One of the first changes that Bill Shankly brought about as soon as he became manager at Liverpool FC was to revolutionise the way that his players trained. Out went the long distance running that had previously been the daily occurrence – as with most clubs across the country at the time – and in came training with the ball.
“We never bothered with sand dunes and hills and roads,” he later said, “we trained on grass where football is played.”
At the time it was a revolutionary move, as were most of the practices he introduced to the club, but nowadays they are accepted wisdom. What Shankly had done was to look at how things were being done and questioned whether they were fulfilling their purpose. Framed that way, it is easy to conclude that spending a morning running up and down a hill isn’t going to result in a better football player.
“Everything we do here is for a purpose” Shankly used to love to say. And so it should be for any coach. Doing a training session simply because that is what you are used to doing or it is how you yourself trained simply isn’t good enough. You have to know what it will help you achieve and how that fits in your overall training plan.
Stephen Fraser is someone who strongly believes in this. A young coach who is currently working at St Mirren’s Academy – one of the finest in Scotland – he argues that “activity alone is not sufficient to develop talent.”
“It has to be focussed practice and always have a purpose to improve the players as individuals.” As he explains when talking about his blueprint, football takes place in a very dynamic environment so why do players train in a static environment?
Blueprint for Football Extra: Let's start with the basics: at what point in your career did you decide that you wanted to coach and what led you to take that decision?
Stephen Fraser: I got my first taste of coaching when I was a full-time player at St Johnstone. I was about 19 –this was in 2004 - and I had the chance to work with some local kids as part of the clubs community programme. I didn’t coach again till 2006 when I began working with my local council coaching kids from the ages of 3-14.
At this point I was a part-time player with Montrose FC in the Scottish 3rd Division. I felt it was going to be difficult to make a career playing professional football so I decided to look to coaching as a potential career path. I had always been a deep thinker about the game and was always keen to improve my knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of the game.
So I decided to pursue coaching opportunities in America and went over to work for 5 months in 2007. I then decided to come back to Scotland because I wanted to continue my education which is why in 2008 I enrolled at the Stirling University to study Sports Studies. I began taking my coaching badges at this point and achieved my SFA Level 4 Youth Award in 2008.
It was at this point I realised that I was a decent coach and could potentially coach at a higher level. The course happened to be run in conjunction with Cowdenbeath FC and their Head of Youth at the time asked me if I would like to work with their Under 13 team. I coached with the club for around two and a half years working at the Under 13 age group. I then moved to Glasgow and managed to secure coaching working with St Mirren FC coaching their Under 12 team. I have been working with the club for the past 4 years and completed my SFA Advanced Children’s Licence last year.
BFFE: Have you had any mentors in your career?
SF: I have not had any mentors per se but have looked to everyone I have ever come across in coaching as a mentor. I try to learn wherever and whenever I can by listening to other coaches’ thoughts and philosophies on the game. I am of the belief that you can learn from many different people, whether that be one small bit of information or not.
I try to be as open-minded as possible and do not dismiss other ways of thinking until I have first analysed it and thought about it. I have a thirst for learning so I try to read a lot, whether that be books or articles or just anything related to coaching. I have read countless books I feel have relevance to coaching and human development. Some of my favourites are Bounce, The Talent Code and Mindset.
BFFE: What is your own coaching philosophy?
SF: When developing young players I place a key emphasis on their mindset, focus and willingness to learn. I believe it is very important they view every training session and game as an opportunity to develop as football players as well as human beings.
It is vitally important they are motivated to listen and learn and do not simply go through the motions during training. I stress the importance of undertaking deliberate practice whereby they are constantly self-analysing and correcting during aspects of training such as their technical work and decision-making work. This stems from the belief that activity alone is not sufficient to develop talent. It has to be focussed practice and always have a purpose to improve the players as individuals.
I believe that with the correct movement skills and the right mindset it is very achievable to develop the skills of young players. I feel very strongly that constant praise and reference to players who are ‘talented’ can have a detrimental effect on their learning and development. Instead I try to emphasize the constant need to focus and work hard to improve their abilities everyday as opposed to relying on their ‘talent’ to see them through.
With regards to the types of training given to the young players, I focus on developing their skill which will allow them to retain possession of the ball consistently and effectively. This incorporates both playing in combinations and also in one versus one situations. I emphasize short, sharp movements with and without the ball and stress the importance of using the brain to think quickly and effectively. I believe in the use of playing (games-based) form practices to develop the necessary skills required to develop as footballers.
BFFE: Is winning important for you?
SF: Scoreboard winning is not important to me at all. It is very easy to set-up a team to go out there and win. All you need to do is make the most of your most physically able kids and put them in key positions. This does not help anyone develop as players. The more physically able kids are getting by on their physical attributes and as a result do not use their brains to develop as young footballers. On the other hand, the less mature kids receive fewer touches on the ball and therefore less time to develop.
However, I feel it is vital that you develop players who individually want to win and be the best they can possibly be. This encompasses the need to dominate your opponent and striving to improve at every opportunity.
BFFE: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
SF: For me the most important attributes of young players are their mindset, their football intelligence and their movement mechanics. With the correct mindset players will be motivated to learn and develop and constantly strive to be better.
It is important they develop their game awareness and ability to think and come up with the correct solutions to problems. The brain is where the knowledge to execute skills and techniques comes from and messages are sent via the neuromuscular system to the muscles to allow the player to carry out the correct motor skill in the correct scenario.
Finally, it is crucial players have the correct movement mechanics, agility, balance, co-ordination and explosive speed. It is very difficult to teach children skills and techniques related to football if they cannot control their bodies correctly. A lack of balance, agility and co-ordination will mean they find it very difficult to execute skills with efficiency of movement. The correct mindset and movement mechanics are the starting blocks to develop players and within that you are then looking to develop firstly their technique and then their execution of skills.
BFFE: Is the physique (their strength) of players something you look at?
SF: I don’t look at strength or height but I do look at the power and explosiveness they possess in their movements. Height at a young age is not a factor to me. It is far more important they have the correct movement mechanics and possess explosive acceleration and speed. Football is a game of explosive multi-directional movements so it is crucial players can move comfortably and with speed in 360ᴼ.
This led me to undertake the SAQ Advanced Trainers Diploma last year. I wanted to develop a greater understanding of the correct movement mechanics required to allow players to develop as footballers.
BFFE: You did a dissertation on skill acquisition and development in football. Can you tell us a bit about that?
SF: As I progressed as a coach I found myself questioning the types of practices we use to develop young players in Britain. A lot of the coaching I came across used blocked drill-based practices to develop player’s techniques. I felt this developed the techniques in isolation but in football techniques are not used in isolation. They are mainly used in a series of random, explosive movements where players must execute skilled movement patterns efficiently and effectively.
My dissertation looked specifically at Playing Form practices vs Training Form practices. Playing form practices refers to small-sided games, possession games etcetera and training form refers to drill-based practices where there is no direct opposition.
Football is a sport where cognitive, perceptual and motor skills are used in combination. The cognitive and perceptual aspects refer to looking for the right information, processing the information and deciding upon a suitable response. Motor skills are the specific movements used to perform such skills as passing and shooting. Football takes place in a very dynamic environment where the picture is constantly changing.
Sports such as golf have a much more static environment where the players perform skills and the picture does not change dramatically prior to taking a shot. Therefore, golf involves athletes performing closed skills and football involves mainly open skills. I felt that many of the practices used to develop young players only worked on player’s technique.
This is a problem because skill and technique are two very different things. Technique refers to the specific movement patterns used by players whereas skill refers to the learned ability to perform the correct technique at the correct time. It is possible to have poor technique and still get the desired outcome. For example, a pass can be played with poor technique but still reach its desired destination. Good technique increases the probability of the action being executed efficiently and effectively.
Therefore we should look to develop player’s techniques initially up to the ages of 12 and from then on it is important to focus on developing player’s skill. That is not to say you cannot still look to develop technique with short focussed micro sessions.
BFFE: This is, I guess, a common question but how much skill can be acquired by any one individual? And how much depends on basic talent?
SF: I don’t really believe in the use of the word ‘talent’. I think it is a commonly used word in football but I think people are really talking about skill when they say a player is ‘talented’. As a child everything we do is learned through imitation and practice from walking to talking to running and jumping. There is no specific talent people are born with that gives them talent in football.
People are born with different physical characteristics such as their fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres. These have an impact on the speed and trainability of players but there are no specific football talent related genes. I believe that with the correct mindset, movement skills and correct practices then players can develop significantly.
The problem lies in the ‘talent ID’ of young players for academies. People often mistake physical maturation with ‘talent’. Players who are more in control of their bodies due to their physical attributes tend to look a lot more skilful. Often these types of players possess the wrong mindset, attitude and focus when it comes to learning and developing. Then you often find when physical maturation evens out the so-called ‘talented’ players are not particularly skilful.
BFFE: Similarly, different players have to develop different skills. How does one ensure that these skills are developed within a team environment?
SF: When coaching players I am coaching in a team environment but I am aiming to develop skilful and intelligent individuals, capable of playing successfully in a team environment. So all my coaching is geared towards the individual. Developing teams is a concept for adult football when the purpose is to win.
The purpose of academies should be to develop and produce individuals capable of playing in a clubs first team. Often you find clubs develop successful under 15 teams, as an example, where they are structured in a way as a good team with good balance. The team and club look like they are developing players successfully but what they are really developing is a good team. You then find very few of the individuals in the team are capable of playing in the club’s first team.
The focus should always be on the individual but with the aim of producing a player capable of playing in a team sport.
BFFE: What have you found to be the most effective ways of enabling skill acquisition? And how would you change your approach with players in different age groups?
SF: To develop the skills and abilities of players you need to break the game down to its constituent parts. The key focus has to be on individual aspects of the game, especially with younger players. This would incorporate a high emphasis on one versus one situations to develop player’s appreciation and mastery of the ball when isolated and under pressure.
This is the starting basis for skill within all situations a player encounters in a game. Nearly all practices should involve the ball. Only footwork and movement skills practices may not have a football involved. Practices must have a repetitive focus to allow for continued improvements and technical developments to be made. However, there should be a random and unpredictable element involved to mirror game situations.
This can be achieved through the use of passive pressure initially and followed up with full pressure to replicate situations encountered in games. Smaller forms of the full game should be used to ensure skills can be developed functionally and therefore be used against direct opposition. This would involve one versus one practices with younger ages and then progressing to two versus one, two versus two, three versus two, three versus three, four versus three and finally four versus four.
As players progress and develop their skills in the one versus one situations, practice should begin to emphasize combination play. This will bring in crucial decision-making elements which are essential as player’s progress up the levels. Games-based practices should form a large part of practice sessions; perhaps a ratio of 60%-40% in favour of games-based practices for younger ages.
As players get older and develop, this ratio would increase to around 70%-30% in favour of games-based practices. To ensure technical aspects are still developed, players should be given technical instructions as and when the coach observes deficiencies in game situations. This would perhaps involve stepping out from the game and fine tuning technique in short practice sessions.
Within all practices player’s movement off the ball should be highlighted and developed. This is to ensure players become dynamic all round footballers as opposed to robots who only play when the ball is in front of them. Speed of mind and speed of movement should be key within all practices. Players also need to be encouraged to be independent thinkers and come up with the correct decisions and solutions in given game situations.
BFFE: Does a coach's attitude - what they say, how they act and even the tonality of their voice - have an impact and how big? Also, how do you ensure that what you do actually helps the players?
SF: Firstly, I think demonstrations where skills and techniques are broken down are the best way to show players what is being asked of them. I think it is very important coach’s instructions are short, clear and precise. Long general feedback and instruction often fail to address the issue at hand. Players need to be guided and put into situations where they are responsible for their learning as opposed to being dictated to by a coach.
Games-based practices where coaches manipulate the constraints allow the players to learn without even knowing they are doing it. Players should then be questioned to see if they are actually learning.
Coaches should maintain a positive attitude where they encourage individual learning and development in a challenging and engaging environment. That is not to say that you should not be firm and clear with your coaching points. If players are too comfortable in their environment then they will not feel challenged to improve and develop. A coach’s tone should be firm, clear and engaging. To ensure players are actually learning it is important they are questioned as stated previously.
BFFE: Do you see a role for other sports being pursued alongside football especially at a younger age? Would, for instance, an interest in athletics help an individual be better at learning football specific skills?
SF: Absolutely. Children should be exposed to a range of different sports and activities from a young age. This will help them develop the correct movement skills required to develop as football players. Movement is the foundation with which the football specific skills are developed upon. Early specialisation and too big a focus on football can lead to burnout and lack of motivation.
Young players should be encouraged to play different sports and generally be children rather than become so seriously focussed on becoming a football player. Skilful coaches will be able to facilitate learning in a fun, engaging and challenging environment where learning takes place internally without the child actually realizing they are carrying out focussed practice.
BFFE: You're working at St Mirren which is a club that is certainly focused on development. What do you think that you do differently to most other Scottish (and even English clubs)?
SF: Probably two key things stand out for me. Firstly, we are focussed on the long-term development of players. Players are brought into the academy and we look to improve their deficiencies and develop their strengths.
You often find clubs are not really focussed on developing players, they are more concerned with bringing in the best players to their clubs as opposed to working with the ones they already have. The second key thing we provide the players at the club with is opportunity. Kids come to the club and see there is a clear pathway from the younger ages through to the first team.
At present there are regularly six academy graduates in the first team. Some of the players have been with the club since the age of eight. Recently there has also been another influx of young players into the first team, with a young player of just 17 making his debut this season. Combined with the two key aspects there is a lot of hard work, a clear curriculum and good coaching aimed at developing players.
BFFE: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions as a coach?
SF: Good question. As a coach I am always looking to pass my knowledge onto the players I coach and help them to develop as players and people. I want the players I have coached to achieve their potential and continue to enjoy playing football as they get older. Hopefully in the process some of the players can reach a high level in the game.
My personal ambitions as a coach are to work full-time in football where I am coaching young players on a daily basis. I love the actual coaching where I am responsible for players learning and development. My ambition is to continue to coach children……I don’t have a desire to work with adults at a high level. My passion is teaching and developing young players to help them improve. Hopefully in the future this will lead to work with high level young players on a full-time basis.
This interview was originally circulated among subscribers of Blueprint for Football Extra.
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