Google+ Blueprint for Football: May 2013

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Finnish Lessons

Every three years, education systems from around the world are evaluated by a system known as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to determine the quality of education in maths, reading and sciences that the students in each country are receiving.  Two countries have regularly ranked among the best ever since PISA was introduced in 2000; one of which expectedly, the other perhaps less so: South Korea and Finland.

That this happens is interesting because the two have a widely differing approach to education.  The Korean results are largely down to sheer work ethic with the students regularly spending 14 hours a day studying for the all-important college entrance exam.  It is as if Eriksson's 10,000 hours rule were applied to education, with the students looking to cram in as many hours of study as possible in order to gain the expertise they believe is required.

In Finland it is strikingly different, with students being asked to study fewer hours than in many other countries with their school work being supplemented by additional work they have to do at home.  They are also encouraged to develop an interest in other activities like sports or music.

This approach is so different from most people's experiences with education and the results are so impressive that it bears a further look in order to determine what can be applied to football.

One of the current 'buzzwords' in football is philosophy; that vision of how a club should be playing the game.  This is present in Finland in the form of a core curriculum but, contrary to other countries, this is not an exhaustive guide of what should be taught and how.

Indeed, the main philosophy centres round the individual and each student is important.  If a child isn't keeping up with the rest he is to be helped so that he has the opportunity to improve.  Those who are doing well are encouraged to keep their desire to learn high.

That is how it should be in youth football where all players are given the opportunity to play and not just the best players to ensure that you win.  You focus your coaching not only on those whose talent is obvious but also those who might lag behind.

The Finnish philosophy is also present in the way kids are taught.  Education doesn't take the form of information being transmitted from teacher to student but rather learning is encouraged by allowing the children to experiment.  Lessons learned in such a manner are more likely to be remembered.

The parallel in football is that, rather than the coach telling the children how they should be doing everything, they should be allowed to try things for themselves.  To play football in a modern way, you need players who can think and that is more likely to happen if they're brought up in a system that encourages this.  If you give the children problems that they have to work out how to solve, rather then set solutions for set problems, then you get them in the habit of discovering solutions. 

Being a teacher in Finland is not a fall back option taken if the route to other choices is barred; it is one of the top career options among young Finns where it is given the prestige that is afforded to doctors or lawyers elsewhere.  The work that teachers do is highly valued, appreciated and regarded. 

What makes teaching so attractive isn't simply the respect that they are shown but rather the amount of autonomy teachers are given.  Indeed, whilst there is a core curriculum, teachers are taught how to build their own curricula and then evaluating them based on their experiences whilst teaching.  Teachers are trusted that they know how to do their job and do not need a centralised curriculum to tell them what they should be doing every step of the way.  Such confidence cannot but motivate the teachers.

There is also trust that the teachers themselves will keep on seeking further education and this is a key requirement for them.  Without it they wouldn't be able to effectively do their work.  So too it should be for coaches, who must never feel that they've done or learned enough.

Inevitably, being such an attractive career option, teaching leads to the most talented individuals taking an active interest in it.  With eight universities educating teachers, standards are high and so too are entry requirements: the minimum requirement to teach in Finland is a research-based masters degree.  At the University of Helsinki, each year there are in excess of 2,000 applications for some 100 spots in its primary school teacher education programme.

Such high levels mean that children have access to excellent teachers from the start rather than getting access to the best teachers when (if) they reach University.

This point in particular is especially important in football where the novice trainers are usually assigned to the younger age groups so that they can cut their teeth (and make their mistakes)there.  The Finnish experience shames this notion and instead reinforces the belief that you need great teachers from the start.

Up till they are 13, children do not have to face exams where their results are graded.  This is done to diminish the pressure that they face and the potential anguish over the results.  It also aims to reinforce in them from an early age a love of education rather than a fear of the end of year exam.

This ties in with the growing belief that football up till the age of 13 should not be competitive and the sole aim for children (particularly the younger categories) should be to have fun, learning whilst they do so.

This does not mean that the kids are not given any feedback.  Quite the opposite as they are continuously being told what they are good at (positive reinforcement) whilst showing them where they need to improve.  Such an approach leads to more effective results because the students know that they are good at some things rather than be told by exam results how short they've fallen.

It should be this way during training, where children get favourable comments about what they're doing well with hints as to what they need to improve.  Ranting and raving, for so long a traditional coaching tactic might achieve short term results, but in the long term it will only serve at demoralising your charges especially as they aren't mature enough to handle criticism.

Note: The aim of this article isn't to discuss the merits or demerits of PISA or those of different educational systems but rather to identify what can be learned from a system that is doing something right.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

The Thinking Game

Following Barcelona's elimination from the Champions League, and given the manner of that elimination, there was a rush of people eager to claim that this signaled the end of tiki-taka.  Hardly surprising as this is what always happens when a once dominant team suffers such a heavy defeat with some taking delight in declaring a particular era as dead.

In truth, whilst it might be that Barcelona will struggle to reach the heights that they had scaled in the recent past, what we're witnessing is simply an evolution in tactics.  Barcelona made successful a particular way of playing and now others are adapting it so that it works better when allied to their own characteristics.

Yet tiki-taka will never die.  It will evolve and change, of course, but it will never die: too many people and too many teams have been influenced by it for that to happen

It was quite telling to see Roberto Martinez, Wigan's manager, claim over the weekend that "the players who come to Wigan have to be very specific in terms of their technical ability and tactical awareness. The way we play puts a player under massive pressure to think all the time."  Up till a few years back, if a team with a very tight budget wanted to avoid relegation from the Premier League, the accepted way was for them to look for tough players who might not be the best technically but who would fight for the club.  That often also meant adopting the most rudimentary of tactics where the aim was to send the ball as quickly to the forwards as possible.

Now you get teams like Wigan, Southampton and Swansea that are set out to play football and who get results by doing so.  It is in such teams that Barcelona's echo will survive.

Naturally, however, for such teams to be able to do well they need players who can play such a style of football.  And, to paraphrase Martinez, such players must be able to think what they're going to do with the ball.  There will be increasingly less room for robotic; mechanical players.

Which is why, increasingly there will be less room for those aiming to develop robotic; mechanical players. Barcelona's period of domination might be coming to an end but the revolution they've brought about in how the game is played and players are developed will echo for a long time yet.

This article was originally sent out to subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Blueprint According To...Antonio Mantero

Like many other coaches, Antonio Mantero has very strong beliefs regarding youth football and where his country's culture is lacking.  What distinguishes him from many others, however, is the fact that he is doing something about it.  Through his site The Coach Diary he puts out (or links to) articles that outline his ideas and he's now also organising talks about youth development.

But more of that later.  For now, here is his blueprint...

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what got you into coaching and how long was that?
Antonio Mantero: My nephew was playing with Bohemians and I was introduced to the Academy Director, he had mentioned that the u12s were looking for an assistant and asked would I be interested. Without really thinking about it I decided to help out. In the very first week, the manager decided to leave the team which left me on my own. So to say my very first season coaching football was difficult, is an understatement. I was coaching and managing with zero experience and that experience lead me to where I am today.

BfF: What project are you working on at the moment?
AM: Via my blog, I will continue to express my feelings on how the game in Ireland is not age specific and how the FAI and the league administrators could be doing so much more for the development of kids in this country. Many coaches in Ireland are adopting the change but nearly all the schoolboy leagues around Ireland continue to be years behind where they should be. On Monday March 25th, I organised a talk about the Future of Youth Development in Irish Football, which was the first of such talks, which are completely free for anyone to attend. The emphasis will be on youth development and changing the structure of the leagues around Ireland.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
AM: I’ve read many books and come across many coaching philosophies and now I have come up with my own.

My philosophy teaches success is many different ways, getting a group of kids to play together, as a team, play to their very best, and reach their ultimate potential while having fun. I want every player to enjoy their experience as part of the team; everyone on the team is expected to put the best interest of the team first, before any thought is given to individual accomplishments.

I read a lot of Horst Wein books and use his Guided Discovery way of teaching, a teaching model where students learn through explorations, but with directions from the coach. I expect my players to give 100% in training and play as if they would on a Saturday, I do everything with the ball and use a a lot of possession games. I’m reading a book by Jesus Enrique Gutierrez Mayor, (Former Real Madrid Coach) ‘Possession: Play football The Spanish Way’ a collection of some brilliant possession games.

I teach kids to play not to win and when you do this they win most of the times. For me it’s about getting a group of kids to play together, as a team, play with desire, and reach their ultimate potential while having fun. No individual, coach or player, is more important than the team. I firmly believe in repetition as a key tool to prepare players to be the best they can be. I’ll always start with the fundamentals, work on techniques and individual skills and teach team defense in depth. I take every opportunity to coach and demonstrate teamwork, sportsmanship and respect for everyone, starting with the coaches, teammates and the opposition. I expect every player to treat others, as they would want to be treated. I will not tolerate bad manors

I believe ”Perfect practice makes perfect”, players should properly practice the skills being taught on a repetitive basis, so that these skills become as natural as walking and talking.
I always strive to make my session an enjoyable experience that both develop skills, game intelligence and provide positive life long memories for every player involved. Playing football should be FUN. I love football and I want the kids to play with a smile. I try to instill in every player, that hard work pays off and the harder players work, the more they will achieve. While being successful is a goal for everyone, at the same time each player should focus on effort – not outcome. A team can always control effort but seldom the outcome of a game.

I expect my players to set goals for themselves and the team. Goals should be challenging enough to require players to extend beyond their present skill level. Every player should have the chance to achieve success and/or failure in game situations, this is the only way they can learn. When they do things right, I’ll give them positive feedback. When they make mistakes I’ll give them feedback in terms of advice or instruction, but always looking for the positives from every outcome and always guided by what they think and say.

I coach to keep kids in sport for life; this is my ultimate goal.

BfF: Is winning important for you?
AM: I love to win just as much as anyone else, when I play a 5v5 with my mates I go out to win; with the kids is different, when a coach or a parent wants to win more then the kids themselves therein lies what is wrong with the game in this country. I use to be one of these people, but i have educated myself on how to coach kids. Winning is not important, playing the right way is! If a player has given his all and lost, he is a winner anyway. For me winning is as important as losing. Success and individual growth have much in common. it's known that successful coaches are often remembered by former players more for their lessons of life than for winning or losing. Good coaches know that the key to success is motivating their players to do their best and improve beyond apparent limitations, motivated by team goals. The best coaches know that spirit, the will to win and to excel are important things that are more important than the game itself.  A really good saying to remember..... "You never exceed your own expectations"

BfF: What do you prefer: a talented player who doesn't value work or a hard-working but not as talented player?
AM: As football is a team sport, I much prefer a player who never gives less then 100% and doesn't caress the ball too much. People say hard work comes from within, which is true but you can also inspire players to work harder for the team through mindset and by making sure your training session are of a high tempo and switching players from defending to attacking in possession games, giving the teams various rules of play and setting targets against each other. This way you can see who is working hard and who is not. I tell all my players never to give up and if you lose the ball, go and win in back. Their are some great individual players on our team, but one thing is for sure, they're a TEAM. . I love this quote "Hard Work Beats Talent, When Talent Does Not Work Hard"

BfF: If you could change one thing about football in your country, what would that be?
AM: I would keep kids playing Small sided games for much longer and the move to the adults 11v11 game at u14s. We don't get enough time with our players compared to the rest of Europe, so our players don't get enough touches of the ball. You said one, but I'll give you two; the second thing would be, no competitive leagues until u13s.

The Blueprint According To... is a monthly feature looking at youth football coaches and the philosophies that drive them.  Read more on the Blueprint for Football Extra.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Helping the Brain to Win Games

When Alex Ferguson starts talking about opponents, he does so in order to unsettle them and it usually works.  Everywhere he has been, Jose Mourinho has projected himself as the undiscussed leader, thus serving as a lightning rod for any criticism - which he is more than capable of handling - and shielding his player from having to spend any energy dealing with it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic talks about himself in the first person because it reinforces his (already quite large) belief in his own abilities.

These subtle mental tricks don't fall within the common attributes one would normally require of football managers (tactics, ability to buy and develop good players) or player (strength, technique) yet without them these three individuals wouldn't be anywhere as successful as they are.  What's more, everyone accepts that this is what helps make them so special.

Yet far too often players' mental strength is often, at best, a secondary consideration.  Even worse, any talk of bringing in someone specialised to help is frowned upon because of the misplaced belief that it would equate to an admission of weakness.

A few players (although the number is rising) go against the flow in their search for the edge.  Among these players is Carlton Cole who turned to Dan Abrahams for help and thanks to this assistance went from being a West Ham reserve to an England international in the space of eighteen months.  Anthony Stokes did the same and in doing so put his career back on track with a million pound move to Celtic.

"I think that it is growing but it is not greatly prevalent," he answers when asked about the prevalence of sports psychology in football.  "It is the bottom of the wishlist for clubs and also probably at the bottom of the wishlist for player. Yet we talk how important the psychological side is in football so there is a bit of a disconnection."  

How did you start in sports psychology?
I was a professional golfer but I really wasn't a good professional golfer! That was largely down to my mindset. I didn't have the right tools.   I worked my backside off but didn’t know how to practice effectively, build my belief and confidence, focus correctly and perform freely under pressure. After my dismal playing career I moved onto coaching and it was when I was helping others that I really fell in love with the brain, mindset and performance psychology. So I headed for University and completed 2 degrees in psychology.

What have your experiences been so far and how did you end up in football?
I've had some positive experiences. My leading case study has been working with Carlton Cole who moved from the reserves to an England international during my time with him.  I've also helped other players in the Premier League.  So far, I've really enjoyed it. 

How prevalent is sport psychology in football?
I think that it is growing but it is not greatly prevalent.  It is the bottom of the wishlist for clubs and also probably at the bottom of the wishlist for player. Yet we talk how important the psychological side is in football so there is a bit of a disconnection.  However, I always say that is the fault of psychology rather than football.  We need to deliver tools that are specific to football and market psychology better.  There need to be be better football specific qualifications.  

Has the success of British cycling had an impact in making sports psychology more accepted? Or is it seen as something that isn't effective in team sports?
Any success in a British sports has got to help.  Case in point is that Brendan Rodgers has brought in Steve Peters, who has been very effective for British cycling, at Liverpool.  However, I don't think that there has been a paradigm shift. 

Would you agree that what distinguishes good from great managers is the ability to manipulate and boost the mental state of his players?
All managers do psychology within their role and some are better than other.  A key factor is the culture they develop within their club.  If you look at the leading managers - Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger - they've developed different cultures but also sound cultures that help develop their team and their commitment.  They've built a culture of success and achievement. 

What are the basic things any coach should know?
Let's be clear that I'm not a football coach and that their strength lies in the technical and tactical side of thing.  However, what I always believe is that a coach must be creative and to do so they must seek as much information as possible in the four major areas; technical ability, tactical ability, physical conditioning, and psychological strength.  

A coach must understand the physical talent but what is often overlooked is mental talent.  The kids that are naturally gifted in terms of concentration, discipline dedication, that is something important that is often ignored.  

The other thing is being a 1 percenter: I want them to leave no stone un-turned.  Find all the 1% shifts you can to help your players excel.

There is a trend to remove competitiveness in youth football but, at the same time, you want kids to develop a winning mentality.  Can the two be reconciled? Indeed, can a winning mentality be taught?
I think it can.  It is an art; it is not black and white.  First kids want to have fun, they want to play with mates and they want to play football.  It has to develop around fun; develop a learning environment and then bring in an element of competition.  This is pretty much the way English football is taking things and I'm a big supporter of that.  

Can you help children develop a winning mentality? Yes, absolutely.  

You have to remember in football there is a paradox in that to win you have to focus away from winning and shift it to the things that will help you to win.  That is a process.  It is about helping define what success looks like.  That is not about winning.  It is a complex landscape.  It is the craft in coaching and to be able to develop skills in a climate of fun.

At what age should elements of sport psychology be introduced?
I've always said that you need sports psychology from the outset but my personal opinion that between 6 to 12 it is up to the coaching staff.  From 12 plus if the academy and football club has the resources then there should be a soft introduction.  The real world is that clubs often cannot afford that.  We have to offer ourselves as sports psychologists so that we are seen to be as important as the other sciences involved in football.

Where does having a strong mental disposition rank when compared to most common measures of a players ability like talent, speed, technique?
I don't think that you can put percentages.  What I always say is that they are inextricably link between development, performance and psychology.  Learning is done in the brain and therefor development is underpinned by psychology.  Similarly, performance is underpinned by mental attitudes.  If a player is not confident when they're going on to the pitch they're not going to look up to pass the ball, they're not going to look to receive a pass, they're not going to execute what they've been asked to do and their focus, their intensity, won't be there .  Therefore development and performance are underpinned by psychology. 

Let's say that you have a player who is talented but struggles to perform when there is pressure: what do you do?
Again that two forms of talent physical and mental.  Both of those can be developed.  If you have a player who has physical talent but who isn't performing, my advice is to sit down with that player and talk to them.  It does very much depend on what that players is suffering from.  If it is lack of motivation you need to get to the heart of why they do what they are doing, what they want to achieve that.  You want to get behind the main issues.  

Yet the approach changes according to what the issue is.  That is why it is important that the coach understand the psychology of players.  Too many coaches say that they have players that have lots of physical talent but 'he doesn't want it' and there's nothing that can be done.  That is rubbish.  Of course something can be done.  This is where I get back to seeking that no stone is left un-turned.  Going to FA modules, reading books like mine can help you get a better understanding.  But don't just stop there, put into practice what you read. 

Similarly, what should a coach do if his team struggles in the final few minutes?
It is about spending time in training communicating with the players.  Getting from the players what is happening.  If you're getting to the final 10 mins and conceding goals talk to them to extract from the players the reasons.  Ask them "what do you guys think is happening and what do we have to do as a team have to do to manage our mindset?".  

I've recently been in a Championship side where something similar was happening.  The players said "we're not staying on top of our intensity and the focus drops off".  It is about asking the right questions, get the answers from them. The players will tell you and then it is up to you to come up with the team script. If you're struggling in final ten minutes because you lack intensity then make it a team goal for final minutes retain relentless intensity.  On the 75th minute you can communicate that message from the side of the ptich.  Doing this is a much more effective thing for team building then nights out

What led you to write Soccer Tough?
Going back to the need of psychology to be better at speaking the language of footballers and developing tools for them, my mission is to demystify psychology.  I had a number of fairly high profile players and got the permission from them to write their story.  However, I also wanted to get away from the language normally used by psychology books and to try to be engaging be inspirational and aspirational to bring in tools and techniques.  I wanted to give footballers from all levels tangible techniques to be able to perform better written and delivered in a real world style.  Soccer Tough is regularly the number 1 soccer coaching book in the United States and about to be translated to Spanish.

You also mentioned writing another book: what will that be about?
That one is tentatively titled 'Soccer Brain' and will be specifically for coaches.  It will deal with the culture that coaches need to create to help players develop and perform more consistently.  It is based on the five cultures: creative, confidence, commitment, cohesion and caring.  My thesis is that if you create these cultures then you will develop players quicker. 

More information about Dan Abrahams can be obtained by visiting his site or following him on Twitter.  If you want to learn more about psychology in football, Soccer Tough (Kindle edition here) is one of the best resources you could possibly find.

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Image: Flickr / Steven Depolo

Monday, May 6, 2013

Looking Beyond Appearances

This time next year, work on the unveiling of a new statue in West Bromwich town centre will be entering its final stages.  Known as 'The Celebration' this statues will immortalise West Bromwich Albion stars Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson MBE and Cyrille Regis MBE.  It will be a welcome addition tribute to three players who not only were at the heart of one of the most exciting teams of its generation but who, more importantly, helped break down the barriers for black players.

They did this in the best way possible: by showing everyone just how wonderfully talented they were.  People could no longer doubt the work rate of black players or their ability to last a whole season, both excuses that had been used to place an invisible barrier stopping their development.

Afterwards, black players starting becoming more common in English stadia as the doubts eventually completely evaporated.  Yet it would be wrong to argue that all the barriers have fallen down.

As per the latest census held in the UK, 2.6% of the population is British Indian whilst a further 2.1% Pakistani, 0.8% Bangladeshi and 0.7% Chinese.  That's 6.2% of Britain's population - or 3.3 million people - yet you would hardly know this by looking at mix of players who play at all levels of English football.

Talk to people in the game and you'll be given a number of reason.  "They're not interested" or "they prefer cricket" or some other excuse based on some generalisation.  It is not simply England that faces this situation because there are variations of it in every country.  Sometimes there is bias against an ethnic group, other times it is against people from a particular region.

A coach - any coach but particularly one involved in youth football - cannot act this way.  No player should be judged by the colour of their skin.  No player deserves less attention because of where they come from.  No player deserves to have to fight through barriers simply because he does not fit any pre-conceived notion of what he should look like or what his background should be like.

The above article was first published in Blueprint for Football's bonus bi-weekly newsletter.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Featured Site: In Bed With Maradona

Brief introduction: like any good blogger, when Blueprint for Football was set up I put in on the side-bar a list of sites that I enjoyed reading.  I told myself that I would build it up; adding in new sites as I discovered them yet this list barely changed even if my habits did or some of the sites shut down.  In truth I barely paid the list any attention and, judging by the hits going through it, neither did anyone else.  So I've decided to change the format.  Each month I will feature a site that I enjoy reading and which I believe readers of Blueprint for Football will enjoy as well.  And instead of the list of sites, on the side-bar I will put in this featured site's logo.  That way I can still be a good blogger whilst also being a good neighbour to my fellow sites as well as being a good host for you, my readers.

Featured Site: In Bed With Maradona

When I was young I used to religiously buy World Soccer magazine every month.  This was largely due to the writing of the great Brian Glanville but also because in that pre-internet era it provided details about football in countries that would otherwise have been inaccessible to me.

It is now much easier to find out what is happening in whatever country takes your fancy but that does not mean that you'll be able to get your hands on well written stories from these countries.  That is where In Bed With Maradona comes in.

So, what's so great about In Bed With Maradona?  In one word, everything.  The articles are well written and well edited (something of a rarity on sites that don't pay contributors) whilst the site invariably looks brilliant.

Most importantly there is a variety of the content with articles about football from all over the world.  It is this variety; this insight to varied culture that is particularly attractive since that is in part what I aim to provide with Blueprint for Football.

On top of it all, for those who love hearing about young footballer their annual The 100 is an unmissable feature.  Sourced from their top writers, this is excellently researched and fastidiously compiled. And each year the previous year's top 100 are marked to see how much each one has progressed. 

Disclaimer: I've occasionally contributed some articles to In Bed With Maradona.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Thanks to Norway...

Puzzled by a recent increase in Norwegian subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra I did some digging and found that Blueprint for Football was recently given a fair bit of prominence on the Facebook page of the Norway Football Coaches Association.  

Here's what they had to say:

"Blueprint for football is a great blog for football coaches. This time they have an interview with Horst Wein, a German "coach of coaches" coach that has affected thousands of coaches over the years. He has also written the book "Developing Youth Football Players" which is an official book of the Spanish Federation."

All I can say is that I'm honoured by the kind words.