Developing Creative Talent vs being a PlayStation Controller

As opposed to the recent write-ups on the Waltham Lions matches, this is more of a collection of my thoughts after today’s game – on what we can learn, how too many teams are restricting their players’ learning, and what I’m doing to make sure my players will be a step ahead when it comes to creativity in years to come.

The Lions didn’t score a goal today, for only the second time in this, their first season playing football matches. We conceded a few goals to long range shots and a couple from mazy runs from a particularly skilful player from Clee Community.

The long rampaging runs we saw last week from Lucas Jex and Ben Crolla were today stopped by a group of good, strong tacklers in the opposition we faced. Rhys Racey, also one who often uses great acceleration to get himself clear of defenders, was also often crowded out by defenders who timed their tackles well.

Coming off the pitch at the end, I was clear in my mind that there was a clear learning point to take from this game. But before I went ahead and just told the boys what I thought, I put it to them first to tell me what they thought. I asked them – what was the main thing from the game that we could’ve done better to help ourselves do better? Straight away, Ethan Lowe and Rhys Racey answered together “passing”. Nail on the head boys, excellent.

Now, I am not a coach who will drill into the players that they need to pass the ball all the time. As you might have read in my coaching philosophy (click here to read) I don’t believe great passing teams are made by the players being drilled to get the ball and then just pass it. This would set a ‘hot-potato’ habit in which the players would become used to having to get rid of the ball as soon as they get it. In turn, the players would then become fearful of holding onto the ball themselves and have no idea how to keep the ball themselves when they’re closed down by the opposition and an obvious pass isn’t available. This has been the problem with most English players in the last couple of decades, even the best. Opposition know they can close them down and they will either boot it aimlessly long up-field, or have to turn around and pass back to the goalkeeper who will then boot it long.

The other important point to make is that this is an Under 7’s team. These boys are at an age where it is natural to be selfish on the pitch. They’re not really expected to see the game as the ‘team-game’ that it is, and that adults may want them to see it as straight away. It’s important to remember that, and keep it in mind when considering our expectations of them.

7 year olds will play like 7 year olds, not 20 year olds.

Back to the point. Two of the players had recognised that we could have done more passing, and that would’ve helped us. I stopped the conversation there as more suggestions started to come in. I told them I was glad that they had come to that opinion themselves. I said that what I thought the game should’ve taught us, was that we can’t always do it on our own. By that I meant that where in other games, some players had been able to run half the length of the pitch and score at the end of it, today we just couldn’t do that. It showed that sometimes, it is better to pass the ball to a team-mate.

I won’t be telling anyone not to run with the ball as much, or that we should try and pass it all the time. I’d still be happy for boys at this age to try and dribble as much as they can. But hopefully some of the boys, after today, will think to look up and decide if it is better to pass or continue to dribble themselves. That decision will always be their own in a team I am coaching. My aim is to develop intelligent, creative players with good decision-making. So I don’t give any direct instructions to the players in the game on what to do. I’ll usually try to tell them to take their time or relax on the ball, but no-one should be shouting “pass to x”, “take him on”, “run with it”, or “shoot”. These are all decisions the player should be making.

Dennis Bergkamp: “Behind every action there must be a thought

We’re not on the sidelines with PlayStation controllers and we’re not the ones controlling the players on the pitch. We’ve played against a lot of teams this season were the opposition coaches and/or parents are “PlayStation-ing” their kids through the game. This is surely the equivalent of doing their school homework for them. It will get results in the short term, but what will they learn from it and what good will it do them in the long run. The answer is they will learn nothing from it, other than maybe to wait for instruction from coach/parent on what to do when the ball comes to them. A player that’s been drilled and shouted at to do something in a certain situation, will resort to repeating that action when in a similar situation, almost robotically. Our players, free to make their own decisions, will allow their creative mind to let them solve whatever problem they have on the pitch and the opposition won’t be able to predict what they’re going to do so easily.

I’m proud that as far as I can hear, we don’t have vocal parents shouting instructions as they commentate. And I hope it stays that way even on days like today when the team might not be having as successful a day as they might have wished. Because in football, just as in life, people learn from mistakes. The more mistakes we make at this young age, the more we will learn. Even without my input as a Coach, the boys would still learn. I’m just there to try and guide it in the right way and pose questions/challenges that will get them thinking. I may still be relatively new to coaching, but I believe in the philosophy that underpins how I coach, and I’m confident that in years to come these boys will be able to play great football without me having to say a word during the game.

The Lions still did great today and enjoyed their game, so I’m a happy coach. And a game that hasn’t gone particularly as we would like can provide us with several learning points, which is a positive for me. I’ll finish with a question that you probably know the answer to:

Do you think Maradona, Messi, Ronaldinho, Zidane, Iniesta and Ronaldo had people telling them what to do when they had the ball as kids?

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