Self Awareness pt. 2: The Academy Coach

the advice I would give to ‘Me’ – the academy coach

I feel it is now time to chat with ‘Me’ the Academy Coach. He has been working within the academy program for 4 years at the South East London Club. After a fantastic experience with a great education it is time to start a new Chapter on the other side of town with a South West London Club. Here are six pieces of advice I would give him:

1.Embrace the education you have had

I recall when you had your 1st academy coaching session. You were organizing and setting up the session before the players arrived when you were approached by one of the Senior Academy Managers. He came up and something to you that will never forget ‘If the Academy Director sees you do a drill, he will sack you’. That shaped you into the coach you are at this moment in time. It gave you a direction, a belief and a way to work. The experience you have received within this particular environment has been invaluable because it has challenged you, taken you out of your comfort zone and helped developed your ability to adapt. Never forget this and use this to your advantage within your next opportunity.

2.Understand the brain

My advice is if you are going to study and learn anything, make sure it is on the brain. Have an understanding of how it works, develops, grows, reacts and is influenced by what you as a coach do. This will provide you with a good foundation, reasoning and will support to the type of sessions you design, and how you deliver them.

3.Be patient

Don’t worry if you don’t see immediate success. It will take time; players will develop and learn at different rates. Continue to engage and challenge the players you work with. It is a long journey for them with many up’s and downs which will impact their development. But if the players believe in what you believe, then they will have success in time.

Creativity is intelligence having fun

4.Continue to be Creative and Don’t Stand Still

Since you started coaching you have always you been observant and curious, asking why, how and what? Looking at how to develop sessions and ideas you have seen. You have also looked at other environments to engage your learning and development. Transferred across new ideas into football, which at times have been questioned, but have eventually been embraced. This kind of approach and thinking has developed your creative side and this is reflected in how you coach, challenging the players you work with. Take this further; keep moving forward as there is a whole world out there to inspire you and learn from. The only thing that is constant is ‘Change’, keeping developing and being creative.

5.Become an expert in your field

Everyone wants to reach the top but where is the top? Is it at the 1st team level or is it at the top of your specialised field? My advice is to learn, research and really understand about the specific age group you work with and become an expert in that field. Many coaches will look up, as there is more to be gained financially as they move up the ladder, but the game is crying out for coaches to become specialists/experts in these particular areas.

6.Educate the parents

Take the time to educate the parents and help them understand what they are seeing. Often with observation people will make assumptions, which will then create their opinions without actually understanding what they are seeing and why the coach is working the way they do. Invite the parents to be a part of their child’s development by allowing them to understand. After all, the player might only be working with you 7-10 hrs per week. Therefore, it is important they are encouraged to practice in the right way when away from you and also the right messages are being reinforced by the people that support them.

Who is Coaching the Coach?

I must confess that most of my blogs have been and will continue to be focused around the development of the player. I make strong reference to how important it is to ensure we create a player-centered environment and for me that is essential. However, as we focus on the development of the player, the question I pose is who is helping to develop the coach? Who coaches the coach? After all, if we want to provide the best learning environment then surely we have to ensure the coach is doing his job.

I am sure many people will say that there are coaching courses available, which provide opportunities for CPD and sure enough these opportunities further our understanding and help us pass an exam, giving us the required qualifications. These courses will help us learn from others experiences and present new ideas that we can bring into our own coaching environment, but these opportunities are sporadic; once every few years or once a year if workshops and in-service training are available. These are courses and training days to further our knowledge, but they are not providing us the consistent feedback, the coaching that we require to coach our coaches. Players are coached every time they take part in a session, whether it is the environment the coach creates or the feedback coaching points delivered. So I raise the question again, who is coaching the coach?

A good friend of mine, who I have recently been working with, brought the idea of coaching coaches to my attention and gave me a different prospective in the way in which we should work together as coaches. He is a coach who works with coaches, and coaches the coaches to coach each other. A mouthful, but hopefully you understand where I am coming from. He encourages, for example, us as coaches working together to build a positive working relationship and to consider how we are perceived, how to feedback to one another, reflect together and help each other to improve as coaches, educators and people. This in turn will ensure that we provide the service / program that our players require. In order to achieve this we need to establish a clear philosophy that we as coaches all believe in and are working towards. This requires us to not only work with one another on the planning and delivery, but during the reflection and the review stages.

Without going into too much detail and providing just enough to provoke and encourage food for thought, and of course generate more business for my friend I want to draw reference on my own personal experience. This process has encouraged me to look at things from a different perspective, ask questions that I may not have asked before. It has definitely improved the working relationship I have with my peers. Developing the confidence to feedback and accept feedback because as a coach I want to continue moving forward, developing and becoming the best coach / player developer that I can. Which in turn, will enable me to provide the optimal learning environment and development program for the players. Through this process Ihave been developing and will continue to improve upon a new set of skills. Especially, working with others, building confidence to accept and provide feedback. Ultimately, we are all working towards the same goal and therefore, it is paramount that we build that relationships that enable us to create environments that develop successful coaches thus develop successful players.

I conclude with this, focus on providing a player-centered environment and program, but take time to develop coach-centered program to help progress the coaches. Try to surround yourself with people who have a similar philosophy, ideas and goals. From this, relationships can develop, and coaches can work with coaches. Remember; help develop the coach to help develop the player.

 “The more I learn about myself, the more I understand you.” Kevin Poriot

Give The Players A Chance To Understand

board2As a player, I was fortunate enough to be coached by someone who would later become a mentor and a close friend. His name is Mike Critchell, a coach who was and is still ahead of his time in his thinking, knowledge and the education of players. I have now known Mike for the last 19yrs, and he has been a massive influence on my education in the world of coaching and, specifically in the field of player development. He would provide me with both the theoretical and practical knowledge behind his thinking. He would and to this day continues to challenge me with ideas and questions. Guiding me in the right direction to satisfy my curiosity in developing my understanding. To this day we are very good friends and between us we continue to evolve the field of player development through the sharing and developing of new ideas that are currently being implemented within a premiership club.  However, I wouldn’t be the coach I am now, if Mike didn’t choose to educate me as a player into the why’s and how’s of his coaching methods and how that was going to impact me as a player.

My journey with Mike began when at the age of 18yrs old I was playing for a Conference League Club and he was leading all the coaching and fitness. I was a very driven person with my football and enjoyed training, but he took it to a different level to what I had been used to, and that includes having spent time playing for a professional school of excellence club. His methods were so advanced and challenged the players not just physically, but skill and cognitively. Within his philosophy he would come up with a variety of sessions, which would even capture the imagination of senior ex-professional players.

What caught my attention about Mike as a coach, and what separated him from my previous coaches was his role as an educator. He did not just turn up for sessions, deliver and then allow us to go home and forget the session. He was there to provide an education for us, an experience, which developed us not only as a players, but players who were becoming more aware of what we had to do to improve, but more importantly why we had to do it. For most players it went through one ear and out the other, but for me, I would embrace the opportunity to learn me and further my development. Before each session would explain the content and then during rest periods would explain the why’s and even encouraged feedback from players, which was unheard of.  In summary he would explain, why am I delivering this to you and why is it important for you’re development and how will this develop you as a player? A stern character, but one with passion, ambition and a pioneering coach, creating a player centered environment.

With this, the first thing I would do after training would be to write down the session and provide the theory to explain the reasoning behind it. This would take place after every session, then once I became more confident I would stay behind after training to ask further question, then I would begin to arrive early to find out what was in store for the next session and also tap into his knowledge in order to improve mine. This eventually led me to call Mike if I was not entirely sure on parts of the sessions and ask further questions. Mike would start to provide me with additional references in order to further my understanding. This then led me to imparting his knowledge with the youth players that I was coaching on Saturday morning. I too would then explain the reasons behind parts of the session, even with the players at U9’s I was working with and I would even get parents asking me questions, which was a good start.

The next stage, which I consider to be the most important, was my ability to then look at Mike’s sessions and start to create my own, developing and using his original work. 19yrs later I am managing to repay the knowledge and ideas, but that early stage of my coaching education came from being educated as a player in the how’s and why’s.  It has taken me to where I am within the various environments and with the range of players I have worked from (grass roots, within education, academy players all the way through to premier league / international players).

The education of players within the session should be at the forefront of our work, allow them to understand the why’s and how’s. Look to explain more than just the session and making the relevant coaching points. Look to educate the players in the understanding and the reasoning. From my experiences if you can educate, justify, explain, however you wish to phrase it, you will get the players to buy in, which inevitably will lead to good application from players within the session. Humans are naturally curious beings and wanted to be stimulated and learn. If given the chance players will ask questions, in order to aid their own development and we need to encourage this. Too many coaches fear being questioned and believe it is a question of their ability, knowledge as a coach, but most of the time it will be the player wanting to know and understand more. This will eventually encourage players to become independent and take responsibility for their own development. Give players the chance to understand.

I know there are a number of other players at all levels and coaches who have come from a similar fraternity who have had the fortune to learn from Mike. For my own experience I am forever grateful to Mike for providing me with the knowledge and insight into his coaching ideas cause it has taken me to where I am now. I hope I can continue to share the message and evolve his philosophy even further. To a good friend, thanks Mike for everything so far but I am sure there are more to come.

Mike Critchell has written a number of papers, delivered a number of in-service sessions, but I draw your attention to the books that he has written, which are a must read. Please see below for further information.

  • Soccer: Play to Learn and Learn to Play
  • Game Vision in Soccer
  • Warm Up for Soccer: A Dynamic Approach

Playing With Friends

I recently came across an article that drew reference to a study that had been carried out on the amount of time that children spend playing outside compared to their parents and previous generations. The research found that the parents, as children during the 1970’s and 1980’s were spending no fewer than two hours outside per weekday and no less than nine hours at the weekends regardless of the weather. Whereas today, children are spending on average an hour a day on a weekday and fewer than five hours a day at weekends.

Although this is relevant to children of all ages, children aged between 5 – 12 years are going through some of their most critical stages of development, which are influenced by the environments and activities they are exposed to. Therefore, how are allowing children to spend these critical periods of development in front of a screen as oppose to playing outside where they will be developing their physical, cognitive and social skills. Which will enable to not only become better athletes, but will enable them to carry out every day activities more effectively. When children play they learn to interact, observe movements, be creative, mimic actions, develop motor patterns and improve visual senses to mention just a few, and this is all part of their development. If, however, they spend most of their time sitting down, in front of a 2 dimensional screen then they won’t get the chance to develop the above and therefore are we really providing them with the start they require?

As children develop it is important that they learn to interact and play with friends, within various environments. I want to put forward a case that I believe has helped players develop from the previous generations, the generations where children spent a lot more time outside playing with friends, which gave them the opportunity to develop the required skills to play such sports as football. When children play football or any sport with their friends, they are free to try and express themselves. They are given the platform to implement new skills, work things out, be independent without a coach instructing and placing fear in a player. This environment provides them with the opportunity to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes and willing to fall down, pick themselves up and try again. They will play with friends of all ages, sizes and numbers on a variety of different sized pitches on various surfaces using a range of size balls. All in which will provide them the experiences they require to improve their overall development as a player. They will learn from others, inadvertently coach each others by observing, mimicking, encourage each other to try a new skill. They will have the chance to pretend for that moment to be their favourite athlete, carry themselves in the way that their idol plays, try skills without worrying about being shouted at, celebrate the way their hero does when they score a goal. Within all of this and for me, which is the most important thing, they will have fun, enjoy, practice more, work harder and learn. Therefore, playing with friends is arguable one of the most important, yet withdrawn activities that a successful player should have as part of their program.

From my own childhood I can recall a typical day when at school: I would be getting into school early, first thing in the morning meeting friends to play football, which had been pre-arranged the day before. We would meet in the playground, it would often be with a tennis ball with ‘jumpers for goal posts’ (bags in our case), and this would range anything from 1 v 1 to 5 v 5 or even a 1 v 2 depending on numbers. This would carry on up until the bell rang for the start of school, therefore it was important to get in real early so the game would be longer. Summer months were great because of the light mornings and generally good weather. It was made a little more difficult during the winter with dark, rainy, cold days, but that never stopped us. In those days we had a morning break between classes that lasted 20mins, there was no surprise that this involved football, it would usually be the game continuing from before school and that would carry on throughout the week. Then at lunchtime it was the big game, the game we had planned for, and from what I recall at Junior school (7-11yrs) we were playing international games, Northern Ireland v France. We had even made up programs for the fixture, time of kick off, current league standing and the name of each player we individually would be taking the role of. It would often only involve a small number of players, maybe a 3 v 2 or 3 v 3. I always preferred being on the 2 against 3 because of the challenge. I never enjoyed dominating games, I liked the drama and challenge of being an underdog and having to work hard to win, it felt more of an achievement. There was quite the build up to the game, especially in the mornings, planning during class, discussions about where the game would take place and about getting out as soon as the bell went, often avoiding lunch to ensure we had more time to play. In the afternoon we would have PE, which involved a range of sporting activities that included cricket, rounder’ and athletics. I used to enjoy playing any sports, as long as I was outside. Then in the afternoon we had another 15min break, that would normally involve typical playground games and yes, the lads played hopscotch as well. After school we often played in the playground waiting for parents, or in the park, as parents would walk groups of children home. which we would negotiate with them by suggesting they could talk and have a good catch up. Although, I know my mother did not need an invitation as she always enjoyed chatting with her friends. ‘Another 5 minutes’, which always led to an hour, which was great because it meant I could with my friends. On some days we had either school football training or a game. Other days we would schedule to go round to a friends house, for tea, which usually involved playing football or others sports in the garden.

Therefore I ask this question, are we giving our children the chance, the best possible opportunities to become not only a creative footballer and athlete, but also a creative person? By providing them with opportunities to ‘play’ and to be free in an environment, which is led by them and not by coaches. The environment, that surrounds us by positive peers that can influence, help educate and shape the person we become. If you have ever read the book ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed he draws reference to the environment and situations that led him to the career he had in table tennis. We need to do more as parents, educators and coaches to provide our children to best chances to develop some of the required skills that help them perform in the sporting arena and perform in life.

‘I am always ready to learn but I don’t always like being taught’ Winston Churchill