Lessons Re-learned

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.


15 thoughts on “Lessons Re-learned

  1. Hi Sam. I’m glad that Premier Skills Coaching is being used as it should in NZ. I enjoyed reading your comments and can appreciate the difficulties one must encounter and learn to overcome during the vitally important early development years. The point you make especially strongly is that of CONTINUITY in development methods; practises don’t have to be exactly the same in design but must be readily associated with the work being carried on at the time. Players must understand the work and the process it follows and this must mean that practises must connect with playing at all times. If work being accomplished in practice is not recognised in suitably structured competitive games, there will not be satisfactory improvement in players……….PRACTICE WHAT IS TO BE PLAYED AND PLAY WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN PRACTISED AND WHAT IS PRESENTLY BEINGS PRACTISED.

  2. Writing on my groups pages the other day and as you know I scouted for various clubs and still do and its so frustrating the best player i’ve come across has been released twice by clubs even though his magic but being so small and to clever for players around him he don’t suit their winning teams lol what I look for in players before I met roger Wilkinson was
    great for the present but not so much the future

  3. “PRACTICE WHAT IS TO BE PLAYED AND PLAY WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN PRACTISED AND WHAT IS PRESENTLY BEINGS PRACTISED.” That says it all. The longer I am in the game the more evident it becomes that coach education is the key. In JC we have one of the greatest minds in the game – When have the FA used him ???

    By the way thanks for the compliment Footie in the Park.

  4. I agree with the continuity approach and going back to train basics with groups of players regardless of ability is useful whether as a warm up exercise for experience players, or the main task to train habit.
    My concern with continuity is that players train in a range of environments – the NZ Football programmes, school and club commitment and academies that are so numerous and believe they have the answer. In many cases the messages and advice players receive differ, therefore confuse players and unfortunately egos get in the way of player development.

  5. So glad your back on board full time Sam with PS.

    I believe Premier Skills will become more well known and respected away from the UK. You guys have a unique opportunity now to showcase the work to the interweb community. You have a great reputation out there and the fact that NZ is NOT an established footballing nation, means you have more chance to work with the better players. UK is full of academies, pre academies, shadow squads, development centres all basically doing the same stuff, The market is saturated and no matter how good you are, you will always lose players to pro clubs.

    USA have coaches now working to a game style designed by the Kleibans, basically Barcelonas, however having great success with it. I am a member of their coaching programme and as successful as it is, I don’t feel they have covered all bases. I still stand by my comments that practice play is the best work I have seen over all.

  6. While I tend to agree with your article, I am afraid your aim can only be to develop local players to be the best they can be in the New Zealand, if a player wants to go beyond that eg in the professional game then no amount of coaching in NZ will achieve that, talent must **Leave to Achieve!**

  7. Continuity is the key ALWAYS, but this must continue after the course and herein lies the rub…players return to their clubs and old habits…Immersion, that idea of extensive exposure is probably now missing.

    With a lack of a street football culture, the young Kiwi does not not play enough and ‘Practise what should be played’.

    The ONLY real solution is for the Premier Skills ideas to be adopted in full by the NZFA.

  8. Hi all. It seems incrdible to me that here in the uk, the birthplace of Association Football, we fail to realize the importance of CONTINUITY in the teaching of the game from junior through to senior levels. The follow-on from practice to playing must have the ‘continuity’ factor or learning will be seriously impeded.
    Would a teacher spend a week explaining ADDITION to his/her class and then at the end of the week test the children on SUBTRACTION, a subject they have no understanding of? I don’t think so. This however, is the situation when it comes to football education.

  9. Brazil94 says “With a lack of street football culture, the young Kiwi does not play enough and ‘Practise what should be played’ “.
    This is the situation in all socially and economically developed parts of the world. The Premier Skills coaching scheme approach compensates to a large degree for this. However, it would also greatly help if children were provided with cages or play pens in highly populated areas, which create a similar environment to the street play of earlier generations. This would lead to game play in tight areas, developing the ability to play with space at a premium. Such facilities are springing up but many more are needed. A number of primary schools are laying 3rd Generation pitches on their playgrounds, which is good but if it came to a choice, I think that the cages are a better idea.

  10. The announcement that John Terry will leave Chelsea at the end of the season highlights again a lack of respect for older players and others in the game in England and how a great deal of knowledge and ability is allowed to go to waste.
    I have mentioned before that I believe that dispensing with the old format of reserve team football has been a retrograde step because it used to be a means of the better youth team players making the next step up in their clubs and benefitting from playing with and against good, experienced players. Of course, working under a good coach during the week is vital, but if the promising young player then plays alongside senior pros at the weekend, whose first team days are over, then this accelerates the development of the young player considerably.
    Kurt Zouma, Chelsea’s young French central defender, has already voiced his concerns when he paid tribute to the help and advice he has received from Terry during matches which has seen a marked improvement in his performances. Zouma arrived at Chelsea for a big fee but he took time to adjust to the English style and had a lot of rough edges to his game. Thanks to Terry’s influence, Zouma is now showing a rapid improvement.
    I have also been struck by a remark made by Arsene Wenger when he said that he was most impressed by Terry’s performance in an Under 21 game, as a permitted over-age player, at Arsenal’s training ground a little while ago. Wenger stated that Terry did superb job of coaching his team during the game. That’s how it always used to be with older players in the past and it needs to come back.
    Roman Abramovic has said for some time that he wants to see Chelsea get some return on the money they outlay on youth development and he thinks that some players in the first team squad have hung around for too long. He needs to understand the best way for bringing the better young players forward into the senior squad and how the qualities of someone like John Terry can be used to achieve this.

  11. Hi Steve. I agree that experienced senior players should be used in assisting young players. However, the problem is usually — MONEY— for the game today is far different in finanancial terms than the game of the past; senior players receive huge salaries that take them into ‘millionaire’ status. It is unlikely, unless a player has a desire to become a coach in the game, that senior players will want to spend time playing at lower levels when other well paid openings are available to them.
    I believe the problem of producing more ‘home-bred’ players into our game remains with an improvement to coaching and development methods here. I watch many youth games from 15-21 and see a huge void in individual ability and game understanding. It must be recognised that the use of experienced players in the past meant as ‘tutors’ to younger players meant a job and a salary at the end of the week and the young players with whom they played were individual ‘students of the street’ and not robotic ‘products off an assembly line’.
    Our game needs a thorough overhaul of development methods from top to bottom in both practical and playing terms in order to produce and improve playing talent for our game. Teaching is an art that requires the ability to enthuse young players THROUGHOUT their development years——a teacher/coach must be have the knowledge and ability to always ‘hold the carrot’ at a tempting distance; in this way players are never confined to routine development monotony, but are constantly EXCITED AND CHALLENGED by coaching methods that ‘PULLS’ them towards improvement.
    Our concerns with player development here can only be due to the paucity of development methods. Youngsters are not ‘self-taught’ as in the past and since the introduction of ‘over-organised’ coaching methods, quality playing talent has not been produced for our game……..IT’S COACHING THAT’S THE PROBLEM. THE SOONER WE ACCEPT IT AND ‘TAKE OUR HEADS OUT OF THE SAND’ THE BETTER FOR THE KIDS AND FOR THE GAME.

  12. Hi John….Yes, money has in many ways ruined football, or at least changed the face of it forever. I remember that when I was young many of the players of my boyhood team, Huddersfield Town, when they became too old to play they went abroad to undeveloped football nations like New Zealand, Australia, USA and Canada to pass on their knowledge as coaches, not to earn vast salaries, which they didn’t, but out of love for the game. Even today I sometimes see a name I remember from the dim and distant past. They must now be into their eighties at least, but still, like yourself, contributing to the education of the game.
    N.B. Euro Football Tours and Events, (Murray Jones), following last years Coaches Tour to AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord, to see the Academy Coaching, are running a similar trip again, this time to the Academies of PSV Eindhoven and Willem II. This is again a two day tour, March 14th – 15th, and the cost is £189 per person plus the cost of the return flight between the UK and Eindhoven. Murray’s phone number for a booking form and full details is 0780 877 8691. Last year’s tour was well worthwhile and illuminating and I expect this year’s to be just as good.

  13. When Sam says in his article that during his years coaching in the academies of a number of English clubs, he never felt there was a clearly defined philosophy extending from the under 9s to the first team, then he pinpoints a long time weakness in English football. Even though the FA have introduced the England DNA idea, there still does not seem to be a consistent, easily recognisable ‘English style’ which is there for everyone to follow, regardless of the level at which they coach.
    I have heard that the FA have decreed that in all their various age group international teams, they must all play from defence when the goalkeeper gains possession and it must be in a patient , short passing build up with the emphasis on playing out from the back, irrespective of how the opponents may be setting themselves up to counteract this approach. This is all very well but if this not the playing style of the first team, who maybe, as in some cases, play a more direct, long passing style, then there is not the necessary communication that is required throughout the club. Also, it seems in England that we become too obsessed with one particular playing style and I think that in too many cases we are not coaching the players sufficiently in flexibility, so that they can react to the tactics of the opponents and change the game style should they prevent, as is often the case, the efforts to play out from the back with short passes.
    But just as critical, as Dave Williams says in his post, is the proliferation of all the coaching centres, academies, skill centres and soccer schools, which operate around the country. This presents a whole array of coaching practices/exercises/drills for children but with no continuity and without the linking together of all the work which is one of the features of the Premier Skills coaching scheme.

Leave a Reply to Brazil94 Cancel reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s