There are a lot of people who get into coaching because their own playing career came to an end. For many, however, that end was forced either through injury or else through age. Few actually stop playing because they are disillusioned with the game only to see in coaching a possibility of a kind of redemption.
Joe Smith falls into that latter group. A creative player, he admits that from a young age he had that creative aspect ‘coached’ out of him to the extent that he eventually decided to stop playing. However, he eventually took up coaching seeing this as an opportunity to avoid having other suffer the same experiences as him, making creativity very much at the core of his football blueprint.
Blueprint for Football: 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?
Joe Smith: It is funny as myself and my cousin were talking about this only a little while back. I'm relatively late into coaching having taken my first coaching session at 24 and I never envisaged myself going into coaching. All I wanted to do was play but my cousin would always say “you'll love it when you start”.
I stopped playing when I was about 23 years old as I became a bit disillusioned with the game and almost fell into coaching and got the bug straight away.
BfF: What has been the biggest difference you've found between your perception as a coach and the realities of the role?
JS: Growing up, my perception was that if a coach was commenting and constantly stepping in to make a point then they must be knowledgeable; they must be right.
What I have in fact found out is that is the ego part of coaching and the skill in coaching is nothing to do with what you know, it is the relationships you foster with the players you coach. I was asked at MK Dons is “talking coaching?” And when I sat back and had a think about that statement I discovered in fact no it isn't.
Of course there are times when you need to enhance a player’s knowledge but I assumed before going into coaching that was the main role as a coach and it certainly isn't.
BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
JS: I've not had any mentors as such but a range of people I will talk in depth about my role as a coach and best practice. For me the moment I met Dan Micciche at MK Dons was a turning point. Before meeting him all I knew of the coaching world was drills, structure and what I had experienced as a player.
I was a creative player but from the moment I could kick a ball it was coached out of me. So, when I saw Dan's passion for creativity it certainly fired something up in me where I thought I could actually make a genuine impact in player development if I followed what I believed in.
BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
JS: I believe in complete player freedom and creativity; I try and create an environment where creative thinking and decision making are prevalent. Every exercise I decide with the players, after all it is their game. People forget that every game we know now was invented by children it is adults who ruin it for them. I have a lot of player interaction and if I do enforce anything it is that training is conducted in chaos. I think it is important to be relevant to the game but, more than that, relevant to what they actually want. Of course, if you give a young player an option they will ask for a match and I don't find that a problem but as a coach you set appropriate challenges and conditions that keep them engaged to create a learning environment.
BfF: Is winning important for you?
JS: I have received some criticism for this but genuinely I don't count scores anything below U21 football. If my own niece and nephews play I don't ask what the score was, I ask whether they enjoyed themselves and what they learned.
Now, of course, we all like to win but for me it goes back to the adult ego and it doesn't sit comfortably at all with me. I have sat through games where the team I was taking were losing 10-0 and I could see the disgruntled look on the parents faces but winning doesn't mean success. In that particular game I would say the losing team developed more simply because they were challenged. Winning is great but ask the boys/girls ten minutes after the game about it and all they are thinking about is what was for dinner or playing on their computers.
Of course, as always, a balance is required. Young players can lose motivation if they always lose but I think it is the environment you set around that and if you can get both the players and parents to buy into it you genuinely will have a special thing.
BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
JS: For me attributes I would hope to see in my teams would be respect and the ability to try anything at any time on the pitch. That mentality is vital for me! Respect is everything for me. I think is paramount we, as coaches, enforce that. I consider it our moral obligation to educate these young people not just in the game but in society.
Now, I think it is easy to say “I want the players to try anything at any time” but that for me is fundamental in the teams I coach. I want them to feel comfortable enough to know that I will embrace the idea. The execution is of no interest to me as that is something that can be enhanced over time but the idea is crucial.
BfF: You focus a lot on the creative side of players. First of all, what do you understand by a creative player?
JS: For me a creative player is someone who goes against the grain. I think every child has that capacity but I think by creative most people think you are demanding step overs. That's part of it but it is more than that: it is even the way they process information and rely it. Even coming up against an obstacle and finding a solution in a game is being creative.
BfF: Children are, by their nature creative. What are things that coaches do - perhaps unconsciously - to diminish that creativity?
JS: I've seen a lot of coaches of late and I never judge. We are all students of the game and I have so much to learn and I'm looking forward to that journey. One thing I notice is the decisions coaches make for players. I've seen young players face a 1v1 situation and a coach say “pass, pass”. But why? Again, is it ego? Is it because they see Bayern doing that do they want their teams to look atheistically pleasing? I feel all they are doing there is stumping creativity. I don't think they mean to but they see it in adult football and try to replicate it.
Also the amount of sessions I witness which look great and everything is measured and nothing left to chance. Is that the best for development and creativity? I'm not sure. Football is untidy and can be scrappy so training in that environment should surely be the priority.
BF: What can be done to enhance their creativity on the football pitch?
JS: I think environment is crucial. If you set the correct environment young people naturally flourish! If a young player makes a mistake they know they won’t receive telling off. After all, professional footballers make mistakes all the time. If you are looking to enhance creativity, train on different surfaces, car parks, sports halls anywhere it doesn't have to be pretty by exposing them to different challenges their creativity will increase.
Other sports as well! Playing an instrument, something that isn't the norm, but it gets the creative juices flowing.
BfF: Similarly, how can that creativity and freedom in their play then be moulded to ensure that they work in a team?
JS: Again, I think the danger with the word creativity is the common mis-conception that it only promotes individualism. There is that element but creativity is so much more! Around the corner one touch pass is creative and getting players to lend the football is just as creative as dribbling but at the right times.
Coaches should be encouraging dribbling everywhere and anywhere for me. Even goalkeepers if you can master a dribble then the ability to pass will increase.
This is where being a coach comes in the ability to break down that information for a 9 year old to say “look at what you are doing, it is fantastic, keep doing it but what else can you do?” They see the game better than us a lot of the time they have better answers as well!
BfF: Do you give the physique (their strength) of players any importance?
JS: For me no, none what so ever. Yet it is part of our game, even talent identification will say that. It is common knowledge the best players that the world has ever produced are normally smaller than average people. Physicality dominates the English landscape and I think it is something that has been passed down. Being athletic is important and the modern game demands it but players develop at different rates. I look at hips to toes and that's all that interests me. Being physically dominating at a young age means nothing, being technically superior means far more.
BfF: To what extent can every player be creative?
JS: Every player has the capacity. I have been to grassroots games and heard parents say “you're a centre back just clear it.” But why? I don't blame parents they have been passed that information and they believe it is right for their child. Every child, when encouraged, will flourish in a creative environment! Sometimes you will even be surprised at the start of a session say to your players for 10 minutes show me something I haven't seen before! They can't wait for you to see it, their faces light up and you see then that every child has that capability.
BfF: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions ad a coach?
JS: That is a great question and I often change my mind! I think the key is to keep learning and see where the journey takes me! I want to inspire as many young people as possible and really change the mindset of what English coaches are regarded as, as I do think it is unfair.
Coach education interests me and maybe management but I'm a long way from that and I look forward to enjoying the process of evolving and learning every day.
Joe Smith is on Twitter and an excellent resource for coaches to follow. If you enjoyed reading this interview then you'll probably like Blueprint According To...Volume 2, a collection of seven interviews with football coaches from all over the world.