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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: Universality by Matt Whitehouse

The idea of teams having players who are capable of interchanging into different roles has been around since the early sixties.  Indeed, it could be argued that the most successful team over the decades – at least those that have had lasting success –have been those sides who have had players that were particularly good at doing this.

In the modern era, the man who really revolutionised tactical thinking in this respect was Arrigo Sacchi.  Today he is more remembered for his high pressing game that operated clinically thanks also to the supremely talented Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten.  Yet Sacchi’s Milan was much more than that: it was a side that had been coached to function as a whole, with players knowing where to move based on what others did during the game.

Indeed, Sacchi predicted that his team had actually only been the start of a tactical evolution that would eventually see teams where players could fulfil any role equally well.  His vision of the game went beyond the star individuals and was centred around the strength of the team.  For Sacchi, that was what was paramount.

Ultimately, his views were seen as being overly extreme – which is why his reign at Milan was relatively brief despite his success – but it spawned a generation of coaches who took his ideas and went to work with them.  Today, it is impossible to find a top level coach who hasn’t been influenced by Sacchi’s thinking.

Matt Whitehouse is certainly one of the admirers.  It could be said that the premise of this book is that of proving Sacchi right; looking over the different tactical evolutions over the past three decades, analysing what kind of an impact these have had and comparing them to his prediction.

That of analysing the game’s tactical development is a job that Whitehouse has done particularly well here as his most recent book, Universality, highlight how football has evolved to its present state.   He isn’t overbearing – there never is a sense of a coach speaking down to others - but it is obvious in the way that he writes that he’s not only researched this subject but also thought very deeply about it.  
Ultimately, it leaves the reader in no doubt of that Whitehouse sees Sacchi’s prediction becoming reality.  Indeed, he has pinpointed Pep Guardiola as the man who not only has the vision to achieve this but, at Bayern, the players that can carry it out.

Whether this proves to be the case remains to be seen; far too often in the past tactical innovations that looked set to sweep all before them ended up being overtaken by other developments.  However, what this whole book manages to conclusively prove – even though it wasn’t its stated aim to do so – is that the future of the game lies in the hands of those who not only think deeply about the game but who are also capable of shaping future evolutions.  

Anyone who stands still will be simply left behind.

If you’re interested in this book, kindly purchase it by following this link and you will also be helping Blueprint for Football.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of Universality was provided by the author.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Blueprint According To...Stephen Fraser


One of the first changes that Bill Shankly brought about as soon as he became manager at Liverpool FC was to revolutionise the way that his players trained.  Out went the long distance running that had previously been the daily occurrence – as with most clubs across the country at the time – and in came training with the ball.  

“We never bothered with sand dunes and hills and roads,” he later said, “we trained on grass where football is played.”

At the time it was a revolutionary move, as were most of the practices he introduced to the club, but nowadays they are accepted wisdom.  What Shankly had done was to look at how things were being done and questioned whether they were fulfilling their purpose.  Framed that way, it is easy to conclude that spending a morning running up and down a hill isn’t going to result in a better football player.

Everything we do here is for a purpose” Shankly used to love to say.  And so it should be for any coach.  Doing a training session simply because that is what you are used to doing or it is how you yourself trained simply isn’t good enough.  You have to know what it will help you achieve and how that fits in your overall training plan.

Stephen Fraser is someone who strongly believes in this.  A young coach who is currently working at St Mirren’s Academy – one of the finest in Scotland – he argues that “activity alone is not sufficient to develop talent.”  

It has to be focussed practice and always have a purpose to improve the players as individuals.”  As he explains when talking about his blueprint, football takes place in a very dynamic environment so why do players train in a static environment?

Blueprint for Football Extra: Let's start with the basics: at what point in your career did you decide that you wanted to coach and what led you to take that decision?
Stephen Fraser: I got my first taste of coaching when I was a full-time player at St Johnstone.  I was about 19 –this was in 2004 - and I had the chance to work with some local kids as part of the clubs community programme.  I didn’t coach again till 2006 when I began working with my local council coaching kids from the ages of 3-14.  

At this point I was a part-time player with Montrose FC in the Scottish 3rd Division.  I felt it was going to be difficult to make a career playing professional football so I decided to look to coaching as a potential career path.  I had always been a deep thinker about the game and was always keen to improve my knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of the game.  

So I decided to pursue coaching opportunities in America and went over to work for 5 months in 2007.  I then decided to come back to Scotland because I wanted to continue my education which is why in 2008 I enrolled at the Stirling University to study Sports Studies.  I began taking my coaching badges at this point and achieved my SFA Level 4 Youth Award in 2008.  

It was at this point I realised that I was a decent coach and could potentially coach at a higher level.  The course happened to be run in conjunction with Cowdenbeath FC and their Head of Youth at the time asked me if I would like to work with their Under 13 team.  I coached with the club for around two and a half years working at the Under 13 age group.  I then moved to Glasgow and managed to secure coaching working with St Mirren FC coaching their Under 12 team.  I have been working with the club for the past 4 years and completed my SFA Advanced Children’s Licence last year.

BFFE: Have you had any mentors in your career?
SF: I have not had any mentors per se but have looked to everyone I have ever come across in coaching as a mentor.  I try to learn wherever and whenever I can by listening to other coaches’ thoughts and philosophies on the game.  I am of the belief that you can learn from many different people, whether that be one small bit of information or not.  

I try to be as open-minded as possible and do not dismiss other ways of thinking until I have first analysed it and thought about it.  I have a thirst for learning so I try to read a lot, whether that be books or articles or just anything related to coaching.  I have read countless books I feel have relevance to coaching and human development.  Some of my favourites are Bounce, The Talent Code and Mindset.

BFFE: What is your own coaching philosophy?
SF: When developing young players I place a key emphasis on their mindset, focus and willingness to learn.  I believe it is very important they view every training session and game as an opportunity to develop as football players as well as human beings.  

It is vitally important they are motivated to listen and learn and do not simply go through the motions during training.  I stress the importance of undertaking deliberate practice whereby they are constantly self-analysing and correcting during aspects of training such as their technical work and decision-making work.  This stems from the belief that activity alone is not sufficient to develop talent.  It has to be focussed practice and always have a purpose to improve the players as individuals.  

I believe that with the correct movement skills and the right mindset it is very achievable to develop the skills of young players.  I feel very strongly that constant praise and reference to players who are ‘talented’ can have a detrimental effect on their learning and development.  Instead I try to emphasize the constant need to focus and work hard to improve their abilities everyday as opposed to relying on their ‘talent’ to see them through.  

With regards to the types of training given to the young players, I focus on developing their skill which will allow them to retain possession of the ball consistently and effectively.  This incorporates both playing in combinations and also in one versus one situations.  I emphasize short, sharp movements with and without the ball and stress the importance of using the brain to think quickly and effectively.  I believe in the use of playing (games-based) form practices to develop the necessary skills required to develop as footballers.

BFFE: Is winning important for you?
SF: Scoreboard winning is not important to me at all.  It is very easy to set-up a team to go out there and win.  All you need to do is make the most of your most physically able kids and put them in key positions.  This does not help anyone develop as players.  The more physically able kids are getting by on their physical attributes and as a result do not use their brains to develop as young footballers.  On the other hand, the less mature kids receive fewer touches on the ball and therefore less time to develop.  

However, I feel it is vital that you develop players who individually want to win and be the best they can possibly be.  This encompasses the need to dominate your opponent and striving to improve at every opportunity.

BFFE: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
SF: For me the most important attributes of young players are their mindset, their football intelligence and their movement mechanics.  With the correct mindset players will be motivated to learn and develop and constantly strive to be better.  

It is important they develop their game awareness and ability to think and come up with the correct solutions to problems.  The brain is where the knowledge to execute skills and techniques comes from and messages are sent via the neuromuscular system to the muscles to allow the player to carry out the correct motor skill in the correct scenario.  

Finally, it is crucial players have the correct movement mechanics, agility, balance, co-ordination and explosive speed.  It is very difficult to teach children skills and techniques related to football if they cannot control their bodies correctly.  A lack of balance, agility and co-ordination will mean they find it very difficult to execute skills with efficiency of movement.  The correct mindset and movement mechanics are the starting blocks to develop players and within that you are then looking to develop firstly their technique and then their execution of skills.

BFFE: Is the physique (their strength) of players something you look at?
SF: I don’t look at strength or height but I do look at the power and explosiveness they possess in their movements.  Height at a young age is not a factor to me.  It is far more important they have the correct movement mechanics and possess explosive acceleration and speed.  Football is a game of explosive multi-directional movements so it is crucial players can move comfortably and with speed in 360ᴼ.  

This led me to undertake the SAQ Advanced Trainers Diploma last year.  I wanted to develop a greater understanding of the correct movement mechanics required to allow players to develop as footballers.

BFFE: You did a dissertation on skill acquisition and development in football.  Can you tell us a bit about that?
SF: As I progressed as a coach I found myself questioning the types of practices we use to develop young players in Britain.  A lot of the coaching I came across used blocked drill-based practices to develop player’s techniques.  I felt this developed the techniques in isolation but in football techniques are not used in isolation.  They are mainly used in a series of random, explosive movements where players must execute skilled movement patterns efficiently and effectively.  

My dissertation looked specifically at Playing Form practices vs Training Form practices.  Playing form practices refers to small-sided games, possession games etcetera and training form refers to drill-based practices where there is no direct opposition.  

Football is a sport where cognitive, perceptual and motor skills are used in combination.  The cognitive and perceptual aspects refer to looking for the right information, processing the information and deciding upon a suitable response.  Motor skills are the specific movements used to perform such skills as passing and shooting.  Football takes place in a very dynamic environment where the picture is constantly changing.  

Sports such as golf have a much more static environment where the players perform skills and the picture does not change dramatically prior to taking a shot.  Therefore, golf involves athletes performing closed skills and football involves mainly open skills.  I felt that many of the practices used to develop young players only worked on player’s technique.  

This is a problem because skill and technique are two very different things.  Technique refers to the specific movement patterns used by players whereas skill refers to the learned ability to perform the correct technique at the correct time.  It is possible to have poor technique and still get the desired outcome.  For example, a pass can be played with poor technique but still reach its desired destination.  Good technique increases the probability of the action being executed efficiently and effectively.  

Therefore we should look to develop player’s techniques initially up to the ages of 12 and from then on it is important to focus on developing player’s skill.  That is not to say you cannot still look to develop technique with short focussed micro sessions.

BFFE: This is, I guess, a common question but how much skill can be acquired by any one individual?  And how much depends on basic talent?
SF: I don’t really believe in the use of the word ‘talent’.  I think it is a commonly used word in football but I think people are really talking about skill when they say a player is ‘talented’.  As a child everything we do is learned through imitation and practice from walking to talking to running and jumping.  There is no specific talent people are born with that gives them talent in football.  

People are born with different physical characteristics such as their fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres.  These have an impact on the speed and trainability of players but there are no specific football talent related genes.  I believe that with the correct mindset, movement skills and correct practices then players can develop significantly.  

The problem lies in the ‘talent ID’ of young players for academies.  People often mistake physical maturation with ‘talent’.  Players who are more in control of their bodies due to their physical attributes tend to look a lot more skilful.  Often these types of players possess the wrong mindset, attitude and focus when it comes to learning and developing.  Then you often find when physical maturation evens out the so-called ‘talented’ players are not particularly skilful.  

BFFE: Similarly, different players have to develop different skills.  How does one ensure that these skills are developed within a team environment?
SF: When coaching players I am coaching in a team environment but I am aiming to develop skilful and intelligent individuals, capable of playing successfully in a team environment.  So all my coaching is geared towards the individual.  Developing teams is a concept for adult football when the purpose is to win.  

The purpose of academies should be to develop and produce individuals capable of playing in a clubs first team.  Often you find clubs develop successful under 15 teams, as an example, where they are structured in a way as a good team with good balance.  The team and club look like they are developing players successfully but what they are really developing is a good team.  You then find very few of the individuals in the team are capable of playing in the club’s first team.  

The focus should always be on the individual but with the aim of producing a player capable of playing in a team sport.

BFFE: What have you found to be the most effective ways of enabling skill acquisition?  And how would you change your approach with players in different age groups?
SF: To develop the skills and abilities of players you need to break the game down to its constituent parts.  The key focus has to be on individual aspects of the game, especially with younger players.  This would incorporate a high emphasis on one versus one situations to develop player’s appreciation and mastery of the ball when isolated and under pressure.  

This is the starting basis for skill within all situations a player encounters in a game.  Nearly all practices should involve the ball.  Only footwork and movement skills practices may not have a football involved.  Practices must have a repetitive focus to allow for continued improvements and technical developments to be made.  However, there should be a random and unpredictable element involved to mirror game situations.  

This can be achieved through the use of passive pressure initially and followed up with full pressure to replicate situations encountered in games.  Smaller forms of the full game should be used to ensure skills can be developed functionally and therefore be used against direct opposition.  This would involve one versus one practices with younger ages and then progressing to two versus one, two versus two, three versus two, three versus three, four versus three and finally four versus four.

As players progress and develop their skills in the one versus one situations, practice should begin to emphasize combination play.  This will bring in crucial decision-making elements which are essential as player’s progress up the levels.  Games-based practices should form a large part of practice sessions; perhaps a ratio of 60%-40% in favour of games-based practices for younger ages.  

As players get older and develop, this ratio would increase to around 70%-30% in favour of games-based practices.  To ensure technical aspects are still developed, players should be given technical instructions as and when the coach observes deficiencies in game situations.  This would perhaps involve stepping out from the game and fine tuning technique in short practice sessions.  

Within all practices player’s movement off the ball should be highlighted and developed.  This is to ensure players become dynamic all round footballers as opposed to robots who only play when the ball is in front of them.  Speed of mind and speed of movement should be key within all practices.  Players also need to be encouraged to be independent thinkers and come up with the correct decisions and solutions in given game situations.

BFFE: Does a coach's attitude - what they say, how they act and even the tonality of their voice - have an impact and how big?  Also, how do you ensure that what you do actually helps the players?
SF: Firstly, I think demonstrations where skills and techniques are broken down are the best way to show players what is being asked of them.  I think it is very important coach’s instructions are short, clear and precise.  Long general feedback and instruction often fail to address the issue at hand.  Players need to be guided and put into situations where they are responsible for their learning as opposed to being dictated to by a coach.  

Games-based practices where coaches manipulate the constraints allow the players to learn without even knowing they are doing it.  Players should then be questioned to see if they are actually learning.

Coaches should maintain a positive attitude where they encourage individual learning and development in a challenging and engaging environment.  That is not to say that you should not be firm and clear with your coaching points.  If players are too comfortable in their environment then they will not feel challenged to improve and develop.  A coach’s tone should be firm, clear and engaging.  To ensure players are actually learning it is important they are questioned as stated previously.  

BFFE: Do you see a role for other sports being pursued alongside football especially at a younger age?  Would, for instance, an interest in athletics help an individual be better at learning football specific skills?
SF: Absolutely.  Children should be exposed to a range of different sports and activities from a young age.  This will help them develop the correct movement skills required to develop as football players.  Movement is the foundation with which the football specific skills are developed upon.  Early specialisation and too big a focus on football can lead to burnout and lack of motivation.  

Young players should be encouraged to play different sports and generally be children rather than become so seriously focussed on becoming a football player.  Skilful coaches will be able to facilitate learning in a fun, engaging and challenging environment where learning takes place internally without the child actually realizing they are carrying out focussed practice.

BFFE: You're working at St Mirren which is a club that is certainly focused on development.  What do you think that you do differently to most other Scottish (and even English clubs)?
SF: Probably two key things stand out for me.  Firstly, we are focussed on the long-term development of players.  Players are brought into the academy and we look to improve their deficiencies and develop their strengths.  

You often find clubs are not really focussed on developing players, they are more concerned with bringing in the best players to their clubs as opposed to working with the ones they already have.  The second key thing we provide the players at the club with is opportunity.  Kids come to the club and see there is a clear pathway from the younger ages through to the first team.  

At present there are regularly six academy graduates in the first team.  Some of the players have been with the club since the age of eight.  Recently there has also been another influx of young players into the first team, with a young player of just 17 making his debut this season.  Combined with the two key aspects there is a lot of hard work, a clear curriculum and good coaching aimed at developing players.

BFFE: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions as a coach?
SF: Good question.  As a coach I am always looking to pass my knowledge onto the players I coach and help them to develop as players and people.  I want the players I have coached to achieve their potential and continue to enjoy playing football as they get older.  Hopefully in the process some of the players can reach a high level in the game.

My personal ambitions as a coach are to work full-time in football where I am coaching young players on a daily basis.  I love the actual coaching where I am responsible for players learning and development.  My ambition is to continue to coach children……I don’t have a desire to work with adults at a high level.  My passion is teaching and developing young players to help them improve.  Hopefully in the future this will lead to work with high level young players on a full-time basis.

This interview was originally circulated among subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Why Coaches Need To Look Within To Develop a Football Philosophy

For some time last year, it was impossible to escape from philosophy in football.  Every other coach seemed to be talking about it and how his way of playing had been shaped by it. 

Whilst the idea of a philosophy is in itself a straightforward one, how one arrives to it is rather complex; it isn’t simply a case of claiming that you want to play with the ball on the ground.  Different situations force coaches to adopt different ideas and their philosophy must be adaptable enough to follow suit.

Philosophy has become a bit of a buzzword in coaching, and is sometimes either very generic or very unclear.”  So say Ray Power, a youth coach who has devoted time  to  look at what is meant by a philosophy and how one – anyone, irrespective of level they’re coaching – can develop a philosophy.

Those thoughts are contained in his book In Making the Ball Roll  -  a must for any budding coach - and we’ve spoken to him to learn more about the various elements that coaching should encompass as well as about the most recent tactical innovations.

Blueprint for Football: First of all, what attracted you to football coaching?  Where did you make your first steps and what sort of education have you received?
Ray Power: Football has always been what I did. As a kid all I wanted to do was watch and play football, morning until night. I qualified as a teacher after leaving school and loved teaching and the classroom environment. But it always niggled at me that it wasn't football! Football was probably the only profession that would get me out of bed with a smile so I started doing my coaching badges then swapped the classroom for the pitch soon after! Coaching has allowed me to combine my experience and knowledge of football and of education, which suits me perfectly.

In terms of the education I 'received', it would be no different to the coaching courses that all other coaches have gone on. I suppose what's different is I wasn't a 'badge collector' and studied the game and the coaching profession beyond the spec of the coach education pathways. I've ended up studying a vast amount of research from the game all over the world, sought the opinions of whoever I meet in the game and went out and learned as much about coaching football as I could. From technical and tactical things, to other disciplines around psychology, NLP, learning styles, philosophy development - all of what went into my first book on youth coaching - Making the Ball Roll.

BfF: What does a good coach, particularly a good youth coach, need?
RP: A good youth coach needs to understand the needs of his group, at their particular level and age. It's quite frustrating watching an U10 group being spoken to and asked to do things that adults would. Coaches need to understand the game and the learning process relevant to their players development.

If that's the starting point then other things like communication skills, rapport and his technical knowledge can be applied with a sound basis to build on.

BfF: In your writing, you reference a lot what happens at different clubs.  Do you agree that this desire to learn from others as a core element of coaching?  
RP: Definitely. I eluded to it earlier. I'm a fan of the formal coach education process that I've gone through, but it's the extra bits from other clubs, coaches and nations that you adopt that makes you different to other coaches. You fit any new information into the way you work, or of course, you may discard is as relevant. Being open-minded in this way is important, otherwise you end up teaching players a really narrow aspect of the game.

BfF: What were the most impressive things you've witnessed when looking at various academies?  Are there any items that you feel are essential for any youth system to be a success?
RP: Academies are similar to any big youth football club. You get the coaches that are excellent and others that are may need more support - but remember a significant part of all academies are run by part-time staff.

Without naming names, the most impressive ones are those that place relevant coaches with relevant age groups, seek ways of assessing players more appropriately (for example they look at ways of addressing Relative Age Effect) and work to a relevant and realistic philosophy and syllabus.

BfF: On the flip side, do you yourself look at mistakes that others make to try and learn from them?
RP: Absolutely! We all claim to learn from our mistakes, but learning from others is like a freebie! I like to read a lot about other coaches and managers and seeing how they dealt with players and certain situations to see if I can absorb good practice and avoid any of their mistakes. The trouble in youth football is that it can be quite territorial, where a coach works alone with one team, and has very little option to learn from others.

I have an open mind when it comes to football coaching - but I also have my own beliefs. I recently met an Academy Manager who wouldn't let the kids pass with anything other than the inside of their foot! In my eyes, this is a nonsense and completely unrelated to the reality of the game. Sometimes you need to use the outside, sole, back heel - whatever! Oscar scored a great goal for Brazil during the World Cup - with his toe! Anytime I observe an academy or grassroots session, my first question is whether it reflects the reality of the game or not. Unfortunately, a lot do not.

BfF: Similarly, is there anything to learn from other sports?  Could this be the next area of growth for football coaching?
RP: I think it's growing yes. There's always a sense that football knows best among the fraternity but it doesn't have to be the case. People like Pat Riley and John Wooden in basketball for example have out some really relevant stuff out there. I did a football session for a group of elite rugby players some time back and the similarities in approach were really noticeable. One of Pep Guardiola's trusted assistants was an Olympic water polo player! Invasion games have similar principles to football so it's only natural that we can absorb so of their lessons.

BfF: We hear a lot about philosophy but what is it exactly?  
RP: 'Philosophy' has become a bit of a buzzword in coaching, and is sometimes either very generic or very unclear. In Making the Ball Roll we have a look at this topic and I had some really good input from other coaches and clubs around the world. For me, a coach's philosophy on how he works and how he wants the game to be played, needs to be simple, fit for purpose and have the players as it's focal point.

BfF: How does one go about implementing his own philosophy?  Because it might be easy for a coach who works within a club structure but not so much for someone who is either just starting out or else is affiliated to a particular club?
RP: Definitely. That is something very important that I felt needed to be addressed in Making the Ball Roll. The easiest guidance I can give is to start with a blank piece of paper. Write down what it is you want your players to be able to do, then break it down bit by bit into a syllabus for the players. So, if you want to play an open, attacking game as a coach, you may spend a considerable time working on defending skills - defending against counter-attacks, defending 1v1, outnumbered, goalkeepers start position etc. For a new coach this will be a journey in itself, and mistakes will be made, so constantly reviewing what you do is therefore important.

BfF: Similarly, how to ensure that your philosophy is taken on board and adopted by your players?
RP: We use the term 'player-centred' all the time in coaching. Every group is different so having them in the centre of your plans is critical. I remember hearing Tony Mowbray speaking about how he spent a playing career being told what to do, how to do it, with little room to express himself. That struck a chord with me.

I would encourage any coach to look at their communication and rapport-building skills which always help you getting a buy-in from your players. The football programme is for them, not the coach, and without their buy-in, anything is very difficult to implement.

BfF: Your more recent book talks about the evolution of tactics in 2014.  Is there anything that is truly new?
RP: Football tactics evolve according to trends in the game. So ten/fifteen years ago the popularisation of the defensive midfielder has led to attacking midfielders needing to play in other areas of the pitch.

Modric for example plays a deep-lying player now rather than a number 10, full-backs are attacking players, goalkeepers are as technically good as their outfield counterparts, traditional out-and-out strikers seem to be scoring less goals - so a lot of change is afoot.

How that's wrapped up hasn't 'truly' changed. Variants of 3-5-2 have come out of hibernation, the strike partnership has been reborn it seems and 4-4-2 now seems to be a viable option again, though arguably in a more fluid way than before.

BfF: Which has been the evolution that has impressed you the most?
RP: I love the idea of having a team of interchanging, fluid footballers. How the Germans did this really impressed me. I love that they took Miroslav Klose to the competition as their only true out-an-out striker, then watched Goetze, Kroos, Ozil, Schurrle etc, take up an attacking role which virtually saw them playing position-less. In Soccer Tactics 2014 we looked at how this striker-less system ultimately won them the final with the movement of Goetze, Muller and Schurrle. 

BfF: In the World Cup we saw a number of teams who weren't highly rated but who, thanks to the adoption of the right tactics, managed to do well.  Do you think we are entering an era where tactics can lead to a shift in power or will those with better players always be at too great an advantage?
RP: Yes and no. Because football is such a globalised game, tactics and methods travel quicker than they ever did before. So unfancied teams like Costa Rica or Algeria can use tactics to organise themselves and find ways of competing with nations with a better, technical pedigree. You could say that we've already witnessed a nation with a tactical plan defy the odds when Greece won Euro 2004.

Teams with the 'better' players though will more often than not have the advantage. Whether on the day this will count is impossible to foresee, but these players win you games. Iran defended heroically against Argentina, but a piece of magic from Messi saw them lose the game. I think there will always be a balance between tactical discipline, and technical quality.

BfF: Where do you expect football tactics to go next?  What do you think will be the big thing next year?
RP: The "big thing"? I'm not sure. Only a couple of years ago we were looking at the future of football with no strikers. We began to see teams playing 4-6-0 or 3-7-0 to dominate midfield, whether their intent was to attack with fluidity like Barcelona or defend in numbers like Scotland. The history of tactics has seen strikers suffer, constantly sacrificed to add more bodies elsewhere. Within no time however, and evident at the World Cup, strike partnerships are on the rise again, and we evolve once more.

We are seeing so many variants in how teams set up tactically now. Teams that look to dominate the ball and teams who are happy to play without possession and counter attack. Those who press aggressively and those who sit deep. 

At the very least I think more teams will experiment with the way they play, more will use a back 3, more teams will use positionless or 'universal' players.

BfF: What next for you?  What are your ambitions?
RP: In terms of writing I have a further deal to release coaching books in the coming months. The next one will look at developing technical and skillful players.

Ultimately my ambition is to work within elite youth development at a top club, or within a national FA. I've had a lot of emails and phone calls from the world over and made great contacts, but I'm in no rush. Once the right opportunity presents itself then I will evaluate things.

Ray Power is the author of two coaching books: Making the Ball Roll which is a complete guide to youth football for the aspiring coach and Soccer Tactics 2014 which takes a look at what this year's World Cup taught us, tactics wise.

A sample chapter of Making the Ball Roll can be found here whilst a chapter of Soccer Tactics 2014 is available here.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

When Experience Matters

Whilst working on a piece on Feyenoord’s florid youth system for an upcoming issue of The Football Pink I was struck by a quote from Stanley Brard who, when interviewed back in 2011, said "we want coaches who know what is required to become a professional. So we have several former Feyenoord players working at the academy who specialise in the position of their playing days."

Brard is the man who is widely regarded as the prime force in the restructuring of Feyenoord’s academy, making it one of the finest as confirmed by their victory of the past five editions of the Rinus Michels Award which is handed to the best youth system in Holland.  

More significantly than that, the Dutch squad that made it to the last World Cup included four players who had been at Feyenoord since they were kids (Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Terence Kongolo and Jordy Clasie).  A further five players had made it through their youth system before moving elsewhere (Robin van Persie, Jonathan de Guzman, Leroy Fer, Georginio Wijnaldum and Salomon Kalou).

The point of all this is that Brard is someone who knows what he is talking about.   That of using former players to coach youths is something that is prevalent at some major clubs – Ajax, for instance, are quite famous for doing as are Barcelona – but not at many.

In the past, this was seen as a way of ‘rewarding’ former players and ensuring that they had a job once their playing career came to an end.  Not so any more, especially with players making so much money during their career - at least at the highest level - which means that for most of them there isn’t really the need to work.

Those who remain in the game today do so out passion and ambition.

The big benefit of having someone with playing experience coaching children is precisely that they can pass on their experience.  There is a significant difference between someone who can turn to what he went through in his own playing career and someone who’s coaching career has been built purely on theory.  This doesn’t necessarily make the latter a worse coach but it is undeniable that he lacks something that someone with playing experience has.

As with any walk of life, if you have a problem or are having a hard time learning to do something it is always easier to turn to someone who has overcome that same problem and can empathise with you.  Same goes in coaching, especially when there are young people involved.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that any former player will automatically become a good coach.  They too must get their coaching education and they too must learn how to put across different ideas to the various age categories.  Certain skills need time to develop – if they ever do develop – and there are ideas that not necessarily everyone was exposed to whilst they were playing.

The case of Roy Makaay, again at Feyenoord, is indicative.  As a player, Makaay was a highly prolific striker who played at the highest level – not only with Feyenoord where he is a club legend but also with Tenerife, Deportivo La Coruna and Bayern Munich – as well as amassing over forty caps for Holland.  

Currently he is the club’s Under 19 boss but even he had to work his way up.  Indeed, his first role was coaching the Under 13s, then moved to the Under 15s before, eventually, getting his current job.  The message is clear: no matter how good you are as a player and regardless of the club’s policy of favouring former players, you have to prove that you are more than good enough in their job.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Trouble With Parents (And How To Fix It)

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For most youth sports clubs, they can be the life-blood that keep them alive.  Parents tend to be the ones who pitch in when money needs to be raised, children need to be ferried about and maintenance has to be carried out.  Their work, always done on a voluntary basis and without the merest hint of expecting anything back in return is invaluable and should always be treasured.

That is how it is with the majority of parents.  You might come across some occasional personality clash but nothing that cannot be managed by a quite word or two.

But then there are the others, the minority who fail to see the distinction between youth football – the kind that is played for fun – and the professional game they watch on television during the weekend.

These parents – and, sadly, every club has at least one – can make life miserable.  Their own child will almost always bear the brunt of their criticism, regardless of how well they do.  That in itself is already a problem but it can, and usually does, get worse.  Other kids might kop a harsh word for not passing whilst the coach’s ability will be questioned were he to dare to play someone who isn’t as good simply for the sake of giving him some game time.  Then there are the snarky comments and underhand manoeuvres aimed at making sure that his (or her) child gets the best possible opportunities.  

It is a situation that blights many clubs and a continuous headache for many coaches.  Fortunately it is also one that can be handled and solved, provided that the club has prepared for such matters, something that in itself requires a number of steps to be taken.

Pre-Season Meeting
One of the ways through which a club can set the tone is by holding a meeting before the season starts.  There the club’s policies can be explained: how game time is decided, the playing philosophy, expected conduct and all the other behavioural standards that are expected both of the players and their parents.  

These can be as strict and as lenient as those running the club feel is necessary – for instance some feel the need to include good grades being obtained by the players for them to play, others don’t -  but, regardless, such a meeting will lay a marker, allowing anyone with any doubt to voice their opinion and ask any questions that they can have.  No one leaving such a meeting should have any doubt of what is and isn’t acceptable

Issue A Rule Book
Whilst the meeting itself is an extremely useful tool, there is the tendency of people eventually forgetting what was discussed.  Something that is written down, however, cannot be easily dismissed especially if it is also displayed on the club’s website.  It is why any club should put together its regulations in a rule book that clearly spells out both the expected behaviour and the potential disciplinary actions that could follow.  
 
There are those who believe that a contract should be signed between the club and the player.  Not one that binds them to the club but rather one that ensures their commitment to the behavioural code.  This can be seen as something of an overkill but it does have its benefits and should be seriously considered.

Ensure That All Coaches Know Policies
This might seem as rather obvious but, given how often coaches change at youth clubs, it is something that can easily be overlooked.  Every coach must buy into the club’s philosophy and one way of doing that is by knowing the behavioural code with which the players and their parents are bound.  

If a coach turns a blind eye to the actions of his star player, for instance, it will be difficult for the other players and parents to take anything they’ve heard seriously.  Unfortunately, what often happens in such circumstances is that matters don’t come out into the open until it is too late, with one or more parents (and players) holding back over a period of time until their tempers boil over.  

Sadly, such occurrences can ruin a lot of good work and it is often difficult to win back the aggrieved individuals.  Indeed, it can end up challenging to whole structure, influencing others who weren’t directly affected by the situation but who might harbour some slight grievance of their own.

Coaches are the most visible representatives of the club and their behaviour will invariably be interpreted as the behaviour of the club.  If they don’t follow the club’s rules, it is impossible to expect anyone else to do so.

Make It Easy To Complain and Act On Them
Despite best efforts, there will still be people who feel that they and their children are not being treated well.  Rather than letting these people hold on to their grudges, make it easy for them to come forward and complain.  

The best way to do so is to appoint an individual to whom any such complaints can be made.  Ideally, it should be someone who, whilst linked to the club, is not one of the coaches or directly involved in the running of the club; perhaps a former parent or coach.

Once a complaint is made, it is vital that action is taken immediately.  This does not mean that all complaints will be justified.  Indeed, it is important to really filter through them and gauge whether it is something brought about by petty jealousy or whether there is a real issue.  In either case, once a decision is taken – and this decision should not take excessively long to take - the individual should be the first to know of what action is to be taken. 

Whenever a complaint is made, it is extremely important for all those connected to the club to keep calm.  It would be infinitely better to discourage people from making complaints rather than lashing out as soon as one is made.  There can be no ‘how dare they complain given all we do for their kids’ mentality, much less thoughts of retribution or revenge.

No Comment Zone On Touchline
Strictly speaking, this should form part of the code of conduct but it is so important that it deserves to be highlighted separately.  Whilst, obviously, parent are allowed to attend their children’s games they should be forbidden from making any comments.  This might seem a draconian rule but a parent passing on what he thinks to be an encouraging comment or a helpful hint might easily sound like a rebuke to the child.  Therefore, avoid any possible misunderstanding – or worse – by encouraging parents not to pass any comments whilst they’re watching games.

Regularly Schedule Meetings
For most clubs, a pre-season meeting is as far as they’ll go.  Given the extra hassle that these involve, it is understandable why they are neglected.  Such meetings, however, play an important role in building an environment where everyone is comfortable and feels that everything is being done to improve the children.

Indeed, these meetings do not have to be about discipline or directly related to the football club but could be used to invite outside speakers to talk about nutrition, for instance.  The issue of discipline and parents’ behaviour can still be addressed but in a roundabout manner.

Apart from group meetings, a lot of the top youth clubs schedule regular – usually – quarterly meetings with the players where the coach, head-coach and player go over their performances in the previous months.  Whether the parents should be allowed to attend these meetings is debatable, with my personal preference being that of only including the player so that he truly takes responsibility of his performances and what he has to do next.  

The ideal is for there to be a tracking system – how often training was attended, how many minutes they played, notes from games where they played – so that performance can be managed over time.

This kind of meeting – which admittedly works better in older age groups – helps get buy in.  If the player has fallen short of expected performance, he can own up to it and together with his coach he may plan how best to get to previous levels.  Areas for improvement can be highlighted along with ways of achieving this improvement.

A side benefit of all this is that no one can complain that they aren’t being treated fairly if they’re having such regular meetings during which they can talk over things with coaches.

Promote a Family Atmosphere
Sadly most of the pointers here focus on what parent can’t and shouldn’t do.  The ideal, however, is to try and foster a family atmosphere.  Social events help but, more than that, tell them how they can contribute towards the well being of the club.  Indeed, go a step further and encourage them to provide ideas and feedback.  Sometimes, people on the outside can see things that those who are too engrossed in the day-to-day running are unable to.  It pays to let these people help.

Blueprint for Football has just issued Volume II to the Blueprint According To... series, featuring seven new interviews where coaches talk about their ideas, beliefs and blueprint for football.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Kids Just Want To Have Fun


Football, as with many other sports, can seem absurd for those who are on the outside looking in.  More specifically, it can be hard for them to comprehend how fans attach so much importance to the outcomes of a game.  Then again, when you support a team and pour in so much emotional commitment into following it, there quickly comes a point when it stops being a game and becomes something more than that.

Ultimately, however, it is just that; it is only a game.  There are things which are far more important than what happens on a Saturday afternoon and problems which are much more serious than your team’s failure to sign the star striker you feel is necessary to win the league.  Probably every fan (or at least the mildly sane ones) agree with this.

And whilst it might not be healthy, it doesn’t really matter if we take football a bit too seriously.  

Even so, there are limits.  Most people know that they shouldn’t be making bets that they can’t afford to lose.  Most people know that those around them aren’t at fault if their team loses.  Unfortunately there are those for whom those boundaries don’t exist. 

Sadly, among those who overstep the boundaries of decency one can find coaches.  It wouldn’t be too bad if the people they were coaching were adults.  Unfortunately, however, among those who fail to make the connection that this is only a game there are those who are coaching kids’ teams..

Children pick up football because they see it as a fun way to spend some time playing with their friends.  They want to get better and most of them want to win when they’re playing but, ultimately, they simply want to do something that they enjoy.

Often, if that is happening, then they will improve.  Not everyone will do so at the same rate but the more they enjoy it the more they’re eager to play which results in them getting better.  Coaches play a key role in this process as they’re the ones who have to make training sessions enjoyable.  This often involves extra work as they have to think of different and interesting ways to get the children – particularly the younger ones – to learn what they want them to learn.

Many dedicated coaches do this.   Sadly there are also those who don’t, coaches who don’t really pay attention to how many touches of the ball each child is getting, leaving them to stand around waiting for their turn to come.  

There are other ways through which coaches can ruin a kids’ experience.  Placing too much importance on winning is perhaps the most classic example yet favouritism – be it with the coach failing to check some parents’ bullying or for other reasons – can turn people off the game very, very quickly.

Indeed, even the language that the coach uses can play a determining role.  What does he say to correct a mistake?  Does he praise effort or is that praise only reserved only for when something that is to his likely is done?

Sometimes, for all their faults, these coaches are successful in that they manage to build winning teams.  But that is in the short term.  The true value of a coach lies in the long term: it does not lie in the tournaments or games won but in how many children they inspire, nurturing a life-long love for the game and for sport.

Want to know how other coaches go about setting their blueprint for the game?  Check out Blueprint According To...Volume 1 and Blueprint According To...Volume 2.  Subscribe to Blueprint for Football Extra (all for free) for more great articles straight to your in-box.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Blueprint According To...Jamie Wright

"Teaching How To Deal With Success And Failure Is Important"

The desire to help others is frequently the reason why people pick up football coaching.  Whether it is assisting your child’s coach, guiding some mates or passing on knowledge to a younger sibling, many take their first steps in coaching in this casual manner before finding that they enjoy it and start taking it a bit more seriously.

That wish to help out never really leaves a true coach but eventually it is joined by other desires such as that of wanting to win or, at least, see the team meet whatever goals it set itself.

For some coaches, however, that of helping is the main goal.  This is particularly the case of those who are involved in clubs’ community schemes where football is the means to push through certain social messages rather than anything else.

Jamie Wright is one such coach and as such can better explain what the blueprint of those who are solely focused on helping is like.

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what made you go into coaching? 
Jamie Wright: I left school at 16 and there was a position at a local coaching provider as a trainee coach.  I didn’t really want to go into further education and I had always loved football so it seemed like a no brainer.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career? 
JW: Two coaches have played a huge part in my development although I learn from all coaches I come into contact with.  Wayne Walls and Ian Dipper are the two who believed in me from the start and are still the two coaches I consult with on a regular basis – their advice is always excellent and they both challenge my thinking.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy? 
JW: I have this in a presentation I deliver to staff, ‘To produce technically gifted players in a fun, challenging and positive learning environment’.  This philosophy stays with me no matter who I’m working with and forms the foundation on which the department is structured around.

BfF: Is winning important for you? 
JW: Not results based winning no; winning to me is personal.  To become more confident, to use the other foot, to win a 1 v 1 or make a good decision are examples of what I would class as winning.

BfF: What is the most important thing you try to teach during your sessions? 
JW: I’m a great believer in developing technical proficiency in both feet so to pass, dribble, turn and shoot using right and left foot are all important during my sessions.  I like to ensure that the participants have fun in sessions so that has a big focus when planning them.  

Depending on the age of the players, teaching how to deal with success and failure is important too.

BfF: You work at the Foundation of Light.  How did that job come about? 
JW: I finished my traineeship and the opportunity to work for the then Football in the Community scheme as a casual coach came about.  I’ve been here ever since!  I’ve worked on a number of projects and roles within the organisation including the Disability programme, running an outreach project, Head of Football Delivery and now the Directors’ role.

BfF: What is it exactly that you do, both you as an individual and the foundation? 
JW: The Foundation of Light is the registered charity of Sunderland AFC.  We use the power of football to involve, educate and inspire more than 42,000 young people and their families across the North East each year through a broad range of innovative and award-winning programmes that can help change their lives.

The organisation is committed and pro-active in addressing the issues within our community, running programmes at specially designed classrooms within the Stadium of Light, in local schools, community centres and at bespoke outreach centres throughout Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham.

My role as the Football & Sport Development Director is to ensure that we deliver high quality sports sessions to a wide range of participants from children as young as 18 months up to adults.  We deliver to schools and community, so ensuring that each curriculum is current, fit for purpose and of the highest quality is the challenge.  

I have a great team alongside me who are deeply passionate about developing the experience our participants receive.

BfF: We hear a lot about it but how can football help society? 
JW: In the North East football is massive.  The weight of the badge is massive and we find it opens doors that wouldn’t normally open.  

BfF: I would assume that you meet a lot of kids with a widely varying range of abilities, probably in the same sessions.  How do you handle these situations? 
JW: That’s what we do – we are community coaches first and foremost.  The ability to ensure a group of children with mixed ability, mixed gender and mixed interest in football or sport have fun, learn something and want to come back next week is a massively undervalued skill.

BfF: How much of a vocation is your job? 
JW: This is my job and I wouldn’t want to work in anything else.  I do however feel coaching is still treated as a hobby in certain fields and there needs to be a culture shift in the way coaching is perceived.  For me, coaching is a form of teaching and should be professionalised in a similar way.  

BfF: Do you miss coaching a team where results matter?  Or is it more rewarding? 
JW: I’ve only been away from having a team for a year and there are times when you miss working towards the game however I believe the development coaches are the ones who should have the higher status as if they are doing their roles effectively they will be the ones setting the right standards with the players they work with.

BfF: What do you want to achieve to be satisfied with what you have done in your career? 
JW: I have to say I’m never satisfied, that’s in my make-up!  I’m always looking to improve and get better.  At one time I would have said a full time role in an Academy would have been my ideal role but as I’ve developed I enjoy the strategy side of the role I have here at the Foundation.

For me, as long as I am enjoying what I do and feel as though I am contributing effectively I will continue to strive towards excellence.

The first six interviews in the Blueprint According To... series are now collected in an e-book that is for sale here for just €0.99.