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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Essential Qualities of a Football Coach: Communication

Think back to when you were at school and the teachers who most left a lasting impression on you.  What made them stand out?  Why were they better than other teachers?  Was it because they knew the subject more than others?

Probably not.  What made them different was the ability to make you interested enough to get excited about and understand - possibly even love - a tough subject.  They explained it in a way that resonated with you.  For some coming across such teachers is a life changing moment.

As a coach you have to be like that kind of teacher.   You have to get players excited about learning the game.  This might seem like an easy enough task until you look into the detail of it.

For most people football, like any other skill, requires a lot of practice and repetition.  Take the teaching of a simple ability like passing the ball.  Sure, you can (and need) to be inventive in the drills that you have the players practice but ultimately it is all about how you explain it to them.  You have to make them understand what you want from them and why.  If they do it wrongly you have to explain what they have done wrong and how to correct it.  And do all this in a manner that doesn't put them off.

It is the same at every stage of a players’ development regardless of the complexity of what it is that you want them to do.

A manager’s ability to communicate clearly is never as tested as it is during a match.  The message has to get across despite the player trying to focus on what is going on around him.  Complex instructions have to reach players without putting them under any additional pressure (and, above all, without senseless ranting or shouting). That too, is built on the work that a coach does on the training pitch.  It is there that the basis of his method of communicating has to be instilled in his team.

The importance of communication is best reflected in a phrase which Sandro Salvioni – a journeyman Italian coach – told me during an interview.

I was at Parma when Arrigo Sacchi arrived as manager,” he said. “At the time I was 32 and I would say that it was only then that I truly learned to play the game of football.

I wouldn’t say that I took nothing from my previous managers but Sacchi was something else; his approach to the game, the pressing high up the pitch, his offensive outlook, everything.

Imagine being a veteran player with more than three hundred professional appearances in your career and probably thinking that there wasn’t anything in the game that you didn’t know only to suddenly coming across a manager who can teach you a completely different way of viewing football.

That is the power that a manager who can properly communicate his thoughts can hold over his players.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

What A Goalkeeper Needs

Join Blueprint for Football Extra to ensure that  you don't miss future articles and get the full transcript of the interview plus a free e-book in the process.  Other Blueprint for Football e-books available here (international version here).

What do you need to be a top goalkeeper?  Obviously talent is a necessity as is physical presence but what else?  We spoke to Ruud Hesp, formerly a goalkeeper with Barcelona and currently the goalkeeper’s coach at PSV Eindhoven, about the various facets of the art of goalkeeping.

The Most Important Ability A Goalkeeper Needs
The thing that you need to have is to be stable in your head; to be able to get along with pressure.  For me, for example, when I played for Barcelona I didn’t feel the pressure from the public and the press because I didn’t read the papers, I didn’t see the television and I was only thinking about my own pressure.  I was only thinking about playing well and if I didn’t do that then people could only be disappointed but not angry because I knew that I was doing everything to perform well.  



I trained well during the whole week.  For me every training (session) was an opportunity to improve.  So when I started the game I had the confidence of being prepared for the game.   And then you need some luck also apart from the qualities you have.  You have to be free in your head.

Reaction After A Mistake
What I try to give our goalkeepers at PSV is that you have to think about what happens.  Briefly, but you have to think about it.  What kind of mistake did I make?  And it sounds very stupid but ask yourself: did I do it on purpose?  No, I didn’t do it on purpose.   So, people cannot be angry at me, they can only be disappointed.  Then what you have to do is to analyse your mistake.  Is it a goalkeeping mistake?  Is it a positioning mistake, did you place yourself in the wrong spot?  Did you come out when you shouldn’t have?  Is it something with your feet that you did wrong?  

I can give you an example.  When I played for Barcelona against Chelsea in 1998, we lost at Chelsea 3-1 so needed to win 2-0.  We were leading 2-0 and I received a ball that I played badly.  I wanted to kick it long but instead gave to the Chelsea striker Tore Andre Flo and he scored; 2-1.  In the end we won and went through but at that moment we still had to play 15 minutes to score another goal.  After that mistake, in the next minute Frank Lampard shot on goal because maybe he thought that I was insecure or my confidence had gone.  And it was a ball that was swerving in the air.  The ball came just to the right side of me, I got it and I held it.  That was the first moment after the mistake.  
Afterwards I was trying to analyse what happened and I realised that I had been able to analyse the mistake as one with my kicking, not a mistake of catching the ball.  So I instinctively realised that a mistake of my passing should not influence my goalkeeping (shot stopping).  And that is what I try to explain to our goalkeepers, even our youth goalkeepers.  One mistake does not have to influence other parts of your goalkeeping.  But that comes with experience.  That’s difficult in the beginning.       

Training For Handling Mistakes
You don’t know in advance but you can train.  You can train it by putting the goalkeeper in those situations.  In training you can play bad balls and if he makes a mistake then the next ball has to be good.  And if you try to get the goalkeeper in a lot of bad situations then he has to react to that and do the good thing.  So you have to bring him in bad situations to get him in a positive situation.  In the beginning that is very difficult because they get frustrated but if that happens a lot of time then it gets natural and automatic reaction after they do a mistake.  But that also needs a lot of experience.  

That is also why they say that a goalkeeper is at his peak after twenty seven years because by then he has played a lot of games, he’s had a lot of situations, so he knows what to do.



Ability With Feet And Hands
Goalkeeping has changed and playing with your feet is important.  But still what is most important is the goalkeeping with your hands, choosing position and things like that.  So, what we try to do is to train the goalkeepers in playing with ball – passing and kicking – in exercises that involve goalkeeping.  That means they have to shoot a lot, they have to play in position games and when the outfield players do passing exercises goalkeepers join them.  

It is also important for the players to know the capabilities of the goalkeeper in playing with his feet.  So many times our warming ups include a lot of football actions because about ten years ago when it all changed everybody began to train the football things and not as much the goalkeeping things.  And, in my opinion, that went too far.  The most important is the goal.  The goalkeeper is the only one who can use his hands so that has to be a hundred percent.  He is also allowed to use his feet but that is secondary.  So most important is training the hands and then the feet.
On Commanding The Penalty Area
It is difficult and that also needs experience. But if you start training that aspect from a young age then you can develop it.  

Also, it depends on character.  If you’re a quite person it is difficult for you to be dominant during the game.   But if you want to succeed you have to.  So it is important that they start getting that feeling from a young age.

What we try to do at PSV is to give them some words that they have to use according to the situation.  That way if they grow up or get to another team then they know what to do.  At the same time the players know that they mean when they state those words.  If you train that from a young age they get used to it.  It becomes a habit.



When I started out as a goalkeeper professionally I was a quite boy but then I came into a team that was made up of very opinionated men so if I wanted to survive I had to do the same.  So in order to integrate I had to do the same.

I had to train myself because in those days, whilst there was a goalkeeping coach, he was only shooting balls to the goal.  They were not working with a philosophy about how to improve the goalkeepers.  Nowadays we have a lot of plans and we do a lot of logical things.  

In the old days we used to shoot balls.  It was nice but now we try to be a bit more specific.  What does a goalkeeper need to play well?  We constantly ask ourselves that.

Preparing For Big Games
For me, if we show them pictures of opponents then we are not doing so to worry them but to remind them of the opportunity that they have.  Wow, you’re going to face Messi!

We show them their qualities and they have to be prepared for that.  But we present it to them as a chance to do well, not a reason to worry.  They get videos sent home so that they can be prepared but again it is for the opportunity to stop people from scoring.  If you present it like that then the goalkeepers gets into the game with another feeling.  You should never give the impression that the opponent is too good for you.
Special thanks to Thijs Slegers, the press officer at PSV Eindhoven, for his assistance in the setting up of this interview.

Other snippets from the interview with Ruud Hesp are available here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

“Being A Goalkeeper Is The Greatest Thing In The World”

Goalkeepers, it is often said, are different.  You have to be when in a game where the ultimate aim is to put the ball between the goalposts you dedicate yourself to stop it from doing so.  There is often little glory to be had and the expectation that you are willing to do anything – including throwing yourself into trashing boots – to get hold of the ball.  It is a tough, unglamorous and thanklessness job.  So why would anyone decide to become a goalkeeper?

“I wasn’t good enough to play outfield!” 

Ruud Hesp laughs as he recalls how it was that he picked up goalkeepers’ gloves for the first time.  “I was always big.  I started as a striker, moved to midfield and in the end I was a central defender because I was the biggest player and I could head the ball well so they moved me over there.”

It is there that he would have stayed if fate hadn’t intervened.  “When I was twelve years old I played at an amateur club and the goalkeeper was sick, the second goalkeeper had to play a table tennis game so they said ‘Ruud will you go in goal?’ because I was playing goalkeeper at my school.  I played very well in that first game and they said ‘you stay in goal’.  And I liked it.  So it was a coincidence that I became a goalkeeper.”

This seems to be the conventional path for most goalkeepers.  The main difference for Hesp was that he was good enough at it to make a career out of goalkeeping.  Most of this career was spent playing for mid-size clubs who often lagged behind the three giants of Dutch football.  He was good enough to catch the attention of Dutch national coaches but call-ups never turned into appearances.

Then, at the age of thirty two, he received a surprise call: Barcelona wanted to sign him.


Louis Van Gaal had just been re-appointed manager and it was on his recommendation that Hesp was approached.  Barcelona had signed Vitor Baia the previous summer but whilst the Portuguese was at the time considered among the world’s finest goalkeepers not everyone was convinced.

“Van Gaal had already tried to sign me for Ajax but there was Edwin Van Der Saar there and I knew that he was better than me.  I didn’t fancy going to Ajax to be a reserve so I turned him down.  Clearly, he must have thought highly enough of me that he mentioned me when he moved to Spain.”

“After a couple of weeks, Baia got injured and I stepped into his place.”

Hesp retained his place even when the Portuguese goalkeeper recovered – indeed, Baia was loaned back to Porto midway through the season - and he eventually went on to win two league titles, a European Super Cup and a Copa Del Rey in his three years with the Catalan giants.   “Barcelona are the biggest club in the world and playing for them was amazing,” he says.

After Barcelona he went into coaching and was the goalkeepers’ coach of the Dutch national side that reached the World Cup final in 2010.  “When Edwin Van der Saar played his first national game I was the second goalkeeper,” he recalls.  “When he played his last national game I was there as the national team’s goalkeeping coach.”

By that stage, Hesp had started to put the experience that he had garnered to the benefit of others as a goalkeeper’s coach and the main current beneficiaries are the PSV goalkeepers, where Hesp works.    
“When I arrived Jeroen Zoet was already at the club although at the time he was on loan at a smaller club to get experience.  We put him at a smaller club where he could play a lot of games, develop himself and get back.”  

“When he started to play no one expected anything of him.  The next year people started having expectations.  He was expected to play better than the previous year, he had to be important for the team, to win points for the team.  And then the pressure starts to come.”

“So it is very important that you have played a lot of games to be able to put the pressure less for yourself.  If you are young it is more difficult - and I experienced the same - but if you are older it is easier for yourself.  You get more stable in your head.  You don’t panic that fast.”

This importance of experience might sound like a cliché but Hesp can point at particular moments in his career that support this.

“When I played for Barcelona, I always enjoyed playing in Nou Camp but also in other stadia.  For Barcelona, the best club in Europe; the world maybe.  It gave me a lot of confidence.  When I started playing for Barcelona I was already 31 years old so that was an advantage for me as I had already played a lot of games.  Not at the highest level because in Holland I had played for smaller teams, but I had played a lot of games.”  

“I had the experience of recognising situations in a game.  And then it doesn’t matter if it is at the highest level or at the lowest level, if you recognise situations then you can perform well.  That was, for me, an advantage.”



There is a particular moment where the benefit of this experience stuck out.  “I can give you an example.  When I played for Barcelona against Chelsea in 1998, we lost at Chelsea 3-1 so needed to win 2-0.  We were leading 2-0 and I received a ball that I played badly.  I wanted to kick it long but instead gave to the Chelsea striker Tore Andre Flo and he scored; 2-1.”  

“In the end we won and went through but at that moment we still had to play 15 minutes to score another goal.  After that mistake, in the next minute, Frank Lampard shot at goal because maybe he thought that I was insecure or my confidence had gone.  And it was a ball that was swerving in the air.  The ball came just to the right side of me, I got it and I held it.  That was the first moment after the mistake.” 

“Afterwards I was trying to analyse what happened and I realised that I had been able to analyse the mistake as one with my kicking, not a mistake of catching the ball.”  

“So I instinctively realised that a mistake of my passing should not influence my goalkeeping (shot stopping).  And that is what I try to explain to our goalkeepers, even our youth goalkeepers.  One mistake does not have to influence other parts of your goalkeeping.  But that comes with experience.  That’s difficult in the beginning.”

The benefit of his experience played out even off the pitch.  “Before Barcelona I played in Roda and we had a lot of foreign guys who couldn’t speak the language.”  

“They walked past supporters who wanted to speak to them but they couldn’t talk back.  I always thought to myself that if I ever moved to another country I wanted to know the language because I wanted to speak to the people.   And it is easier on the pitch.” 
“So there was a translator who was always helping the new foreign players with the press conferences.  He started doing the same with me for one month but afterwards I started doing them in Spanish.”  

“I made a lot of mistakes but afterwards the journalists came to me to tell me that it was great that I was doing so after one month.  They appreciated it and they gave me tips of what to say in certain situations.  So I started talking Spanish really quickly.  And I also asked people.  Speaking the language is very important.”

Hesp is clearly passionate about his job and loves what he does but there he admits that being a coach is second best to actually playing.

“As a goalkeeper you think you have control of the situation and you can influence the situation.  As a goalkeeper trainer your influence lasts until the players get on to the pitch.  Then it stops.  That is the big difference.”  

“As a goalkeeper coach you cannot make corrections on the pitch.  Then it stops.  That is the big difference.”

“When I started as a goalkeeper coach I was more nervous than when I was a player.”



“Being a goalkeeper is the most beautiful thing to do and being a goalkeeper’s coach is the second most beautiful thing to do.  I enjoy coaching young players because they’re hungry to learn about the game and eager to hear what you have to say.  I really enjoy what I’m doing at a very beautiful club.”

At PSV he is tasked with coaching not only the first team players but also those players coming through the ranks meaning that he is tasked with continuing the rich Dutch tradition for great goalkeepers.

“I think that it is because in Holland we spend a lot of time training goalkeepers.  Even in the old days.  In Holland everyone had his goalkeeper’s coach and that has been the case for a lot of years.  Before other countries started having a goalkeeper trainer in Holland we already had that,” he says of this tradition. 

“We always thought in Holland that goalkeepers were very important and that they are the foundation of the team.  You can have good players but if the goalkeeper isn’t good enough then you have a problem.  A house is built on a good foundation. It is the same with goalkeepers.”  

“That is why in Holland we spend a lot of time on goalkeeper training.  When I started my career in professional football it was only shooting at the goal but I got the attention.”  

“I’ve had a lot of goalkeeper trainers myself and now I’m doing it.  It is good to have a goalkeeper coach because he sees and feels the thing you feel.  For me (as a coach) it is much easier to see into the head of a goalie.  A goalie can come to me and ask me things on why it happened and I can talk to him about it.”
“These days games are decided by details and having a good goalkeeping coach can be a very important detail.”

“Today all players are very fit, they have power, and they are well conditioned.  So in those cases you look for the details and it can help make you champions.”

Special thanks to Thijs Slegers, the press officer at PSV Eindhoven, for his assistance in the setting up of this interview.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

The Power Of A Coach

When Tottenham told Kevin Stewart that they weren’t going to offer him a contract, that could very well have been that.  Although Stewart had done well at Spurs, at Crewe Alexandra (where he had spent a month on loan) and Sheffield United (where he spent some time on a trial) many had enjoyed similar starts to their career only to find it impossible to earn a way back into the professional game once their time at an academy came to a close.

The big difference for Stewart was that he had come across a coach who felt that there was more to him.  Alex Inglethorpe had seen him progress through the ranks at Spurs and clearly felt that his former side had made a mistake in letting him go.  Recently appointed the head of Liverpool’s academy, Inglethorpe quickly stepped in to offer Stewart a contract.  

Eighteen months down the line, Stewart was making his Premier League debut for Liverpool after impressing in a couple of cup outings.  His progress was rewarded with a new four year contract and, irrespective of what happens to him at Liverpool, he’s made enough of a name for himself that there will always be someone willing to take a chance on him.

There is no doubt that Stewart has worked hard in order to get to this position.  He’s held strong to his self-belief despite not always finding the faith of the managers of clubs where he went on loan and at the same time invested time in improving his game as he made the transition from defence to midfield.  His strength of character played a big role for him.

Yet it is also fair to wonder what might have happened if Inglethorpe hadn’t happened to believe so highly.  Stewart might well have made a career out of the game yet, given how he seemed to be struggling to get game time at Swindon whilst on loan earlier in the season, there’s every reason to believe that he might have struggled a fair bit to cut out some space for himself.

It all highlights the important role that a coach plays in the life of his players; how he should always fight for the players he believes are worth it.  Not everyone has Inglethorpe’s wherewithal to take a player to a Premier League club but that’s not the only route open to a coach.  Even talking to other clubs’ coaches and convincing them that a player is worth an opportunity might play a big role in a players’ career.

It is also worth wondering how many players end up being lost to the game simply because they don’t find anyone who believes in them enough.   It is an example that proves those who believe that talent always rises to the top are wrong.  One only has to look at Harry Kane for an example of this.  Kane had done well on loan but Spurs seemed reluctant to give him an opportunity.

Then along came Tim Sherwood – a coach who had worked with him in the youth level – to give him the opportunity that he was looking for and that his talent needed in order to blossom.  If Sherwood hadn’t come along then he might have ended up being sold off to a smaller side.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Aston Villa's True Failure

At the end of every transfer window there are always those who feel that their club didn't do enough.  This time round, among the more justified to voice such complaints were Aston Villa fans - along with their manager Remi Garde - who feel that those running the club have given up hope of staying in the Premier League by making no attempt to strengthen the side rooted at the bottom of the league. 

That of Aston Villa is a complex story with the club having been put up for sale almost two years ago after owner Randy Lerner realised that his ambition of running the club 'sensibly' wasn't going to work.  Since then Villa has been a club with a vacuum of leadership and if relegation does come at the end of the season it won't be a surprise to anyone.

The truly sad part is that with a bit more foresight Villa would be in a much better position.  As with many other clubs they have identified the signing of players as the solution to their problems but, rather than go for quality they've far too often opted for quantity in the hope of striking it lucky. In doing so they've almost completely disregarded the talent coming through their academy.

Three years ago Villa won the Next Gen Cup, a pan European competition for the continent's elite Under 20 sides.   It was an impressive result given the quality of opposition and one that highlighted the potential within their ranks.  Yet the only one of that side to make anything of an impact was Jack Grealish who was vital in their run to the FA Cup final last season but who has – for a variety of reasons – has failed to build on that this season round.

The rest are still waiting for an opportunity if they are still at Villa at all.

Their path to the first team is blocked by players brought in from elsewhere and who keep on playing despite not showing much in term of quality or character.  Players who are unlikely to stick around if Villa do get relegated.

It could be that those young players failed to develop enough to justify a spot in the side.  It could also be that, given the difficulties faced this season, there was the risk of burning them out If they were put in such a situation.

Both are good enough reasons for going with more experienced players yet, given the scarce results that they have achieved with the current policy of trying to find value elsewhere, it is mystifying why Villa don’t simply focus on a long term plan to bring through young players and, if they are to spend money, then it is on quality reinforcements rather than the quantity policy which they currently have in place.

Villa are far from the only side who should adopt such a policy.  Norwich are another club with a promising youth system yet who don’t seem to be doing much to bring their young players through.  Similarly Sunderland, another club that routinely spends a lot of money on players who fail to deliver.  

What will it take for these clubs to realise that their current policy isn’t working and opt instead for a new way?

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Solutions For The Academy System in Scotland

Stephen Fraser

The first part of this series of articles on the academy system in Scotland discussed the issues and problems with the academy system in Scotland. In particular it focused on the environment which the system in Scotland creates and the challenges this brings to developing high level young footballers.  It can be read here

The Club Academy Scotland system can be regarded as a highly pressurised, cut throat environment. Players are discarded by clubs left, right and centre with limited opportunity to develop and fulfill their potential. We need to provide kids with a more developmentally focused environment which is conducive to unlocking potential. In reality, it is very difficult to progress to become a professional footballer. 

Rather than focusing solely on developing football players, we should look to develop all-round athletes that can transfer to other sports and can be good citizens. In the long run a system such as this will provide a bigger pool of all-round athletes, which will make better use of our small population. This is in direct contrast to the all or nothing scenario which exists in football at present. 

Players and parents become so focused on their kids making it as a professional footballer. This can be regarded as counter-productive to development. We would develop players of a higher level if we produced an inclusive, developmental environment which creates healthy, multi-functional athletes who are socially confident.

This article will explore the potential solutions to the current problems which exist in the Scottish academy system.
Solution 1: Don’t Over coach
Perhaps the biggest issue faced within the academies is the coaching methods used to develop players. Too many coaches speak for too long and do not allow opportunities for young players to develop through actually performing the necessary skills and techniques in scenarios and situations which occur in the game. 
Players are not afforded the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. Good coaching allows kids the freedom to play a variety of games where the constraints lead to different skills and techniques being developed. The game alone is not the teacher, as suggested by a number of people. The coach needs to guide the learner through observation, analysis, questioning and then providing corrections or alternatives. It is important players are exposed to game-like scenarios where they are building up their contextual knowledge and understanding. 
More 1 vs 1 games, 2 vs 2 games, 2 vs 1 games, 3 vs 2 games, 3 vs 3 games, 4 vs 3 games and 4 vs 4 games with different outcomes are required to develop contextual knowledge. Repeated exposure to different scenarios leads to the brain acquiring a wealth of knowledge on how to produce solutions to different problems faced in a game.

Solution 2: Not Just Football
Kids should be encouraged to play a range of sports and take part in school sport. At present, many clubs ban their young players from it. We should be providing hundreds of sporting opportunities from school sport, to club sport, to specialist sessions where the children are allowed to lead their own games. Child-led sessions allow the players to develop ownership of their performance and progress.

Clubs need to be more integrated into communities where there is cooperation with other sports. This would provide greater opportunities for children and young people to play a range of sports. This would ensure there is less chance of players burning out and allow us to produce more all-around athletes. 

We can have pro clubs work with other sports clubs and provide players the opportunity to take part in other sports rather than just go to football training 3 or 4 times a week. This will contribute to creating athletes with better agility, balance and co-ordination which can only help sports such as football when coaches are looking to develop sports specific skills and techniques.

Solution 3: Winning Comes Later
Games need to be seen as a development tool up until age of 16. Then you can teach about how to win games and more about game management. We have it the wrong way around at present. We teach players to win games without teaching basics which would increase the probability of actually winning games. 

There is too much focus on winning or simply not losing games. Coaches focus on team shape, tactics and set-pieces for a significant duration of training. Aspects such as set-pieces are irrelevant in the development of young footballers. They are team-orientated and focused around winning the actual game and not developing the young players. Time should not be wasted on telling players where to stand for a set-piece as often clubs have very little time to work with young players. Instead, time would be better spent focussing on developing player’s skill, game awareness and decision-making. 
It is very evident how competitive the game becomes as soon as kids move to 11 aside football. We want to encourage kids to individually strive to win and do their best to improve but not emphasize team winning and scoreboard winning. That is not saying just participating is fine, it is saying we want kids to strive and seek to be the best they can be, get the better of their opponents and out think their opponents. 

Kids are naturally competitive so we don’t need to put pressure on them to not make mistakes to ensure their team do not lose. If you put a ball down and pick two teams the game will be naturally competitive, so we do not need adults shouting and screaming when kids fail to score a chance or let a goal in by making a mistake. 

Instead ask them what they could have done better to ensure every scenario and situation is used as a learning experience. That is where the skilled coach comes in- they are there to guide the players and they have the knowledge to guide players in the correct direction. Simply just leaving players to play without any guidance will not produce players. 

Solution 4: Teach Decision Making Skills
It is important we focus on developing the correct tools required to produce intelligent and creative players as opposed to creating winning teams at under 14. Kids do not need to be taught how to play 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 formations. They need to be taught how to create space, how to angle for a pass, how to provide width, how to provide penetration, how to provide depth, how to time movements & runs, how to read opponents body shape & movements, how to close spaces to ensure they can’t be bypassed, how to make the correct decisions like when to pass-when to dribble- where to pass- where to dribble. 

Formations are tools used for adult teams to win games, they do not have any real relevance to developing players until they are older. If players are technically good, intelligent, make good decisions and are quick and athletic then they are more likely to win games. 

Rather than coaching a team how to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, we should be focusing on developing player’s brains to ensure they make good decisions, quickly and frequently. Formations are a starting point to balance out the space on the field and provide a bit of structure to a team. We do not need to coach players on the nuances of the 4-3-3 formation at a young age.
Solutions 5: Relaxed Approach
Another potential solution may be controversial with some members of the footballing community. Over the years we have become so focused on creating teams at professional clubs starting from a very young age. This leads to early specialisation for many of the players where they only play football and have a very focused regime from a young age. 

This can lead to burnout very quickly and does not provide kids with the freedom to develop as kids. To counter this problem we could have training groups up until the age of 13 where players train a couple of times a week with a pro club but do not play competitive games. 

They can play friendly/festival games with the club but do not play in focused matches every single week. This would allow players to play with boys club and play a range of other sports throughout the week. This approach is less cut throat and more relaxed. They would still have plenty of access to games with friendlies and playing for boys clubs. 

Players can then be taught the necessary skills, techniques, decision-making and game understanding without being put in team shape and coaches coaching to win games as opposed to developing players. Pro coaches could also take sessions with boys clubs in their local community to ensure all kids are provided with access to good coaching, not just the ones that mature early or show early promise.

Solution 6: Pay For Coaches
It is time we treat coaching as a profession like any other and pay for full-time coaches to work with kids at young ages. Instead of spending thousands of pounds a week for mediocre professional players, pay a few thousand a year for a highly skilled, qualified and experienced coach to develop players. 

This in turn will make the club more sustainable and will provide a good product on park. It is feasible to get 2/3 players through to 1st team every year with the correct investment, correct environment and clubs providing more opportunities to young players. If we keep wages lower in general then clubs will not need to panic about being relegated and there would be less pressure on managers. This would create more stability at clubs and allow managers to gradually develop the club and the team. 
At present, mediocre players are being paid unbelievable salaries compared to doctors, nurses and other normal jobs. It is a waste of money to pay vast salaries to players who are not top level. It can also de-motivate players and stop them from working as hard to improve and fulfil their potential. With lower salaries players may become more focused on reaching the next level and they would still be able to live very comfortable lives with lower salaries. Rather than paying players £40/50k a year, clubs could halve that amount to allow them to pay a full-time youth coach £20/25k a year. This would ensure clubs have more full-time professional coaches at the younger ages with the correct skills, experience and qualifications.

Solutions 7: Age Suitable Game Formats
At present the Scottish FA have adapted the format of the game to suit the age and development of players but this could be developed further. It is important we use incremental steps which fit in with way kids learn and the number of solutions and scenarios their brains can process. 

Moving to a full size pitch and playing 11 vs 11 too early can be detrimental to development. At present the SFA are suggesting kids play 4V4 up to under 8. This is a great step and exactly what should be used at very young ages. The next step in the development pathway sees players play 7v7 from 9-12 years of age. 

Rather than move straight to 7v7 we could let the kids play 5V5 at under 9,  6V6 at under 10 and then 7v7 for under 11 to under 13. This aligns better with child development and the way the brain and body develops. Moving too quickly to 11v11 and introducing too many variables too quickly can confuse players and can be overwhelming to some. This can cause a lack of creativity, as players are so confused with the amount of variables they cannot make a decision when in possession. 

The immediate reaction is to think of why it couldn’t or wouldn’t work in terms of pitches and logistics. Perhaps we need to start thinking about how we could make it work. We could use small goals and cones for pitch markings. It does not have to be all official at a very young age. As long as there is a ball, two goals and two teams then it is a competitive game when children are playing. 

With this new format kids would play 11v11 either halfway through under 13 or at under 14. A potential step of 9v9 could be introduced between 7v7 to bridge the gap. This could be feasible but would require portable goals to ensure the pitches were made smaller length wise. Professional clubs may be able to do this but boys clubs playing in local parks may find it a bit tricky. However, if the collective will is there then a lot can be achieved to change the game for the better.
Solutions 8: Collaboration
Pro clubs work with each other and with boys clubs and don’t be so ‘us against them’. It will benefit everyone, as there will be more & better players to choose from. Players naturally find their level in time. Clubs do not need to go around poaching players from other teams. 

Instead, their time would be better spent if they worked with the players they had to make them as good as they possibly could be. The better players would eventually gravitate to the better teams in time. Clubs could also work together more to learn from each other rather than compete against each other. They could do in-service events where other clubs came to watch their coach’s work with their teams. 

This would hopefully ensure we can develop a best practice model throughout the country. Also, if a kid wants to leave a club then clubs should let them leave rather than stop them playing football and making life difficult for them. Surely, we want kids to be happy in the long run. An approach such as this also provides an opportunity for other players to come into the club and develop.

The potential solutions highlighted in the article are designed to provoke thought and generate ideas. They are not aimed at being definitive answers to the problems faced in Scottish youth football. It is important action is taken going forward to try to come up with solutions to the problems we currently face. We need to produce more skilful, intelligent and creative footballers to allow us to reach a major finals for the first time since 1998. If there is a collective will and desire to work together then who knows what can be achieved in the future. One thing is for certain, if we continue with the same methods then we will drift further into footballing oblivion.

Stephen Fraser is a qualified football coach who was worked in Scotland with St Mirren and America with Seacoast United.  His blueprint for football can be found here and he can be contacted on Twitter.

Our highly regarded Blueprint According To... interviews are collected into three Volumes of e-books that are available from Amazon (US Versions here).  To receive a free copy of the third book in the series, get in touch on Twitter.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Examining The Academy System in Scotland

Stephen Fraser

This is the first in a two part series. The second part of will look at potential solutions to the issues we face in Scottish youth football.

There has been lot of debate recently regarding the academy system within Scotland and whether it is actually working. The national team manager Gordon Strachan has suggested clubs should scrap the academy system and replicate the past where players were developed in boy’s clubs and in schools. Although there is merit in such a set-up, life has changed and there are too many distractions for kids now. We need to find the balance between the old ways and the modern advancements in coaching and player development. A system which replicates play scenarios similar to street and park play can provide many benefits. However, it is crucial players are provided with guidance to unlock their potential. 

Many pundits and coaches have stated their opinions with a number in favour of scrapping the pro youth system all together. They are fully justified in questioning the system as we have failed to produce enough top level players for a number of years. However, being a high level ex-pro or adult coach doesn’t mean you know how children learn and develop.  Nor does it automatically mean that you know how to teach kids from a young age through to adulthood.  The same way as being a primary school teacher doesn’t qualify you to be a secondary teacher; being a good doctor doesn’t mean you are a good paediatrician or being a criminal lawyer doesn’t mean you are a good immigration lawyer.  

Although the subject or sport is the same, the audience, the methods, skills and knowledge required are vastly different. We should be questioning the academy system and looking for ways to improve it. However, it would be a monumental mistake to scrap youth academies in Scotland altogether. This would lead to far fewer players being produced and would leave the game in Scotland in dire straits. The actual system of academy football is not the problem, it is the environment we create which is the problem.
The academy environment within Scotland is highly competitive. Clubs need to understand they are working with kids and not mini adults. Players are not allowed to make mistakes and are not afforded opportunities to just act as kids. We need to let them have fun, be curious and work out their own solutions with guidance from qualified, experienced and skilled coaches. We need to work with players with a development focus in mind, rather than releasing players when they appear to be struggling. Usually clubs get rid of players because they are not winning games so they correlate that with not having the correct players in their system. 

However, this is often not the case. It may just be the players are not as quick learners as players from other teams. Talent identification needs to be better to ensure more suitable players are signed by clubs in the first place. Clubs need to get away from focusing on players who make the biggest impact in games. This is usually down to early physical and psychological maturation and has very little relevance to future potential. Similarly, clubs need to place more emphasis on movement mechanics and the mind-set of young players. We need to focus on creating more all-around athletes which will produce a bigger pool of players to choose from. 

If players are well balanced, co-ordinated and can move explosively in multiple directions then it is easier for coaches to teach them the required skills and techniques in football. It is also crucial players have a growth focused mind-set and are able to embrace mistakes and learn from them.

It is ludicrous to suggest you are born with specific ‘talents’ or genes for football. Genetic attributes like fast twitch and slow twitch fibres are significant in developing physically and do play a part in player development. However, we learn to walk, talk and run through imitation and trial and error. In reality it is a mixture of environment mixed with initial physical traits. Without the correct environment then you cannot make use of physiology. 
In his recent book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explores in depth the way major industries and professions have progressed through the years. The main tenet of the book is related to making mistakes and learning from them. He highlights potent examples such as the medical profession, aviation and the criminal justice system. 

In particular he discusses how, often a culture exists within particular industries, where they are so ingrained in doing things a particular way because it has always been done this way. Syed highlights, many so-called leading experts do things in a particular way even although it leads to poor results. The positive examples he discusses highlight how making mistakes is crucial to learning for individuals and industries but only if they analyse them and learn from them. He uses the aviation industry as a prime example, as they have learned from a number of aviation mistakes to ensure the safety record is of the highest standard. 

This example is very pertinent to the system within Scottish youth football for two reasons. Firstly, the way players are developed is usually based on the previous experience of coaches and practioners and not on evidence based coaching. Clubs tend to coach in a particular way because they think it is the correct way to develop skill but in reality a lot of the work is counter-productive. 

The second reason the issues highlighted in Black Box Thinking are pertinent to Scottish football is concerned with allowing kids the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The environment within Scottish football is very negative and making mistakes is seen as a criminal offence. Young children are often lambasted for making mistakes, when in reality, making mistakes is the only way they will learn. 
Syed concludes, many of the great developments within top industries and professions are made through trial and error. Therefore, we need to let players make mistakes, analyse them then come up with better solutions next time. The only way they are going to learn is if we give them the freedom to make mistakes and discover solutions via guidance from coaches. This way of teaching, is the polar opposite from instructing them what to do all the time. 

The debate around the academies in Scotland has mainly centred on players being over-coached in highly structured academies. It is very difficult to argue with this point, as a lot of the development work focuses on telling the players what to do all the time rather than let them discover the solutions themselves. However, one can argue with the issue regarding academies being too structured and this being a negative. Clubs such as Barcelona, Ajax & Southampton have very structured academies where players are highly coached. Southampton in particular look upon themselves as teachers of football and look towards improvement as the key aspect of their club. 

It is extremely difficult to argue with the proven track record of these academies. They have consistently produced high level players who have played in their first team and those of other top clubs around the world. It would be a challenge for anyone to say that is incorrect. I would argue, it is the type of environment and coaching which needs to be improved, not the structured environment which academies produce.
Nations such as Holland and Iceland are very much ‘coaching nations’ where they believe good coaching will improve players. They coach players correctly, with the correct type of interventions and the correct types of practices. Over the years Holland has produced top coaches and top players. Recently, Iceland has risen to the Elite of European football by qualifying for Euro 2016. By all accounts, they have achieved this through good coaching by well-educated and qualified coaches. Iceland has a population of nearly 330,000, which is considerably lower than Scotland. This example gives hope to smaller nations and proves that the correct coaching environment with well-educated coaches can lead to significant progress in player development. 

Stephen Fraser is a qualified football coach who was worked in Scotland with St Mirren and America with Seacoast United.  His blueprint for football can be found here and he can be contacted on Twitter.

Our highly regarded Blueprint According To... interviews are collected into three Volumes of e-books that are available from Amazon (US Versions here).  To receive a free copy of the third book in the series, get in touch on Twitter.