Despite their relegation to the Conference at the end of last season, Bristol Rovers have maintained a Category 3 academy in order to ensure that they can offer their youths the best possible coaching. Indeed, theirs is an impressive set up and, in order to determine more what that involves, Jonathan Henderson – the academy’s Head of Coaching as well as Academy Manager – describes their work.
Blueprint for Football: How many coaches are there in the academy and how do you recruit them?
Jonathan Henderson: We currently have 4 full time coaches and 17 part time coaches, as well as a number of athletic development coaches, sport science and medical support staff, performance analysts and psychology staff. Some are full time, some part time, some voluntary or on placements from universities. All work closely together to support the development of the players.
We try to retain as many of the staff as we can year on year to allow us to develop them but inevitably some will move on; some unable to commit due to work or family circumstances and others who move on to other clubs or full time roles elsewhere.
We advertise through the usual channels and sometimes we also ask potential candidates we are aware of from other places or clubs to apply. From this we shortlist in the usual way based on CV, experience, and background.
After that we go through a slightly different recruitment process than normal. The first thing we do is have the potential candidates come to training to observe what we do so we can get a feel for their character. This allows us to see if they as a person are a good fit for what we believe in. We have informal conversations about their approach, personal philosophy, get to know what their motivation for the role is.
We also ask them questions about what we do to judge their level of critical thinking as we have a strong belief in a shared community of practice among the staff so they would need to be able to contribute to that.
We want a learning environment; a growth mindset. That extends to the staff as well as the players. Only once we have been through that process do we allow them to come back in for a second interview to actually demonstrate their delivery to us with a group of players.
When they deliver we will ask the players their opinions as it is them that the coach will be working for. What did they like, what didn’t they like, how did the session feel, were they challenged for example. We’ll then take this into consideration along with the actual content and suitability of the candidate from our coaching perspective before making a final decision.
BfF: Similarly, how do you ensure that all coaches follow the same plan?
JH: We have the Academy Performance Plan which guides everything from the playing style and coaching syllabus to the coaching style and session structures. But we also trust the staff to have some room for manoeuvre within this framework if necessary based on knowing the need of the players and their stage of development as opposed to just following what is written on paper.
We also encourage the coaches to engage regularly with each other to support and share ideas, reflect on their sessions, challenges and constraints. Coaches are provided with a technical library developed by the other full time coaches and myself which provide examples of ‘best practice’ for each session in the syllabus which they are able to use or adapt if they deem necessary which can reduce the planning time needed for the coaches allowing them to concentrate on the challenges and conditions to suit their players.
We also provide regular coach mentoring and support through both myself and our FAYCE. This can be informal observation and conversation during sessions, or more formal filmed sessions where the coaches are miked up and feedback given through one to one meetings and clips of their delivery. This can take place not only on training nights but also matchdays as well.
We also have regular staff CPD events and 6 weekly meetings which will provide opportunity to discuss, reflect and improve on things as a group. This also allows the coaches to feedback to us in terms of their though on our processes and ensures we have a mechanism for constantly looking to evolve and improve on what we do.
For us as a collective to ask how can we do things better? If we expect the players to be the best they can be we owe it to them to be the best that we can be.
BfF: What is done at a club level to ensure that players get an opportunity at first team level?
JH: Basically it is down to ensuring there is a constant means of communication between the first team staff and academy staff to keep them informed of the progress of any scholars we feel have the potential to step up.
Although there is no formal Under 21 set-up at Category 3 clubs, the club do arrange a number of development games which will involve fringe first team players but will also usually have a good number of scholars involved so this gives the first team staff the opportunity to work with the players regularly throughout the season.
Also, scholars are often given the opportunity to train with the first team should they perform well. Ultimately if a player shows a good level of development and potential, they will be given the opportunity in the first team and we try to ensure the first team staff are kept informed of how the players are progressing.
This is the first in a series of articles looking at the various aspect of the Bristol Rovers academy. The next installment will feature a detailed interview with Jonathan Henderson about the club’s philosophy, beliefs and ideas.
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