Month: February 2013

The Beginning of a Coaching Journey

I’ve played football all my life. For as long as I can remember and since I was old enough to kick a ball. I still play, albeit just in the local 11-a-side Sunday league and evening 5-a-side leagues. I’m now 28, so don’t plan on giving up playing any time soon. But for a long time, I’d always thought I would want to get involved in coaching football.

I missed the chance to get myself on a career path in this field by choosing to study a Business Studies degree at University. This only really hit me in my final year at Uni, when I started to think what kind of job I’d like to pursue and what areas of employment I’d like to work in. I sat there thinking of jobs that would fit the degree I would soon be able to put on my CV, but none of them were jobs that I thought I would enjoy. This was the summer of 2007 and I still remember thinking to myself: Why didn’t I do a football related degree. Of course, I know it probably would’ve been “sports” rather than “football”, but you get the picture. Football is the only thing I’ve ever been truly passionate about and will most likely be the only area of work where I can say I would ‘love’ to be involved in and would genuinely enjoy it. At the time I thought of football journalism and football coaching.  I like to write about football and used to make little football magazines when I was a kid. I understand the game well and used to spend hours a week reading about football on teletext, so that should have been a serious consideration when I was planning to go to Uni. I thought this would be a pretty tough thing to get into bearing in mind the number of students every year that graduate with Journalism degrees, and the relatively small number of football-specific writing jobs out there. Football coaching seemed just as exciting to me, and was something I always thought I’d not only go into, but be good at. I started looking at things like ‘Summer Soccer Camps’ in America and things like that, but it was too late for applications that year and I figured I’d struggle to get in without a coaching or teaching qualification to my name. Those ideas fell into oblivion for a few years whilst I went through several jobs, but I withheld the intention to get involved with coaching at some point.

I would’ve hoped to have done it sooner, but time and finances dictated that it wasn’t until early 2012 when I booked my place on the FA Level 1 Award in Coaching Football course. September 2012 came and I went along to the course run by the Lincolnshire FA in Grimsby. Unlike most of the candidates on the course, I wasn’t already coaching. This came as a bit of a surprise, as I assumed that most people would want to get the first qualification under their belts and then use that to get involved in coaching, like I had planned to. Obviously I hadn’t thought that a lot of junior level football coaches are parents of one of the kids in that age group, and put themselves forward as a volunteer to do it. And that’s perfectly fine. People will have different reasons for getting into coaching. I paid the course fee myself and started to get involved because I want to eventually be able to work in football full-time, and because I want to help youngsters develop their game and enjoy playing football.

I got home after attending the 2-hour introduction and was buzzing with excitement, looking forward to the following weekend of full-day sessions. What could be better than 2 full days of football? The introduction was great. To be honest, beforehand I didn’t know what to expect from whoever was going to be running the course. You often hear the phrase “dinosaurs at the FA” used by the media and some of the more fearless pundits when talking about higher management of the FA being stuck in past. But I wasn’t going with any pre-judgement already made, I’m open minded to everything and was looking forward to the course too much to really think about details like that. As it goes, the course tutor, Dave Collins, was brilliant. You can generally tell within a minute of listening to someone talk about football, if they know what they’re talking about. And you instantly got the feeling Dave was a very knowledgeable coach and as much of a modern-thinker, in terms of priorities, ideas and techniques, as you could meet.

After attending the mandatory Emergency First Aid and Safeguarding Children modules during the next week, the time came for the full weekend of coaching. We’d been given some homework to complete some of the very simple exercises in the booklet before this weekend. And that meant we only had to spend a bit of time going through some of the theory before we could be out on the training pitch looking at the practical side. That’s not to say I didn’t like the theory side. I like reading, writing and talking about the game as much as anything, but for someone with no coaching experience, I was looking forward to getting out on the Bradley Football Development Centre’s 3G pitch to go through the sessions.

The whole weekend was brilliant. There was plenty of discussion and debate about things, and Dave was more than happy to answer any questions any of us had. We went through all the sessions that are in the Level 1 booklet. It was great to have all the candidates bouncing ideas around when we spoke of possible progressions for the sessions, and I contributed to some good discussion. We were shown how the sessions work and then we put on mock sessions, using the rest of the candidates on the course as the ‘players’. First this was in pairs, then we were all assigned one of the sessions to plan and put on for the group as an individual. After the weekend I was bit gutted it was over for another week. I thought to myself how much I would love these full days of football, with lunch halfway through, to be what my working life would consist of. I could get used to this, I thought. Dave was enthusiastic about the game and helped us to enjoy the course as well as learn from it. He gave us plenty of pointers and advice to help us get through the assessment day the following Sunday. Also, he gave me good feedback, so who am I to argue with him?

The group were a really good bunch. As I said, there were plenty of good ideas thrown in when discussing possible progressions and there were some good characters in there. As I got chatting to one of the lads on the course over that weekend, Craig, he mentioned that the local grassroots club he coaches at were in need of a coach for their ‘foundation’ age group. He said the coach who started the club a few years ago currently coaches the under 9’s was also taking the ‘foundation’ (under 6’s) too. He said they’d need their own coach in time for next season since the under 9’s coach obviously wouldn’t be able to take both age groups in their matches at the same time (under 7’s is the first age group that play fixtures against other teams on a Sunday). This was music to my ears. I had already thought that, ideally, I would like to start coaching at the youngest age group and go up through the age groups with them as they get older. So this was a great opportunity, one which I was very grateful for and I told him I thought that would be perfect for me.

The following Sunday was the assessment day. We met the Level 1 tutor who was taking us for the assessment day, Matt Evans. Like Dave, Matt immediately came across as a good bloke, enthusiastic about the game and as modern and forward-thinking as you could hope for in a tutor, even though he did confess to being a Leeds fan. If all the FA tutors on the first steps of the coaching pathway around the country are of the same ilk as Matt and Dave, then plenty of coaches will be getting a good start to their coaching education. What I thought was great about the assessment day, was that it wasn’t just about us being assessed. We continued to learn. Matt complimented what Dave had shown/taught us, and added to that with points of his own as we went through the day with everyone carrying out their sessions. Every coach is different just like every tutor is different, so there’s always going to be different ways to do things and you will learn different things from different people.

We all passed and I got some good feedback again. Apparently not many people ever actually fail the Level 1 course. I can understand that because it doesn’t go very deep into the understanding of the game and is more about beginners and getting people to a point where they can put on safe sessions for kids to enjoy, whilst hitting all aspects of the FA 4-corners model. But I was still happy to have passed and looked forward to receiving my certificate in the post. Craig gave me the number of the coach who started the club. And said he’d already asked him if it would be ok for him to get me on board, and he was happy with that. So for me the course had gone perfectly. I’d taken my first step on the coaching ladder, loved every minute of the course and was now all set to take my first steps in coaching too.

At some point during the next week I phoned Jimmy, the founder of the local grassroots club Craig coaches for – Waltham Juniors Football Club. He’d already been briefed on the situation by Craig, and I told him I’d love to start coming down pretty much straight away and initially observe his sessions with the under 6’s to see how his sessions flowed and what kind of activities he would do with them. At the very first session I went along to observe, I knew this was a great club to get involved with and the principles of the club were fantastic and I completely agreed with them. Jimmy introduced me to all the kids and they all said hello. Jimmy asked the kids to tell me, as someone new to the club, what the 2 rules at the club are. One put their hand up and correctly said “We listen to the coach”. Jimmy asked again “And what’s the most important rule at this club?” Hands went up again and one of the kids answered “We all have fun”. When Jimmy asked the kids why that rule is so important, they answered “Because if we don’t have fun then it’s not worth us coming.” Brilliant, I thought. If I was starting up a new grassroots community club, those are the principles I would build it around.

For a few weeks I just observed the sessions and how Jimmy did it, helping him to set things up and just offering encouragement to the kids. After a few weeks I started to put a game on for the kids within the session. And then after a couple of weeks I was turning up to sessions with a plan for the hour of what to do, taking the session with Jimmy’s help (two coaches are needed for a group of 10-12 kids, especially at this age). Since completing the Level 1 course and making the phone call to Jimmy, I’d been researching coaching resources on the internet.

I genuinely think that the internet will be a huge factor in helping modern-day coaches develop. It’s a massive resource with the amount of great websites out there with articles, session ideas, points of view and different approaches. I started putting things together in a folder and making notes, to build my own resource I can call on or look back on in years to come. I’m still adding to this now and will continue to do so throughout my life in coaching. I’ll never stop learning in this environment. For me, without doubt the best coaching resource around, aside from the actual courses, is the Twitter account of ‘ @CoachingFamily ‘. There are a lot of great, knowledgeable people contributing that are happy to share their thoughts, ideas and sessions so that others can improve as well. And why shouldn’t they? Surely we are all in this together with the aim of being better coaches so that we can help young players to develop into the best players they can be. The Coaching Family have definitely helped me in my first 6 months of coaching.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what to do in the one-hour sessions I have with the under 6’s. The first few weeks that I was putting the sessions on, might have come across as a bit of trial and error. I only say this because a couple of the small games I tried putting on were probably just slightly too advanced or became a little disorganised. So we moved onto something else and those ideas, remaining valid ideas, are shelved for another year. At this age group, it’s all about letting the kids have fun and enjoy playing football. But I want them to learn and start to develop at the same time, as I believe you can achieve both. I usually do a fun-warm up for about 5 minutes, then put on 2 or 3 small games where everyone has a football at their feet. Ball mastery and controlling the ball should be the first thing any young footballer should do. Anything else is surely trying to run before you can walk, so to speak? Passing and shooting etc can come later, but to begin with, I want all the kids to become comfortable with the ball and be able to keep it under control.

The games I have them playing are generally tailored to that for the time being. The games are fun for them to play though, rather than the tedious drills where one kid at the front of the line goes first whilst all the rest stand in a line and wait their turn. They’ve all come to play football for an hour, so I want them to play football for an hour, not stand in lines for 20 minutes waiting for their next go. I want the kids to have as many touches of a football as possible in the time they are with me. Granted you won’t always get a chance to do this due to resources/numbers but for the moment, that’s my focus.

I don’t like to stand there in front of the kids and lecture or instruct them. As well as ball control, the other emphasis for me is on developing intelligent, creative players with good decision-making ability. That might sound a bit much at this young age, but as with any other form of education, I believe you need to make sure the kids understand why you’re teaching them something and its relevance, to stand a better chance of them learning from it. So as we’re about to play a small game, I’ll ask the players when they might do something, why they might do something, how they might do something or where they might do something. They come up with their own answers. They learn and understand the process of how to do something, rather than memorising the correct answer. I’ve recently read an analogy between this aspect of coaching and teaching in a maths lesson in school. If you teach a kid that 3×3 is 9, that’s OK for the short term, but it won’t help them in the long run when one day they’re asked to work out what 3×250 is. If you teach the kid the process of how you work it out, rather than just the answer, then they can use that knowledge to solve other, much bigger problems. The same applies to the football pitch. If you teach a kid to do something with the ball at a particular time, he might not understand why he’s doing it. Teach a kid to understand the problem, however basic that is, and to decide how to solve the problem themselves, and the long term results will be much more evidence further down the line.

I always end the session with 2 small sided games with small goals, rather than a big pitch with everyone divided into two teams. Two small games with 2/3/4 on each side means each youngster will get much more touches of the ball. In turn, they’ll enjoy it more, which at the end of the day is the most important thing and the reason us coaches are there, to make sure the kids are safe and enjoy themselves.

I’ve got to a point now where I plan each session on a pad and then copy it into a notebook I’m keeping plans and notes in so that I can plan what to do in the future and which direction to go in. Most of the sessions go very well and as planned, with the kids, who are great, listening and enjoying themselves. At the beginning, in hindsight, I was trying to incorporate too many games into sessions and I often didn’t have time to fit one of them in. I think this was only really out of keenness and the fact that I love coming up with ideas, and of course getting to know how much time you need on each game and how quick the hour seems to go by.  Now the time I set aside for things is just about accurate, although I remain flexible, as you have to do in case I don’t have enough footballs one week or something’s not working after a couple of minutes of trying.

I recently went to watch a couple of under 7’s matches in the local area, to get an idea of what a game of under 7’s football looks like. It’s a long time since I was 7 years old myself and played in a match at that level, so I wanted to see if I could pick anything up that I could bear in mind when my under 6’s become under 7’s in August and start to play matches. It will be slightly different though. Currently, under 7’s play 7-a-side, but as part of the FA’s overdue overhaul of youth football, next season will see 5-a-side mini-soccer introduced at under 7’s and under 8’s level. It was a bit of a mixture.

On one hand, there was a good-natured, friendly atmosphere between the parents, the coaches and both of the teams of players. But on one of the pitches in particular, the kids must have barely been able to hear themselves think due to the shouting from the sidelines telling them what to do. Going back to my plan to instil decision-making qualities into the youngsters, I will want players to make their own decisions, even if it means sometimes making the wrong decision. That way they will learn for themselves what is the best course of action in certain situations, and they will learn to, and hopefully have confidence to, try different things and be creative. In my eyes, there’s no point instructing a player what to do all the time for years, only for him to go for a trial at a professional football club one day and have no idea what he should do with the ball when he gets it because he hasn’t got people shouting at him telling him what to do. Again, long term development over short term results is key. Something I’ve read a few times in different places on the internet, is the comparison between parents/coaches shouting at kids what to do when they’ve got the ball (whether it’s the right advice or not) and someone stood next to an adult in his place of work shouting and screaming at him telling him what to do. I know I, as an adult, wouldn’t want that, so I’ll try my best to make sure the kids don’t have it and can make up their own minds.

The other two things I picked up on were praising of big, powerful kicks up the pitch and the goalkeepers trying to kick the ball as hard and as far as they could. These are things I will be looking to do differently. I’ll never praise anyone who just kicks the ball up the pitch. I’d rather kids run the risk of losing the ball by getting it under control and trying to pass or dribble their way up the pitch than do that.

Just to finish on my own personal development, I’ll say that I absolutely love coaching the kids and everything that comes with it. I wish I had got involved in coaching long before I have and would recommend it to anyone. The first 6 months from my Level 1 course to now has flown by and I look forward to seeing the kids develop and continuing to enjoy playing the game. I’ve become a member of the FA Licenced Coaches Club and will be attending as many of the Coaches CPD (Continuing Professional Development) events as I can, not just the number required to renew licence membership. I’ve twice booked onto one with the Lincolnshire FA but due to weather it’s been cancelled twice, so I will soon be attending the rescheduled event for that. I put my name into a competition and have been selected to attend a free FA Youth Module 1 course, sponsored by McDonalds. This is massive for me as this is the next course I wanted to undertake, with the cost of the course being the only barrier. This course will be later in the year so I am already looking forward to that. I’m also putting my name in the hat with an application to win a sponsored place on the Level 2 Award in Coaching Football in the next few weeks so if I am successful there, that will be a great help as the cost of these courses will stand in the way of a lot of capable coaches who want to develop. Other things I’m planning this year include making contact with the School of Excellence set-up at Grimsby Town Football Club and asking if I could observe a few sessions. I also want to visit St. George’s Park in Burton, preferably on a day when I can attend a CPD event and a tour of SGP on the same day, to make to drive down there much more worthwhile.

I know I’m a new coach making my first steps into coaching, but I feel like it’s going well, and I’d be happy to share ideas, offer advice or have discussions with anyone following the same path I’ve begun or otherwise.

Wow. This is 3900 words on the word count now for this piece. All in one go. I can guarantee if I’d have done a sports degree at Uni I would’ve found essay writing a hell of a lot easier than droning on about business.

Thanks for reading.

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Focus on the Race to the Football League

As the Blue Square Bet Premier season edges towards its decisive last couple of months, we review the challengers for that all-important top-spot to guarantee promotion to the football league.

BBC Sport table

Table graphic courtesy of BBC Sport

Not since 2009, when Burton Albion were crowned champions by a 2-point margin, has a title race in England’s top non-league division been so open. That year, just 7 points separated he top 5 at the end of the season. As things currently stand, 8 points separate the top 6. And all of those 6 will believe that they can be the side to hit form at the right time and take the championship at the end of April.

The current top 4 have been in the mix since the early weeks of the season. Fourth-placed Kidderminster and sixth-placed Mansfield came into form a little later, but have now given themselves a great chance to challenge for automatic promotion.

Current leaders Grimsby Town haven’t lost since a 3-2 defeat away to Hyde on November 6th. They boast the meanest defence in the Conference with just 21 goals conceded and away record of only one loss on the road all season. However, part of the Mariners’ plan going forward will be to turn some of their away draws into wins, having won just 5 of their 13 away games so far. What could work in Grimsby’s favour is their record against the other sides around the top. They’ve beaten Wrexham (1-0), Forest Green (1-0), Luton (4-1) and Mansfield (4-1) at Blundell Park. Whilst goalless away draws at Newport, Kidderminster and Wrexham have added weight to the view that Grimsby have been the most difficult side to beat so far. With Andy Cook turning into one of the divisions most effective strikers, and the likes of Ross Hannah and Richard Brodie chipping in with important goals, Grimsby have as good a chance as anyone to seal a return to the Football League at the third attempt. They may even be able to call upon striker Liam Hearn in the final weeks of the season. He recently joined the squad for light training after missing the entire season so far through an injury sustained in pre-season.

Wrexham will be hoping to avoid ending up in the play-offs this time around after the only challengers to Fleetwood in last season’s title race. Andy Morrell’s men are a good quality footballing side, and perhaps have the smallest squad out of the challenging pack. This hasn’t halted their progress so far this season. They have a strong, settled side, and haven’t lost since the away defeat to Grimsby in front of the Premier Sport cameras on December 21st. In Dean Keates they boast one of the most cultured midfielder’s in the division, and Danny Wright is a handful for any team whether he plays through the middle or on the right side of a front three. The Reds have already played rivals Newport twice, beating them 2-0 at the Racecourse, and playing out an entertaining 1-1 draw at Rodney Parade. They’ve also taken 4 points off Forest Green, again winning at home (2-1) and drawing away (0-0). Wrexham have been consistent throughout this season, their record of 5 defeats is only bettered by Grimsby (4) and there is no doubt they have the quality to challenge for the title.

Forest Green Rovers currently find themselves in 3rd place, although the teams below them have games in hand which could force them out of the play-off places if results don’t go their way. After new financial backing arrived last year, many were tipping Rovers to go all the way this season. Their transfer activity in the summer also suggested they would be challengers, as they signed quality players who already had experience in this division. They’ve been in the top 5 most of the season, but have struggled against the other top sides. They beat Kidderminster (1-0) during Harriers’ winless start to the season, but have since won only once against any of their rivals. That said, it was a fantastic 5-0 away win at Newport County on New Year’s Day. But they have lost at Grimsby, Wrexham, Mansfield and at home to Newport. They’ve got a strong, physical side and great options in attack. James Norwood can’t stop scoring this season, Jan Klukowski currently has 12 from central midfield, and in the pacey Matty Taylor they have one of the better strikers in the division. To stay in contention and make up the ground on the leaders, Rovers will have to become harder to beat on the road, and hope they can take points off the teams around them in the coming weeks.

Newport County, who were the early pace-setters, are the divisions top scorers, netting 64 goals in their first 30 games. Many Blue Square Premier fans doubted whether Justin Edinburgh’s side would maintain their early-season form, but they’ve managed to stay in contention despite losing 5 of their last 15 league games. 19-goal striker Aaron O’Connor is arguably the best striker in non-league at the moment, with the former Luton and Mansfield man relishing being played through the middle in an attack-minded side. Newport will be hoping to have him back from injury soon, to get their promotion challenge back on track after those recent defeats and several postponements halting their momentum. The Exiles have had a mixed bag of results against other teams around the top, drawing at home to both Grimsby and Wrexham, beating Mansfield twice, taking 3 points from 6 against Forest Green and losing away to Wrexham and Kidderminster. Justin Edinburgh will be hoping to tighten his side up defensively, as none of the top 8 sides have conceded as many as Newport. Being harder to beat will help them challenge for the title if they can keep the likes of O’Connor, Jolley, Minshull and Sandell fit.

Kidderminster Harriers didn’t win any of their first 10 games, but have only lost 3 of their 21 games since they got their first win against Cambridge in late September. Steve Burr’s side stormed into the top half of the table and are now real challengers. Whether they can maintain such a good run of form remains to be seen, but they’ve even coped well with the loss of striker Jamille Matt in the transfer window to Fleetwood. Only Grimsby have a better defensive record than Harriers. They have already beaten Wrexham (2-0) and Newport (3-2) at the Aggborough Stadium and held Grimsby to a 0-0 draw. They will need to keep taking points off the teams above them but the main challenge for Kidderminster will be maintaining their excellent form all the way through to the end of the season.

Mansfield Town were also slow starters but their run in the FA Cup, which saw them run Liverpool close in the 3rd Round, appeared to give them momentum and they currently sit just outside the play-off places with games in hand. Since that cup defeat to Liverpool, the Stags have won 5 of their 7 games, losing the other 2 against rivals Newport and Kidderminster. Paul Cox has put together a hard-working side, spearheaded by 14-goal striker Matt Green. But they have a lot to do after defeats this season at the hands of Grimsby, Newport and Kidderminster. They have beaten Kidderminster and Forest Green. Pressure will be on Mansfield to win their games in hand, and they, like Newport, will need to tighten up defensively if they are serious about challenging for the title.

Head-to-head guide for games between the top 6:

Courtesy of statto.com

Graphics courtesy of statto.com

Verdict

Based on how the season has panned out so far, Grimsby, Wrexham and Newport seem to be the serious contenders for the title that are likely to last the distance. These 3 sides have all been top of the table at some point in the last few months, and may trade positions again between now and the final league games on April 20th. Expect Grimsby and Wrexham to battle it out for top-spot, with superior strength throughout their eleven, and game-changing options from the bench, edging them slightly ahead of Newport. If Newport do keep up their challenge with the top 2, then there is potentially a final-day title-decider come April 20th when they travel to Grimsby. Grimsby and Wrexham may also meet in the final of the FA Trophy at Wembley in March, after the two title challengers built up good 1st leg leads in their respective semi-finals, but this added fixture shouldn’t prove too much of a distraction at this stage.

Forest Green should be strong enough to comfortably make the play-offs, but their form against the rest of the top 6 will ultimately cost them. Mansfield and Kidderminster have left themselves a lot of work to do in the final 9 weeks of the season. Kidderminster are the more likely of the two, with a decent record against the rest of the top 6. But both should end up battling with Macclesfield and Luton for the last play-off spots.