Google+ Blueprint for Football: December 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Home Grown Coaches

This article was originally included in Blueprint for Football Extra.  Get your copy now (for free)

If you ever find yourself watching a game involving Ajax and the camera pans to where their coaches are sitting, it is like catching the who’s – who of the club’s former greats.  Ronald and Frank de Boer are there, as is Denis Bergkamp and Edwin Van der Saar.  It is the same when it comes to their youth sides where the presence of former players is there throughout.

Barcelona are the same, particularly with the youth sides where the top jobs invariably go to former players.  In Italy it is common practise too, as exemplified by AC Milan’s recent appointment of club legend Paolo Maldini as their technical director joining the likes of Franco Baresi, Filippo Inzaghi, Mauro Tassotti and Filippo Galli who have all remained within the club..

For sure, it is a much more dignified way of former greats earning a living than having them host corporate functions on matchdays which is what very often happens in England.

Yet such appointments a rarely charitable ones and it is a practise that has its reasons, the main one being ideological.  When you’re a club like Ajax, that has a very particular style of playing then it pays you to employ people who have playing in that manner and who have done so to great effect.  These players know what it means to play for Ajax and know how to play like Ajax, so they’re the ideal people to ensure that the tradition gets passed on.

That these coaches can command instant respect is an added bonus.  No one would dare question a decision made by Bergkamp for the simple reason that this is Denis Bergkamp, one of the most accomplished players of his generation.  You would imagine that what he says should be accepted without too many complaints (although every coach, regardless of how illustrious his career, should take time to explain the motivations behind everything that he does).

Yet, just as it has its benefits, it also has his pitfalls.    It is important to preserve a club’s playing ethos but football changes and if you do not change with it then you get left behind.  Employing people who have experienced the system does not mean that they are the best individuals to ensure that the blueprint gets updated to incorporate any recent changes or incorporate some variation in popular tactics.

In fact, it could be that these appointments actually hinder those who have the right ideas.  Knowing that the best jobs will always be taken by someone else – someone who probably has done little to really deserve such a role.

Perhaps that is why it works so well at Ajax.  Historically, Ajax have seen their biggest assets move elsewhere meaning that most of their players eventually experience different leagues and countries.  Often, this opens up their way of thinking and they’ll incorporate these new ideas, constantly changing and adapting the blueprint.

The overall philosophy remains the same but it is continuously freshened up to ensure that it remains a point of strength, rather than being allowed to devolve into a major weakness. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

No Benefit Early Focus on Physical Side of Players

He might not have joined the club in the easiest of periods but most Liverpool fans will have fond memories of Darren Burgess, the man who served as Head of Fitness and Conditioning between 2010 and 2012.  He had previously gone to the World Cup with Australia as their Head of Sports Science of the Football Federation of Australia and fitness coach of the national team, and during his time on Merseyside he further enhanced the fine reputation he built there.

Darren is currently working in the Australian Rules football as High Performance Manager at Port Adelaide Football but, despite the busy schedule, he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the physical aspect of the development of players.

At what age should coaches start focusing on the physical side of their players?
I think this needs to begin during the maturation process.  Prior to this it should be co-ordination and skill development.

Are there any dangers of starting too early?  Or any benefits?
There is great research that suggests that starting prior to this can impede the natural maturation process, cause decreased participation rates and offer no physical benefit to the young athletes.

Based on these three points there’s probably not a lot of benefit in starting prior to maturation.

What should coaches be on the lookout for?  For instance, are there signs that might indicate that a player needs to alter something that he is doing in order to avoid injury?  Or when a player has a growth spurt?
Certainly, coaches should be aware of when a child is growing through a growth spurt as this can cause increases or decreases in co-ordination and growth related injuries such as shin splints and heel pains.  

Generally, young players who are experiencing pain should avoid training and return once advised by an appropriate medical professional and certainly not train or play through any pain.

To what extent can anyone predict how much a player will grow?
I’m not too sure you can.  The parental height will give some indication but unless you have a wrist MRI scan handy it is pretty hard to predict!

Finally, a question that is a bit more personal:  professionally, how important (and why) was it for you to work in different sports and countries?
I think it provides a greater awareness of alternative, holistic training and treatment methods.  Too often people can think that one culture, sport or method is the only way to train players.  However, if you are exposed to many different methodologies and training practices it allows you to learn from each one.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Blueprint According To... Volume 1

If you’re a football coach, an aspiring one or merely retain an interest in coaching there has never been as good a time as this.  

Extensive television coverage of the game means that you can study, and be inspired, by what is happening all over the world.   There are innumerable blogs and sites that talk about the various aspects of coaching.  On social media you will find people sharing the methods used by the finest teams in the world.  And it is easier than ever to find books that detail every aspect of coaching.

For all the information that is out there, however, there’s nothing like a chat with another coach to really appreciate what he’s doing and what can be done differently.  There is nothing like hearing someone else’s experiences to compare with your own; analysing what you can learn off them.

It was that belief that inspired me to start the “Blueprint According To…” series of interviews where each month I spoke to coaches about their beginnings, experiences and how their ideas had been shaped, thus getting to the blueprint that was at the basis of their work.  The ultimate aim was to display as many different ideas as possible.

The first six interviews of the series achieved that more than I expected.  They put forward the ideas of coaches from five countries; people who have worked at different levels and have accumulated varying experiences.  They spoke, among others, of the benefit of futsal, how to get the respect of players and the importance of having a philosophy that forms how you work.

Now these first six interviews of the series have been brought together in an e-book that also contains original cover artwork by the extremely talented Dave Williams and a special foreword by former Scotland U21 midfielder Craig Easton, these days a budding coach himself. 

This e-book is available as PDF, e-Pub and Mobi here for just €0.99.  Alternatively, you can get it from Amazon (UK version here).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Blueprint According To...Guido Seerden

This article forms part of the monthly Blueprint According To... series.  Join here to make sure that you never miss an issue.

When you’re writing something where the aim is that of sharing coaches views – as with the Blueprint According To… series – then the trickiest part is ensuring that there is a variety in the views you present.  And the best way to do that is by talking to people who have worked in as diverse conditions as possible.

Guido Seerden certainly fits that bill.  A Dutchman who got his coaching badges at his local FA, he’s gone on to work in different countries most notably Saudi Arabia.  It is this range of experience – as well as the enthusiasm for his job that shines through in his replies – that makes him the perfect person to share his blueprint.

Blueprint for Football: What attracted you to coaching?
Guido Seerden: It all started when, aged 5, I wanted to play football for a club because I was absolutely addicted to the game. It was a small club and the youth teams were playing in the lower leagues. Therefore, I did not have access to many quality coaches. I can remember that when I was playing for the U13s, I was also doing football camps in the summer to enhance my skills. I wrote almost all the exercises down in a notebook and gave those notes to my U13s coach so that he could use them during the season. It's a shame that I forgot to ask for that notebook back when the season finished but, anyway, I tried to help my coach to put down better sessions. 

A few years later, I was playing for the U19s when I was 14 because our U17 team fell apart but we had to merge with another club after that season. The youth teams at the other club were playing at a higher level than I was used to so I was really looking forward for our clubs to merge (the other club was the one that I wanted to play for when I was 5 because my best football mate was playing there but my dad did not let me as that was his rival club, he wanted me to play for the club he used to play for) because playing at a higher level would mean that I could develop myself as a player but, also, I would have access to more quality coaching.

At least that was what I was hoping for. So I started playing in an U17 team again with a better standard of players than I was used to but the coaching had let me down. For example, our coach put down a small sided game and he went home to put his kids to bed and returned when we were almost finished.  

Being a captain for a very long time at my former club, I was new that year so therefore not a captain during that season.  I got frustrated more and more because I could see that this was not the way to improve the team and my own skills. We got relegated as a result of that and our coach quit, thankfully!  So we got a new coach during my second year at the U17s and this coach triggered me to start coaching myself. He never used the exact same exercise twice, all season long! Unbelievable! 

I have always been coaching on the pitch, as a captain, to help my teammates and I loved it. So during that season, when I was 16, I started coaching because I wanted to give players the education I have never had. 

Another thing that influenced my decision to become a coach was the fact that I tore my ACL when I was 17.   It took almost a year for the 'specialists' to find out that it really was my ACL that was causing the problems; I twisted my knee three times during that season. To cut a long story short, 6 years of recovery and after having 4 surgeries in that time, I did not enjoy playing anymore so I quit at the age of 23. Therefore, I focused on the coaching side as I did enjoy that, even when I was injured, and I knew that I would reach a higher level as a coach than as a football player.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
GS: Yes, I have had a few but not many. It all depends what your definition of a 'mentor' really is. Is it someone that takes you by the hand and guides your through it? Or is it someone you've learned a lot from by watching him coach? 

I've only had the latter to be honest. The first one was the U17s coach I have been talking about before; Andries Bemelmans, the one that never used the same exercise twice.  It is not that he was a true mentor for me, as we were not coaching a team together, but I looked at the way he coached and the way how he put that many details in one exercise. So I started using some of his exercises (other people might use the word 'drill' but I am just not a fan of that word) and amending those exercises a bit because I was coaching teams at another level. I was happy that I could play for that coach again at reserve team level, after having a dramatic season at the U19s. He still is by far the best coach I have ever had. 

The second one is Igor Hameleers.  I have met Igor at one of my internships during my first year of my Bachelor study in Sports and Movement.  It was during a football camp and apparently I was doing something right because a few weeks later, Igor asked me to join his football school and become one of the coaches.  That is how I got involved with Coerver Coaching Belgium and this has now evolved to the Total Soccer Method. 

I have been working with Igor for quite some time now. He has taught me more about how to set up sessions with a focus on the technical aspect and how to approach players of different age categories. 

I am currently working alongside other Dutch and Belgium coaches and I am surrounded by some knowledgeable people.  So it's up to me to make the most of it and to learn as much as possible.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
GS: Do you have a spare few hours?  Or maybe days?  I will try to keep to it short!  For me, it's all about the learning process and if you get that right, results will follow later on. Therefore, focus has to be on individual player development first before focusing on the team. 

On senior level, I would work on team development first and then try to work on the individuals on alongside the team periodization. 

I am also a strong believer of training as specific as possible and thereby making almost every exercise match specific.  I do not really believe in completely unopposed exercises, as that is not game realistic to me.  Players will have to execute tactical and technical skills whilst anticipating on the opposition's movement.  Therefore the decision making process has to be completed with some kind of opposition. This does not mean that every exercise is executed with 100% opposition, not at all. 

I try to set up conditions in which there is decision making based upon an opponent and whereby the goal of the exercise is still fulfilled. For example, if I want the players to get better at passing, I choose a 3 v 1 instead of an unopposed passing 'drill' thereby making it easier for the attacking team as they have an overload of players compared to the defending team.  If that goes well, I progress to a 3 v 2, 3 v 3 and I try to play with the rules of the game to challenge the attacking team or to make it easier for them (if needed). 

For example, starting with a GK+3 v GK+2 and the last defender is only allowed to enter the pitch when the striker touches the ball. So the other two players are less pressured when they play out from the back. 

Even though I am a strong believer of match-like activities, I am not saying that I would not do an unopposed (passing) exercises at all. It's all depending on the age group. For example, if I would be coaching a first team and I would like to work on some patterns of play the day before the game, which means that I got to keep the intensity low in this kind of exercises because the high intensity will be done during the warm up (short, sharp sprints, with a lot of rest) and the small-sided game (short and sharp) on that day.  In this case, I would go for an unopposed passing exercise. 

So I do have some exceptions to the rule but if I have the opportunity to play with opposition, I will rather do that than letting players dribbling across mannequins. In conclusion, unopposed exercises only improve the technical skills whilst opposed exercises improve the technical skills AND the cognitive, anticipation and decision making skills which are important in a game like football. 

Also, I like the guided discovery approach instead of the prescriptive type of coaching. This means that I set up practices in which the players will have to discover how to the deal with the given tasks. For example, if I want the players to get better at changing direction with the ball, I let them start on one side and tell them that they can earn two points by changing direction and score on that same side.  I do not tell them how to change direction, they got to figure that out themselves.  I might give some examples how to change direction on request but it is up to them which moves to use and I challenge them to use as many moves as they can. 

A question that you have to ask yourself in this case is: "How did Johan invented the Cruyff turn? Did he invent it by playing games? Or did someone teach him how to do 'his' turn in an unopposed manner?"

 I also challenge the players by asking open-ended divergent questions and let them come up with something new. So instead of telling players what to do, I guide them through it. 

BfF: What is the most important attribute of the players in your team?
GS: That would be a high level of responsibility and ownership. The players take matter into their own hands and are the leader of their learning process.  How?  At first, by letting the players come up with the team rules for the season.  For example, let the players come up with a rule of how to deal with players that are late for a session.  Why do I use this approach? So that the players will be responsible for each other's behavior and if someone does not act according to their code of conduct, the players will correct each other based on their agreements. 

So then you'll have about 16 people correcting each other instead of two coaches running around like sheep shepherds. Secondly, I set up meetings with the players to discuss their personal development plan. I ask the players to evaluate their performance and come up with two or three things that they want to enhance during the upcoming period. 

I evaluate the players as well and see whether the things that they want to improve on, correlate with the things of which I think they'll have to improve. This will correlate most of the time but some players need to have some eye opening feedback from coaches or from a video before they realize where they have to improve. So by the time the meeting is finished, the players have set clear goals and have set up a plan how to work towards their goals. 

Other people might answer this question with 'technically skilled players', 'tactical intelligent', 'mentally though' or 'physically strong', for example, but those attributes are environment dependent and ever evolving.  Those factors depend on the age group that you are working with and the culture of the club, county, country and maybe even the continent you're working in. I am not saying that I do not care about these factors but these attributes will improve as a result of a high level of responsibility and ownership.

BfF: Different players and those of different ages develop differently.  How should a coach handle this?  And how does a coach stimulate the learning process?
GS: The key is to differentiate; making sure that every player is working on his own level. 

Firstly, you've got to know the age specific characteristics before you start working with a specific age group. Secondly, the tactical and technical level of the player is always leading the process but biological age has to be measured as well. The biological age is a key factor in a player's physical and mental development and this has to be taken into account whilst developing the team and individual periodization. 

A coach can stimulate this learning process by taking these factors into account and develop a team and individual periodization based upon this. The key facilitator for the learning process is responsibility for the players, like I have said before. The players will have to take matter into their own hands and be and feel responsible for their own learning process. A coach is just like a captain on a ship, he may decide whether to go left or right (to focus on the age specific characteristics) but it's the players that really make the ship tilt.  

BfF: You have a Masters in Human and Movement Sciences.  Why was it important to get this degree?  And has it helped in your coaching?
GS: At the time that I was trying to recover from my ACL reconstruction, I was training 5-6 days a week with a personal trainer. She had a degree in Human and Movement Sciences as well and I trained with her for almost a half a year but it didn't help due to bone issues in my ankle (which we didn't know at that time). That's how I got interested in Human and Movement Sciences as I wanted to know more about the human body to make sure my players did not get injured like I did. 

I was training 4 days a week and playing almost three games at the weekend: an U19s game and Futsal on Saturday and then a game with the Reserves on Sunday morning which I could not take any longer than 70 minutes due to the physical activity on the day before. 

If I look back now, I think: 'How stupid was that?!' but I could not help myself from playing that much because I was only 17 and totally addicted to the game.

My parents sometimes asked me: 'Aren't you playing too much?' but, as every kid of that age would say, I said: 'No of course not.'. Kids at that age do not like to listen to their parents; true rebels. I know where it went wrong though, except the fact that I did know **** about recovery and I was also delivering the newspaper six days in the week at 6 in the morning because I did not have the time to work after school due to football commitments, there was no coach at my club who had warned me that I was playing too much. Oh wait… right, someone did tell me… after I tore my ACL!

Talking about proactive vs reactive coaching, you got an example of reactive coaching behavior right there. So there was no one who protected me from getting hurt because I was in no way going to play less, unless my coach told me to. So I wanted to know more about the physical and mental side of the game as I was already working on the technical and tactical side, as a coach. I needed to have more in-depth knowledge about the human body in relation to physical activity. Hence, this degree has helped me a lot in my coaching especially as I spent a whole season in Liverpool, working on my research internship at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). LJMU has a bachelor study in Science and Football and that was the reason I wanted to go there. 

During the last season, I was working as a fitness coach at Tranmere Rovers FC First Team, for a half a year whilst working on my research about 'the role of feedback within the use of key practice activities in English professional youth football'. So that was the ideal combination of practice and theory. So I have learned a lot about the theory and application of the key performance indicators in football: Technical, Tactical, Physical and Mental. I needed to know about these indicators to understand the game of football and to become a good coach. 

For me, this degree was the quickest way into professional football as I knew that it might have been a long, long road if I had to rely on my coaching career solely (as I am not a former pro footballer) but now I am able to put science into practice and vice versa.

BfF: You're currently in Saudi Arabia.  What exactly is your role?
GS: I am the head coach of the U9s and U10s but I am also assisting the sessions of the U11-U14 whenever needed. The U9 and U10 are the youngest age groups starting at the academy and I got to make sure that we select quick learners with a basic (or more than basic) level of football skills. On the other hand, the best football players at a young age are not always the best football players at an older age. Therefore, it is important that we select players that learn quickly as that seems to be an indicator of talent. 

BfF: What are the main differences - if any - between European kids and those you're currently coaching?
GS: At first I would say that the level of physical development is maybe less than in Europe. This is due to the fact that the kids do not have physical education in the schools and I think that they play less on the streets due to the hot environment (it's still 33 degrees in November). You might say that this is an ideal temperature to play outside but I do not think that this is actually happening. That's why we are training 4-5 times a week but we're not only putting focus on the football skills but also implementing multi-skill sessions, in which we try to enhance the players' overall movement and try to prevent early specialization. 

Secondly, the players are more emotionally involved in the game. I can remember times when I was coaching in the Netherlands that I really had to encourage some players to win the ball back and 'fight' for it, but over here, I really need to slow the players down in order to not make a foul. That's one of the reasons why I introduced tennis balls within my sessions. Before a 1 v 1 starts, the defender has to pick up two tennis balls and carry them whilst defending so he is not able to pull the attacker's t-shirt. The players love it and this gives me the opportunity to focus on the players' agility as well.

In third place, I would say that we are two years behind of Europe in terms of football development. As I said before, the players will enter the academy at an age of 8 whilst the most clubs in Europe are starting at an age of 6. Therefore, I am still working on the fundamentals at the moment but hoping to progress with the U10s to 'small sided teamwork' in the second half of the season but it will depend on the players' progression. 

I think I will have to split that group up in terms of learning process because I have a group of early/normal mature players and a group of late mature players. The latter group is mainly born in the last part of the year and therefore a little bit behind the early/normal mature group in terms of physical and mental development. Therefore I got to make a within group differentiation, in order to make sure that the players are working on their individual goals. 

On another note, amateur clubs are less organized than in European countries. So that's also a reason why the kids that enter the academy do not always have a high level of basic skills compared to an European kid at an age of 8.

At fourth, the players have a different eating pattern than the kinds in the EU. Over here, they get up at 6 in the morning , pray, go to school till one or two in the afternoon. Maybe eat and then come to the academy at three. They will train from four till half past six and then they will have food at the club's restaurant but I have noticed that the kids do not like veggies and we really need to teach them how to eat properly. I have had a few U10s starting a session without having any lunch. Thankfully we have got a doctor who is checking upon the players' eating habits every time they eat at the club. So it is improving but there is still a long way to go. 

And finally, sometimes I have to put more effort into the players' understanding of the exercise to make sure that they know where to go to after they finish at one station but that may be a result of the language barrier. I cannot really have a dialogue with the players because either I do not speak their language well enough or they do not speak English well enough but you learn quickly whilst coaching the younger ones as they sometimes forget that you do not speak their language and then they still try to tell you a story. So I am learning fast.  

BfF: What do you want to achieve in order to be satisfied with your coaching career?
GS: I will be satisfied with my coaching career if the players that I used to coach will say that they have become a better player because they have learned a lot from me. Of course, you cannot please everybody but I hope that the majority of the players will remember me because I have stimulated their development and performance. 

I haven't figured out what my next step will be and I have learned that it's hard to really plan a next step, sometimes it just happens. Anyway, it's all about player development at a youth team level, women's football has a strong social characteristic and men's senior football is more about man management. I am not quite sure where I want to end up (yet) as every category has its charm and I enjoy working with every one of them but hopefully it will result in a job as a men's First team (head) coach with a solid background in Sport Science.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Different Kind of Success

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Fifteen years ago, one of the finest British players of his generation made his professional debut.  The story goes that Gerard Houllier went to watch Liverpool’s U18 team played and promptly picked a scrawny teenager by the name of Steven Gerrard as someone he wanted to put into his first team. 

Put that way, Gerrard’s selection might seem fortuitous but people within the game had long predicted that he was going to be quite a player.

“We’re all aware of how many games he [Gerrard] has taken by the scruff of the neck in his career.  Well, he was doing that from an early age.   Technically his ability was second to none but probably what separates players like him from the rest is that they've got the drive and inner determination to go on where they want to go.”

So says Mike Yates who knows something about Gerrard having grown up playing alongside him in Liverpool’s youth teams.

“When I was young, I’d always found goals easy to come by and there had never been a defender who could stop me from scoring.  I hope that this doesn’t come across as arrogant but that was how it was for me.”

“I’d heard a few things about Gerrard and the first time I saw him I knew that he was a player by the way he struck the ball.  When I played against him it was the first time that I’d found it hard.  He nudged me, tugged at my shirt and did anything in order to get an advantage even though he was eight years old and add to that he could play!”

Like Gerrard, Yates had been spotted some time earlier by Liverpool’s network of local scouts.  “I was spotted as an eight year old playing for Burscough Dynamo.  It was Tommy Galvin, a local scout who had links with Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and other clubs in the area who recommended me to Liverpool.”

“Hughie McAuley came to watch a game which we lost 8-1 but I scored the only goal and after the game he asked me whether I was interested in going for a trial at Liverpool.  I immediately accepted, the trial went well and I joined Liverpool.”

His was a well-trodden path that mirrored those of Steve McManaman and Jamie Carragher who spurned their youthful allegiance to Liverpool’s neighbours.  “Actually, my family were all Evertonians!  In fact, my biggest worry was about how my big brother was going to accept the fact that I had joined Liverpool.”  

“It was also difficult for me to find a football shirt to wear for the trial because all I had was Everton shirts!  Eventually, I found a Real Madrid one which I wore.”

Those loyalties were quickly forgotten as Yates started progressing through the system, eventually coming within touching distance of the first team.

“My first year YTS happened to be after Euro ’96 and a lot of the players hadn't come back so there was an opportunity for us to train with first team.  I did well and managed to get into the reserves, played a game for them and did well.  In my own mind there was an opportunity to push on.”

“My parents always told me to be prepared if it didn't happened.  Mum and dad always encouraged to look at other things.”

“That said, I always believed that I was going to make it.   It is important that you get the balance, that you keep your feet on the ground, however you always believe that you’ll keep on progressing.  When I was 16 we saw Jamie Carragher making it into the first team and it becomes more real for you.”

“Unfortunately I broke my arm and that was a real sliding doors moment.  I don't think I ever recovered from that.  The others pushed on during those two and a half months and I struggled to catch up, I made it to the reserves but I couldn’t make the next step.”

“There was a Youth Cup game and I was left out of that, which was strange for me.  Then Steve Heighway told me that he wanted to come round to my house and immediately the alarm bells started ringing.”

“On the day I went to Melwood, cleaned the kit of the staff members and then went for training.  Afterwards I rushed home to wait for Steve to come around.  When he did, he told me that they felt that I wasn’t going to make it and they weren’t going to offer me a professional contract.  I was in a daze to say the least.  For ten years I had been working really hard and suddenly it was all gone.  There had been plenty of sacrifices, not just by me but also family, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.”

A key figure in Yates’ story at Liverpool is Steve Heighway.  Sadly, there are those who belittle Heighway’s time at Liverpool’s academy, choosing to remember him instead for the battles that he had with Houllier first and Rafa Benitez later over the control of the academy.  That, however, overlooks his work in overhauling the whole youth system putting in place the structures that helped produce a host of Liverpool’s finest players of the past two decades; the likes of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen.

More than that, however, he was a man who managed to find a balance between the club’s best interest and that of the kids that had been put in his charge.

“In my opinion, Steve has done nothing but good for LFC and for a lot of players, not only players who have gone to play professionally but also those who didn’t will tell you that.  There are a lot of players doing other jobs who still thank Steve for what he did.  He gave them skills for what they did in life and not just for the football pitch.”

“As soon as I set foot I was immediately made to feel at home and there was a real family feeling.  It didn't take me long to feel part of the group.  The likes of Hughie McAuley, Dave Shannon, Frank Skelly and Heighway himself made sure that everything was fine and that there
weren’t any problems.

I was also lucky in that my parents instilled in me certain values such as the importance of looking the part and of time-keeping.  Those were values that the people at the club also made sure you observed.  And along the way I played alongside some really great players.”

He had also acquired other skills, as the club was very adamant on the importance of their youth charges doing so.  They also insisted that they had to do their coaching courses and it was this that led to Yates being offered a new opportunity on the day that his dream of playing for Liverpool had been shattered.

“Steve told me ‘we've seen you coaching and we'd like you to stay on board as one of the first five academy coaches’.  Rather than be a player Steve wanted to keep me within Liverpool FC.  I was devastated not to be progressing as a player but it was a confidence boost.  Part of the deal was that I could keep on playing non-league football and so I accepted.  A lot of young players can say ‘thanks, for offer but I’m going to prove you wrong’, but I’m glad that I didn’t have that reaction.”

Although he admits that he was confident that he was going to make it, Mike was one of the lucky ones who had people telling him that there was the possibility that this would not be the
case.  “I think that it is really important,” he says of this awareness. “There is a statistic that 98% of players after age of 25 won't be playing football.  The dreams and rewards are huge, so you think that you’re going to have a great career.”  

“However I do think that seeds need to be planted so that they are prepared.  Is there another avenue you can move into?  Today there are loads of other jobs in football: analysis, sports science, loads of ways to be involved in the game.”

It was this desire to pass on a message that not making it does not mean the end of the world that led him to write his story in the form of a book; “Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen…and Me”.  

“Original idea was to give something back for my mum and dad as they’ve made so many sacrifices for me.  Dad had kept loads of scrapbooks and I wanted to give him something back.”  

“Also with me being a coach I was becoming aware of players who were staying and those who were leaving.  Eventually you come across players who completely disappeared.  You have chat about somebody and nobody knows if they're still in the game or what happened to them.”

“I wanted to highlight just how hard it is but also highlight that because you could not make you can't have a happy life or be successful.  The ‘me’ in the title refers to me but it can be any of the many, many players who can't succeed.  If parents can read it, if it helps one youth player or a parent then the job's done.”

“That’s the purpose of me writing the book; I wanted to send a message to those who are in the academy system.  I've got a great family, I’m married, have an amazing wife and I am enchanted by our beautiful daughter.  My point is that not making it as a professional is not the end of the world.  There are many people who would love to be in the position I am in.” 

“The book was ghosted by Keith Miller.   I was on holiday on Barbados and he heard that I was on the island.  We met, had a few drinks and told him that it was my ambition to write a book.   He told me, ‘you see those books on the table? Well, I wrote them.  I'd love to help you do it’.  At first it started as a labour of love.  Our first port of call was the PFA and we spoke to Gordon Taylor who thought that it was essential to get a book like that out there.  He actually ended up endorsing the book.  When I spoke to all the other players they were pleased and flattered.  The PFA have been very, very supportive and hopefully it will help some young players and their parents.”

“One thing else the book does, I think, is that it raises some questions for the young players.  If you think you're doing enough, it makes you ask ‘am I?’   There are many interviews and comments which provide food for thought.”

His experiences have given him a unique perspective on the continuous debate about the state of grassroots football in England.

“From a Liverpool perspective, I think that our programme is doing a really good job.  

As for grassroots football, facilities is a big one for me.  We've got academies, and that is great, but lower down I don't think that there is enough where young players can go to play football.   I’m not simply thinking of purpose built areas but the possibility of getting on your bike to go to a park and play.  That is what I did as a kid and we could develop outside of a structured environment.  By where I live but there is a grass area where a lot of kids meet to play.  However, they’re now going build houses on it.”

He also has a clear idea of what it takes to make it to the very top, and it is not always skill, citing Jamie Carragher as an example.  “Some have to work hard but he's had to go the extra yard to get there.  It is one thing knowing where you want to go and another to do what is needed to get there.  When he got a professional contract he wasn’t celebrating but thinking ‘well I've got this but now I need to get to the first team’.”

As for Mike, himself, he did eventually get to play professionally.  

“I was playing for Burscough and with me coming out of Liverpool there was a lot of local media attention.  I did really well, breaking a record in scoring 12 goals in 10 games.  Manchester City and Oldham came to have a look but Dundee wanted me to go for a trail.  Steve was very good about it and told me to go for the trial.  I did well there and Jocky Scott eventually said ‘we'd like to sign you’.”

“It was a tough decision but ultimately my dad told me ‘well, what have you always wanted to do?’  The answer was to play professionally so I answered my own question.  Again, Steve was great and told me that if things didn't work out the door was always open for me.”

“My time in Scotland was great.  I played in the Scottish Premier League and scored there, which had been my dream.   I ended up with the surreal experience of playing with Claudio Caniggia who joined when Ivano Bonetti was manager.  Unfortunately, he brought in a lot of foreign players and a lot of British players got forced out.  I was told to find a new club so travelled back home after trialling at Stockport and Hartlepool.”

“Eventually I spoke with Steve (Heighway) and he gave me a job at the academy.  It was brilliant to get back and be involved.”

Today, Mike has moved on from coaching at Liverpool’s academy since then and today he is their International Academy Programme Manager.  “When we see coaches or players act in certain way it is instantly recognizable, a philosophy we call ‘The Liverpool Way’ the football club will always be here and people will transfer through the club, but that has to be a defining thing. Liverpool Football Club consider all players a success, whether they make it to the top professional league, play in the lower leagues, become a football coach or whatever they decide to do. In my opinion the development of footballers is important but the development of people is paramount.” 

“I believe I owe this club a lot. I'm happy that I took the opportunity to stay in the game.  Just because you don't reach the top doesn’t mean that you can't have a happy life.”

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Lessons of Tiki-Taka

One of the founding tenets of Blueprint for Football was that of shying away from the coaching side of things and for one simple but fundamental reason: I am not a coach.  My interest in the development of players arises from a fascination with the process rather than an interest to replicate the coaching drills that led to it.  I’ve always been more attracted  by in the ideas behind a certain style of play and the philosophy that went into developing that way of playing.

As a result the attention devoted to that area has largely been a passing one.  It is for this reason that there are no coaching tips on the site; there are much better qualified people who do a great job of sharing their ideas (if that is your area, I strongly recommend that you follow The Coaching Family on twitter).  And that is why coaching books haven’t been featured.  So far.

Because with “Coaching the Tiki-Taka Style of Play” I’m making an exception and there’s a reason for that: this is much more than a coaching manual.

In fact, I’d go so far as saying that the real juice of the book lies away from the coaching pages.  That should not be seen as a slight on that part of the book because the coaching drills are well explained and brilliantly illustrated.  With fifty drills, there is more than enough to satisfy those for whom that is the prime focus.

For me, however, the really interesting aspect of the book was the work that Jed Davies has done to thread the evolution of tiki-taka.  His is not a knee-jerk reaction to Barcelona and Spain’s domination of world football but has used that as the catalyst in order to identify what led to this philosophy evolving in the way that it did.

He has achieved this by studying both the work and the background of the people who helped build this system.  More than that, he has spoken to a number of established coaches in order to get their views on the different systems and ideas that he talks about, helping form a picture of how a style evolves according to the environment in which it is being implemented.

There are far too many people who talk about the need for a ‘philosophy’ without knowing just what needs to be done in order to get to a point where a club (or a country) has a clearly identifiable style of play.  That is the process that this book highlights and that is why, for me, it is such an important book.

Jed Davies can be found on Twitter and is always a great source for coaching tips. 

Full disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher

Monday, December 2, 2013

Barcelona's Growing Pains

This article was originally included in Blueprint for Football Extra.  Get your copy now (for free)

On the face of it, everything’s going well so far this season for Barcelona.  Leo Messi’s and Victor Valdez’s injuries might put a dampner on proceedings but they’re top of the Spanish league, have made it to the next stage of the Champions League with ease and (perhaps most importantly) beat Real Madrid in the season’s first classico.

Despite all that, however, not everyone is happy and at the heart of this discontent is an ideological debate.

Barcelona’s modern day success was built at La Masia and a youth system that has produced a generation of fantastic players.  The heart of the current side grew up together playing a particular brand of attacking football and ended up dominating the world of football in the same manner.  There was a fantastical element to their success and the idealist in every one of us wanted to believe that they could keep on producing team after team of home grown stars.  

And, indeed, they might well develop such players but it is becoming increasingly unlikely that these players will get the same opportunities of their predecessors.  

The reason for that is that Barcelona seem to have been shifting to a system that greatly resembles Real Madrid’s infamous ‘Zidanes Y Pavones’; a team made up of a mixture of world stars bought at huge expense along with a group local players.  It is this (unstated) policy that has seen them spend heavily on Alexis Sanchez, Alex Song and Neymar these past couple of years.

At most other clubs, fans would see the arrival of those players as a sign of the club’s ambition; a statement of intent.  Not at Barcelona, however, where they are looked at with suspicion, one borne of the belief that they are blocking the path of the next generation of stars.

That suspicion has been further fuelled by Martin Montoya’s rumoured refusal to sign a new contract at Barcelona and Christian Tello’s apparent willingness to move given the limited space that he is finding (even if he did sign a new contract last summer).  Indeed there are many who believe that Gerard Deloufeu, currently on loan at Everton, will never again put on a Barcelona shirt.

The truth is that Barcelona, like so many other clubs, are finding it difficult to establish a balance between the pressure that comes with the expectation of winning and the desire to develop their own players.

All this is compounded by the arrival of Gerardo Martino as manager.  His two predecessors had come through the ranks at Barcelona and, as such, knew both the importance attached to home grown players by the Nou Camp regulars and the quality of the players that there were in the B team.  

Perhaps more importantly, however, their history at the club meant that any slips would be overlooked giving them greater scope to experiment. 

Martino probably does not have that luxury and he’s pragmatic enough to know that.  He might want to give a young player an opportunity but he’ll know that there are risks attached to doing so.  Given the choice of starting with Dani Alves or Martin Montoya, for instance, he’s always going to go with the experienced Brazilian precisely because that experience makes him less likely to make a mistake.  It will be the same in other areas as well, with experienced and established players getting the bulk of the playing time.

At this stage in his career as Barca manager he does not have the luxury of making the choice that will serve them best in the long run; he’s still trying to consolidate his position.  If he sees any gaps in the squad, he’s more likely to ask the directors to buy him a readymade replacement than try to slowly give opportunities to a young player in the hope that he will eventually provide the solutions that he is looking for. 

All of this goes to highlight just how important stability at all levels is for a club.  Whilst having a good youth system is essential if you want players to come through, ultimately it is unlikely to do anywhere near as well as it should if there is constant uncertainty and changes at first team level.  

Having a manager who is in a position to look three or four years down the line, rather than three or four games, is a crucial yet, surprisingly, often overlooked factor in the development of players.  Something that clubs should (but most won’t) keep in mind.