By Sam Wilkinson
In January I returned to New Zealand after 6 years of living and coaching in the UK. My first job upon arrival back in NZ was to help deliver two Premier Skills development courses for 7-18 year olds in the Hamilton and Auckland regions. The courses were not pitched at an elite level of player and the only attendance criteria was that the players were committed to improving as footballers. Having worked for over 5 years in the English academy system, I was bracing myself for a bit of a culture shock when coming back to work in the “grassroots” game. What proceeded to happen was an incredibly valuable reminder for myself and an experience that has made me a better coach. I will attempt to share with you some of the experiences and lessons I learned over the two weeks.
Continuity is key.
I had forgotten how powerful continuity in coaching is. At Premier Skills we have a clearly defined playing philosophy and a coaching programme that works towards achieving that philosophy in a progressive and gradual way. Every Premier Skills coach has a detailed understanding of this playing philosophy and how to achieve it through the delivery of our coaching programme.
English academies have some fantastic coaches working in them. But during my time in the system I never once encountered a club that had a clearly defined philosophy and coaching programme running from under 9 to first team, with a coaching staff that all possessed a detailed understanding of it. This is not meant to be a dig at any clubs – merely an observation from my time spent in the academy system.
Working on these courses reminded me how vital it is to have a coaching staff that are all working towards the same end goal. The playing ability of the players accelerated rapidly over the courses due to the fact they were constantly being exposed to the same philosophy, methodology and terminology, regardless of which coach worked with them. While this may seem obvious and logical, for 5 years I had often felt like I was working against other coaches within the same academy programme! At times it was as if there were multiple coaching programmes and philosophies co-exisitng in the same club.
Continuity, logical progression and re-enforcement are vital in a young players development. Without them long term learning and understanding will be near on impossible to achieve.
Never be afraid to go back to your roots.
Grassroots coaching isn’t easy…..….grassroots coaching with a group of mixed ability players is even harder! Going back to the entry level of the game forces you to really plan, analyse and creatively deliver sessions. I was lucky enough to predominantly work with a very talented group of players during my three and half years at one club in the UK. Over the course of that time my understanding of the payers became very strong and their understanding of what I was trying to achieve in sessions became equally as strong. While they were far from perfect, very seldom would sessions end up as a complete “car crash”.
On the first morning of these courses I was often faced with a brand new group of players, mixed age, ability and experience levels. Some had been exposed to the Premier Skills methodology, some had not. I was quickly reminded that these were not sessions that were going to flow smoothly from start to finish! Area sizes, opposition numbers (overload size) and use of safe areas needed constant assessment and re-adjustment. Live, enthusiastic demo’s were massively important to help paint visual pictures for the players of what was required. Constant re-enforcement of the football language was vital in order to maintain and develop control to the play and to stop the sessions turning into “fight-ball”.
Those first morning sessions were tough but a great re-education for myself of the thought and detail that is required to work at this challenging level. Session by session the players improved, developing greater skill levels and more understanding of the work because the playing philosophy and coaching methodology were being constantly re-enforced. While the early sessions were a challenge at times, they were laying down a foundation of understanding among the payers that was then being gradually added to with every session.
Every player has the potential to be a skilful one!
Please don’t ever sell a young player short! While I am not naive enough to claim that we now have 90 Lionel Messi’s graduating from the courses, I saw first hand over the three days players improving their skill levels and understanding of how to play the game cleverly. This was achieved because our Practice Play methodology is built around developing skilful individuals. Our coaching programme from grassroots to senior level develops and encourages skilful individualism among all players.
These were mixed ability grassroots players who by the end of courses were twisting, turning and staying with the ball, were recognising when and where to exploit space with “playrounds” and “start agains” and were combining with teammates using “take overs”, “wall passes” and “lends”. Every young player has the potential to be a skilful individual, to stifle this is selling them short!
New Zealand could be a footballing gold mine.
You may or may not be aware but recently young Kiwi footballers have been accused of being too “laid back” and “lacking professionalism” by a number of leading figures in the game. I don’t agree with this observation. Do young Kiwi players need educating on the requirements of professional/elite football?.…..yes, but no more so than players in the UK or Europe. Young players are a product of their environment and it is the coaches job to educate players on how to train, on the need to do extra practice and on how to recover properly etc. To criticise the attitude and professionalism of young players is to question the coaching programme that has failed to educate them properly. All I have witnessed is an enthusiasm and desire to improve in young Kiwi players that if nurtured properly could see this country become a hot bed of talented footballers. Great coaches change the culture they don’t become it. At Premier Skills we are committed to improving the footballing culture in this country in order to give young Kiwi players every opportunity to achieve success in the game.
Those were the experiences and lessons re-learned from my first two weeks back in NZ. I hope the UK Keep The Ball readers also found some relevance to my observations. I welcome any comments or feedback.