Google+ Blueprint for Football: February 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Books Every Coach Should Read

The beauty of being interested in football and coaching these days is that there is so much out there to help you learn and develop.  Indeed, if you want something a bit more in depth and with more meat to it than articles that can be found on various excellent sites on the internet (including this one) then you can turn to a multitude of books that deal with various aspects.

This list features books that I feel everyone with more than a passing interest in football (let alone coaching) should be reading.

I appreciate that this is not an exhaustive list - indeed the aim is to eventually keep building on it via a permanent feature on the main site - but it is as good a starting point as any.  It will also be updated on a regular basis.

I won’t attempt to fool anyone into thinking that they’re at the same level as the other books on this list but I do think that Blueprint According to Volume 1 and Volume 2 (US readers can go here and here) – two e-books produced by Blueprint for Football and which contain a total of thirteen interviews where football coaches talk about their ideas – can provide a whole host of new ideas to anyone who reads them.

And if you want something different, might I suggest Il Re Calcio, my book with ten stories from Italian football including that of Emiliano Mondonico, how he led Torino to a UEFA Cup final and how their historical bad luck thwarted them.

Please note that by clicking through the links you will be directed to the books' Amazon page and that I will receive a small percentage from any purchase made.

Let’s Talk Soccer by Gerard Jones
Often what distinguishes a good coach from one that isn’t as capable isn’t their knowledge of the game – most tend to go to the same courses and have access to the same information – but their ability to put their message across.  Because ultimately it isn’t important how knowledgeable each individual coach is, what is important is how much of that knowledge he can transfer to the players in his charge.

Yet that step in the coaching process often tends to be forgotten or overlooked.  Indeed it is often assumed that a coach will be able to deliver his sessions in an effective manner.  It is for such reasons that books like Let’s Talk Soccer by Gerard Jones are important.  It provides coaches with a set of ideas and templates for how to communicate during their sessions that will help them look at what they are currently doing and then identify what they could be doing better.

Developing Game Intelligence in Soccer by Horst Wein

Intelligence – specifically footballing intelligence – is essential in the modern game where players are asked to perform in an increasingly more tactical environment.  That is apparent today but Horst Wein has been saying it for a long number of years, so much that he has developed what should be the prime text for any coach looking for ways to increase the intelligence of their players.

Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession by Tim Lees

Whilst philosophy has become something of a ‘buzzword’ there is very little out there that concretely tells prospective coaches how to go about setting up their own philosophy.  This relative lack is what makes Tim Lees’ “Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession” such a welcome book as it provides not only the ideas behind a footballing philosophy based on dominating possession of the ball but also the coaching drills that can be adopted to help instill this philosophy into the team being coached.  A full review of this book can be found here.

Coaching the Tiki Taka Style of Play by Jed Davies
On the face of it, this is a coaching book. Yet it is much more than that. True, there are coaching sessions listed throughout it but it should not discourage those who are not into coaching because what Jed Davies has done is try to explain a style of playing – Tiki Taka – by going into the development of the style and how that philosophy is then drilled into the team. 

Legacy by James Kerr
There are few sporting entities as universally associated with excellence with the All Blacks.  Of course, having a whole nation as focused on rugby as New Zealand is will inevitably result in the development of exceptional talent in the sport.  Their success however, transcends this and is the result of a whole culture that constantly works on improving.  It is this culture that Kerr has analysed in detail, identifying the salient points and then dissecting them in order to provide an explanation of why such behaviour has this sort of impact.  And, for anyone worried that this might be a book about rugby, don’t: this book is aimed at corporate managers so it can be easily applied and adopted by people working in football.

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson
I am a big believer that if you truly want to understand a subject you have to know its history; to get a feel of what happened in the past that led to the current situation.  Obviously this applies to football as much as anything else and there is no better book to assist you in doing so than Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid.  This is exhaustively research and, more than that, insightfully threaded together by Wilson who expertly guides the reader into understanding the impact of each innovation and how this was modified later on.

Making the Ball Roll by Ray Power
“Philosophy has become a bit of a buzzword in coaching, and is sometimes either very generic or very unclear.”  That is what Ray Power[], this book’s author, told me when I interviewed him last year and that is also the feeling that I often get. People talk a lot about having a philosophy without truly understanding what it means.  Indeed, for many it simply extends to a belief that ‘their’ teams should be passing the ball rather than hoofing it.  In reality, that isn’t a philosophy but rather an idea of how your team should play.   

Power is someone who has gone about building his own philosophy in the right way; a youth coach who has devoted time  to  look at what is meant by a philosophy and how one – anyone, irrespective of level they’re coaching – can develop a philosophy.  That process and his thoughts are contained in this book and will prove invaluable to anyone looking to go through the same process.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
First of all, a confession.  Two actually.  The first is that Michael Lewis is one of my favourite authors and I will anything by him (indeed, his book on parenthood is great as are those on finance).  Few people have his ability to investigate a story, get to its roots and then present in a way that enables the reader to understand the whole process.  The second confession (ironically) is that I didn’t understand even a quarter of the baseball jargon he talks about in this book.  

It doesn’t matter because for me this is more than anything a guide on thinking in a different way; of not simply doing things because that is how they were always done.  Sadly this book has become largely associated with the use of statistics in sport but, in truth, the real lesson at the core is that of trying to look at areas that the traditional approach has neglected and try to use them to your advantage.

Last updated on 21st June 2015. Latest reviews on top.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 11]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 14th of February.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Working On Aberdeen’s Future
Whatever happens by the end of the season, this has been a tremendous campaign by Aberdeen who have been putting up a genuine challenge for the Scottish title and putting pressure on Celtic’s dominance of the game north of the border.

Even if they end up winning nothing the future is bright for them and not because of their present squad.  Aberdeen have always promoted youth but now are doing so more than ever putting greater emphasis – as a lot of Scottish clubs are – on developing players.

Gavin Levey is Aberdeen’s Head of Junior Academy (the man responsible for the players younger than 12 in their academy) and in this interview he talks about the work that they’re doing, how they’re doing it and their overall philosophy.

Crewe Alexandra and the Pioneering Academy Model Under Dario Gradi
For a long, long time that of Dario Gradi was a lone voice in English football.  He had taken over as manager of Crewe when they were literally the worst team in England’s professional structure and built them up to the point that they would go on to play in the Championship.  And he did this on a very limited budget with most of the players coming through the youth system that he himself oversaw.

Today Crewe are in League One and Gradi is no longer manager yet their ethos remains the same: invest practically all the money that there is in the youth system in confidence that the structure that has helped develop the likes of Rob Jones, Danny Murphy, Nick Powell and Dean Ashton will keep on providing talent.  This article takes a look at that system and how it provided the model on which Southampton was built.

Manchester City plan to link up with St-Etienne confirmed by president
This is only indirectly linked with youth development but, in the wake of the Premier League’s massive £5.1 billion television rights deal and the subsequent debate over the lack of money that will trickle down to grassroots level, it is a significant story.

The truth is that, with the riches now afforded to them, English clubs can now pick most European clubs clean of any talent that they have.  That St Etienne, a French club with a rich history and currently doing well in the league, would consider a deal with Manchester City where they essentially agree that any promising player that they produce can move to City is significant both for the implications that it has for French football and also what it means for City’s own academy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 10]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 7th of February.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Hamilton Aiming To Be The Best
It might not have been the most glamorous transfer of this January but West Ham's move to sign 

Hamilton Academical right back Stephen Hendrie on a pre-contract (they will eventually pas £1 million for him) was interesting nevertheless.

The reason us that Hendrie, like a big part of Hamilton's players, came through their youth system that had previously produced James MacArthur and xxxx xxxx. Indeed, Hamilton were at the forefront of a revolution that is taking place in Scottish football where an increasing number of clubs are putting their faith in their academy.

Two years ago, I interviewed Frankie McAvoy, the man heading their youth set up, about the way that they did things.  At the time the club was in the Scottish First Division and struggling a bit.  Despite that, the faith they had in their young players shone through and now they're reaping the benefits with a great season in the Premier League.

Despite the time that has elapsed since the publication of that interview, the methods and ideas it contains are very much still valid.

Mental Blocks and How To Overcome Them
Over recent months I have been taking an interest in the mental side of a player's development having come to realise that this is a crucial element for anyone who is looking for longterm success.  Indeed, I am currently kicking off a project that will talk at length about this (but more about that at a later date).

Not every coach is lucky enough to work at a club where there is a sports psychologist at hand but there are enough resources available on the internet to ensure that people can build enough of a knowledge base.

This piece is a good example of that and a great primer as it provides a good description of what mental toughness is as well as practical advice to anyone looking for relief from the psychological blocks that can prevent from performing at one's optimal level.

Only 3-Pointers and Layups: The Rio Grande Valley Vipers
I do not know a lot about basketball but I do know that a lot of basketball coaches frown at players taking three-point shots (or when they take them).  So it was interesting to see this short documentary about a coach who does the opposite and actively encourage his players to take such shots.

What is particularly interesting, however, is the reason behind this decision.  It isn’t simply down to a hunch but rather there is a statistical reason for him to adopt that strategy.  Whether it might be successful or not, I can’t really tell (the documentary says that the team has one two championships in the last three years but that depends on the quality of the opposition) but it raises the question of whether football coaches are doing the same.

There is, for instance, research that shows that punting corner kicks into the box very rarely results in a goal.  Are there coaches willing to risk stopping doing that?

The Icelandic Football Model. An exclusive interview with the FA's Technical Director
When people look for examples of systems that are effective at developing talent they tend to limit their search to nations like Holland or Portugal who have a long tradition in this respect.  Naturally, this makes sense because they have produced so many great talents that there is almost a guarantee over the validity of their systems.

At the same time, however, doing so means that people are missing out from learning from those other countries who might not have the similar long standing tradition but who have shown that they know how to do things.  Countries like Uruguay, for instance, have achieved results that bigger and richer countries can only dream of.

Iceland might not be at that stage but this country has made huge advances over the past two decades evolving from one of Europe’s minnow to within touching distance of making it to the World Cup finals.

In this interview Jon Townsend talks to Arnar Bill Gunnarsson, the Director of Education for the Icelandic Football Association, about how they have achieved this transformation offering plenty of ideas for anyone looking for a fresh perspective.

Why coping with the media is essential for any ‘wonderkid’
I hate the term ‘wonderkid’.  Far too often those who are given this label end up unable to justify expectations, with careers that rarely match what had been predicted they could achieve.

That, however, does not mean that the gist of this article doesn’t hold true.  Indeed, an player who looks set to play the game on a professional basis needs to have some media training in order allow him to really develop.  Those who fail to do so will inevitably struggle when the glare of the media turns on them and this, in turn, they will never be able to perform at their best if there is a part of them that is worried about the media.

If you haven't yet seen our book, you should head over to Amazon to check it out.  Look for Blueprint for Football Volume 1 and Volume 2, where you'll find interviews with coaches who share their ideas, beliefs and blueprint for coaching the game.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession by Tim Lees

“From the second players turn up at 5.00pm to when they leave at 6.30pm, every single movement, exercise or drill they do should look like a section of the game has been cut out from above and dropped onto the training pitch.”

That piece of advice that Tim Lees - the author of this book - was given early on in his career has clearly had a significant impact on him so much that it features in the introduction of Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession.  

Currently coaching Liverpool’s Under 14s, Lees previously worked at Wigan where Roberto Martinez’s approach to the game and his desire to retain control of the ball clearly had a big say in the formation of his philosophy.

That is a key word.  In the modern game there is a lot of talk about philosophy, particularly that which is based on possession of the ball, but for many the gap between ideas and implementation remains a huge one.  It is fine to want your players to dominate the game and keep hold of the ball as much as possible but that is effectively the easy part.  The difficult part is to get the players to do so and that can only be achieved by getting your players to work in a focused manner on the training pitch.

That it is where this book comes in.  Contained within it are a whole host of sessions that provide clearly laid out plans for coaches looking at developing various aspects of a possession based game.  From One v One Situations to Counter Attacking, there is a range of sessions that will assist coaches in their formulation of their own sessions.

It also contains ideas on how to structure a session and how to develop one’s sessions so that a long term target (like that of dominating 1 v 1s) is achieved.  Equally insightful are the personal rules that Lees imposes on himself which are the guidelines on which he maps out his work.

For those coaches who do not have the luxury of visiting a big club to see how it works this is an ideal book to gain that knowledge. 

Copies of 'Developing an Elite Coaching Philosophy in Possession' can be bought here.

Disclosure: a review copy of this book was supplied by the author.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Footballers Need Their Sleep

One of the most interesting facts (for me, at least) that came out when Nicola Cortese left Southampton last year was that one of the changes that the former general manager had brought about during his time at the club was the personalised way in which the players travelled to away games. 

In particular, Southampton ensured that each player had his own personal mattress and each player slept on this mattress during their overnight stays in hotels for games away from the St Mary's Stadium.

It was a move that echoed the strategy of marginal gains popularised by British cycling.  Regardless of what class of hotel one stays at, there is always a level of discomfort after sleeping in a strange bed.  Therefore, it makes logical sense that by sleeping on a familiar mattress will ensure that players wake up at least a few degrees more refreshed and rested than they would have otherwise.  On its own it might not amount to a telling advantage but it undoubtedly provided a fractional benefit.  Build in enough of these and success becomes all the more likely.

That Southampton had opted to target their players' sleep is in itself highly interesting.  Other sports have long realised the import role that sleep plays in ensuring that athletes can perform at peak levels.  One of the key aspects of Kenyan long distance runners – who many within athletics have examined in detail in order to identify the source of their success – is the amount of time which they spend resting.

Adhanard Finn, who spent a year in Kenya training with some of the world’s elite athletes and who wrote the excellent book Running with the Kenyans, details how most of their day is spent resting.  This allows the body to recover from the strain that it is put under during the training phase.

In football, questions about sleep usually arise during major football tournaments like the World Cup when the debate as to whether wives (and girlfriends) should be allowed to stay with the players invariably kicks-off.  This, however, only relates indirectly to the quality and amount of sleep that players would end up getting if they were allowed to stay with their wives.

In Italy, teams going through particularly bad periods tend to go to what is called a ‘ritiro’ that usually is a period of time (typically a week) holed up  in a hotel (usually in a remote area) with the aim of getting the players to focus exclusively on football.  This is normally meant as a punishment and a warning to the players but it probably have the indirect effect of forcing them to rest more than they normally would for the simple reason that there isn’t anything else for them to do other than rest.

In 1996 Tom Reilly (the first Professor of Sports Science in the United Kingdom) of the Liverpool John Moores University wrote a paper titled “Energetics of high-intensity exercise (soccer) with particular reference to fatigue”.

It is a fascinating paper which is very much visionary.  One of the conclusions that Professor Reilly reached was that “a team with the superior tactical ability can dictate the pace of the game so that the performance capabilities of outfield players are not overtaxed.”  Essentially, this was what Rijkaard and (in particular) Guardiola’s Barcelona did – and what many others have since replicated – which is the concept of resting whilst on the ball, moving it around and seemingly toying with the opposition.  The main aim of that tactic was that of keeping the ball whilst waiting for the opposition to make a mistake but a secondary benefit was that it allowed Barcelona to dictate the rhythm of play: it ensured that their players didn’t overtax themselves physically.

There are a number of other factors that Professor Reilly highlighted in his paper such as that players tend to run less in the second half with the distance covered falling by some 5%.  Defenders and strikers tend to be the ones who suffer most from fatigue whilst midfielders, despite covering longer distances, show less signs of fatigue largely because “their superior aerobic fitness levels enable them to maintain a high exercise intensity throughout the game.

Yet, despite acknowledging that football, due to the dribbling element, has a higher energy cost than normal running, sleep was not identified by Professor Reilly as a possible strategy to combat fatigue.  Indeed, his focus was more on the kind of training players received (his recommendation was for greater aerobic training) and what kind of diet they had.

In order to find research that links sleep with performance in sport, one can look at America.  Indeed, research led by Dr Chris Winter, MD, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville (Virginia) , measured the Epworth Sleepiness Test which is a scale intended to measure daytime sleepiness of a sample of Major League Baseball Players.  According to this scale, the higher one rates the sleepier he (or she) is.*

What this research did was to test a player’s ESS and then look three years later to confirm whether he was still playing at that level.  It found is that there seems to be a linear correlation between the ESS score and that player’s permanence in the league.  For instance 72 percent of players with a baseline ESS score of 5 were still in the league at the follow-up point, compared with only 39 percent of players with an ESS score of 10 and 14 percent of players with an ESS score of 15.  Essentially, those players who get the right quality of sleep have a better chance of extending their career.

Another example is that found in the paper titled “Intermittent-sprint performance and muscle glycogen after 30 hours of sleep deprivation” (M. Skein, R. Duffield, J. Edge, MJ. Short, T. M√ľndel).  These tested ten male athletes’ performance before and after depriving them of sleep and found that this resulted in reduced sprint performance and slowed pacing. 

Interestingly, in another piece of research carried out in 2009 (Effects of sleep deprivation on cardiorespiratory functions of the runners and volleyball players during rest and exercise by O. Azboy O1 and Z Kaygisiz) found that lack of sleep has a greater impact on volleyball players than it has on runners.  This is interesting as it could be down to the fact that a volleyball player has more decisions to make than a runner (where to aim, avoiding team-mates, not going for balls that are going out and so on).

All this increases the burden on coaches to ensure that their players get enough sleep (and the correct quality of sleep).  This is becoming all the more difficult given that the last thing that most people tend to do before switching off to sleep is look at their smartphone or tablet with research showing that this reduces the quality of sleep one gets.  Cutting out this habit would be a good start.

Other strategies include going to bed earlier and trying to include naps during the day.  Realistically, however, these are not possible for many people so the best option would be for people to monitor their sleep.  There are many devices and apps that help in this respect and the basic principle is that of recording what one did before going to sleep, measuring the quality of that sleep through a device or app and then evaluating the levels of fatigue felt during the day.

Once there is enough data, it will be possible for that individual to evaluate which actions allow him to get the best quality of sleep and determine how doing so helped in his energy levels. 

Ultimately, however, all that most coaches can try to do is to educate.  Just as the importance of right nutrition has to be taught to most people – and indeed started really being given importance in top level football in England when foreign coaches started to arrive in the late nineties – then so too has the benefit of good quality sleep.  

*It was not possible for me to verify whether this research has been peer reviewed.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Working on Aberdeen's Future

For fans of a certain vintage, Aberdeen will forever be the club that in the early eighties broke the Old Firm dominance in Scottish football as well as beating Real Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final.  It was a team led by a manager who would go on to achieve legendary status elsewhere – Alex Ferguson – and made up of players who had been developed within the club.

Indeed, of the sixteen players that played in that glorious European final, twelve had come through the ranks:  Jim Leighton, Doug Rougvie, Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, John McMaster, Neale Cooper, Neil Simpson, Eric Black, Bryan Gunn, Andy Watson, Ian Angus and John Hewitt.

Following Ferguson’s departure, the club slowly went into decline but it never lost its tradition for producing good players.

This season Aberdeen are once again challenging for honours but, regardless of what happens in the next few months, the club looks to have a bright future ahead of it. Having looked at what European’s top clubs are doing to develop talent, they have re-engineered their youth set-up to ensure that the flow of talent is even more consistent in the future.

Gavin Levey is the man charged with the club’s younger age groups and he is typical of a new breed of forward looking coaches that are starting to make their mark on the Scottish game.  It will take some years for the value of his work to really start to show (although some players that he’s coached in the past are starting to make their mark on the first team) but given the plan that he has put into place – and which is detailed in this interview – it is inevitable that he will make a mark.

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?
Gavin Levey: From a very early age, growing up on the outskirts of Manchester, I had a real passion for football and other sports as well.  At the end of my Under 16s season, the coach asked me if I would help coach the same age group the following year.  It was strange as I was about to turn 17 years old, but helping coach players a year younger than me.  I was put through a couple of coaching courses, whilst volunteering, and really enjoyed the experience of gaining coaching knowledge from other coaches. 

I’d recognised and accepted that I wasn’t going to make a career out of playing the game so I explored opportunities to help progress with a career in coaching.  I always try to make the best of every opportunity and after obtaining my coaching license and a Sports Coaching Degree, I got offered my first full time coaching role at a Scottish Premier League club when I was 21.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
GL: There have been so many influential people who have really helped me over the years and I’ve been very fortunate to have been surrounded by some excellent coaches and other staff.  However, Neil Mackintosh, who is now the Performance Development Manager at the Scottish FA really helped mentor me in the early stages of my career and has continued to be there for support whenever required.  

Mentoring can be so effective and it’s something that we should value highly to get the best out of coaches at all levels.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
GL: My personal philosophy is centred round creating what I believe is best learning environment possible to help young players fulfil their potential, regardless of what level they go on to play at.  Elite football at a young age needs to be fun, but at the same time it needs to be Serious Fun! 

I want to help develop good technical players who can handle the ball under pressure and make effective decisions both when on and off the ball.  I am a firm believer in trying to replicate the game in training activities, which are high tempo so players can deal with the demands of the game at the weekend.  Players should be given the freedom to express themselves and have the ability to be unpredictable in game situations.  

I am a firm believer in a playing style of being patient in possession, to move the opposition to create opportunities to penetrate.  Although there may be times when you need to adapt, I feel teams should have a high work ethic off the ball and look to recover possession quickly, whilst denying the opposition space, time and options.  Players spend nearly all their time off the ball in matches, so as a coach it’s so important I help youngsters develop a passion for pressing, marking, recovering, whilst also creating space or angles to provide options when in possession.

It’s essential that elite players are challenged and if they need pushed on at an older age group then this needs to happen to maximise the development of the individual.  It’s vital that I help shape positive attitudes in young players, so they have the desire to practice away from training, which involves setting players individual challenges and targets.

BfF: How important - and why - is it for a coach to be at a club whose philosophy matches his own?
GL: It’s essential!  Coaches who work for a club need to share the same philosophy if we
are to maximise the player’s potential within the system.  It makes no sense what so ever to have a coach with completely different beliefs that contradict what all others are working towards.    Of course coaches will all have their own knowledge, experience and personality, but applying this to a shared vision is what’s important to achieve the goals together as one club.  

This can be one of the hardest parts of implementing a club philosophy, but it’s important to take time to listen and work with each coach involved and call upon their knowledge and experience for input where necessary.  However, you have to accept that a club’s vision may not suit every coach, but you can’t let this hold you back and risk it stifling and having a negative impact on players and other coaches.  It all comes back to creating a positive learning environment, not just for the players but also for the coaches.

BfF: Is winning important for you?
GL: Of course winning is important, but it’s certainly not the most important goal for me right now.  My role involves developing young elite players, so the individual long term development and their performance must be prioritised.  

However, it also depends on how you view winning.  We might play a game at Under 12s, where we have succeeded in achieving our learning objective for that week, but end up losing out on the score board.  This could still be viewed as a winning performance.  The opposite also happens to us, when our teams don’t play to their potential but win the game by a large score line.  It’s then important to reflect on the performance and help the players recognise what is a winning performance at a young age.  

It is however vital that as coaches we help develop a winning mentality with individuals from an early age and this comes from the training ground and preparing sessions which are competitive.

BfF: What are the most important attributes of players in your teams?
GL: This varies depending on the age and stage of a player’s development, but at Aberdeen FC we have criteria that we work towards and refer to with players and parents.  It can be described using the acronym AFCA – Aberdeen Football Club Academy and a brief version is highlighted below.  

A - Awareness – Makes good decisions when in possession and anticipates situations.
F – Football Mastery – The ability to be unpredictable and can master the ball in a variety of situations
C – Character – A strong mentality and positive attitude, whilst having desire to achieve their football potential.
A – Athleticism – The ability to move rapidly in different directions, has pace, endurance and quick reactions.

BfF: Is the physique (their strength) of players something you look at?
GL: It’s not a priority, especially at the young age groups.  Our priority is to develop the players regardless of size in the early years.  We have a number of small players who have a very quick speed of thought and can handle the demands of training and games, even a year above themselves. 

We need to be patient and allow players to mature both physically and mentally.  There are of course instances when you need to consider size, for example goalkeepers and centre backs at the highest level need to be of a certain physique so at the later stages of the Academy, we need to consider this and maybe become more position specific.

BfF: How do you identify talent?
GL: We made a really big move in terms of restructuring our scouting system at Aberdeen FC 18 months ago.  It was clear that we needed better coverage and build stronger relationships with the local clubs.  From 3 scouts in the North East of Scotland, we now
have a Scouting Coordinator along with a further 10 employed area lead scouts who have their own region to cover.  

Each area lead scout has a minimum of 5 voluntary network scouts who cover the different football activity in their area and feed in information.  This has made a real difference so far and has helped us identify some of the best potential in the area at an earlier age.  The boys’ clubs in the North East also do a great job and there are a large number of really good people coaching and running these clubs, who we are now able to work closely with.

BfF: You are the head of junior academy at Aberdeen.  What exactly does that role involve?
GL: My job primarily involves managing the 9-12 year old age groups at Aberdeen FC.  This is often referred to as the ‘speed window’ where the players will form their habits, so I gain a lot of satisfaction seeing the vast improvement and enjoyment that the youngsters gain in our environment.  

Coach Development is also a key part of my role at the club and we have a fantastic group of coaches who contribute and emerge themselves into the club’s philosophy. The environment for the coaches is also essential to get the best out of them as well.  

I have been responsible for helping design the Academy’s philosophy and coaching curriculum, which now focuses on the ages and stages of a player’s learning.  Having visited a number of the top European clubs over the years, the very best have a philosophy where everyone is working towards the same goal with a real feeling of togetherness.  

This takes time and a lot of hard work to implement monitor and evolve and it is something that I am really passionate about to help enhance what we already do. We introduced the philosophy at the Junior Academy 2 years ago and are now working upwards.  

In December 2014, Aberdeen FC were delighted to announce a major partnership with Statoil to become the exclusive Talent Partner of the Youth Academy over the next seven years.  This was a huge boost for all of us involved as Statoil clearly shared our vision in developing players through our philosophy.

I also still take an Academy team myself on a Saturday and train 3-4 times a week, which I’ve always felt is important.   I also get opportunities to work with the older squads at times
as well, which I really enjoy too.  I have been at Aberdeen for 8 years now so it’s great seeing the player’s progress through the academy.  

When away with the Under 20s in Portugal pre-season, it was brilliant to be working with the majority of players who have come right through from the Junior Academy. 

Essentially, it is my job to ensure that the players with the best potential move up to the senior age groups at the Academy but our overall aim as a club is to develop players that play in the first team.  This is of course why we have Youth Development programmes, but personally, I think we need to develop players who we can’t afford to keep in the first team and eventually go on to play in the English Premier League or in Europe.

BfF: What are the most important characteristics for a coach working with young children?
GL: Having a good understanding of children is just as important as having a good understanding of the game.  I have witnessed many coaches who have a great understanding of how to play the game really struggle breaking down a skill and trying to correct performance of youngsters.  This is why at the young age groups, we need to have the best ‘teachers’ working with the squads.  

I’ve already mentioned that it’s about shaping habits at the 9-12 age bracket, so we need coaches who have a great personality and enthusiasm to achieve this.  All our coaches at the young squads have all had some experience working with Aberdeen FC’s Community Trust, where they are challenged to work with youngsters of all ages and ability levels. This provides them with a great platform to build on. 

BfF: Similarly, what are the biggest challenges?
GL: I would say there are two main challenges, neither of which are the youngsters themselves.  Parents can be a real challenge at every Academy or recreation club.  However, let’s not forget that parents are often the biggest influence on the individuals we work with.  Therefore, we need to work with parents and by communicating effectively often takes away any potential issues.  

You need to remember that we are working with around 110 players in our academy, whereas a parent has all their focus on one (or two) individuals only.  I ensure that we have welcome meetings at the start of the year at each age group, which provide parents with information on our procedures and it gives them a chance for any questions.  

Having a further two progress meetings with them during the season and with each player having access to Sports Office also helps strengthen our relationships.

The second challenge is recruiting the right coaches with the appropriate qualifications and experience.  It’s often thought of in the UK that the best coaches work at the oldest age groups, but again it’s crucial that we recruit the best coaches who can teach and have a real passion for developing the young players both on and off the pitch.  

BfF: You mentioned that most coaches have experience in the community programmes.  How important is it for Aberdeen to have that link with the local community?
GL: We are fortunate at Aberdeen as we are a ‘one club city’, but that takes nothing away from the massive support that the community has for the club.  We’ve a proud history here and a bright future and you only have to look at last season’s success to realise what this club actually means to the people of Aberdeen.  To have over 40,000 Aberdeen fans at the
League Cup final and then the following weekend saw 80,000 people come out to see the Cup Winners parade through the city centre was unreal.  

Aberdeen FC’s Community Trust is expanding rapidly and not only looking at football and coaching initiatives.  The club does a wonderful job at reaching out to all sections of the public, from pre-school to the elderly and people who are from all walks of life.  They have a highly energised team of staff who are developing the fan base and the club’s reputation day by day.  This has a positive impact on the Youth Academy as well.  There are a number of full time community staff who are coaches of our young teams, but all their staff can take on a scouting role as well when they are out working in schools, youth groups or with the local clubs.  

BfF: Is mental strength, or strength of character, something that you look out for?  And how do you build it up?
GL: Yes would be the simple answer, but it depends how you identify this.  I’ve heard coaches say ‘He’s got a great winning mentality’ when a youngster reacts very negatively to a decision or the outcome of a game.  However, this could also be that the player is actually a bad loser or has a poor attitude.  

As coaches we need to create a training environment, where players have to compete in different situations, whilst still having fun and being determined to be the best they can be. If all you do in training is technical exercises under no pressure, it’s very difficult to expect the youngsters to be prepared to deal with the game on a Saturday.  

We also have to put incentives in place to continuously challenge the elite players.  As a club, players know they can move up age groups, but we now also have Advanced Academy sessions every 6 weeks for the top performers to be coached by a first team player or coach.  These are only for 3-5 players so that it is seen as a real achievement to be invited along.  

We have an Academy skills challenge in place for the season too, along with further awards at the end of the season.  

By using Self Evaluation diaries, this also helps us understand how the players rate themselves, which is a really useful tool to help our coaches find out about each players character. 

We also work very hard on character off pitch as well and all players arrive and leave by shaking the coach’s hand as a mark of respect for one another.  It’s the simple things like leaving dressing rooms tidy, picking up all the bottles after training and being well presented that help people remember us for being good people representing a great club.  

BfF: What kind of targets do you set yourself year-on-year?
GL: Personally, I want to achieve my UEFA Pro License within the next 5 years.  This will come through a lot of hard work and time shadowing top coaches within the game who I can
learn from.  Coaching in the senior game is so much more in depth now, with the like of the analysis, agents, sports science, strength and conditioning, and these will be things that are important to have some knowledge of in the meantime.

At this moment in time, I can’t afford to take my eye of my current role and ambition to help develop the best academy in the country, but gaining more experience in the senior professional game is something that I need to make time for.  

I wouldn’t specifically admit to having a year-on-year target, but I do ensure that I have one study visit to a European Academy each year, along with attending a number of CPD events.  It’s more a case of constantly challenging myself to learn.  

I attended and completed a Spanish introductory language course last year at college in the evenings and this is something that I’ll continue to progress with.  Having been in an audience of International and Premiership managers, so many of them have advised young coaches to go out and get a second language.  I only know the very basics just now, but it helped a bit when on my last study visit.

At Aberdeen FC, our academy targets are to have 50% of the first team squad to have come through the youth development programme, whilst also having a minimum of one player making their first team league debut each season.  Thankfully we meet these targets at present and are collectively proud of these achievements.

BfF: Finally, what do you want to achieve in the future to feel that you've fulfilled your ambitions as a coach?
GL: I’m now at a stage in my career where I’m seeing youngsters that I have worked with playing first team football.  When you work at the younger age groups, you have to wait a long time for this to happen and it’s certainly very rewarding when it comes around.  I always say to the coaches that you can’t be in this job for the credit, as you’ll never hear about the contribution from an Under 10s or Under 11s coach, but when a young footballer makes his debut, the player and the parents will know and appreciate your input and that’s what’s important. 

It’s a great feeling when it happens and it’ll hopefully continue for years to come.

I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be and appreciate the fact that for the last 12 years I have worked full time in football coaching, doing a job that I love.  

At Aberdeen FC I believe we are at the start of something very exciting for the future and it would be great to see this through.  However, time goes by so fast and it’s important to keep learning and challenging myself, whilst stepping out my comfort zone. I’ve now set myself the goal of working towards gaining more experience with full time players and I’ve just started the next phase of my personal development plan to further my coach education in the adult game.  

I feel that I’m still young enough, with time on my side to keep learning and make use of the opportunities around me to help realise my ambition of maybe one day work as a coach in the professional senior game.

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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Blueprint for Football Weekly Digest [Issue 8]

Every Saturday morning, subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra, this site's free newsletter, receive an e-mail with the best coaching related articles we've come across during the week.  These are the articles included in the e-mail sent on the 24th of January.  If you too want to receive the links straight in your in-box, all you have to do is subscribe to the newsletter.

Homegrown Saints
Southampton aren't the only Saints in British football who are focusing on the development of players.  The bulk of the St Mirren regular starting eleven is routinely made up of players that have come through their ranks.  Most have represented Scotland at youth levels and, whilst they may be struggling a bit in the Scottish Premier League this is hardly surprising given the young age of most of those players.  In the long term they will be better for the experience.

The man who has masterminded their youth system is David Longwell and in this exclusive interview with Blueprint for Football he explains both his philosophy as well as the set up that he has in place at St. Mirren.  If you read just one thing this week, the this article is probably it.

John Bostock happy rebuilding career in Belgium after time at Tottenham
Having toured half of Europe in his quest to determine which club he should sign for, Martin Odegaard has opted for Real Madrid.  It is a strange choice given their attitude to signing players rather than developing their own but it is still an understandable one.  After all, when Real Madrid want to sign you it is extremely difficult to say no.

What happens from now on is partly in Odegaard's own hands but largely depend on destiny.  After all, there have been numerous players who apparently had it all but saw their career fizzle out.  John Bostock, sadly, is on that list.   Having made his debut for Crystal Palace when he was still fifteen years old, Bostock moved to Tottenham in a highly controversial transfer in 2008.  It turned out to be a bad move for him, despite becoming their youngest ever player, and his career went into free-fall after that.

Would it have been any better if he had stayed at Palace?  Such questions are impossible to answer but, even so, it is hard to hide the suspicion that the move did him more harm than good.

A Day in the Life of Mark Warburton
Some weeks back, one of the chosen articles featured a day in the life of Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe.  That proved to be quite popular so this one, which features a day in the life of Brentford manager Mark Warburton.

Warburton’s story is particularly interesting because he was in a highly successful (and financially rewarding) job as a banker but what really motivated him was football coaching.  It is a feeling that, I feel, will be a familiar one with most readers of this digest.

Argentina’s Obsession With The Number Five Holding Midfielder 
Think of Argentinian football and thoughts immediately turn to Diego Armando Maradona and Lionel Messi; the creative players with the ability to win games on their own.  Yet Argentina has also been the home to some of the most rugged defenders - and, of late, defensive midfielders - in the history of the game.

Indeed, that of the holding midfielder is as much part of the country's footballing cultural fabric as the number 10.  This piece by Sam McGuire explains why that it and why that role remains such a pivotal one in the game even though it appeared to be on its way out up till a couple of years back.

Am I a Pushy Parent?
The latest recommendation isn’t really an article about coaching but rather the musings of a father wondering if he is pushing his children too hard and, if not, how to avoid becoming one.  It is a dilemma that, as a parent myself, I have faced and there never is a ‘complete’ answer to it.  Then again, I guess that if you are asking yourself whether you are pushing your kids too hard is in itself evidence of your awareness of the possibility which makes it less likely that you will fall into that trap.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Practice: How The Brain Learns

Anyone who is a parent, or who regularly deals with children, will talk with a fair degree of awe over their ability to learn.  In the space of a few years they manage to pick up and master complex tasks like walking, talking and reading.  Indeed, they can absorb more than one language effortlessly if they live in a multi-cultural household.  Their ability to learn is nothing short of amazing.

Similarly, anyone who has tried to learn a new language later in life, or learn to play the guitar or even ride a bike will know just how hard it is.  As we grow older, learning new things becomes increasingly more difficult.

There is a physical reason for this and it involves how the human brain evolves.

When the neuron doctrine – that is the concept that the nervous system is made up of discrete individual cells (neurons) - was firmly established by Santiago Ramon y Cajal (among others) the prevailing belief was that after birth no new neurons appear.  Subsequent studies showed that this wasn’t the case and that new neurons can be generated even as we grow older.

Equally, for a long time it was believed that the connections that were made in the brain became fixed as people grew up.  Eventually, this theory was dispelled as it was confirmed that people keep on making new connections as they learn new things.  Indeed, specific research revealed extremely interesting factors about the make-up of the brain.

For instance, one study in 1996 by Eleanor A. Maguire, Katherine Woollett, and Hugo J. Spiers (London Taxi Drivers and Bus Drivers: A Structural MRI and Neuropsychological Analysis) showed that London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus (in the temporal lobe) than London bus drivers.  The hippocampus is a small region of the brain that forms part of the limbic system and is primarily associated with memory and spatial navigation.  

Given the complexity of roads that cab drivers have to learn in order to carry out their job – as opposed to the limited routes that bus drivers experience – it makes sense that this area of their brain is more evolved.  Yet, it also follows that it grew because of their job and the need to know which roads to take to reach the different destinations they come across on a daily basis.

One of the leading experts in the field of brain plasticity is Dr. Mike Merzenich.  His book Soft Wired is a must read for anyone who longs for a deeper understanding of this concept and the kind of impact that ‘training’ the brain can have (even if not all brain training has the same impact).

Dr Merzenich confirms that exercise can help the brain but argues that most ‘typical’ training that people carry out – such as attending a gym or running – are not actually that beneficial in helping exercise the brain and re-building its control of actions.  Indeed, he argues that such training only helps embed “movement stereotypy” and as result they can have a negative impact on one’s ability to build a wider range of movement skills.

All that seems fairly obvious (at least it does, when you think about it).  To avoid falling into that particular routine, Dr Merzenich argues that the brain needs rewards and surprise in order to learn and change.

Rewards are a staple of modern motivational techniques so it is hardly surprising to see his recommendation over their use.  The argument here is that celebrating the successes (such as managing to do a different trick that requires a different skill set than you normally use or a different behaviour during the game) can help the brain change.  Knowing that can be incredibly important for coaches.

Surprise can equally act as a trigger.  Having a rich variation in training is vital in helping the brain ‘learn’.  Whereas children learn a lot through repetition, this is not particularly advantageous in adults which is why variation is necessary.  

By itself, however, variation isn’t enough.  There must also be attention by the athlete’s part on what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve.  Only in that way can the kind of flexible problem solving reaction that the modern game requires become an integral part in a player’s skill set.

One of the most well-known characteristics of Ajax’s famed academy is their exposing players to different roles, ensuring that their development is more rounded by getting them to experience games playing in positions that are alien to them.

The aim of this approach is that of ensuring that players have a deeper understanding of how the various positions on the pitch fit into the team.  It is also a way of developing players who are flexible and easily slot into any gaps that might arise during the game, thus ensuring that their fluid style of play – the famous total football – can truly function.

Although Ajax were the first to pioneer this approach, it is now adopted by a number of clubs which isn’t surprising as modern football demands players who have a wider understanding of the game.

Going by Dr Merzenich’s theory about the need for variation, however, this does not simply ensure players who are tactically flexible but the variety in preparation ensures that their brains are better prepared to adapt and learn.  In other ways, this approach could, indirectly be leading to players who have a better ability to process any football and tactical problems that come their way.

Of course, there is no empirical evidence of this (at least, as far as I’m aware).  Yet it is interesting to note how many players who have come through the Ajax (and the Dutch) system have not only gone into coaching but proven to be quite good at it.  Could it be that their approach – the kind of training that they are exposed to – helps develop a ‘football’ brain, in that their brain is better programmed to analyse football? 

This is the second installment in a two part series.  The first part can be read here.  This article was originally published in Blueprint for Football Extra, the site's (free) newsletter.