How Times Have Changed

By Stephen Roberts

I remember my school days with real clarity, not the lessons or the teachers but the almost daily PE lessons and the fantastic playground football which we played at every opportunity! Those were the good old days.

Now I am a coach and PE teacher I really hope that in ten or twenty years time the players and children that I come into contact with can look back and remember the sessions/lessons with fond memories.

Over the years I have been privileged enough to watch great coaches like our very own John Cartwright, Roger Wilkinson and Mark Fogarty amongst others and can remember with great fondness seeing the Practice Play Level 1 ‘Staying with the ball’ session for the first time and thinking WOW this is the way forward. Something I believe in now more than ever.

The problem is now when I watch some coaches’  sessions remind me of sitting in the classroom, bored out of my brain, watching the clock tick down until play time or dinner time. The football pitch has gradually evolved into the classrooms of old, dull, uninspiring and completely unmotivational.

Classrooms all across the country are now all equipped with interactive whiteboards, laptops, computers and in some cases I Pad2s. Lessons flow with ease, teachers engage children with Q&A,   short videos, games and Powerpoint presentations that fly into and across huge whiteboards, whilst gradually increasing the child’s knowledge on the chosen topic. In short the penny has dropped. Teachers understand that the lesson has got to be stimulating, exciting and challenging to enhance learning, this leads to the children learning without knowing there actually been taught!! Further down the school into early years and foundation stage a huge majority of each child’s learning is through PLAY. Yes you read that right PLAY!

Now I am not advocating that you get your players to bring their I Pad2s in but aim to put practices on that excite and stimulate the children. When I observe many sessions now at both grass roots and academy level I am saddened. Saddened for the children, they deserve better.

Many coaches and coaching organisations teach like the teachers of old, with the use of continued repetition (I remember reciting my timetables over and over again) which becomes monotonous to the players and leads to decreased concentration, poor performance and then often leads to group management problems (that’s another blog altogether).

My next biggest bug bare is drills! You know the ones where the player is told (pre meditated outcome) when to look up, when to pass, how to pass, where to run and how many touches to take.  I would of loved school and maybe even remembered some of the teachers if the teachers gave me all of the answers, but the exam would have been a nightmare!  Now the football match is the equivalent to the exam, what does the player do when there is nobody telling him/her the answers and he/she has to make instinctive decisions based on time/space/player positions etc. The end result is a big fat fail.

Coaching and the practices you put on have to reflect the modern day classroom, with children learning through play, correcting their own mistakes and working step by step to the answer whilst accumulating the knowledge/skills that will result in a pass, not a fail.

To do this you must put on practices where the players and the players only are making their own decisions based on what is happening in and around them! At Premier Skills all of our sessions follow the same formula:

Small Group Practice – usually done with a ball each or ball between two. Players work in ‘tight’ areas and have to take numerous touches on the ball, whilst navigating passive opposition in the form of traffic (other players working in same area)

 Small Area Practice – sees a gradual introduction of active opposition, to test previously acquired skills, this then leads into directional play which further enhances the realism of the practice.

Game Practice – Is set up so that players can transfer the small group and small area practices skills in to a small sided game often with an overload through floating players and for the coach to assess previous learning.

The transfer of and correct use of the skills from the small group and small area work in to the game practice will determine the level of progression for the following session.


 Keep that above statement in your mind when you are planning and delivering your sessions! Be like the modern day teacher and let the players find their own answers through play and real practices, not like the coach who gives his players all of the answers!!

Good Luck


16 thoughts on “How Times Have Changed

  1. Stephen fully agree with you, after 20 years of coaching I was fortunate enough to be coached by both John and Roger. At the time I was a level 3 coach however their methods revolutionised the way I coached.
    I know that the players I now coach really enjoy their practice play concept and all play with smiles on their faces and all demonstrate flair that could not be achieve through other coaching methodology.
    Colin D Campbell
    NSW, Australia

  2. I agree with you fully Stephen, too many boring coaches that do the same things each week with no adaptations and then wonder why the players are not progressing as they wish. I personally think the fa should change the way they set out there coaching badges and introduce alot more individualism, as alot of grass root coaches coach how they’ve been shown on these courses. And as these are at the bottom of the player development ladder it effects the rest and then they wonder why england don’t have as many flair players as Spain, brazil, Portugal ect.

  3. 99% of learning is non-conscious. Is this part of the reason why so many coaches, teachers struggle to understand how playing games teaches?
    Children will learn through play and have done so for thousands of years, it is only in the last 20-30 years that adults have tried to stifle childs play in the western world, especially in sport. It amazes me that those same adults who will have played out in the streets, fields and parks as youngsters, now struggle to see how a drill for example has little to do with the game they are coaching.

    Playing these games works because repetition of scenarios store in the mind and after time we build up a catalogue of past failings and successes which our brain can decipher from. It is no coincidence that all of the worlds greatest players have played thousands of hours of games, not drills.
    Take language as an example of what we can do with practice. As a child you learn to talk through being surrounded by words, in time more and more words are added to the vocabulary, it is estimated that the average English user can use around 20,000 words. But what is more amazing is how you can chunk those words together to make sentences with meaning, or read a book and piece all those different parts of the book together. We ntreal ot od taht ecausbe ew rea srrudneodu by rodsw revey yad. Even jumbled up I bet you could still read that sentence.
    Play enough games and you learn to read the game, you recognise situations, just like the jumbled up words. The reality is children dont just like to play, they NEED to play and they need lots of it!

    Remember Desmond Douglas, the table tennis champion of the 80s. He was known as one of the fastetst players in the world, even the chinese would stand back from the table when they played him. When Desmond played as a youngster he learnt in a small room, where he had no room to step back from the table. This environment and his dedication t playing, meant he developed lightning reflexes, which took him on to be the greatest UK player of all time. Desmonds environment was different, he did not follow the same path as everyone else, it was playing in the small tight area that developed his game, everyone else who played the game, was subject to the same training methods, simular conditions and the only thing that was different between those who made it and those who did not, was the dedication and love of playing the game.

    What is apparent is no method will suit every child, coaches need to be flexible and understand the children they teach. I have had children leave because when we played games, they never got passed to, or simply struggled to be competitive. They were happy when everyone had a ball each, so now with a little bit of change I can keep those same children playing the game.

    Another issue in football which ruins it for many children is the desire to turn every kid into the next Gazza, Messi or Pele. Playing the game should first and foremost be to develop a love of playing the game, to keep those children playing, not just to become excellent players, some children just wont care, but that does not mean they dont like playing, their passion may be music, computers, art or cars. Our greatest task is to keep them coming back week after week. Once we get there, then we have a chance of finding those great players once again.

  4. Wow! It’s just terrific to see ‘blogs’ and answers to them that contain so much intelligence and passion. I have no doubt that there is growing unrest amongst the coaching fraternity with regard to the historically failed methods that are prevalent in this country. Some of us have fought for decades to change coaching ideas and playing methods, it is now up to you, the next generation of football teachers’ to take a different path towards to improve playing ability in this, the home of the game. I believe the path forward is that set out by Premier Skills with their Practice/Playing Methodology— A MODERN CONCEPT OF STREET FOOTBALL.

  5. Nice post Stephen, but I think we really have to be more intelligent and sort the wheat from the chaff here.

    To an extent, what you say about linear ‘drills’ etc are correct. But, I really don’t think that the greater majority of football coaches really believe that is still the way to go.

    I have posted here and on different forums for some time now that the tide is changing.

    Some of which is down to the massive access to information and different perspectives that the internet, especially, brings us. We are able to exchange views, philosophies and rationales in an instant whereas in the past we would have taken years, in a disparate community, to communicate.

    Now, I have been on my Practice Play 1 and Practice Play 2 courses. They were excellently delivered by Roger and Sam with assistance on the PP2 from Steve. However, I have also been on the FA courses and, quite honestly, they are not mutually exclusive. Especially so with the FA Youth Awards.

    I fully take your point about involving the student in their learning (see my blog post from 2.5 years ago here: )

    However, in the world of football coaching, even at grassroots level, there are more intelligent and informed people trying to make a genuine difference to the way they coach young people. Involvement, engagement, freedom of expression are all key messages the FA (yes, the big bad FA) are encouraging, facilitating even pushing. The criticism of the FA may have some historical bearing, but honestly, the ways are changing and in lots of ways already have, so let’s have some recognition of the fact.

    Is everything perfect? Pobably not, but nothing ever is. However, there is motion towards and credit where it’s due should be afforded.

    A deal of coaches deliver what we may term as ‘poor’ practices, but that is merely because they haven’t been educated about alternative ways. Even the much castigated FA Level 1 course looks at building success through football related games which set problems for the players to resolve. It examines the use of overloads to create success and build understanding. It talks about ‘templates’ of games that can be adjusted for the needs of your players. It looks at how young players learn and how we must give them lots of goes at the game in order to build understanding of the game.

    However, where some well meaning adults are thrust into the role of ‘coaches’ because they played the game for a number of years, they need help and guidance. They may well be ‘old school’ but they may also be doing the best they can for young people but without having had any formal assistance.That doesn’t make them intentional pariahs.

    I try to be a student of the game – I watch, I read, I NEVER exclude ANYTHING from my consideration (even though, ultimately, I may decide it has limited application for me personally). And there are more and more of us ‘out there’ – more and more people discussing, considering and planning different ways.

    SO PUHLEEESE can we stop saying that EVERYTHING is bad, we are all hopeless, clueless, talentless, ill-educated dinosaurs – WE ARE NO SUCH THING ! I for one am a coach who is a life-long fan and student of the game and, even at grassroots level, am trying to facilitate and provide ‘permission’ for players to play and to become the best they can be – at whatever level that may ultimately be.
    I absolutely LOVE the game and want to pass on that love to the players I coach.

    I take the best of what I know to facilitate the young players’ development – that comes from Premier Skills Practice Play methods….BUT, it also comes from the best of a multitude of other resources too – All the FA courses I have ever attended, Coerver Coaching, Brazilian Soccer Schools, SAQ courses, inservice workshops from the FA and Sports Coach UK, the philosophy of Give Us Back Our Game (GUBOG) and Don’t Cross The Line, Dutch football development (KNVB), Rinus Michels, books on teaching and talking to current teachers, Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), and on and on.

    Was I an ex-pro? No, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the game. Am I a teacher? Well, professionally, no. But I DO read books on teaching so that I can help understand how to be the best coach of the game that I can be. Am I an outstanding coach? Probably for others to judge….but I am TRYING to be.

    Oh, and regarding the reference about times tables….quite honestly, a BAD example.

    I also did my times tables. Was it a bit tedious ? Possibly…but we SANG them to embed them. Now, you know what? 50 years later I KNOW what 9 x 5 equals. Nowadays they don’t enforce times tables (it is suggested learning so far as I can tell) and you know what, if I ask them, my kids (17 and 14) wouldn’t have a CLUE what 9 x 5 is without working it out. So, just because some of the ways are old, it doesn’t make them all bad.

    Rant over…..and relllaaaaaaaxxxx : – )

  6. Well said Steve. I like the analogy with teaching in the classroom and the way we have learnt in the past and what is now taking place. The bottom line is are the kids learning without being told all the time? personally I think it will take a lot to beat the way Premier Skills teaches.

    I have been a coach educator for both the FA and Premier Skills and whilst I have taken a lot over the years from the FA and my awards, I can honestly say that I am always stimulated and extremely enthusiastic whilst delivering Practise Play work. I personally wish the 2 could come together for the benefit of all. This would be so powerful, with the modern methodology of the FA and John and Rogers experience alongside them, what could be better?

  7. Hi Steve. You quite correctly make the point that everything’s not bad, however what i am so disappointed with regarding coaching and development here is that it should, after 60 years of time and enormous expense, be a lot, lot better than it is.
    Where’s an agreed playing vision for this country?
    No vision, therefore no real progressive planning; just knee-jerk reaction courses.
    Why are inexperienced coaches working un-mentored at the vital foundation level?
    Junior competitive games are still about winning and not about learning… why?
    Why build Burton when we don’t have satisfactory foundations to produce for it?
    Why does Germany have 30 Regional Sportschule and we have ???
    Why can Spain set a course forward and we can’t?
    No Steve, all is not bad, but we have lost generations of young players in the past and for those entering the ‘cauldron’ in the future, devlopment methods must improve drammatically . I could continue with the list of failures of development here, but just a few examples show the problems we have created that stand as a barrier at the doorway to any future success.
    We can only relax when we have a development strategy and system that is the envy of the world. I personally believe, after 60 years, we have neither the leadership qualities nor a suitable infrastructure to take our game forward successfully. Not all bad Steve, but, as a school report would say in these circumstances, ‘should be doing much better.’

  8. Thanks Mark

    Stevetheseagull, have just read your reply and wanted to put my point across. These are only my experiences and yes I do see good pratice and I also see bad practice I never once said everything is rubbish and no good at all. I hope the people I work with and deliver the courses to see me as a ‘glass half full and not half empty’ type of guy. Like Mark said none of us guys at Premier Skills just stumbled across Premier Skills and the philosophy without doing our learning through the FA and I certainly would not discourage anybody from undertaking any course.

    I like you am passionate about football, I watch, study and work with people whose opinion i respect to be better at what I do.I certainly dont want your opinion of me to be that of someone who constantly complains, I have my opinion and am lucky that I get the opportunity to air it and am glad that the blog post has provoked interest.

    As for the timestables as the example it is only what I see and unfortunately have to listen to from the Mrs about learning that way. In some of the schools i have worked in they take a mix of new and old principles but one thing that I am always told is that the reciting of timestables just does not work with the modern day child. I like you learnt from reciting them which i hated but they have stuck with me 20 years after i left primary school. Like the blog title how times have changed and the modern day learner is in my opinion ompletely different tot hat of 20 years ago

    Thanks for your reply and link to your previous post which I am about to read before I dash off to do some assessments.

  9. I am interested to read the comments aired by various coaches and especially the reference to the apparently old fashioned view of repetition.
    I, too, come from the generation that learnt its times-tables in a repetitve and memorising approach. I was not aware that these are no longer taught to children but I am not surprised because i know that much has changed over the years in the world of education. I never thought that knowing the times-tables did me any harm, especially during 36 years of working as a bank cashier.
    I am not, therefore, a trained teacher, but I find it difficult to see how you teach somebody something without a repetitive approach, unless they are extremely gifted. My mind goes back to the mid-sixties. At that time there was, if memory serves me, one worthwhile coaching book on the market – “The FA Guide To Training And Coaching” by Allen Wade, the then FA’s Director of Coaching. This was the standard FA text book for FA coaching courses of the time.
    Then, not long after England won the World Cup in 1966, another coaching book appeared called “Soccer Coaching The Modern Way” by Eric Batty. This consisted of coaching a team by what were called “combinations”, placing players into positions and practicing a form of rehearsed move. It was what we would now refer to as “drills”, but variations to the movements would be introduced, depending on the response of the opposition. The movements, (combinations), mainly revolved around third man running and overlapping.
    The point to emphasise is that the success of this coaching approach depended on repetition. A particular combination was practiced over and over again in training until it was produced in a match, began to be produced regularly in match play and resulted in goals being scored. Then we went on to practice another combination until that produced dividends, another was then practiced and so on.
    I knew Eric Batty and for many years and was involved in the club in which he coached, as a player, (in a lower team), and then as a coach. After he had written all the scripts for the book, Eric took them along to West Ham United for Ron Greenwood to have a look at. Ron Greenwood liked the technical content, and he made the point that with the players that Eric was dealing with you had to go over things time after time until the idea was firmly bedded in. With the players that he had, (at that time players such as Moore, Hurst, Peters,Byrne,Boyce,Sissons,etc.), he only needed to explain an idea once and the players grasped it immediately and had the technical ability to carry it out straight away.
    I would point out, (and I would be interested to hear other coaches experiences), but I have found that when i introduce the Practice/Play work to very young players in the initial format of 24 yards by 15 yards area with gates as taught on Level 1, I have found that i must first teach the children techniques such as turns in the old drill format otherwise i find it very difficult to teach these ‘as from new’ in the Practice/Play set up.
    So whilst i respect the views on the criticism of repetition, I still find that I must use a certain amount of repetition in my coaching.

  10. John, Stephen, sorry, I was just on a bit of a rant ! I accept that everything is not as good as it could be, I just like to get a balanced view that not all is ill, either.

    I have sympathy with what John says about lost generations. However, I increasingly believe that that is as a result of the way we play the game in this country(and so far as I can tell, always have done – although I think it’s changing) rather than playing the game that way to hide our inadequencies.
    I feel the national psyche leads us in that direction and, as an island, we have traditionally remained isolated from the greater parts of Europe and have therefore avoided the best of influences that we may otherwise have benefitted from.

    Where we have potentially lost players in the past, I am positive about the way the game and coaching are changing now. The grassroots coaching is catching up with the teaching profession though the less well developed kids are still often left behind in the rush for ‘results’ as the sole indicator (and probably lowest common denominator) of development.

    We also have to recognise that a lot of poor practice is either down to a lack of education or those that have undertaken the education choose not to apply what they have learned, for whatever reasons. This is the work of the individual, though and certainly not the governing body, The FA.

    I get John’s argument about an ad hoc approach to coaching and a lack of a joined up approach. Whilst I think the programmes could have been better in the past (from hindsight), I have to say that I still feel there is a logical progression, from a coaching point of view, from Level 1 to Level 4. There may be gaps (which the Youth Awards are most definitely filling) but I simply don’t accept that coaches who provide linear drills do so because of something the FA has done or taught them.

    Even the introduction to coaching, The Level 1 that I mentioned above, looks at game related practices, overloads to build / structure success and there is emphasis on the fact that the games / exercises contained in the course are templates to be developed.

    There is nothing in the courses that suggests, or even hints, that running bus queue line drills are either desirable or useful.

    Now the bit where I can see a variation from the Practice Play methodology is that the game style, coaching philosophy, technical content, player development and the development of the coach are all intertwined and wrapped up as a whole.

    Where I think the FA approach has differed is that it has perhaps concentrated on the coaching of coaches. Whilst of course there was reference to Charles Hughes’ work and some of the analysis of the game,

    I really don’t believe that I, at least, was being taught a WAY to play. I, perhaps subliminally, got the idea that the STYLE of play was down to you as a coach.

    What the courses did (well, used to do anyway – I did mine some while ago) was to ensure that you as a coach understood the principles and nuances of the game and could deconstruct and reconstruct it so that you could coach the players you managed or coached.

    I’m not so sure that there was much about young player development (although when I started coaching I did so to stay involved in the male adult game – it’s only over the last 13 years or thereabouts that I have concentrated on trying to be the best youth coach I can be) in the then accepted coaching ‘pathway’. There were specialist Youth Coach courses as a bolt on but as I was about the adult male game, that was something I wasn’t looking for at that time.

    Where the FA has now been changing over the last 3-4 years is with the introduction of the Youth Awards. There has also been a raft of work done on young player development as they recognise that most coaches work with young players and at the grassroots of the game and if those are the formative years, they had better educate as many coaches in better practice.

    Learning and teaching and modern approaches to both have been integrated to the courses’ content as has a more modern way of looking at philosophy of coaching and development.

    The Level 1 course has already been adapted to include elements of the youth awards content as it is recognised that the majority of grassroots youth coaches start with the Level 1.

    Where I referred to our relative ‘isolation’ as a nation, above, I feel this has now been (or is now being) negated with wall to wall football on TV where we can see the top leagues games from around Europe and even the Rest of the World.

    The internet has allowed coaches to interact and exchange ideas, philosophies and approaches. Ideas and their development are now at everyones fingertipsliterally at the push of a button.

    So we are changing in this country. Those that still offer poor practice need to be challenged (by us, ideally) and shown another way. Whilst the FA provide recognised qualification through the coach education programme, they can’t police everyone who is acting as a coach – there simply isn’t the manpower. The FA tries to improve standards through education and, as I have said before, if we keep preaching to the world at large, then poor practice will, eventually, die away to a negligible level, I feel.

    The Level 1 provides an introduction to coaching – once qualified you should be recognised as an ASSISTANT coach. The Youth Awards Modules 1 and 2 should then follow on from the Level 1.

    Some would argue you need to do the Level 2, which emphasises the principles of play in more detail, before undertaking the Youth Award Module 2, but I think it’s a moot point. But again, the Level 2 is to develop and test your understanding of the game and your ability to convey that to the players.

    So where the argument against a consolidated approach may have been the case in the past, (remember the old youth coaching awards were almost an add on) I no longer feel that is a fair assessment. I think there is a consolidated approach and with the Future Game publications, there is now definitive content on developing a playing style as well as a development (coach and player) philosophy.

    Back on to the point mentioned in the OP and which Steve Haslam also picked up about repetition, it absolutely is a fundamental of development, whether you are talking about football, basketball or maths.

    the KEY is to make sure that it is not repetiTIVE.

    I know Steve is a big fan of the Premier Skills approach (as am I incidentally – I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong end of the stick) and as an exponent of the PP approach, you will recognise that Premier Skills ALSO advocates repetition. Lots of goes at small group and small area practice helps the development of the players and their understanding.

    So repetition does not involve necessarily standing in a bus queue to do a 5 metre push pass. And we know that it does not transfer well to the game.

    Using modified games to teach games and the understanding of them is a well established methodolgy now and I believe that Premier Skills and the FA are aligned in this respect.

    Taking players back a stage to practice a motor skill (say, a scissors move) is acceptable. After all, when doing more advanced maths, we used to step back to mentally rehearse our times tables to get to an answer sometimes. We wouldn’t spend the next 20 minutes reciting them all, just using the bit we needed to allow us to progress in the practice (maths problem) we were doing at that time.

    So where we see poor practice being demonstrated, we need to find a pleasant way to engage people and help them realise there is another way.

    As someone once said to me:
    “…what’s the problem, when did you notice it and what did you do about it?”

    • Steve no need to apologise.Its healthy for us all to be challenged on our concepts and ideas.You have attended courses and examined the work and I know you value the experience.I really enjoyed Robbo’s blog its always good to see young coaches questioning and challenging the status quo.I know JC prefers a good intense exchange of views.We will be organising the Level 3 timetable in the next couple of weeks so I’ll make sure you get the info.

  11. I think that it is worth noting that over the years quite a number of aspiring coaches actually went on coaching courses in the first place to learn about the game and to improve as players. After England had been “taken to the cleaners” by Hungary in 1953, there was an explosion of interest among many inquisitive players of the time and Walter Winterbottom organised courses at places like Lilleshall in an attempt to improve the understanding of the players in the finer points of the game as exhibited by the Hungarians. Many of these people went on to become coaches, but initially their aim was to improve as players.
    I read an interview with Everton manager, David Moyes, a little whikle ago and he said that he first took an FA Coaching Course when he was a young player at Celtic, with the prime aim of improving his understanding of the game to become a better player. Since Moyes comes into the category of a relatively young manager, it is significant that even up to the present time some players must feel that they are not getting an adequate football playing education at their clubs.

  12. Hi Guys

    When I talked about repetition I meant in an environment that was not conducive to learning. On PP level 1 of course you see repetition but as things are repeated its with ever changing outcomes, such as time and space (just like the real game) as there are also numerous players working in the same 24 x 15 area.

    I think we all realise that you have to repeat something to master the skill but its about the environment that you do it in that counts!!

    I used the words ‘continued repetition’ in the post but i do not believe that you guys would continually ask your players to do a scissors trick over and over again without interference from players/defenders. Yes you may have to practice the move first (especially with young players) but once they can do it you must integrate it into a real match like practice.

    thanks once again for the comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s