities there might be in other countries.

There are many reasons for this.    Undeniably,  one relates to the lack of (paying) opportunities that there exist in England where many coaches are expected to work either for free or else on a part-time basis.

However it isn't just that.   Increasingly coaches are feeling the need to experience different cultures and mentalities to help them grow.

Ally Bain is one such coach.   Having started out coaching in community schemes, he chose to pursue a role in America that provides him with a greater scope to grow.   Indeed, it has helped shape his philosophy in a way that would have been impossible if he had stayed back home.

Blueprint for Football: How did you take up in coaching?
Ally Bain: I started coaching purely by chance.  I stumbled upon a level 1 coaching course through the Scottish FA when I was 15, as part of a PE class that I was taking at high school.  Part of the course was to develop teaching methods in real life environments, so to supplement the content we were placed in local primary schools to gain on field experience.  From this I started an Under 11 football team at my old primary school, which strangely enough I had been playing in 4 years earlier!

BfF: What, do you feel, is the most important skill for a coach to have?
AB: I feel the most important skill to have is an ability to connect with your players and communicate information effectively.  Our role is to facilitate information to those we are leading, which somewhat renders the knowledge we have accrued meaningless if we are unable to pass it on with accuracy.  

In coaching schools there is a heavy emphasis on “tactical understanding” and “skill development games”.   However often these miss the point unless we are able to explain why these factors relate to a specific group of individuals.

BfF: Have you had any mentors who have helped develop your way of thinking and of coaching?
AB: My first mentor in the game is current Annan FC manager Jim Chapman.  Jim actually co-ordinated the level 1 course that got me started in coaching, back when I was 15.  During that time I was thirsty to learn and even more eager to see him operate 1st hand.  

What struck me was his ability to use words to assist players understanding of the mechanics of their role.  He could speak through a scenario and it would allow the player to be completely clear on what he was asking of them.  

I was of course extremely impressed by this, and to this day strive to emulate what I saw in those 1st few years in the game.  Lately I have started working with a professional in the psychology world named Jeff Irving.  He does not have a back ground in football, however he has completely transformed my ability to handle my own emotions and thought process before articulating key information to the players.

BfF: Talking about thinking, what is your philosophy?
AB: Many view philosophy as a rigid, concrete or solidified concept.  I tend to challenge this view point and see philosophy as a more transient commodity, one that must adapt to its surroundings and live inherently in the present.  For example, part of my role within GPS Portland Phoenix is to manage our youth academy.  

Our philosophy within that department is based heavily upon skill development, which will allow players to move fluently across the field.  Ultimately this department is in it for the long haul, so we have more time to exercise this philosophy.  

Our men's team which operates in the USL PDL, the Non League equivalent of US Soccer, is a different beast all together as our philosophy predicates maximizing our preparation for the next match.  Our playing style is much more protective and counter attacking based, mainly because we have 90 minutes each week to validate our team development.

BfF: How did you develop it?  
AB: I developed my understanding of this transient philosophy when studying how youth academies are viewed within the time continuum of a professional football club.  Ultimately academies are facilitators of development, therefore the coaches who operate within that world must use thought processes that stretch over a decade.  

I currently coach our Under13 boys in addition to the men's team, and I would argue that this group are far more tactically developed than our men's team - comparatively speaking - simply because I have had longer to work with them.  While our men's team are still a strong group collectively, this unity has been brought about through applying principles and initiating guide lines that we must all adhere to.  If we therefore evaluate the two, as is the case in almost every club out there, our academy Philosophy is completely removed from that of the 1st team.

BfF: Do you find yourself adding to it along the way?  And if so, how does that process typically occur?
AB: My outlook on philosophy will undoubtedly continue to develop and progress as my career continues.  I personally gain more from listening and watching others, than actually doing it on my own.  In the last twelve months my club has formed a partnership with FC Bayern Munich, and as part of the exchange we have had access to their head academy staff.  Sitting back and listening to them speak about their methods and approaches toward certain aspects of their program has been absolutely spectacular.  Often in football we are so caught up in what we are doing, we forget there is a world out there doing what we are.  I would encourage any coach to use those clubs around them as a learning tool, it has definitely altered my mindset toward philosophy and development.

BfF: How do you communicate?  Both your thoughts for a particular session and, in general, for getting across your philosophy which typically takes longer to put across.
AB: With our youth players a lot of my communication is guided discovery.  I want to ask them as many questions as I can, which will therefore bring about a new level of understanding, that allows them to become self sufficient in times of need.  By employing such a transient and fluid plying style amongst our players, they need to be able to problem solve effectively and brain power certainly plays into that.  

With our men’s team I utilize video as my main component of transferring information.  This key visual aid provides the players with a clear understanding of what I want from a certain situation, but also affords them a learning opportunity to see what went wrong first hand.

BfF: You've worked with Watford and Crystal Palace in the past.   What roles were those?
AB: My route into football came like many through the grass roots football in the community programs.  I worked as a football development officer at both of these clubs, and was charged with developing specific programs within a designated geographical area.  Many of the children I worked with during this time were mere beginners, those who were trying the game for the 1st time - 3 and 4 year olds - and those who simply used football as an after school activity, a vehicle if you like to socialize with their friends.  

Another element of both programs was the development centre concept.  Both Watford and Crystal Palace are clubs based in extremely densely populated areas, so with only one academy team per age group, there was a requirement for a conduit program that would prepare players for the next level.  

We formed a development centre concept that allowed higher level players from local boys clubs to train once per week together and often take part in friendly games against the academy team of their age group.  While this is a fairly common practice in 2015, at the time it was still fairly novel idea and increased the clubs ability to reach more high level players.

BfF: What exactly is your current role and what led you to taking it up?
AB: My official title within GPS Portland Phoenix is General Manager.  I wear many hats at the club, which sees my coverage spread across both football and business aspects of our operation.  Prior to joining the club I had spent time previously in the US, working for a small operation in New Jersey.  In 2009 I was made aware that a new club was forming in Maine, so I contacted the owners and interviewed with them in London.  

At the time the club didn’t exist, so we were purely conceptualizing what we would like the program to become and what we could envisage.  I was fortunate enough that the owner felt I was the person to lead the charge…fast forward six years and we’re still going strong.

BfF: Did you have worries that going outside the UK coaching system might hinder your career?
AB: Not in the slightest.  In the UK there is a gulf between those who operate at the professional level and those who are starting out in the game; therefore I actually felt leaving the UK would enhance my learning experience and prepare me for a longer career in the game.

BfF: As a coach, what is the biggest change that you've had to face since going to America?  And how did you handle it?
AB: As coaches our ability to communicate is key, therefore we require terminology that is inextricably understood by our players.  Coming to the US presented me with a huge problem initially, as almost all of my learned terminology was useless.  

As with any part of the world, the people here have formed their own “Football Dictionary” so to speak, but there is some natural cross over.  Ultimately I had to approach things with an open mind and reach a common ground with participants that allowed us both to be fully aware of what each other wanted.

BfF: Do you think it is important for coaches to experience different countries and places to work?
AB: I think it has definitely benefitted both my career and development as a coach; however it is not for everyone.  Some individuals struggle to adjust socially to new surroundings, which in turn takes the focus off developing their skill sets.

BfF: How do you find that the kids you coach look at you since you're a foreigner?
AB: Initially it can be awkward for players, especially as they need to listen hard to process my west central Scotland accent!  But once the novelty wears off they simply connect me as “the soccer guy” and from there on in it’s up to me to make it a positive experience.  One aspect my younger players still struggle to grasp is the amount of games per weekend I watch on TV.  

The American youth culture isn’t really geared toward watching sports, as much as it is playing them, so It’s still a hard concept for them to grasp that I find time to watch over 10 games a weekend on TV!

BfF: What are the biggest difference between English players and American ones (if there is a difference)?
AB: Ultimately there truly isn’t a difference between English and American players.  Youth football in the US operates a very similar calendar, so the two countries afford players the opportunity to play competitively all year round.  If there was to be a differentiation it would have to be the structure afforded to adult players in the US.  With 94 professional clubs spread across 55 million in England and only 42 professional clubs spread across 318 million in the USA, you can quickly establish that the progression afforded to US players begins to diminish their ability to fulfil their potential.  This begins to manifest itself into deficiencies that in the adult game become clearer to the eye; stunt in game awareness, tactical nous and the technical skills to open up a game.

BfF: And, finally, what do you want to achieve to be satisfied with your career as a coach?
AB: What I will continue to strive for is an ability to help players develop their game.  If this remains in the youth development world or indeed I am afforded an opportunity to operate at the professional level, my goal will be to continue serving those I work with.  Players are the very core of the game, so to be privileged enough to form a small piece in the cog that helps the game turn, I will continue to work hard to improve and hopefully that rubs off on others around me.

Blueprint According To...Volume III will be published soon and will contain the finest of our recent interviews with football coaches.  Subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra will not only be the first to get their hands on this e-book, they will do so for free.  So join, here.